Since debuting in 2001, ULA (Ultralight Adventure Equipment) has been a prominent force in the long-distance hiking community. ULA describes the Catalyst as a "tried and true workhorse" and we would have to agree wholeheartedly, earning it our Top Pick for long-distance-hiking. This pack weighs considerably less than most of the competition, yet comfortably carries loads as well or better than many of them. The features, while simple, are extremely user-friendly and made in a way to reduce excess weight. Anyone who considers themselves a "lightweight" backpacker, but wants the ability to carry a little more weight from time to time, will love this pack. This may not be the most innovative or high tech pack in our test, but instead, ULA sticks with the basics keeping to a lightweight design using durable materials.
Ultralight Adventure Equipment Catalyst Review
Cons: No lid, back-panel lacks ventilation
Manufacturer: Ultralight Adventure Equipment
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The Catalyst is far and away, one of the lightest-weight packs that can carry a moderate load so comfortably.
Suspension and Comfort
The Catalyst is the workhorse of the ULA line. The recommended max weight is forty-pounds but we found that to be slightly conservative. We tested this pack with over forty-five pounds and it performed admirably. whether you are loading this pack up with heavy climbing gear or you are crammed full with a fresh re-supply out of a trail town, this pack can take the weight.
The suspension consists of a framesheet and two (shape-able) aluminum stays that transfer the weight to the comfortably padded hip belt. While this style of frame is dated, it still does a great job of accomplishing the task of transferring the load to your hips. The shoulder straps are padded well and come in the standard J-Straps and S-Straps to fit different body types. The mesh style foam back-panel doesn't breathe quite as well as a more modern trampoline style harness, but is comfortable on the back and dries quickly.
While this pack is heavier than what would be considered "ultra-light", we were blown away by how weightless this pack was. Weighing in at roughly three pounds, the Catalyst is an incredibly light-weight pack that performs extremely well even when loaded down with forty-plus pounds of gear.
The true minimalist will also love that this pack has multiple features that are removable (hydration sleeve, hand straps, shoulder strap water bottle keepers, and small internal storage sac). Depending on what configuration you decide, the total weight can be reduced by up to four ounces.
The 400 Robic fabric used on this pack is extremely durable and tear-resistant, yet lightweight. ULA also saves so much weight by keeping the suspension and construction simple.
Features and Ease of Use
The Catalyst is loaded with incredibly functional features, it's no wonder ULA rarely changes things up with their pack line. Some of our favorite features include The huge side pockets, a perfectly (re-designed) front mesh stuff pocket, dual-zippered hip belt pockets, and the front shock cord lashing strap. These features are not revolutionary, but they are undeniably user-friendly.
The large side pockets can hold two tall Smartwater bottles each for those long desert crossings where water is limited, but they are useful for much more than just bottles. We found that in addition to a single tall bottle, we could also fit rain gear or a pack cover, and an adjustable shock cord helps keep everything in them contained and secure. The pockets angle down, so it is easy to reach back with one hand to remove and reinstall the bottles on-the-go without taking off the pack, which is more than can be said for most packs.
The Catalyst is advertised as a 75-liter pack. However, we think it is worth noting that the main compartment is only listed as 43 liters. To account for the remaining capacity, ULA includes the side pockets, exterior collar, hip belt pockets, and the stretchy mesh pocket. From our experience, this pack doesn't feel quite as large as most other 75 liter packs.
The front mesh pocket is another perfectly executed feature. The pocket is huge, encompassing the majority of the front of the pack and is an ideal place to stuff light layers, pack cover, fuel bottles or canisters, and just about anything stuffable that will fit in the 10-liter capacity pocket.
Any bulky layers that won't fit in the stuff pocket can easily be strapped to the front of the pack using the shock cord lashing. This is also an ideal place for a closed-cell foam pad and/or drying wet sox, bandanas, or underwear.
Having the largest and most accessible hip belt pockets available, the usefulness of these pockets are second to none. We found them perfect for our phones, snacks, map & compass, water treatment, chap-stick, and any wrappers or trash found on the trail.
The roll-top takes a little getting used to since it has to be buckled on each side, but the simplicity of not having the top lid makes up for the minor inconvenience. We also found closing the pack when loaded fully can feel slightly less than secure until the top compression strap is fastened.
With four harness sizes available, regardless of your torso size, ULA has a pack that will fit (15"-24"+ torso). They also offer six separate hip belt sizes to fit a wide range of waist measurements. (26"-47").
Finally, they offer two types of shoulder strap shapes: the J-Curve and S-Curve. J-Curve is their original and works best for most men, but men with certain body types (athletic build) will benefit from the S-Curve. While each pack only has a small amount of adjustment, each size ranges about four inches of torso range and with some up-front planning, a great fit is easy to get.
This pack has quite a few things going for it. Not only is it super light for the amount of weight it can carry comfortably, but it also has the most useful set of features, aimed at long-distance or section hiking. If you are on a tight budget, this may seem expensive, but for what you get, this pack is well worth the cost. If you want a pack that is comfortable, carries heavy loads well, is light-weight and has a great set of features, then this pack is for you, but not everyone values these same benefits equally. Some hikers may feel that the lack of a top lid is a deal-breaker, or that a trampoline style back-panel is crucial for better breathability. In those cases the value is subjective, but for many avid hikers who want a lightweight, functional backpack, we find this to be one of the best available.
The time tested ULA Catalyst is an ideal pack for the long-distance hiking masses. Whether you are looking to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, or you are looking to start section hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, this pack is a great choice for those who don't quite fit into the "ultra-light" category. If you want a light pack because you generally carry light loads, but occasionally need to carry upwards of forty plus pounds, this pack is for you.
— Adam Paashaus