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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > ULA Equipment Circuit > Test Report by Rick Dreher
ULA Circuit Backpack
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.
Product Information & Specifications
Manufacturer: ÜLA Equipment
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).
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.
Dyneema gridstop, coated ripstop nylon and nylon mesh.
Materials and Construction
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.
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.
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.
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.
My sincere thanks to ÜLA Equipment and BackpackGearTest.org for the chance to test the Circuit!
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).
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.
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.
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.
Wear & Tear
No damage noted so far. The pack sheds trail grit with a quick hosing and dries fast, even the padding.
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.
My sincere thanks to ÜLA Equipment and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test the Circuit!
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).
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!
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.
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."
My sincere thanks to ULA Equipment and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test the Circuit!
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