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ULA Photon Backpack Review

The ULA Photon is a 35L frameless ultralight backpack
The ULA Photon is a 35L frameless ultralight-style daypack.

The ULA Photon is a 35L frameless ultralight-style backpack that weighs between 22-27 ounces, depending on how the pack is configured and whether you keep all of the optional components.  It’s basically a lower volume version of ULA’s CDT ultralight backpack (54L) ideal for day hikes, short backpacking trips, hut-to-hut overnights, commuting or air travel because it’s smaller and more compact. Like ULA’s other backpacks, the Photon is available with male or female friendly shoulder straps, multiple torso sizes, multiple hip belt sizes, and with a roll top or cinch top so you can customize it according to your needs and preferences. You don’t often find that degree of customization on a pack that’s this low volume.

ULA Photon Backpack



The ULA Photon is to a comfortable and durable ultralight-style daypack with a roll top, padded hip belt, comfortable shoulder straps, long mesh pocket, etc, that can provide a lifetime of use.

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If you’re not familiar with ULAs backpacks l’ll do a deep dive below on the Photon so you can understand how it ticks and whether its what you’re looking for. If you want more information about ULA’s other backpacks, check out ULA Backpacks: How to Choose for a hands-on comparison between the different backpacks in ULA’s product line.

ULA Photon Backpack: Specs at a Glance

  • Weight: 27 oz to 22 oz (minus removable components)
  • Removable Components
    • Hydration Sleeve (~1.4 oz)
    • Internal Stash Pocket (~1.1 oz)
    • Water Bottle Holsters (~0.8 oz)
    • Handloops (~0.8 oz)
    • Foam Pad (~1.2 oz)
    • Front Shock Cord (~0.6 oz)
  • Volume:  35 Liters incl. extension collar and external pockets
  • Fabric: Robic 210 Nylon
  • Rec’d Max Load: 18-20 lbs
  • Rec’d Base Weight: 12 lbs or less
  • Torso Lengths: 15-18″, 18-21″, 21-24″, 24″+
  • Hip Belt Sizing: <30″, 30-36″, 36″+
  • Gender: Men’s and Women’s-specific shoulder straps available.
  • For complete specs, visit Ultralight Equipment’s Photon Product Page

Storage and Organization

The ULA Photon is laid out like a standard ultralight backpack with a rear mesh pockets, mesh side water bottle pockets and a single tier of side compression straps. The model I review here is a roll top with a top webbing strap, although a cinch top that closes with a draw string is also available. The sides of the roll top can be secured to the sides of the pack or clipped together on top of the roll top. If the latter, the extra straps can be looped around the backpack to provide rear compression or act as a attachment point to lash gear to the outside of the back pocket.

The Photon is available as a roll top (shown here) or a cinch top that closes with a draw string. Either way, theres a large extension collar so you can overstuff the pack with puffy lightweight items like a warm jacket or sleep insulation.
The Photon is available as a roll top (shown here) or a cinch top that closes with a draw string. Either way, there’s a large extension collar so you can overstuff the pack with puffy lightweight items like a warm jacket or extra insulation.

The side water bottle pockets are easy to reach while wearing the backpack and you can get bottles in and out of the pockets. The rear mesh pocket is great for storing wet or loose layers you want easy to access to, without having to open up the roll top.  The stretch mesh has a very tight weave and good durability for on-trail use, but I wouldn’t recommend taking the Photon on rugged bushwhacking trips if you want to keep the mesh intact.

The side bottle pockets have an opening in the side as well as on top, because the shoulder straps terminate inside them. While this attachment point helps pull the pack closer to your back, small items can fall out of the side water bottle pockets and they shouldn’t be used for that type of storage.

There are 7 gear loops sewn into the pack’s seams that circle its perimeter which hold an criss-crossed adjustable elastic cord good for lashing items to the pack, although you can easily rig up extra cords any way you please. The Photon also has a pair of trekking pole holders that run down the outside of the pockets, but which could also be used to hold ice tools.

There are two zippered pockets on the exterior of the hip belt, large enough to store a point and shoot camera, snacks, Aquamira bottles, bug dope, and such. The fronts of both pockets are hard faced to prevent tearing with heavy-duty zippers for durability. The hipbelt wings are sewn to the back of the pack, which helps with load transfer, but are not as modular as the removable hip belts ULAs higher volume backpacks.

Finally, the Photon comes with several optional pockets that clip into the interior of the pack, making them easy to remove, even if temporarily. The pack comes with a hydration pocket that hangs behind the pack (with hydration ports over the shoulders) as well as a zippered stash pocket for your wallet or keys.

The ULA Photon has one tier of side compression straps. The side water bottle pockets are tall enough to store 1 liter bottles
The ULA Photon has one tier of side compression straps. The side water bottle pockets are tall enough to store 1 liter bottles.

External Attachment and Compression System

There’s one tier of compression straps on the Photon located above each side pockets. In addition to helping compress puffy gear stored inside the pack, they can also be used to secure long skinny items to the side of the pack like a Tenkara fishing rod tube or a trekking umbrella.

Like all ULA backpacks, the Photon’s shoulder straps provide attachment points to hang gear like GPS receivers or a whistle where they’re easy to access. Out of the box, the pack comes with four yellow bottle holsters that you can use to attach small water bottles to the shoulder straps as well as a pair of hand loops that you can rest your hands in. The hand loops clip into plastic rings on the shoulder straps and are easy to remove, while the rings make a great attachment point for electronic navigation tools.

Backpack Frame and Suspension System

The Photon is a frameless daypack with a simple foam pad that provides cushioning between the main compartment and your back. Because it’s frameless, the max load you’d want to carry with the Photon will be 18-20 pounds total, including all of your gear and consumables. If you’re packing hard edged objects there’s a chance you’ll feel them through the foam unless you pad them out with softer objects. If you try to overstuff the Photon, the pack is also likely to barrel into your back. This is just the nature of frameless backpacks.

The foam pad is held in place in the main compartment by elastic straps and easily removable. If you want, you can replace it with a pad you cut down for that purpose, perhaps something like a Therm-a-Rest Zlite, that can double as sleeping insulation. Adding a stiffer or a thicker foam pad will help add more structure to the storage, but it’s not strictly necessary and depends on your intended use.

The Photon Backpack has wide shoulder straps to help distribute the load and a sewn on hip belt that includes pockets
The Photon Daypack has wide shoulder straps to help distribute the load and a sewn on hip belt that includes pockets.

Although the 35L Photon has a lower capacity than the 54L CDT backpack, the shoulder straps are the same with the same width and foam padding/mesh backing, providing a very comfortable carry. If you’re a woman or athletically built man, the Photon is also available with female-friendly S-Shaped shoulder straps that won’t mash your breasts flat. Nearly 50% of ULA’s customer base is female because they’re one of the only cottage backpack makers to offer anatomically correct shoulder straps for women.


The 35L ULA Photon is a pleasure to carry and use for day hikes and hut-to-hut trips with plenty of storage. It also makes a great commuting or travel pack because it’s frameless and easy to stash. But the Photon was not conceived to be a lighter weight version of ULA’s higher volume CDT backpack or to compete on the basis of gear weight in a market already flooded with even lighter weight 30-40L ultralight backpacks. ULA’s mission in offering the Photon was to create a comfortable and durable ultralight-style backpack with a roll top, padded hip belt, comfortable shoulder straps, long mesh pocket, etc, that can provide a lifetime of use. You just have to try on the ULA Photon to see that they succeeded.

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Disclosure: ULA loaned the author a Photon Backpack for this review.

Written 2017.

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  1. Hi Phillip, just trying to get my head around what the primary differences, apart from size, are between this and the CDT. Maybe you could assist. Otherwise, the CDT seemingly weighs about the same and costs the same. Is there something that this pack has over the CDT in terms of feature?

  2. Philip, can you speak to the suitability of this pack as a replacement for a GG Kumo? I’m frustrated by the build quality of my Kumo although the volume works well for me on most of my trips. On paper the two packs have a similar volume. I owned a Circuit and Catalyst previously and loved the build quality and comfort those packs provided.

    The CDT appeals to me as well but the volume is much more than I am used to.

    • The Photon is basically the same volume as the Kumo. If you’re frustrated with the build quality on the Kumo (made in asia), you won’t be with the Photon (sewn in Utah). You’ve owned ULA backpacks before so you understand.

      I was just writing a note to Chris McMaster at ULA asking him if I could buy the Photon he loaned me for review….if that’s an answer to your question. I like the shape, the fit, and storage accessibility much better than the Kumo.

      I used to love my Kumo, but got rid of it about a year ago because it just became so “fiddly” to deal with when opening and closing.

      The choice of different shoulder straps and closures also makes the Photon even more attractive in my mind.

  3. For such a small volume pack, I’m surprised that the hip belt is not removable. I personally don’t like to use one and would be really intrigued to get one if I didn’t have to cut the hip belt off as soon as I got it. It wouldn’t be the first time I modded a pack straight from the manufacturer but i wish it was designed that way in the first place.

    • That’d be a nice option or having the ability to stuff it behind the back panel to get it out of the way.

      The nice thing is that you’re dealing with a cottage manufacturer that can change their designs based on customer feedback because they sew stuff themselves. If you have a special request, I’d contact ULA and ask for a mod like that. They may even create a new option and make it generally available.

      • I’ve emailed Chris at ULA about this and unfortunately they aren’t able to do a removable hipbelt at this time. Maybe if more people request it they will consider making the change.

        They will build it without a hipbelt.

  4. This looks like a great pack and maybe a nice upgrade/replacement for the ever popular Osprey Talon. Not crazy about the hole in the side pockets for my uses but lots of people love that style.

    • I have the latest talon sitting right here (up for a review) and yes I’d much rather carry a Photon. The Talon is a pretty sweet pack mind you, but it has some stuff on it I’m not super keen on.

      • I’m glad you mentioned that. I love my Talon, but I’ve been looking at the Photon as a replacement. It seems I won’t be disappointed.

  5. It’s on my short list. The cdt is to big for my 3 season kit . Thanks for the review


  6. Hi Philip, I am looking for a new daypack for backcountry hiking in California’s Eastern Sierra. I am looking for something larger than my current 22L CamelBak Rim Runner. I would like to be able to fit a fly rod and gear, binoculars, and all the other essentials for hiking in this area. I would also be interested in using this pack for short winter hiking/ snowshoeing trips. I am considering the ULA Photon or the Mystery Ranch Scree. Do one of these stand out to you over the other for my needs? Also, I just want to clarify, that the 35L capacity of the photon would be if you utilized the collar space as well? I like the idea of being able to roll down the extra capacity if I’m not using it. Any idea what the capacity is of the pack, minus the collar? Thanks for your help!

    • The Photon wouldn’t be my first pick to carry snowshoes. It really is just a bag without a whole lot of structure. On the other hand the scree is much much better, sturdier, and easy to attach snowshoes to. Has a great frame that can haul loads. Snowshoes are heavy..usually weighing 5 pounds alone.

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