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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > ULA Equipment Circuit > Test Report by Rick Dreher

ULA Circuit Backpack
Test Series by Rick Dreher

IMAGE 1


LONG-TERM REPORT

INITIAL REPORT - June 03, 2010
FIELD REPORT - September 04, 2010
LONG TERM REPORT - November 11, 2010

TESTER INFORMATION

NAME: Rick Dreher
EMAIL: redbike64(at)hotmail(dot)com
AGE: 56
LOCATION: Northern California
GENDER: M
HEIGHT: 6' 0" (2.10 m)
WEIGHT: 175 lb (79.40 kg)
FOOT SIZE US men's 11.5
TORSO LENGTH 19.5 in (50 cm)
YEARS HIKING 41

I enjoy going high and light and frequently take shorter "fast- packing" trips. My longest trips are a week or so. I've lightened my pack load because I enjoy hiking more when toting less, I can go farther and over tougher terrain, and I have cranky ankles. I use trekking poles and generally hike solo or tandem. I've backpacked all over the U.S. West and now primarily hike California's Sierra Nevada. My favorite trips are alpine and include off-trail travel and sleeping in high places. When winter arrives, I head back for snowshoe outings in the white stuff.


INITIAL REPORT

Product Information & Specifications

Manufacturer: ÜLA Equipment
Year of Manufacture: 2010
Manufacturer's Website: ÜLA Web site [http://www.ULA-equipment.com/]
MSRP: US$ 200
Listed Weight:*: 36 oz (1,021 g)
Measured Weight**: 38.2 oz (1,083 g)

*Medium pack, medium hip belt, no accessories
**Medium pack, small hip belt, including accessories

Total volume (manufacturer): 4,200 ci (69 L)
Recommended max. load: 35 lb (16 kg) total; 15 lb (6.8 kg) base weight

Other Details

Single main compartment with extension collar and roll-top closure; five exterior pockets (1 back, 2 side, 2 hip belt); two removable interior pockets (for hydration system and small items); integrated carbon fiber-delrin perimeter hoop frame plus removable aluminum center stay; padded backpanel, shoulder straps and hip belt wings; adjustable sternum strap; side compression straps; ice axe/pole loops; removable handloops; water bottle holsters.

IMAGE 2
Front view + key features.



Description

The ÜLA Circuit is a lightweight, top-loading, full-featured, internal-frame suspension backpack. The Circuit is large enough for longer multiday trips yet light and compressible enough to be an option for shorter trips toting a reduced load. It has a frame suspension, not relying on a sleeping pad or other soft "frame" for support like many lightweight packs. The 2,400 ci (40 L) main compartment has a roll-top extension collar and huge external pockets that add a whopping claimed 1,800 ci (30 L). The capacity breakdown provided by ÜLA is as follows: extension collar: 500 ci (8.2 L), front pocket: 400 ci (6.5 L), side pockets: 350 ci (5.7 L) ea, hip belt pockets: 100 ci (1.6 L) ea. Tally them up and the Circuit balloons to 4,200 ci (69 L).

Accessories

The test Circuit shipped with some goodies: detachable internal hydration and accessory pockets, "hand loops," and shoulder strap water bottle holsters. The bottle holsters are permanent while the detachable bits total 2.8 ounces (78 g). An embroidered monogram is available to buyers wanting a custom touch, as ÜLA packs are sold directly to the consumer.

Fabrics

Dyneema gridstop, coated ripstop nylon and nylon mesh.

Initial Impressions

Materials and Construction

This pack is a beautifully made (in Utah). Fabrics, especially the Dyneema and the pocket mesh, are stiff and exude ruggedness. The nylon mesh in particular is almost wire-like. More common coated nylon is used where the pack isn't subject to abrasion-a cost and weight savings. The back panel, shoulder straps and hip belt wings are padded with open-mesh covered foam. The two-layer foam is open cell towards the outside backed with thin, stiffer closed-cell foam for shape and support. Webbing, buckles, bungee cords, zippers and related hardware are slender and light compared to what's used on typical backpacks.

Fabric edges, stitching and seams all look good, with no loose threads, missed stitching or exposed seams and edges. All interior seams are bias-taped. Zippers, buckles, straps and cords all operate easily and seem securely anchored.

IMAGE 3
Back panel and hip belt feature ventilated padding.



Design

As noted, main compartment access is from the top via an extension collar and roll-top closure. The roll-top anchors with straps on either side and a load control strap wraps over the center, back to front. All three straps have snap-release buckles. About a third of the way down the bag are two load-compression straps-one on either side. There are also two ice-axe/pole straps and loops and two drinking hose ports.

Pockets: The gusseted mesh front pocket is huge and the angled side pockets are sizeable as well, extending well away from the main compartment. The side pockets have corded top closures but also have low openings where the shoulder straps pass through. Small items could possibly fall through them. Waist belt pockets have zip closures and are made of regular nylon, not mesh. Inside the main compartment are two detachable pockets: a water reservoir sleeve and a mesh organizer with zip closure. The large back pocket is crisscrossed by a bungee cord for yet more readily accessible storage.

Frame & Suspension: Load handling and suspension features comprise padded shoulder straps, back panel, and hip belt wings; a sternum strap; load-lifter and hip belt load stabilizer straps; a perimeter frame; and an aluminum stay. The perimeter hoop frame, said to weigh a scant 1.2 oz (32 g), is an inverted "U" comprising two carbon fiber vertical rods connected on top by a curved delrin arc spanning the top of the pack's back panel. The frame also anchors the lifter strap and hip belt stabilizer straps. The foam back panel spans the back between the vertical frame tubes and a slender, contoured aluminum stay rides in a vertical sleeve down the center, behind the foam. The 2 oz (60 g) stay is removable. The belt buckle connects to the hip belt wings via a V-strap configuration rather than a simple straight piece of webbing.

Extras: In addition to the internal pockets, the test Circuit comes with two water bottle "holsters" (pairs of bungee loops on each shoulder strap) and hand loops (webbing loops that clip to the shoulder straps). Adding up the many ways to carry water on and inside the Circuit, it would be possible to stow a gallon or more (ignoring the gruesome weight for a second).


Instructions and Support

The Circuit comes with a two-page detailed instruction sheet covering the pack's design, recommended loads and loading them, fit, adjustments to match trail conditions, care and maintenance, etc. It's very thorough and written by somebody who's clearly a fellow backpacker. Most interesting tip gleaned so far: hoist and lower the pack using the haul strap to avoid tearing out a shoulder strap. The ÜLA Web site has much more, including helpful videos. It's impossible not to be impressed with the depth and quality of the information available to their customers.

Tryout

I experienced a major disconnect upon first retrieving the Circuit from its box: This big, full-suspension pack is this light?!? I've downsized my pack along with my load over the years so the Circuit appears a bit large to me now; large, but without a weight penalty. Head-scratching continued as I pored over the fabrics and other materials, which all seem quite rugged and nary a scrap of sil-nylon to be seen. To repeat myself, this is a cleverly designed and beautifully made backpack that delivers a lot at about a kilogram. I'll add that the price seems more than fair considering everything it offers and the now rare, stateside manufacture.

IMAGE 4
Side view with extension collar.



Considered by itself, the main compartment isn't that large at 2,400 ci (40 L), but the tall extension collar and heroically large external mesh pockets add considerable volume--a claimed 75% bump if all available space is used. At this early date I can easily envision supplying a week-long trip using the Circuit, even with a bear canister (stowed vertically, alas).

Sizing & Adjustments

The Circuit is made to order from a selection of three bag sizes and five hip belt sizes. This test pack is a medium bag and small belt to match my 19.5-inch (50 cm) torso and 32-inch (80 cm) waist. Importantly, the hip belt can be adjusted vertically to help dial in the fit because it's attached using hook-and-loop-it can also be completely removed. This adjustment was not evident to me from perusing the ÜLA Web site, and should make it easier to tweak the fit since I'm at the long end of the vertical range for medium. The test pack (medium bag, small hip belt, all supplied accessories) weighs within a couple ounces of the specified weight (medium pack, medium hip belt, no accessories). That's essentially hitting the target.

IMAGE 5
Huge side pockets have top closure and lower opening.

Summary

I use another frameless backpack that's smaller than the Circuit yet weighs only a few ounces less, and the Circuit seems equally rugged. For that matter, I have day packs that weigh more. Judicious and exotic material selection, a clever frame and no complex features or adjustments must all play a part in making the Circuit such a large and light backpack.

The Circuit's configuration means a couple of things: The single main compartment won't accommodate a bear canister sideways but will vertically. Really large loads typically carried when launching a multiday trip will push a good fraction of the load skyward as the extension collar is filled. It will be interesting to find out how well the Circuit manages loads that jut well above the shoulder straps. The pack profile is somewhat tapered--wider on top, narrower down lower, which should give me extra lower back clearance if I find myself headed down a steep slope, facing outwards.

Negatives? My small quibble is the dark fabrics and tall main compartment reduce interior visibility because relatively little daylight makes it inside. Echoing Henry Ford, you may have your ÜLA pack in any color you like so long as it's forest green and black.

Please check back in two months for the field report.

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to ÜLA Equipment and BackpackGearTest.org for the chance to test the Circuit!


FIELD REPORT

Field Conditions & Locations

I took the Circuit on four trips, three in California's Desolation Wilderness (a three-day and two overnights) and a weeklong trip in southern Yosemite. In total I hiked an estimated 100 miles (160 km) on typical steep and rocky Sierra trails. Terrain included class 3 cross country, steep snowfields and some tricky stream crossings, while weather ranged from cloudy, windy and freezing to sunny and as warm as the mid 80s F (30 C). While it never rained I had sleet, hail and snow. Elevations ranged from 6,500 feet to over 11,000 feet (2,000-3,400 m).

IMAGE 6
Typical short trip load.

Field Performance

Loads Carried

Pack weights on departure, including food and water, ranged from about 25 pounds (11.5 kg) to roughly 40 pounds (18 kg) for the weeklong trek. On the shorter trips I didn't come close to using all the Circuit's volume capacity-it swallowed my gear and supplies easily. Into the main compartment went bag, pad, clothing, food (no bear canister), water, toiletries, eating utensils, a gadget bag and my water bladder. I put a lot in the big back pocket, including 1st aid kit, TP and digger, electronics, headnet, windshell jacket, main compartment overflow items and lunch. In one side pocket go a couple of water bottles and my GPS, the other is more for ad hoc storage. One hip belt pocket gets snacks and the other, sunscreen, lip balm, eyedrops and bug repellant. My first trips I strapped a small tent on top, beneath the top strap, later the tent went inside. I clipped a pair of flip-flops to an external strap with a carabiner. Trekking poles went in the holders when not carried and I threaded a small camera bag onto the right side hip belt control strap. (I was foiled attaching the camera to my usual spot-the shoulder strap-because the circuit has a triple thickness of webbing on the strap end that prevents it from being threaded through the slider buckle.)

Carrying a silnylon shelter atop the pack under the load control strap has proved challenging. The strap has some trouble corralling the slippery load and as I drain the water reservoir, it becomes progressively looser. I've relented to shoving shelters inside, so long as they're small enough. Extra clothing can still go beneath the top strap, where it generally stays in place.

IMAGE 7
Pocket mesh tester, uncompensated.



The long Yosemite trip added additional days of food, a bear canister and warmer clothing to the equation. The canister, a Bearikade Weekender (9 inches wide by 10 inches long [23 x 25 cm]), takes considerable space, adds about two pounds (almost a kilo) and reduces space flexibility because it has to pack vertically. The canister takes more than its share of pack volume because all the voids it creates cannot be filled. Once the canister is loaded I have to pack around it to protect my back, center and stabilize the canister and maximize pack space. The canister loads atop my sleeping bag and the tent goes to one side, vertically. A small foam pad goes behind the canister to protect my back, and clothing stuffed on the side opposite the tent. Other small items go into voids around the canister. Atop the canister is more clothing and other sacks of gear, as well as my water reservoir. At this point the main compartment becomes completely full and closing the rolltop is a challenge. At these times the giant outside pockets are worth their weight in gold to handle overflow.

On the Trail

I generally followed ÜLA's fitting procedure when first hoisting the pack (via the haul loop when I remembered), adjusting all of the five sets of adjustment straps (hip belt, shoulder straps, sternum strap, hip belt control straps, load-lifter straps). Except for the hip belt control straps, they're all easy to find without looking. The control straps can be a little tough to find sometimes. Once adjusted, the Circuit's perimeter suspension is springy and responsive and the back pad is quite comfy, as are the hip belt and shoulder straps. Small adjustments on the trail shift the load proportions between hips and shoulders and help combat fatigue.

IMAGE 8
My maximum load--40+ lbs (18 kg).



The long trip with its larger, heavier load unveiled the Circuit's weight control limits. A comfortable fit is tougher to achieve and packing correctly becomes more difficult as well. I became better at isolating the canister as the week unfolded, but the first couple days it jabbed me in the back. More annoying was a big bruise I developed in one chest muscle on the long second day. It formed at about the righthand sternum strap buckle and bothered me the rest of the trip. I shoved a knit cap underneath to provide extra padding, which definitely helped.

Most of the time I wore a wicking t-shirt to help stay cool and disperse sweat. The Circuit's back pad doesn't ride too closely like some packs, so between the little bit of space and the open-mesh the pack vents fairly well. In the coldest conditions I added a windshell jacket or a rain jacket. I never needed anything more than those.

Except at the upper extreme the Circuit controls the load quite well. Contents stay in place and the pack rides close without shifting or swaying. Without the extension collar filled the pack's top is about shoulder level, so I don't hit it with my head looking up; I also don't hit the pack swinging trekking poles. One earlier question answered is whether the pack's angled bottom clears the hill when I'm headed down a steep slope face-forward: it does. I didn't have any problems with scraping the pack or worse, having it leverage me off the hillside (a rare but frightful occurrence).

At maximum load the pack is less comfortable and requires that I tighten all the straps very snugly to keep the weight distributed. Even so, by day three or four a combination of weight dropped and my improved conditioning made things much more comfortable.

Unplanned Tests

First up, the Buddy Squirrel pocket mesh assault. A trailwise ground squirrel quickly found my snack stash at a rest stop and tried to chew his way to goodie nirvana. I didn't give the critter an extended time for his test, but the mesh fended off his several attempts. Pack-1, squirrel-0.

Next was the hobo stove carry. We came across a sort of wilderness squatter's camp, well hidden off trail, that had been abandoned for at least a season. Amongst the bounty of mattress, blankets, cookware and rusting canned food was a butane catering burner in a big plastic box. I decided to haul the contraption out and with a full pack it had to go outside. Using some cable ties I attached it to the buckle anchor for the pack's top strap. Comfort-wise it's a lousy place to carry a heavy item but the anchor webbing and stitching handled the extra stress without a bother and I carried it several miles to the trailhead. The webbing stitching noticeably stretched, but didn't fail.

IMAGE 9
Unplanned lugging of hobo stove.



Wear & Tear

No damage noted so far. The pack sheds trail grit with a quick hosing and dries fast, even the padding.

Summary

In two words: great pack! The Circuit is delivering on its promise of offering the impossible triad of great capacity, effective frame and light weight. Add the pack's demonstrated toughness and the ULA Circuit is one outstanding backpack.

Nits

I have few, mostly minor. The black hip belt pockets get really hot and melt certain snacks into a gooey, rodent-attracting mess. The belt buckle doesn't click closed with authority and I have to check every time to make sure it's truly locked. Could be buckle sample variation, as I've run into this before. The shoulder strap bottle anchor straps are too far apart to hold smaller bottles and big, full bottles can be distracting attached there. They're useful for routing a drinking hose, however. On the drinking hose topic, I don't find the hose ports to be at the ideal location, as the hose crosses my shoulders noticeably. That said, I don't know where I might move them to.

I'm more concerned by the bruising I received on the long trip. It may be the for my torso, a more distinct shoulder strap "S" curve would fit me better. It might also be that more sternum strap travel (downward) would have avoided the problem.

I don't want to overemphasize this last issue, because with more reasonable loads the Circuit is supremely comfortable and responsive.

Acknowledgements

My sincere thanks to ÜLA Equipment and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test the Circuit!

Please come back in two months for the long-term report.


LONG-TERM REPORT

Long-Term Test Locations & Conditions

I took the Circuit on two overnight trips in California's Desolation Wilderness. In total I hiked an estimated 35 miles (56 km) on typical rocky Sierra trails. Most of the hikes were on trail but I also had some class 2-3 cross country. Weather was "chamber of commerce" fall in the mountains, sunny warm days and cold nights. Hiking temperatures ranged between 60-75 F (15-23 C). Elevations ranged from 6,500 feet to 8,500 feet (2,000-2,600 m).

Field Performance

Loads Carried

Pack weights dropped to a very pleasant 20-22 pounds (9-10 kg), and although I upped my sleeping bag and clothing for the cooler fall nights, I also dispensed with the bear canister. Because of this, and because of the low food volume, my loads were well under the Circuit's capacity. My basic packing scheme remained as before, because I've become accustomed to having certain things in certain pockets and positions in the main compartment. Packing small loads goes quickly, as other than a basic sequence (bag and clothing on bottom, kitchen and food in the middle, water and other gear on top) it requires minimal thought and fussing.

On the Trail

After the long Yosemite trip it was nice to have such light, manageable loads. The Circuit is very comfortable and responsive, handling weekend trips easily. I could take a smaller pack for efficiency but the Circuit's low weight reduces the temptation to do so. It's still snug and compact on cross-country routes where a bulky pack can catch on rock and vegetation, and the tough fabrics fend off damage.

IMAGE 10
A frosty morning.



Wear and Tear

After a hosing and scrubbing, a final lookover shows the Circuit to be in excellent shape. It has collected tree sap and needles (embedded in the padding) and some of the webbing and foam has wrinkled, but the overall condition is good as new. I don't think I tried hard enough to break it!

Summary

My field report appraisal stands: the Circuit is a great pack. It suited my needs for an entire backpacking season, supporting overnights to weeklong trips. It is comfortable; it is versatile; it has surprising capacity and it is tough, all while being very light in its category of backpacks.

Nits

One observation to add from the field report is the very tough mesh used for many of the Circuit's pockets can be abrasive to the contents. For example, a leather wallet stowed in the inside pocket will come out looking sanded. Caution is needed for anything soft and scratchable carried in the mesh pockets. Seems like a fair tradeoff to get mesh this rugged, though.

Continued Use

There's no chance I won't continue to use the Circuit. I'd be a fool to retire a light, comfortable, versatile backpack, which describes the Circuit to a "T."

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to ULA Equipment and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test the Circuit!

This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer Version 1.5 Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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