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Ultralight Adventure Equipment Catalyst Review

The ULA Catalyst blends excellent carrying comfort with arguably the best-executed set of features, all in a light-weight package.
Top Pick Award
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Price:  $280 List
Pros:  Light-weight, comfortable, supportive, functional feature set
Cons:  No lid, back-panel lacks ventilation
Manufacturer:   Ultralight Adventure Equipment
By Adam Paashaus ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Nov 5, 2019
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78
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#2 of 16
  • Suspension and Comfort - 45% 8
  • Weight - 20% 9
  • Features and Ease of Use - 20% 8
  • Adjustability - 15% 5

Our Verdict

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.


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Pros Light-weight, comfortable, supportive, functional feature setLight-weight, comfortable with heavy loads, perfect pocket combinationSpectacular suspension, comfortable padding, ergonomic shoulder strap design, extremely weather resistantAwesome pockets, excellent ventilation, general comfortPacked full of features, great pockets, comfortable and solid ergonomic design
Cons No lid, back-panel lacks ventilationTiny buckles hard to operate with glovesExpensive, heavier, few convenience featuresNot supportive for loads over 40 poundsSlightly on the heavier side, not the best for super heavy loads
Bottom Line The ULA Catalyst blends excellent carrying comfort with arguably the best-executed set of features, all in a light-weight package.The Blaze 60 is a super-lightweight load hauler, that is both comfortable and full of awesome features.A fantastic all-around pack with an awesome suspension and top-notch weather resistance.The Atmos 65 AG has earned its spot as a cult classic in the backpacking world due to having a great breathable suspension and other great user friendly features.An extremely comfortable and feature-rich design that handles heavy loads, while only being marginally heavier than average.
Rating Categories Catalyst Granite Gear Blaze 60 Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 Osprey Atmos 65 AG Osprey Aether AG 60
Suspension And Comfort (45%)
10
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8
10
0
8
10
0
9
10
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8
10
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8
Weight (20%)
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9
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4
Features And Ease Of Use (20%)
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9
Adjustability (15%)
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8
Specs Catalyst Granite Gear Blaze... Arc'teryx Bora AR 63 Osprey Atmos 65 AG Osprey Aether AG 60
Measured Weight (pounds) 3 lbs 3 lbs 5.00 lbs 4.54 lbs 5.13 lbs
Volume (liters) 75 L 60 L 63 L 65 L 60 L
Access Top Top Top + side access zipper Top + sleeping bag compartment Top + side access zipper + sleeping bag compartment
Hydration Compatible Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Materials 400 Robic fabric 100D robic nylon w/ DWR coating Weatherproof N400r-AC squared fabric in areas exposed and a mix of N420p-HT and tN630p-HT plain weave Nylon over the rest of the pack Main body: 100D X 630D Nylon Dobby
Accent: 210D High Tenacity Nylon, Bottom: 420HD Nylon
Main body: 210D Nylon Dobby
Accent: 210D High Tenacity Nylon, Bottom: 500D Nylon
Sleeping bag Compartment No No No Yes Yes

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.

Performance Comparison


The ULA Catalyst has everything a long-distance hiker wants in a pack.
The ULA Catalyst has everything a long-distance hiker wants in a pack.

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.

Weight


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.

When you have less weight on your back you feel lighter  and have an easier time enjoying the experience.
When you have less weight on your back you feel lighter, and have an easier time enjoying the experience.

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.

With huge side pockets  this pack can easily carry up to six liters of water (with the use of the internal water bladder sleeve). No desert trail is too long or dry for this pack.
With huge side pockets, this pack can easily carry up to six liters of water (with the use of the internal water bladder sleeve). No desert trail is too long or dry for this pack.

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.

The shock-cord on the front of the mesh pocket can accommodate a huge variety of gear.
The shock-cord on the front of the mesh pocket can accommodate a huge variety of gear.

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.

Large hip belt pockets hold all the small on-the-go items like snacks  phone  or a map and compass.
Large hip belt pockets hold all the small on-the-go items like snacks, phone, or a map and compass.

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.

The roll-top takes some getting used to if you are accustomed to a cinch top with a lid  but getting a good closure is a piece of cake.
The roll-top takes some getting used to if you are accustomed to a cinch top with a lid, but getting a good closure is a piece of cake.

Adjustability


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.

Compare the S-curve shoulder strap (left) to the J-curve (right).
Compare the S-curve shoulder strap (left) to the J-curve (right).

Value


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.

At the northern terminus of the Long Trail on our thru-hike. The LT was no easy walk in the woods.
At the northern terminus of the Long Trail on our thru-hike. The LT was no easy walk in the woods.

Conclusion


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