This is a review of my 10 year old ULA Catalyst 75L rucksack. Updated in October 2021. With the purchase of a new pack I am now able to compare the old and new versions. I’ve added pictures of the new pack and the changes that ULA-equipment have made to it. I’ve also included all the UK import costs of my new pack below.
The ULA Catalyst 75L rucksack is a light weight pack, weighing only 1324g/46.7oz. It’s a very well made pack and designed to carry up to 18kg/40lbs reasonably comfortably. It doesn’t have a top pocket, just a roll top closure to save weight and for simplicity. There are very good pockets elsewhere though, one big mesh pocket on the front, two on the hip belt and two on the side of the pack.
The Catalyst does not have an adjustable back length or hip belt, the has to be purchased to suit your back length and waste size.
The ULA Catalyst is a 75 litre pack but this is if you include all the pockets. It may not compare well with other 75L packs for the space inside the main body. I would say it feels more like a 55 litre pack with some good sized pockets. My Granite Gear Blaze 60L pack actually feels bigger than the Catalyst.
I like a large volume rucksack because it’s easier to pack and means you don’t have to force everything in it. It also allows me to carry more supplies, giving me room for a week’s food as well as all my camping equipment. This gives me greater access to more remote walks, and also means I can carry some of the younger children’s gear too.
I don’t travel ultra light. I like a bit of comfort while I’m walking, so I often carry more food and clothes than is absolutely essential, I don’t like to be hungry or cold! This also allows me the freedom and safety to change my route if the weather or my mood changes.
The ULA Catalyst 75L rucksack has a fixed back length, so you have to order the length to fit you. The hip belt is separate and again you order the size to fit. This way you end up with a bespoke rucksack that fits you perfectly.
The ULA Catalyst will carry 18kgs (40lbs) or more. I like most of the weight on my hips, and this pack has a good back frame that transfers the weight to my hips very well. It’s extremely comfortable up to about 15kgs (33lbs), but thereafter I started to feel the weight on my shoulders more. However, I have carried nearly 20kgs (44lbs) reasonably comfortably at the start of my Cape Wrath Trail walk.
The ULA Catalyst has five of the best pockets fitted to any pack that I have used. The two side pockets are a good size and easy to access while wearing the pack. They are angled to make it easier to slide a drink bottle into the pocket while you’re wearing it. The pockets are made from the same ULA400 Robic as the rest of the pack. This will wear well and not get damaged like some other packs that have elastic side pockets. The top of the side pockets have elastic cord around them and this can be adjusted to hold the contents secure or loose to allow easy access while wearing.
There’s two hip belt pockets that are a good size, with a full length zip along the top allowing good access.
There’s also a very good sized front pocket made from mesh, which is ideal for wet gear. This is perfect for a wet tent or waterproofs. It has an elasticated top to the pocket to keep things secure inside. This has been updated on the new packs, to a smaller mesh. This is a very good improvement and is unlikely to wear or catch on vegetation like it did on my old pack. The mesh pocket on my old pack failed where it joins the elastic along the top. This had to be stitched up again a number of times. This was probably my fault and a high wear area because I often put my wet tent in this pocket. And held the elastic at the failure point while stuffing my tent into the pocket.
The elastic cord across the front is good for storing clothes and ideal for drying socks etc.
Signs of wear on my old pack – after 10 years of serious use!
In 2020 I set off walking 1100 miles from Dover to Cape Wrath, wild-camping every single night. I didn’t take my ULA Catalyst initially, because it was so old. But after trying to use 3 other packs during the walk, at about half way I had to revert to using it. I was glad that I did and finished the walk with it. Two of the pack that I had used initially gave me shoulder pain and the other one which was brand new pack failed after only 2 weeks. The stitching came away on the hip belt.
I’ve walked thousands of miles with my ULA Catalyst and never had a problem with it. I just had a few minor issues during my LEJOG walk in 2019 and these are the first signs of wear on the pack. There’s nothing to limit the packs use and my son is taking it on his Cape Wrath Trail walk in 2022.
A few of the bungee cord retaining tabs stitching are failing, but it just means the cord doesn’t cross the pack evenly.
The stitching is failing on the lifting handle so it’s going to break away sometime soon. So I’ll no longer be able to lift the rucksack with the handle and I’ll be using the shoulder straps instead. Not a serious problem I think, as these are still in perfect condition. Which is pretty impressive as there’s been a number of times when I’ve carried more weight in the pack than it’s designed for. The pack was wet continuously for two weeks through Wales during my Lejog and 3-peaks walk. So I’m surprised the stitching didn’t rot. Which is exactly what happened to my hiking boots.
Most of the above problems have happened during my LEJOG walk. None of them caused any real issues though, as they didn’t affect the performance of the pack. There was no worry about it falling apart or not being able to carry on. The main shoulder straps and hip belt show no signs of stress or potential failure. Even with the above issues, I would still be happy to take it on another long-distance hike without worry. Update 2021; I used it again my Dover to Cape Wrath and Skye Trail walks.
It is an expensive rucksack in the UK, but it’s very comfortable for its light weight and it’s made to last. So I think it’s reasonably good value for money overall. The pack has been designed exceptionally well and I find it very user friendly. I highly recommend it for weekends away and especially long distance thru hikes. I’ve tried a number of packs on my 1100 mile Dover to Cape Wrath walk but had to revert back to my worn out ULA Catalyst pack. I have purchased another one because I haven’t been able to find anything better.
If you don’t want to spend this kind of money and import the ULA Catalyst there is an alternative – the Granite Gear Blaze 60L which is slightly heavier but cheaper. It will carry even more weight and has more padding on the carrying straps. I purchased one to use while waiting for the Catalyst to arrive. I have reviewed the Granite Gear Blaze 60L rucksack here and I prefer it for winter camping and carrying loads over 16kgs.
Ordering a pack directly from America
I purchase my original pack from Ultralight Outdoor Gear in the UK, but they didn’t have stock when I needed a new one. So I ordered a new pack directly from ULA-equipment in America. I’m glad that I did because I was able to add extras to the pack that are not available in the UK.
Buying a new pack directly from the factory in America, gave me some benefits that are not available in the UK. I was able to buy some extras and have the pack embroidered with my name. My original pack had two internal pockets and hand loops as standard but now these are extras. I didn’t need the pockets but ordered the hand loops because I’ve found these really useful on my old pack. It’s nice to have somewhere to rest my hands, which also helps balance the weight of the pack pulling on my shoulders. I also ordered two ULA-equipment shoulder strap pockets as well. These will be used for my phone, iPod gloves.
Cost of a new pack in 2021
I paid $280 for the basic pack and added $15 for a custom colour, $10 for 2 hand loops, and $30 for 2 large shoulder strap pockets. But best of all and the main benefit for ordering directly from the factory, is they will embroider your name onto the pack for only $15. I also purchased some stuff sacks.
The import charges paid to Parcel Force before they would deliver the parcel were: Custom duty £10.59, Import VAT £58.58, Clearance fee £12, TOTAL £81.17
Rucksacks need to be worn in
Do not set off on a long distance hike with a band new pack. It needs to be softened up and your body has to get used to the new packs pressure points. Otherwise you are likely to get sore shoulders and hips. I’m saying this because I’ve made that mistake and the pain nearly ended my Dover to Cape Wrath walk.
Buying good quality gear
Investing in good quality gear pays. This picture of me was taken in 1986 with my old Karrimor Jaguar S75 rucksack. My son is still using it and has just completed the West Highland Way with it. Still comfortable but twice the weight of the ULA Catalyst!
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