Drop 4 oz from the ULA Catalyst in 5 minutes

The Catalyst’s removable features (right to left, counterclockwise): hydration sleeve, inner mesh pocket, water bottle holsters, rear mesh pocket bungee, and handloops.

In advance of multiple 2-, 3-, and 7-day guided trips this Fall — including some in locations where a bear canister is required — I recently picked up a ULA Catalyst. This pack is described as “the workhorse” of the ULA pack line; it offers 4,600 cubic inches of volume, a twin stay framesheet, and durable fabrics throughout, all for a competitive 48 ounces (exactly 3 pounds). There is also a smaller and lighter version available, the Circuit.

Most of my backpacks arrive with features that I don’t need or want, so shortly after receiving a new pack — and certainly before I take it out for the first time — I apply scissors and/or a knife to it. I wish that my gear were spec’d exactly as I like, but I understand the manufacturer’s rationale: if they don’t include all or most of the features that prospective customers want or expect, they limit the product’s sales.

ULA is a small company and has a good pulse on their customers, but even the Catalyst was unnecessarily “fat” from my perspective. But my customary ounce-shaving exercise was incredibly pleasant with the Catalyst: ULA is aware that some/most of their customers do not need or want some features, so they make them easily removable. It took me five minutes to do, and everything I did is reversible since the features are attached via webbing clips and cord locks, not permanently sewn to the pack.

I removed five features that cumulatively weigh about 4 oz, described below. Four ounces isn’t enormous but it’s still notable, especially in consideration of how easy it was.

The hydration sleeve (1.4 oz) is useless to me since I much prefer Platypus water bottles over a reservoir-and-tube system.

The internal mesh pocket (0.8 oz) could be used for small items like lip balm, sunscreen, Aqua Mira, ibuprofen, and a small headlamp or flashlight. But I prefer to keep oft-needed items in the hipbelt pockets and side pockets. Remaining items I will keep in a small stuff sack, which unlike the mesh pocket won’t snag other items as I am shoving them into my pack.

ULA Catalyst

Water bottle holsters (0.6 oz) are attached to each shoulder strap. They are useful only if you use hard-sided 12- or 20-oz bottles like those used by cyclists and ultra runners. I don’t, preferring instead to store my Platypus bottles in the side pockets.

Handloops (0.6 oz) dangle from the shoulder straps too and, if you don’t use trekking poles, they are a nice place to hang your hands to avoid the pooling of blood in your arms. I always use trekking poles so will never miss the handloops.

A bungee cord (.2 oz) is threaded on the outside of the back mesh pocket. This could be convenient for lashing my puffy parka or a wet rain jacket to the pack, but the mesh pocket could serve that same function too. Plus, external cords are extremely snag-prone, especially when traveling off-trail through brush or when scrambling through talus or up Class III cliff bands.

32 Responses to Drop 4 oz from the ULA Catalyst in 5 minutes

  1. Paul Mags July 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Oddly (or not?) stripping the pack is one of the first things I did when I bought it. Love how ULA allows the pack to be very customizable and can shave off excess weight easily. More than the weight savings, it is the philosophy “If I don’t need it, why take it?”. Applies not just to packs, but other parts of life, too!

  2. Chad "Stick" Poindexter July 24, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    I have the Circuit, but the first thing I did when I got it was to remove the hand loops, the inner mesh pocket and the hydration sleeve. I left the shock cord on the front, but I don’t see why it should stay… Next time I take it out I will consider removing it…

    I agree with Paul though, I love the ULA packs. They are great packs, but the fact that everything can be removed in such a way that it can be (easily) added back later on if so desired is really nice. Nothing worse than buying a new pack, permanently removing things and then wishing you hadn’t later on… (thankfully though, I have not done this). I think it is always better to use the pack as delivered for a bit before removing the things that cannot be (easily) reattached.

  3. Philip Werner July 26, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    I bought a Catalyst this year for guiding because of the higher capacity and removed everything you removed the second I unpacked it.

    How do you like their roll top? Mine keeps unraveling and opening when the pack is full. PITA.

  4. Trevor Guthrie July 28, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

    Personally with the exception of the hydration sleeve I have left all of these attachments intact. I don’t use trekking poles so the hand loops are very nice. The water bottle holders I use with 20 oz plastic coke type bottles or smart water bottles I love the easy access with out all the BS of a hydration sleeve. And the internal pocket is where I stash my keys and wallet so they don’t bug me when I’m hiking. I’ve had my catalyst for 4 years and I and totally happy with it and the options is actually one of the things I like the most.

  5. Kathy RedHat July 31, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    I own three ULA packs: Catalyst, Circuit, and CDT. As my loads have gotten lighter, I use the Catalyst less and less. But ULA makes the best packs out there, in my opinion. I, too, strip some unnecessaries, but I do love the water bottle holders.

  6. Warren Isbister July 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm #

    I love the way ULA packs arrive. Plenty of removable options that you can easily remove, but also, replace just as easy as removal, should you come to a time when you do end up wanting them. We’ve used the bungee cords to suspend tarps. The water bottle holsters can hold a rolled up map, umbrella, hiking poles, not just water. The mini pocket easily flips out of the way to avoid snagging things while loading.

  7. Jeremy Young August 4, 2012 at 6:59 am #

    Andrew, this pack is obviously designed to be able to remove these features to customize the pack and save weight. But, in your book, you recommend cutting out these similar features of packs like the GoLite Jam which are actually sewn in. Doesn’t cutting out large pieces of fabric from these packs reduce the structural integrity of the entire pack? I haven’t bought a lightweight pack yet. I am still making the rest of my other gear decisions. I was just wondering.

    Love your book by the way. You did an excellent job on it. I will refer to it often.

    • Andrew Skurka August 4, 2012 at 8:04 am #

      > Doesn’t cutting out large pieces of fabric from these packs reduce the structural integrity of the entire pack?

      Possibly, depending on what you cut out. In the case of the GoLite Jam series, the biggest weight-saving technique is to remove the hydration sleeve and foam back pad (plus its housing). I haven’t noticed any structural effects from this. Smaller actions like shortening waist belt webbing poses no problem at all.

  8. Jeff September 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    I was looking at getting the ULA Catalyst because I take a lot of trips where a bear canister is required. I have also read good things about the ULA Circuit. I read the Circuit only carries a bear can vertically (or horizontally at the top of the pack).

    Have you had any experience with the ULA Circuit? Any recommendation of one over the other? What pack do you use when you’re solo (not guiding) and a bear can is required, would you still take a pack like the Catalyst, or something smaller like the Circuit or even the ULA OHM?

    More info about me:

    Base weight: 11-12lbs
    Average trip:3-7days
    Hike a lot in areas where bear can is required
    Looking to lighten up more

    Any help would be great!


    • Andrew Skurka October 9, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

      I have not used the Circuit, only the Catalyst. If I were traveling solo in average 3-season Lower 48 conditions, the Catalyst would probably max out on a 1.5-2 week stretch between resupplies. On my most recent guided trips in Yosemite, I loaded the Catalyst with my personal gear, 7 days of food, group supplies (first aid, repair, communications), and a BV 500 canister; I lined its inside with my torso-length foam pad too. It was near its max, though not at it.

      If you still have questions about the packs, I’d recommend that you call ULA. They’d be happy to walk you through the decision-making process.

      • Jeff November 1, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

        Thanks for your reply Andrew. I ended up getting the Catalyst for Yosemite trips and I plan on doing a JMT through hike next summer, should be the perfect pack for that. I ended up going with the OHM for all other trips where I don’t need to carry the darn bear can.

        I ordered a large, but I’m right on the border of sizes with a 20.5 in torso. I usually size up in this case, but I read in your book (Ultimate Hikers guide) that you recommend sizing down, so all the weight is above the hips. This makes sense, so I ordered the medium to compare. It’s still on it’s way, so I’ll have to get back to you on that.

        BTW: I did trip the extras off the packs, so thanks for the tip!

  9. Chris October 13, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    Could be a silly question — in the actual process of removing the water bottle holsters what was the trick to undoing the small black pull tabs that affix them? The cord locks are a no brainier, but I want to preserve the black tabs and haven’t had luck with a screwdriver prying them open. Probably just being too gentle! Have the Circuit, but the same accessories apply and I find most of them superfluous. Doesn’t sound like it, but do you make any modifications to the Catalyst’s hipbelt?

    • Andrew Skurka October 13, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

      To remove the water bottle holsters without cutting the bungee cord, you need to pry apart the end-lock with a knife.

      I haven’t made any modifications to the hip belt.

  10. Stuart October 25, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    After three months, what are your thoughts about the Catalyst? Has it met your expectations? Any particular likes or dislikes? Having tried and failed to get on with a couple of frameless packs, I’m looking at the Catalyst as a pack for winter trips between 2-5 days in duration in the CO high country, and for next spring/summer as I introduce my young son to the joys of backpacking, most likely hauling most of his kit too. Until recently I thought something as large and heavy as the Catalyst would be a step in the wrong direction. Your ‘stupid light’ essay resonated with me and the pack seems to be the category I’ve had the most challenges with. Thanks in advance Andrew.

    • Andrew Skurka October 25, 2012 at 11:06 am #

      Overall, very solid pack. I’d like to see a few changes — e.g. swap out mesh back pocket for woven nylon, replace roll-top closure with drawstring-style, eliminate the mesh back panel because it collects pine needles — but in the scheme of things they are small criticisms. It carries weight well, it’s a good size, it’s durable, and it has nice features (e.g. waist belt pockets, pull cords on side pockets, etc.). It’s become my go-to packs for guided trips, and for personal trips where I’m carrying a heavier load (e.g. bear canister and a week’s worth of food), assuming I don’t need a packraft, in which case I revert back to the EPIC.

      • Jeremy October 29, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

        So, the ULA Catalyst has become your new go-to pack? Why do you prefer it over your previous go-to pack, the GoLite Jam? I’m shopping for a lightweight pack and I have it narrowed down to a ULA pack or the GoLite Jam. I’m just looking for all the info I can get before making a decision.

        • Andrew Skurka October 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

          The Jam 50 and Catalyst are very different packs. The Jam 50 is better for smaller and lighter loads (less than about 25 pounds, maybe up to 30 if you have a lot of water). The Catalyst is better for larger and heavier loads. If you are looking for a do-it-all pack, I’d go with the Catalyst since I’d rather carry ~one extra pound in unnecessary load-carrying capacity than to be missing it.

  11. Daniel Allen October 29, 2012 at 11:34 pm #


    what do you think of the catalyst as a winter pack? would it do ok with snowshoes and a shovel, for example, and maybe accommodate 2 closed cell foam pads (one internal, like the CDT, and another on top)?

    Thanks for any input!

    • Andrew Skurka October 30, 2012 at 8:02 am #

      The Catalyst would work as a winter pack, but I wouldn’t buy one for that specific purpose. The external mesh pocket is not suitable for winter use, due the need to carry skis, snowshoes, shovel, etc — that pocket will quickly get ripped up, and possibly too the lighter ripstop nylon that constitutes the pack body in this area.

  12. Rich January 15, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    Hmm. Maybe talk to Chris to make a “ULA Skurka” pack or something? You have been working with those guys for a while now right?

  13. Greg B April 20, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    When Brian owned ULA a lot of these options were actually options. But I can certainly see how it’s easier to simply include the hydration sleeve etc with all packs. I also removed the hydration sleeve from my pack and I’m tempted to removed the mesh pocket.

    I use the water bottle loops with standard Aquafina 750ml and 1L bottles. One advantage which isn’t immediately noticeable is that when you’re carrying a low base weight and your entire pack weight with food and water is around 20 to 25 pounds then 2 liters of water in front of you counterbalances a large percentage of your pack weight. When you put 20% of your weight in front of you the balance of the pack changes nicely.

    Overall, I absolutely love my ULA Circuit.

    • JustinHB August 1, 2013 at 1:43 am #

      That last comment about the water weight counter balance is something I’ve noticed as well. This is the first time I’ve seen it discussed about any pack, but two full, one liter bottles equals around 4.5 lbs including the bottle itself. I don’t enjoy the bulk on my chest, but my lower back loves it. lol.

      • Dieter June 3, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

        This type of load balancing is the philosophy of Aarn. Have a look at the video H
        Their front packs have a frame to transfer the weight directly on the hipbelts so you can walk upright (even with heavy loads) while with a traditional style backpack you HAVE to bend forward. They are heavier and more complex to put on / take off but the concept is very convincing. I am thinking of buying one of these or the catalyst. Both have good reviews.

        Andrew I would love to hear if you have any opinion about this type of pack.

        • Andrew Skurka June 3, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

          I haven’t used these exact packs. The most similar I used was a front pouch that suspended across the sternum. With a really heavy pack, I could see the benefit of such a system, as it would allow a more upright walking position. Otherwise, however, I think the benefits would be outweighed by the inconveniences, notably having something big in the way up front and then having an extra step in taking off your pack.

  14. Dieter June 4, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    Thanks a lot for your quick reply. I had an interesting experience long time ago with my girlfriend. We shared a frame less pack for a day trip. For her that was uncomfortably heavy to carry while I hardly felt it. For her a pack with a light internal frame and hip belt would have made sense while for me the same pack was extremely comfortable.
    Applying this to the 35lb category I believe that many backpackers in good shape are completely happy with a well made traditional pack. But as I get older and with increasing back issues I think that an Aarn style pack might be a good option for me – even only for a planned 8 day no resupply trip.
    However I will go the beaten track for now and order a catalyst today. But I might try to replace the belt pockets with larger ones.
    Thanks again for your help. Highly appreciated.

  15. Phil January 5, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    Andrew, I just purchase the ULA Catalyst for an up coming trip to Philmont plus a few shakedown trips. What are you thoughts on shortening the straps on the pack to cut weight? Thanks for your other weight cutting tips.

    • Andrew Skurka January 5, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

      It’s a small weight-savings opportunity. I’d do it more because long straps are annoying.

      To resew the fold at the end of the strap (so that it does not slide through the buckle), I would recommend a Speedy Stitcher Sewing Awl.

  16. Rusty May 28, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

    After all these years and new companies jumping up making lite weight stuff, is this still your go to pack? I have it narrowed down to ULA or Hyperlite……
    Thanks for your opinion

    • Andrew Skurka May 29, 2015 at 8:08 am #

      You’re unlikely to be disappointed with a ULA pack. Ditto if you go with HMG. Lightweight, durable packs with relatively good load-carrying capacity (given their weight).

      My exact go-to pack changes frequently. On my most recent trips, I was testing a new Sierra Designs pack, which will come out if 2017 or perhaps quietly in 2016. On many of my guided trips, I bring the ULA Epic because I can load more stuff in it and on it than other packs. And last summer I was using the ULA Ohm on personal trips.

  17. russ brent October 20, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    I ordered a ULA Circuit pack based primarily on a bloggers 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?

  18. Gordon February 3, 2016 at 7:14 pm #

    I guess we can all find something to complain about.

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