Gear Review: ULA Catalyst

A review of the ULA Catalyst backpack


Overall, I am pretty much a minimalist when it comes to backpacking.

I take what I consider to be enough for my own personal safety, comfort and enjoyments levels.

On a weekend by myself, that can mean no stove, a simple tarp-like shelter, a foam pad and minimal clothing.

With this type of basic kit,  I have done long trails and adventurous solo backpacks.

However, just as my gear has evolved over the years to become lighter and more streamlined, so have my ideas of what gear to bring.

Different trips have me bringing different gear.  A late Fall backpack with some camp time?  I’ll bring the thicker z-lite, my infamous Ugly Army Pants ™ and a mug for hot beverages.

An overnight climbing trip means I am bringing a helmet, schlepping a rope and bringing my own personal climbing gear in addition to the basic backpacking gear.

And a winter trip on skis? A warmer bag, an additional pad and different or additional types of clothing.

The one commonality among these different trips with different gear ?  I bring a bigger pack.

Now, back in the dark ages of say 1998, I had an enormous pack by modern standards. An EMS 5500 with uber-suspension and padding,  lots of pockets  and enough material to make an emergency bivy shelter if so desired (I kid on the last part. I think….)   As the name suggests, this 5500 cubic inch monstrosity was big enough to haul everything I thought I needed for an excursion into the White Mountains. At ~7 pounds empty, it felt it, too!

What the hell was I thinking???? 

As I became more experienced and realized I needed less to enjoy a backpacking weekend, my pack became smaller and lighter.

But there was still a need to use a bigger pack for other activities.  Trips with friends that are more social? Winter trips? Climbing? I’d cram everything into a GoLite Jam that is a  rather nice pack but not meant for the abuse I was throwing at it.  No matter how much duct tape or dental floss repairs I made, the poor pack finally was shot.

 Then I discovered ULA packs for myself.  Lightweight packs a little beefier than the ultralight packs being made currently by other companies.  They are good packs for people who wish to lighten their load but still retain some durability and comfort of more traditional gear. Some of the models have a more traditional-style suspension for heavier load hauling.  Yet, the packs still manage to stay light.

For playing Sherpa, climbing or winter trips I have been putting a ULA Catalyst through its paces during the past year.

At  4600  CI and 48 ounces in weight (size medium), it is not much smaller than my old EMS pack and less than half the weight.

Once I had the pack adjusted and dialed in for my use, the pack fitted me well and rode beautifully.

It has become a workhorse pack for me.

A pack where I don’t have to cram in extra gear and clothing and where everything fits “just right”.


Sorry no photo of me in a ULA pack. Instead, here’s a lovely photo I took of OTHERS in  ULA packs 🙂

As with all ULA packs, you can easily customize the pack for your needs.  Don’t need the mesh wallet and keys holder? Take it off.  Don’t use a CamelBak? Remove the water bladder sleeve.  And so on.  An easy way to shave off 3-4 ounces depending.

An actual photo of the Catalyst…from the ULA site. 

At $250, it is more expensive than many ultra-light packs. But that is the wrong comparison to make IMO.  Compare the ULA Catalyst to other packs that are  similar size and purpose,  and the Catalyst is not only lighter but also very competitive in terms of price. As a bonus, this pack is made in the USA.  With the competitive prices and excellent performance, nice to see a Made the USA product as a viable choice in outdoor gear.

Note that ULA sells a smaller version of this pack called the Circuit. About 7oz and 600 CI less. If you do not need the extra capacity of the Catalyst, the Circuit is a favorite all around pack as well.


The sub-1lb packs made of thin material still have a place in my kit.  For solo trips trip regulated to on-trail  (or off-trail with no abrasive bushwhacking), still my pack type of choice.

But when I need to haul more and need something a little more durable, I’ll go for my ULA Catalyst.

It’s an excellent product that works.  ‘Nuff Said.

Note: This pack was paid for with my own funds.


8 Replies to “Gear Review: ULA Catalyst”

  1. Hi
    The ULA Catalyst looks great. What would you say is the max load for this pack? It says 40lbs on the ULA site – what’s your opinion? And for overall volume? What would you say is the capacity of the main compartment – compared to other packs you’ve used?


    1. It is a great pack indeed. 40lbs is the comfort rating, but I think (assuming you have the upper body strength), you can probably push it to 50lbs. Beyond, I think you’d be taxing the capacity of the pack.

      The capacity of the compartment feels maybe ~3500 CI for the main compartment. Extend the collar? Perhaps 4000 CI.

  2. Thanks for a great review. I own the Circuit and the Catalyst. I picked up the Catalyst to help with some longer hauls thru the White Mountains and 100 Mile Wilderness of Maine. We are AT Section Hikers and love the ULA packs. As you have mentioned about evolving gear, we’ve done the same and have gone as lightweight as (safely) possible with gear that meets our requirements. Gear varies based on trip, weather, etc. and worst case, we’re at a max of 25# with a weeks worth of food and 2L of water. Thanks again for a great review.

  3. I ordered a ULA Circuit pack based primarily on your endorsement. I liked the look of the original green and was ready to love it. I never did. Although ULA is helpful with trying to get the right size to the customer, the pack never felt right due to the shoulder harness.  The hip belt was comfortable and fine. I did not like how the lower part of the pack was rubbing against my lower back. My wife looked at the set up of the pack and said “You are not going to like it.” She was correct. My son purchased an Osprey Exos for the same trip. When I compared the comfort, features and overall utility of the two packs side by side, there was no doubt he had the better option. When I had all the gear and food ready to go and began packing, the Exos had a lot more utility. I didn’t like the top closure on the Circuit. The Exos had so much capacity in the top flap. The mesh suspension on the back of the Exos seemed preferable. The side pockets of the Circuit seemed shallow and hard to use. I particularly disliked the hard mesh back pocket on the Circuit. The only thing I liked about the Circuit were the belt storage pockets. Two days before departure, I woke up and realized I had to find a different pack.  I went to REI, got fitted, compared all the packs they had and selected an Osprey Atmos. I returned the ULA pack and had to pay the return postage. They claimed I had not included the “hand loops”, delayed my refund and charged me $5 for what must be the most useless item imaginable. Trust me, I did not want their hand loops. When I disputed this, they gave me snark about returning the pack a few days outside their 30 day policy.  I found this statement on the ULA website. “We may provide Personal Information to third parties or marketers for their marketing purposes.” Gee, thanks?

    1. I see you are upset Russ.
      Sorry you did not like the Circuit. It is the only pack that fits my wife properly.

      In any case, there is a reason why Baskin Robbins makes 31 flavors – we all have different preferences. Or, just because someone likes chocolate, that does not mean vanilla is terrible.

      The hard mesh is my preference for durability (esp off trail) for example. Does not mean my view is the “right one” is rather the right one for my use.

      As for customer service, I am the wrong person to speak to. 🙂 I am not affiliated with them in anyway, but I must say I’ve had good luck with them.

      Rather than write on this blog, you may want to write them directly. I can assure you, your experience with their customer support seems to be atypical. Not disputing your experience, but this website may not be the proper place to air grievances.

  4. I have to agree with Russ. Used a catalyst for about 400 trail miles and just never found it comfortable. I like the size and feature set but I could not get comfortable with the suspension. I realize everyone is different. It somehow rubbed me the wrong way and would pinch a nerve causing my leg to go to sleep. One problem is that the hip belt is not a full wrap. There is a gap between the very, very stiff lumbar pad and the foam of the belt. I personally find the packs from seekoutside and elemental horizons much much more comfortable while offering a similar feature set. I do aplaud ula for making an xl size pack. As a very tall person finding a pack that is long enough in the torso is hard. Ula, elemental horizon, and seekoutside are the 3 cottage manufactures that can provide packs for tall individuals like myself

  5. Looks as if I’m a bit late to this conversation piece, but for anyone considering ULA packs here’s a few considering points;

    I’m a VERY petite female who treks solo, so finding something lightweight, durable and able to handle all of my gear load WHILE also being sized to my 5’3 100lb frame was very difficult.

    Enter ULA, who after several contact emails about wary sizing issues sent me a pack that, while took some loading and adjusting play, fit like a glove to my tiny frame.

    If you’re looking for a pack that weighs six pounds and has bells and whistles that you don’t need, ULA isn’t for you…look into mainstream packs. If you’re looking for something to lighten your load, while still able to carry said load, are willing to learn to play around with packing; remember that these packs handle better with uncompressed gear. It took me several short practice trips to find my Catalyst’s sweet spot and now that I have, I move as fast as those with twice my physical conditioning.

    When returning to cottage manufacturers it’s always considerate to remember that this is…well…a cottage manufacturer who took considerable time in creating you a CUSTOM MADE product , that’s not as easy to just stick back on the shelf. Just maybe stick to REI.

    For those interested in ULA, or other ultralight packs, with or without frames, perhaps a lot of research on your part is best. There are also a few retailers that sell ULA packs where you could test the pack on site before ordering.

    It’s always best to test a pack with an estimated packed volume, not empty, before buying.

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