Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gear Review(Initial): Ultralight Adventure Equipment(ULA) CDT Backpack

Property of ULA, used by permission.

     Although I am pleased with my current backpack(Osprey Exos 46L), I am constantly looking to shed weight without sacrificing comfort, durability, or usefulness. To this end, I purchased a ULA CDT pack from The site was easy to navigate and had several different options for the CDT. I selected a "Large" sized pack, with a "Large" sized hipbelt, and "J-curve" shoulder straps. The only thing that worried me was their sizing breakdown. For the medium version the torso length was 18"-21", while the large was 21"-24". The only problem is that my torso length is exactly 21". So I guessed on the side of safety. The same story exactly with the hip belt. The medium is <35", while the large is >35". Again, my waist tends to fluctuate between a 34 and 36. So, again I guessed liberally. The shoulder straps are available in both "J-curve" and "S-curve". I couldn't tell you the benefits of the "S-curve"(women's?), so I ordered straps just like on my other packs.
***UPDATE*** video showing "S-curve" straps designed for women. Link

The ULA website shows the weight of the CDT as 17oz, excluding removable features. The size I ordered would be 18oz due to the additional material. The removable features include a foam backpanel, hand loops, water bottle holsters, a mesh zipper pouch inside the pack, and a hydration sleeve. The foam panel fits tidily inside the main compartment, secured under 2 elastic straps on the top corners. The hand loops, which are attached to the shoulder straps are adjustable and would give hikers with busy hands a place to rest them. The bottle holsters are 2 pairs of adjustable yellow shock cords that attach on the shoulder straps. One loop for the top and one for the bottom. The mesh pocket is attached inside the main compartment, furthest from your head. The hydration sleeve fits inside along your back, with openings on both sides for the hose. ULA recommends a base weight of under 12lbs, and a total pack weight of under 25lbs.
ULA CDT removables

Upon it's arrival, which I deemed fast, the first thing I did is give it a detailed inspection. It is mostly made of Dyneema Gridstop, but also has a bit of reinforced silnylon, as well as no-see-um bug mesh on the outer panel. All the stitching was tight, with no loose ends. I did notice that there were what seemed like miles of extra straps. I don't mean excessive straps, I mean all of them account for me to put on 50lbs of girth. The mesh pouches had some stretch to them. The next thing I did was remove all of the strip-able items excepting the water bottle holsters. Then I weighed it. Using an empty wastebucket, I arrived at 19.5oz on my kitchen scale. Not bad. Over 18oz of weight saving from my Osprey.
I folded my Therm-a-rest Z-rest in half(so to speak) and installed it underneath the twin elastic pad holders within the pack. Then I packed it with my sleeping bag and shelter in the bottom. My thinking is that with a frameless pack the weight needs to ride a bit higher. So I placed my cookset, stove, and food sacks at the top. Since I removed the mesh zippered pouch, I had all my loose items in a small drysack. The external mesh sidepockets held my raingear, while the hipbelt pouches held my inhaler and camera. The outer mesh pocket contained my map pouch, compass, trowel, and Aqua-Mira. The top of this sleeve-like pocket features the mesh doubling back on itself, forming a catch for the overturned pack. I chose to utilize the bottle holsters with 1 liter Bolthouse bottles. Total pack weight for 2(60F deg)nights was 15lbs even. Base weight was around 9lbs. This was my lightest ever, since I decided to leave the rain pants.

The test hike:
I opted for section 5 of the Ozark Highlands Trail, which is 19.8 miles and I would be hiking West to East. It is rugged country with well beaten trail, but has very heavy vegetation. The first day of the trip entailed about 12.8 miles of river valley hiking, with lots of crossings. The second day was similar terrain, but only about 7 miles. On the trail, the pack rode very comfortably for the first 10+ miles. I did notice that I missed the load lifters from my other packs. They weren't neccessary, but in my case a hard habit to break. The other things I noticed were that it took a lot more adjustment every time I removed the hipbelt for stops or crossings. When I removed an item from the main compartment, there was more adjustment from the side compression straps than I am used to. Keep in mind, this is my first experience with a frameless pack. It was never bothersome, just new. The bottle holsters worked well, and were very adjustable. I did jump off of a log once and immediately shot both bottles out of the holsters. The solution is to tighten them down more, making sure the top cord is firmly underneath the lip on the bottle.
The compression on the bag is sufficient, if just so. I think the webbing ends that run through the top clip could be spaced a little further apart. The shock cord that runs through the side mesh compartments also seemed to act like an additional compression strap. They attach to the main compartment on one end, running diagonally to the back of the hip belt on the other. The main compression strap is simple and effective, running horizontally at the middle of the main compartment. It is all entirely functional, and the dual purposes of the shock corded mesh pockets is borderline genius. I'd say that superior compression may be lost on going with lightweight frameless packs. The pack also features 2 trekking pole/ice axe storage setups, which I did not use. Too bad the velcro attachments are not removable as well.

The verdict:
The pack is certainly lightweight. I really appreciated its modularity. Having removable features is thinking down the road. What it does for a pack of this nature is create a broader customer base. The users can choose their own level of comfort. Keep the hydration sleeve or not, Keep the interior zipper patch or ditch it. Hand loops or trekking poles. The pack rode very well, with more generous hip and shoulder padding than (I thought) was necessary. The materials used are all very sturdy with the exception of the mesh pouches. I have read elsewhere that ULA's customer support is very good. I used the contact form provided on their website and recieved a reply within hours. All in all, a tidy little pack. Very suitable to my needs, for a great price. I especially like that it is a cottage industry, and that you can view their workshop on their web page. I will continue to use this pack for my ultralight trips for the future, with no changes except to trim the straps a bit. I think that anyone willing to modify their packing style would be very happy with this purchase. To quote my friend Marco once again,"half the weight, treble the experience!"
Zack Karas, image property of ULA, used with permission

***Update*** After another half dozen trips, I have a few more observations. When using a torso length Z-rest pad as a frame sheet, I notice a lot more sweat on my back. In cold weather this translates to much cooler rest stops. In warm weather it didn't bother me.
     The hip belt pouches open in the wrong direction for easiest use, in my opinion. Zipped forward to open, and backward to close. Because there is no rigidity to the pouch, this proves more difficult with one hand.
     The water bottle holders allow for slippage. In theory, they still work great. But I think a small diameter non-stretchy cord may work better on the top of the bottle. Here's a link to show best what I mean; Stick's Blog. Also the top loop of the water bottle shares an attachment point with a D-ring where I want to clip my GPS unit. Not a serious issue, but noticeable to me. 


  1. I have one of these, which I've been using for about a year. It's super comfortable and carries well my only complaint is the opening to the main compartment is a bit narrow.

  2. Now that you mention it, I kind of agree. The pack required adjustment to the compression straps each time I added or withdrew from it. Not a bad thing, but different nonetheless.