ULA Circuit Backpack Long-Term Review (1500 Miles)

Bottom Line

  • The ULA Circuit is a 68 liter backpack designed for lightweight backpacking.
  • I’ve tested the Circuit over 1500 miles, including two mid-distance thru hikes, and am very happy with it.
  • I love the Circuit’s light yet functional design, flexible capacity, and affordable price tag.

I first took a chance on the ULA Circuit for my Colorado Trail thru hike a few years back. I was drawn to its roomy 68-liter volume, light but robust design, reasonable price, and rave reviews from the thru hiker community.

As a female hiker I hesitated slightly over the lack of women-specific sizing, but put my faith in ULA’s customizable unisex design with mix-and-match strap and belt sizes.

My Circuit fit well right out of the box, basically love at first buckle, and gained my trust on an overnight shakedown hike near home. Feeling confident, my new Circuit and I took off on the 480 mile Colorado Trail.

That CT hike went so well that the following spring I carried the same pack on the 800 mile Arizona Trail. I even convinced my husband to upgrade his heavy old pack to a Circuit as well. Since then I’ve been carrying the Circuit on all my backpacking trips, and I have no plans to stop.

If you’re considering the ULA Circuit as your next lightweight backpacking pack, I hope this long-term review will help. I’ll explain the pack’s design and features, share what I love about it and a couple things that bug me, and how it stacks up against the competition in terms of weight and price.

Circuit on the Colorado Trail
Circuit on the Arizona Trail

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About the ULA Circuit

Price and Details: $280 on ULA’s website

Volume: 68 liters

Weight: 37.3 oz

Max recommended load: 35 lbs

My Rating: 4.6 / 5 stars, meets all my needs with just a couple minor nitpicks

Review Summary: The ULA Circuit backpack is a functional, durable, lightweight hiking pack suited to thru hiking and moderately lightweight backpacking. Customizable sizing and strap shapes will fit most bodies, and thoughtfully designed pockets and cords make it easy to stay organized. A very reasonable price tag adds to the appeal, making the Circuit my current favorite pack after 1500+ miles.

What I love:

  • Fits well thanks to multiple sizing options
  • Adjustable volume, good for 3-7 day food carries with lightweight gear
  • Many convenient pockets and cords
  • Carries weight surprisingly well for how light it is
  • Very durable
  • Reasonable price for high quality

Could be better:

  • Side pockets hard to reach while pack is on
  • Small stitching inconsistency sometimes makes my right shoulder strap less comfortable

Pack Capacity

In my opinion, the ULA Circuit’s 68 liter volume is perfect for a “quiver of one” backpack. It’s light enough that I don’t mind carrying it half-empty on a weekend trip. The cinch straps can be used to compress the main compartment for stability and, perhaps more importantly, that nice svelte lightweight look. 🙂

At the other end of the spectrum, 68 liters is big enough for a 7 day food carry if need be. If space is getting tight you can even strap a large item, like a tent or sleeping pad, to the outside on the top or back.

Circuit looking fairly small during a 3 day hike of the Loowit Trail
ULA Circuit backpack with lots of extra things strapped to outside
Same Circuit absurdly overloaded coming out of a resupply stop on the CT. Very flexible capacity!

Pack Weight

The Circuit weighs about 36.6 ounces or 2.3 lbs, plus or minus a bit depending on features and size. This weight sits comfortably in the middle of the lightweight backpack spectrum. For comparison to a few other popular packs, see the table in the Alternate section below.

It’s not a true ultralight pack that’s essentially just a bag with some shoulder straps. It’s also not a full-on traditional pack that could easily weigh twice as much for the same capacity. The Circuit cuts weight by offering trimmed-down features (fewer pockets, etc) and a frame designed for lighter loads, but doesn’t sacrifice durability or practicality.

Suspension and Padding

The ULA Circuit handles its load using a suspension hoop, single aluminum stay, and internal foam frame. The suspension hoop is removable, which is handy for running your pack through the washing machine when it gets a little funky.

The shoulder straps are moderately padded. They’re not exactly pillow-soft, but they’re not bad. I think my pack has a small inconsistency in the stitching on the right shoulder strap which can cause rubbing on my collar bone, but as long as I keep the strap adjusted carefully I can work around it. The sternum strap is adjustable in both length and height. I really appreciate the load lifter straps when the pack is full.

I think the Circuit handles weight pretty well considering its fairly minimalist design. ULA recommends a max load of 35 pounds. In my experience the shoulder straps start getting a bit uncomfortable around 30+ lbs, but are still bearable up to 35 lbs and even a bit higher.

My husband’s Circuit probably weighed almost 40 lbs during our longer water carries on the AZT, and on the CT we met a woman who claimed her Circuit weighed 50 lbs! It’s not recommended and probably not comfortable, but if you need to stretch the weight limit every now and then to get through a long or dry stretch, there’s a good chance the Circuit can handle it.

Roll Top Closure

The Circuit is essentially one big internal compartment, with a roll-top closure that buckles on both sides and cinches with a strap over the top. In my experience this system works well. It’s easy to use, can be cinched down to fit any size load, and there are no zippers to worry about getting stuck or wearing out.

The top strap adjusts from short to quite long, creating an extra place to carry a bulky item on the outside. I often use this strap to carry a tarp or tent, especially when I have to pack it away wet. It’s also a great place for a foam sleeping pad.

Top view of the Circuit’s roll top closure, while stopping to appreciate a water cache on the Arizona Trail

Pockets and Cords

For a lightweight pack the Circuit actually has a lot of convenient pockets. It’s possible to stay very organized as long as you give some thought to what goes where.

Stretchy back pocket: The exterior mesh pocket on the back holds a surprising amount. I keep a variety of small items back there: gloves, sun hat, collapsible water bottles, perhaps a light jacket, and waterproof pack cover.

The large mesh pocket holds layers and is a great place to slip a flat collapsible water bottle.

Rear shock cord: Good for holding a foam sleeping pad, folded ground cloth, or your socks while they dry in the sun.

On the Arizona Trail, a good view of the Circuit’s rear shock cord stuffed with a sleeping pad, ground sheet, and jacket. (Side note: don’t hug the cacti!)

Side pockets: Many hikers put their water bottles here, but I have trouble getting them in and out while the pack is on my back. I’ve recently started solving this problem with the One Bottle Hydration drink tube. Prior to that discovery I used to carry water in a hydration bladder and use the side pockets for snacks. One small gripe is that each pocket has a hole in the bottom, presumably for draining water(?), and small items like protein bars can fall through if you don’t position them carefully.

I can’t reach bottles in the side pockets of my Circuit, but that’s ok because I use a hydration bladder or this handy One Bottle Hydration drink tube instead.
Another view of the Circuit’s side pocket holding a data book and bag of trail mix

Hip belt pockets: Roomy and convenient, big enough for my smartphone plus other small items like ear buds, chap stick, and snacks.

Pole straps: I tend to stow my hiking poles in one of the side pockets at the rare times I’m not using them, but the Circuit also has elastic bungee straps on the back that can hold hiking poles or an ice axe.

Fabric and Water Resistance

The Circuit’s fabric is water resistant, not waterproof. In my experience it’s fairly resistant to a light mist, but I use one of ULA’s lightweight pack covers in rain or substantial snow.

ULA rain cover keeping my Circuit dry

Size and Customization

ULA Circuit for Women?

The ULA Circuit doesn’t offer a women-specific model, and after a bad past experience with a unisex pack, I was skeptical. Shouldn’t there be a version of the ULA Circuit for women specifically?

But if you look closely, ULA is actually doing something smarter than offering a women’s version: they’re offering customizable sizing for everybody. Obviously not all women are the same size and shape, nor are all men. I appreciate this sizing system that allows every human to choose what’s right for their body.

Size Options

Here are the choices you can make when ordering your Circuit. For details from ULA on how to measure and make your choices, go to the Sizing tab on the Circuit product page.

Torso length: Choose from small to extra large.

Shoulder strap type: Choose from J or S shape based on the shape of your chest and shoulders. According to ULA almost all women prefer the S shape, while many men prefer the J shape with the possible exception of those with very athletic shoulders.

I chose the S strap and feel it was definitely the right choice. For what it’s worth, my husband is fairly athletic but still likes the J straps, so most men should probably go with those unless you’re truly an outlier. Here’s what the two strap shapes look like:

S straps on the left (best for most women), J straps on the right (best for most men).

Hip belt size: Choose from XS to XXL.

My sizes: In case this helps other women who are roughly my size, I’m 5’5″ and 120 lbs with a small chest and relatively long torso. These are the choices that fit me:

  • Torso length: small, 15″ – 18″
  • Shoulder strap: S shape
  • Hip belt size: small, 30″ – 34″

The sternum strap can easily be moved up and down on the shoulder straps to accommodate different chest shapes.

The hip belt, in addition to coming in several sizes, has a nice two-strap adjustment system. Technically the strap passes through the buckle so pulling on either end is equivalent, but there’s something nice about having the ability to snug down either the top or the bottom. Maybe it’s an illusion but it feels like the belt angles to conform to my hips.

The Circuit’s hip belt strap slides through the buckle and adjusts at both ends.

Colors and Embroidery

ULA offers a few different colors to choose from, plus optional name embroidery for $15. You can even go all out and customize every section of your pack. I bought a stock red version to save money, but in hindsight I wish I’d splurged for a custom color. If you’re going to be looking at your pack every day for weeks or months it may be worth the cost to make it look gorgeous and unique.

Add-Ons

Since I bought my Circuit, ULA has stopped including optional add-ons with the pack. Now they’re offered separately as accessories so buyers can pick and choose what they really need. Here are the add-ons to consider:

  • Hydration sleeve: If you hike with a hydration bladder, this is a must. Bladders can be hard to get in and out of loaded packs, but this sleeve makes it easier to slide in and out and also keeps the bladder positioned properly inside the pack.
  • Internal stash pocket: I use this as my wallet when I’m thru hiking, and definitely recommend it unless you have another place to carry your essentials like money and keys. It’s conveniently positioned near the top of the pack so you can access it even when fully loaded, and detaches easily in case you want to carry it while leaving your pack somewhere unattended.
  • Shoulder strap pocket: This didn’t come with my pack and I haven’t missed it, since I carry my phone in my hip belt pocket and snacks in my side pockets. However, if you use the side pockets for water bottles then you might want this for extra small item storage.
  • Water bottle bungees: Haven’t tried these for the intended purpose, though they are handy for routing my hydration bladder hose. If you use Smart bottles, I’d suggest trying the side pockets first. If those don’t work for you, these bungees might be helpful.
  • Hand loops: I had no idea what these were even for when they arrived with my pack! If you use hiking poles, you don’t need these. If you often hike without poles you might end up loving them, but I suspect most people won’t miss them.

Again, these accessories no longer come with the Circuit, so be sure to order the ones you want.

Durability

Granted I’ve hiked “only” around 1500 miles with my Circuit, which is around half of a full-length trail like the PCT. But so far it shows zero signs of wear. It’s been chewed on by mice, stabbed by cacti, thrown into pickup trucks, and dumped on the ground more times than I can count. No holes, no tears, no broken bits, not even any stains.

Alternatives and Competitors

When choosing lightweight backpacking gear, I always look at weight versus price. It’s often true that lighter gear is more expensive, but there are always a couple options that stand out as an excellent balance of lightness, functionality, and affordability. The ULA Circuit is definitely one of those standouts.

To help you compare, here’s a quick list of the Circuit’s major competitors in the lightweight hiking backpack space:

BackpackPriceWeightMax Rated Load
ULA Circuit 68 L$28037.3 oz35 lbs
Granite Gear Crown2 60$22038 oz35 lbs
Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 60 L$32521.4 oz40 lbs
Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 L$28531.2 oz35 lbs
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 4400 (70 L) Windrider$42538.3 oz60 lbs

So the Circuit isn’t the lightest or the cheapest, but it holds its own with the balance of both. The Mariposa is lighter and comparably priced but has smaller capacity, and the Arc Haul and Windrider are more expensive. The Granite Gear Crown2 is smaller but has a very tempting price; here’s a side-by-side comparison for those on the fence.

Since I bought my Circuit, ULA now offers all their packs in the up-and-coming Ultra fabric. The Ultra Circuit is a few ounces lighter, costs about $100 more, and is said to be more durable.

In Conclusion

If you’re looking for a lightweight but sturdy hiking backpack for thru hiking or lightweight backpacking, I definitely recommend the ULA Circuit. I’ve found it comfortable, adjustable, durable, and blissfully free of the small annoyances that can drive you mad during weeks or months on the trail. It does its job so well that I don’t think about it much, which is exactly what I want from a backpack.

Who might not want the Circuit? I met a few experienced thru hikers on the Arizona Trail who started their hiking obsessions with Circuits on the PCT and remembered their packs fondly, but eventually downsized to smaller and lighter packs when tackling the CDT or other more advanced trails with ultralight gear.

These folks were generally packing lighter and moving faster than we were, sometimes putting in thirty mile days when we did “only” twenty. If that’s you, consider skipping the Circuit and going straight to a smaller and lighter pack like the Zpacks Arc Air or even one of these ultralight 40ish liter packs. For everyone else, try the Circuit!

More Backpacking Resources

If you’re getting ready for a new hiking adventure, you might also like these:

For even more, check out the full list of hiking and backpacking resources from Exploring Wild.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

Excited about backpacking but need help getting started? The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.

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