ULA Circuit Backpack Review

ULA Circuit Backpack
ULA Circuit Backpack

The ULA Circuit Backpack is a streamlined lightweight backpack with a surprising amount of flexibility for many types of backcountry adventure. Made with bomber fabrics and feature-rich, the Circuit is tough enough for year-round use in 4 season conditions.

ULA Circuit Backpack

Comfort
Weight
Suspension
Features
Adjustability
Sizing
Durability

Excellent

The Circuit is an ultralight-style backpack made with durable fabrics for long life in tough conditions. Suitable for thru-hikes and four season use, the Circuit has plenty of storage to handle many missions, with the ability to switch between multiple hip belt sizes to get a near custom fit.

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Internal Storage and Organization

With 68 liters of total capacity, the ULA Circuit can hold a lot of gear, not even counting what you can lash its exterior. Most of the pack’s storage is in a large main compartment that secures with a roll-top closure, making it easy to pack and access the gear stored inside. The advantage of a roll-top closure is that it provides excellent top compression for larger loads, without requiring any additional weight, such as a top lid, to contain the fabric in an extension collar.

The ULA Circuit Backpack has a large extension collar for stowing extra gear, but rolls up easily and out of the way, using a roll top closure.
The ULA Circuit Backpack has a large extension collar for stowing extra gear, but rolls up easily and out-of-the-way, using a roll top closure.

There are two accessory pockets in the interior of the pack, a hydration pocket, and a passport-sized pocket for storing valuables. Both pockets are optional and can be easily removed using tri-glide clips.

The Circuit is organized like many other lightweight and ultralight backpacks with two open side pockets, a large open rear mesh pocket, and a hip belt with two large zippered pockets. This design lets you stash all the gear and food you’re likely to need during the day on the outside of the pack, so you can avoid having to stop and dig around in your pack whenever you need something. External storage like this is the key to keeping your transition times (layer breaks, snacks, water purification, etc.) to a minimum, so you can maximize your hiking time, and mileage if you choose.

The ULA Circuit is organized like most lightweigh and ultralight backpacks with a rear mesh pocket and open side water bottle pockets.
The ULA Circuit is organized like most lightweight and ultralight backpacks with a rear mesh pocket and open side water bottle pockets.

The Circuit’s side pockets are large enough to store multiple bottles and deep enough so that even a 1.5 liter bottle won’t fall out. The pockets are made of solid fabric with reinforced bottoms providing excellent durability, along with drain holes so you can store wet items like water filters in them. The top of the pockets can be cinched tight with a heavy-duty elastic cord capped with a cord lock. Unfortunately, you can’t reach back and pull a bottle out of the side pockets or stow it while walking.

External Attachment Points

The ULA Circuit backpack has plenty of external attachment points on the outside of the backpack, suitable for storing bulky or sharp-pointed item that you can’t fit into your pack such as foam sleeping pads, crampons, rope, and ice axes.

Dual Ice Axe holders

The Circuit has two ice axe holders and shaft holders which can be used to stow a walking axe or two climbing axes. The bottom ice axe loops are made of elastic cord and can stretch long enough to secure a Therm-a-Rest Zlite foam pad to the bottom of the pack, as shown above.

The Circuit's flared shape - fatter top and narrow curved bottom resultsin excellent load transfer to the lumbar area of the waist.
The Circuit’s flared shape – square top and curved bottom results in excellent load transfer to the lumbar area of the waist.

Side Compression Straps

The Circuit has one tier of side compression straps made of webbing which can be used to secure longer items to the side of the pack, such as an umbrella or tent pole.

Rear Mesh Pocket

Like most UL-styled packs, the Circuit has an open rear mesh pocket which is convenient for storing items you want during the day or wet items such as rain gear that you’d like to dry. The mesh pocket is surrounded by 6 fabric loops that hold an elastic cord that zigzags back and forth on the outside of the mesh pocket and is handy for securing more gear to the outside of the pack.

The Circuit’s mesh pocket is made with a very tough fabric and can endure off-trail travel without ripping. While I still wouldn’t recommend it, I’ve done plenty without tearing a hole in the mesh.

The ULA Circuit has plenty of external attachment points making it ideal for 4 season use
The ULA Circuit has plenty of external attachment points making it ideal for 4 season use

Rope Strap

A webbing strap loops over the roll top closure and can be used to secure rope over the top of the pack or a rain shell.

Bottle Holsters

Many of ULA’s backpacks come with yellow elastic straps secured to the outside of the shoulder straps. These provide hikers with a way to secure smaller pint-sized water bottles to the pack, that can be released and replaced without stopping.

Yellow Bottle Holsters on ULA Circuit Backpack
Yellow Bottle Holsters on ULA Circuit Backpack

Backpack Frame and Suspension System

The ULA Circuit is an internal frame backpack that has three structural components:

  • An aluminum center stay anchored behind the lumbar region of the hipbelt
  • An open fiberglass loop that runs around the top and sides of the back panel but not across the bottom
  • A thin plastic frame sheet

While these three components provide enough stiffness for the Circuit to carry 30-35 pounds, they also are “soft” enough to give it a body-hugging feel that moves with you on scrambles and won’t throw you off-balance. At the same time, you have to be careful not to overstuff the Circuit (with a large sleeping winter bag, for instance) because the back frame will bow out uncomfortably and not remain flat.

The ULA Circuit hipbelt has two webbing straps which can be used to fine tune the fit based on your body shape.
The ULA Circuit hip belt has two webbing straps which can be used to fine-tune the fit based on your body shape.

The Circuit’s hip belt is attached to the back of the pack using velcro, right in front of the point where the aluminum center stay ties into the lumbar area. Velcro attached hip belts are a tried and true design element on lightweight packs and sufficient for up to 30-35 pound max loads. They also make it possible for you to try on different hip belt sizes with the same pack and dial in a custom fit.

The hip belt attaches to the backpack through a slot in the lumbar area and is secured in place using velcro. The height of the slot has about 2? of vertical adjustability to it, so you can raise or lower the hip belt, and reduce or lengthen the torso length of the pack beyond the torso length you purchased. This is good if you’re between sizes or you need to adjust the torso length when carrying big loads. Contact ULA support for more information about this feature and how to adjust it.

The hip belt has two large zippered pockets and two straps that let you fine-tune the fit depending on the shape of your hips. The four straps adjust using a Scherer pull-forward cinch, first developed by Kelty, and connect at a single buckle. It can take some experimentation to get the right fit, and if you have problems, call ULA. They go above and beyond to make sure customers get an excellent fit.

Both the hip belt, back panel, and shoulder straps are covered in padded spacer mesh which is cushy without being too soft. The holes in the spacer mesh have a tendency to collect debris however if you wander off-trail.

The Circuit’s shoulder straps are available in two styles, J-shaped or S-shaped, to accommodate people with breast or barrel chests. The shoulder straps have lots of attachment points to hang gear and front-load lifter adjustments, which slide down the front of the shoulder pad to let you adjust the angle of your load lifters if they’re too flat (a 45-degree angle is ideal). Most of these shoulder pad options are usually only found on high-end expedition or custom packs, and worth noting.

The shape of the ULA Circuit (wide on top, narrow on bottom) helps direct heavier loads to waist for excellent load transfer.
The curved bottom of the ULA Circuit (right) – helps direct heavier loads to the lumbar area for better load-to-hip weight transfer.

Recommendation

The ULA Circuit is a high volume lightweight backpack (68L/41 ounces) that’s optimally sized for weekend backpacking trips, thru-hikes, and winter hiking. When used within its recommended load limits, the Circuit is a very comfortable backpack, with a body-hugging fit, that belies its capacity. Made with heavier, more durable fabrics (210 Robic, Cordura), this is a backpack that can take some serious punishment, which makes it a best buy in my opinion, if you’re looking for an ultralight-style where long-lasting durability is more important than uber lightweight.

Likes

  • Huge extension collar/roll-top closure provides extra volume when you need it, but rolls up and out-of-the-way when you don’t
  • Solid reinforced hip belt pockets provide excellent durability
  • Replaceable hip belt, with multiple sizes available for a custom fit
  • Multiple strap options available, enabling unisex wear

Dislikes

  • Spacer mesh on the back of the pack and hip belts pick up spruce needles if you hike off-trail (in New England)
  • Back panel can bulge into your back if you overstuff the bottom of the pack’s main compartment
  • Shoulder straps are anchored inside the side water bottle pockets and there’s an opening in the front of the pocket for the webbing to run through…don’t put small items in these pockets because they can fall out of this hole.

Manufacturer Specs

Volume Breakdown

  • Main Body: 2,400
  • Front Mesh Pocket: 400
  • Side Mesh Pocket: 350 ea
  • Ext. Collar: 500
  • Hipbelt Pockets: 100
  • Total Volume: 4,200 cu in or about 68 liters

General Guidelines

  • Rec’d Max Load: 35 lbs or less
  • Rec’d Base Weight: 15 lbs or less
  • Pack Weight (Torso-M, Hipbelt-M): 41 oz. Our weights are as shipped, and include all removable items, about 5 oz on a Circuit

ULA Equipment-Free Shipping on all US Orders

Disclosure: ULA loaned Philip Werner(SectionHiker.com) a Circuit Backpack for this review.

Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.

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5 comments

  1. All the comments are from men. What would you recommend for a lightweight backpack for women? I was considering the ULA Circuit, Gossamer Gear and ZPacks. Thanks.

    • If you want a pack that has women’s specific features, only ULA offers them (specify the S-shaped shoulder straps) Gossamer Gear and Zpacks only offer unisex packs and everyone knows what that means. I’d also encourage you to take a look at the Granite Gear Crown 2 – 60L which is available with a women’s specific shoulder pads and a hip belt. They’ve been making lightweight packs for women for years and they’re less expensive.

      If you’d like to read some women’s backpack reviews on SectionHiker, here’s a link to our list of them, so far. More are in the pipeline.
      https://sectionhiker.com/category/gear-reviews-2/backpack-reviews/womens-backpacking-backpack-reviews/

    • I know this is old, but as a human with breasts, I find that the ULA S-straps are the most comfortable straps of all packs I’ve tried. They shape around my chest very comfortably and I haven’t had an issue with shoulder nerve-pinching since getting my Circuit.

      That being said, I did originally hike with a Circuit with J-straps, and they bit into my neck and shoulders painfully, leading to my arms falling asleep. I ended up selling it and purchasing my current pack with S-straps.

      I love my Circuit now and am apprehensive to try another brand because no one else has straps like these!

  2. Just finished a week in the White Mountains with my Circuit and still find it a really nice pack. Believe me, when walking on wet scree with 50mph gusts, you really want your pack to stay tight with you–the Circuit does. It survived sharp rocks and driving rain, too.

    I drink from a bladder–very easy to access in this pack–so reaching water bottles isn’t an issue. Instead I use the side pockets for my alcohol stove and first aid kit, ,and I like that I can cinch them closed. The huge webbed pack pocket gets my hammock and tarp, cooking kit, and rain gear. The rolldown top makes the main compartment plenty roomy.

    My previous pack was a GoLite, which is no longer produced. This one’s working well for me.

  3. Hi there,

    I have a women’s Circuit (S) for at least 8 years – must be the older version). What is the size/liters of this pack? I can’t find that info anywhere. I love this pack!

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