The ULA Circuit impressed us with its comfort on long days with heavier loads. The wide, padded hip belt hugs your hips and stays put for the long haul. The simple hoop and stay frame design supported every load we threw at it. The Circuit's simple yet thoughtful design offers the most accessible and functional pockets of any bag in our test and provided just about every feature we wanted with generous hip belt pockets, a cavernous back pocket, burly fabric, and plenty of lashing loops for added versatility. What sets the Circuit apart from the competition and earned it our Editors' Choice award is the impressive weight to comfort ratio and a pared-down yet well thought out set of organization features.
We loved scrambling up the punishing trail to the rewards of traversing the open summits of Vermont's highest peaks in our ULA Circuit.
Comfort and Suspension
We found the simplicity and low profile of this pack surprising in the level of comfort achieved. The Circuit's suspension consists of a flexible carbon fiber suspension hoop and a more rigid aluminum stay. The load is well supported by the frame, hip belt, shoulder straps, and load lifters to the point where we barely noticed the difference between heavy (35-40 pounds) and light loads.
In the case of the Circuit, an uncomplicated design proves to be one of the most comfortable and easy to use. You won't get a breeze to mitigate your backsweat but you might just be willing to compromise that when your back, shoulders, and hips are all feeling fresh after a full day of rough trails and a loaded pack.
For all the models on the market with designs that look like they came from NASA engineers, we didn't expect such a basic design to be able to perform as well. What we discovered is that the highly engineered designs are mostly overcoming the sweaty back issue. The Circuit rests right up against your back and doesn't provide any degree of ventilation other than the padded mesh which mostly acts to wick moisture away from your back.
The S-Curve shoulder strap makes an excellent women's option with its sharp bend just after passing over the shoulder allowing it to smoothly wrap under your arm without causing friction or restricting movement like men's shoulder straps can do.
ULA doesn't make "women's-specific" models but rather offers two shapes of shoulder straps. We tested the "S-Curve" style here and were surprised to find it shaped just like all those on women's models. The width of the straps could potentially rub the arms of petite women but for most testers, it wrapped nicely around our shoulders, curving quickly under our arms to avoid chafing caused by straps that are too wide and straps designed for men.
Compare the S-curve shoulder strap (left) to the J-curve (right).
Because of the straight frame, the top of the pack isn't as close to your shoulders as with curvier models so it can shift around sideways when hiking rough trails and climbing over logs. As long as heavier items were kept lower in the pack, our testers didn't find it to be a problem.
The hip belt is broad and cushy, and because of its wide attachment to the pack, transfers to load evenly all around the pelvic girdle. The padding wraps far around the waist for supreme comfort and no webbing digging in. We were skeptical of the lack of a women's specific hip belt because the angle of a woman's hips typically means a unisex belt is going to flare out at the top while pinching in at the bottom. We found the curve and flexibility of the waist belt on this model to hit some mythical sweet spot where it can be equally comfortable for both men and women. In fact, the ULA hip belt ranks among the most comfortable in our women's pack test.
The hip belt is stationary and non-adjustable, which can feel restrictive if you are used to a pack with a swiveling hip belt, but for most, feels stable and supportive. Some testers found that the waist belt can sag in the rear, but because the part that hits your backside is flexable and well-padded, it isn't uncomfortable or painful as with packs having a rigid frame in this spot.
The dual buckles on the wide, well-padded hip belt allow the angle to adjust to varying hips from the straightest to the curviest.
ULA's design is one of the least complicated that we tested, similar to other ultralight models, with the notable difference that, like baby bear, they seemed to get it all just right. Large, accessible pockets, right where you want them, and plenty of lashing straps for added versatility while cutting out features that aren't truly needed and are just adding weight and complexity. We can appreciate that with fewer pockets, we spend less time trying to locate gear. However, if you are fully committed to certain pockets, ULA may have just removed your favorite, meaning this pack isn't for you.
For some, the hip belt pockets are the most critical and these are some of the largest and most functional we tested. Rather than going for a streamlined look, ULA has sewn two rectangular pockets with large zippered openings onto the existing belt. Our rectangular phones and maps thank them! You can easily fit most smartphones in these pockets and still have room for a map, compass, and at least three Snickers bars. And that's in just one of the two hip belt pockets leaving the other one free for a beanie, sunglasses, and a wind shell.
Yes, a smartphone fits, but what's really important is how much candy will share the space. The answer? A whole bag of Swedish Fish.
The side pockets on the Circuit are huge, but non-elastic. We see pros and cons here. Being that they are non-elastic and so large, it's easy for certain items to fall out when you bend over or lean too far, such as when climbing over a log in the trail. They offer no side entry option for water bottles but we found that because of the angle of the pockets, they were actually the easiest pockets of any in our test to get a water bottle in and out of without help. On the positive side of such large, non-elastic pockets is the ability to carry two narrow water bottles in each one along with other items you might want to stash. The pockets do have an adjustable shock cord at the top. When cinched down just a bit, these go a long way towards keeping a water bottle in place and your other gear down inside. All things considered, we feel that this type of side pocket offers more versatility and usability than the stretchy style that may feel more secure.
The wide pockets on the side allow for multiple water bottles but when the space isn't filled, gear can shift around and fall out when bending over. Be sure to cinch the shock cord for security.
With a simple design that cuts out all the extras, the Circuit doesn't offer any access to the main compartment other than through the top. The roll-top design used by ULA is uncommon in backpacking packs but is seen regularly in other packs such as commuter bags, panniers, climbing packs, paddling bags, and more. We like the clean, finished look it gives the pack but functionally didn't find it any easier or harder to use than a drawcord top. The main compartment has a wide opening for easy packing, and the roll-top closure keeps the bag looking neat, whether filled to the brim for a week in the snow or on a quick overnight. A strap over the top gives you a place to attach other bulky items like a rope, large sleeping pad, or tent. There is no sleeping bag compartment, so if you are one who likes to pull your sleeping bag out through the bottom or get to it before unloading your whole pack, this would be a bit of an adjustment.
The roll-top closure provides the capacity to haul a lot of gear as well as the ability to cleanly cinch down the space when less equipment is needed.
There is no lid. For some, this might be a deal-breaker. It took flexibility and trying out a different system of packing after years of using packs with lids on top, but after the learning period was over, we feel just as organized and comfortable packing with the large hip belt pockets, spacious side pockets, and cavernous stretchy back pocket.
Two removable accessories are the hand loops and water bottle holsters. When not in use, these pieces of material dangling from your chest make adjusting your straps a bit fiddly. Our testers found the hand loops to be a great addition for anyone who hikes without poles. They allow you to find a new position for your hands and shift the pack around if your shoulders or hips start to fatigue. If not needed, you can just unclip the loops and leave them at home. The water bottle holsters are only useful if you drink from the tall, thin bottles sold as disposable water bottles. We tried this unique set up (actually pretty common in the ultralight community) and were impressed with the convenience and unobtrusive positioning. For those that drink with a hydration bladder, the Circuit comes with a removable internal reservoir sleeve and dual tube exit ports.
Thirsty? The Circuit offers a variety of ways to carry all the hydration you could need. This strap holster proves to be convenient and non-obtrusive.
While common in the ultralight market, no other models in our traditional pack review offered a stretchy mesh pocket as massive. The entire back of the pack is comprised of a large piece of dense stretchy fabric, almost like a softshell material, crisscrossed with shock cord over top. This setup seems to offer everything a backpacker needs and nothing they don't. The large pocket has plenty of space for extra layers and quick access items. Nothing falls out of this pocket because of the tension of the fabric, but we also found that the tightness coupled with the opacity of the material can make it a bit tough to dig for small items at the bottom. Hanging clothing to dry on your pack or strapping down a bulky piece of gear like a foam pad is easily achieved with the crossing shock cord.
The crisscrossed shock cord on the back is not only a great place for an extra layer but is also a perfect spot to hang clothes to dry.
The Circuit stands out among the crowd for its excellent weight to comfort ratio. Ranking among the top models for comfort as well as weighing in as one of the lightest we tested, we don't think there's a better option if these are your two biggest priorities in a pack.
We tried out a few models that had managed to shave off even more ounces but at the cost of comfort and durability. ULA uses heavy-duty Robic material for their bags which gives them more durability than many other lightweight bags and retains comfort with a strong suspension and well-padded back panel, hip belt, and shoulder straps.
When the load is small, the roll-top can be cinched down low, keeping the pack from interfering with your head. P.S. Don't forget to tighten that water bottle pocket or you may lose your hydration.
One area where the Circuit ranks lower is in adjustability. This isn't to say that it's hard to get the Circuit to fit, but that the pack has many fixed features that can't be moved. The hip belt has no adjustability beyond the webbing itself, but that limitation is offset by the fact that when ordering the pack, you not only select a pack size but a belt size separately. Even though it lacks any padding adjustment, the medium we ordered still has a forgiving range of 30" to 49" so changes in your waist size aren't likely to cause you to outgrow your pack. The torso length on the Circuit can be adjusted slightly by moving the hip belt up or down an inch. Because of the lack of adjustment here, we recommend having an experienced pack fitter help you measure your torso before ordering.
A unique customization feature in the Circuit is the single aluminum stay in the pack that can be removed and bent to accommodate those with curvier backs. One tester felt pressure toward the bottom of her spine and was able to completely alleviate it by bending the aluminum stay slightly out toward the bottom.
The Circuit, like many models in our test, offers side compression straps for cinching down smaller loads for a more stable carry. In addition, the straps can be reconfigured for various positions to provide compression where you need it or space to strap bulky gear.
The Circuit provides superb value for its price even though it isn't the least expensive model out there. The price falls in the middle of the range of tested models , and for its comfort and durability, this is likely to be a pack that sticks with you for the long haul.
Fall weather means a wide temperature range and beautiful hiking. The flexible exterior storage of the Circuit is perfect for shedding layers.
The ULA Circuit is targeted toward backpackers who want a light yet durable pack that doesn't sacrifice in its ability to carry a load comfortably. With a slimmed-down feature set retaining all the right pockets, and a basic yet supportive suspension, the Circuit is an excellent pack for anyone from those going out on their first overnight to thru-hikers to folks hauling the rope into the backcountry for some alpine pitches.