In a rare display of restraint, I managed to contain my premature urges to review this pack based only on prep runs, and instead waited until after my goal race. This was necessary, as a pack of this nature is not required for shorter runs – if I hadn’t been familiarising myself with the pack in the lead up to the big miler, I would have been using either my smaller Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest or, for anything 50kms or under, nothing except a hand bottle and some GUs on my belt. As it turns out, I can now draw on experience of using this pack in a twenty-hour plus event (despite DNFing at the 100km mark!).
I’ll try to be a little bit professional about this, in the hope it serves to make this information more helpful for prospective buyers of the pack, so I will organise my thoughts into some categories…
WAA is a niche brand with quite a small product range, all aimed at the higher end of their categories, using the best lightweight materials and cutting edge designs. It wasn’t until I received my pack that I discovered the meaning of the acronym: “What An Adventure!” Cute and random, but of course very apt for the intended usage.
The Ultra Bag seems to have been designed specifically with the Marathon des Sables in mind, as it is one of only two such packs officially certified for the event. It is comprised of a rectangular back pack, with dual zips opening the entire section around 270 degrees, like a suitcase. In fact, I learnt after a couple of outings that deliberate suitcase-type usage is required: unless you’re wanting to pull something right from the top of the bag, is it is best to lay it flat and open it right out for access. This isn’t always convenient on the trail, but what it enables is an even distribution of the contents, meaning that when you zip it back up, you can re-tension the compression cords and the pack will retain its flattish rectangular shape. This is important for comfortable wear.
With the main unit open like this, on its back, you first see an attached waterproof bag that naturally lies atop whatever else you choose to pack beneath it – you simply flip it up, place the other items where you want them, then flip it back on top.
Using a zip at the top end of it, you can open this waterproof section and put your mandatory spare clothes/thermals etc in there – anything you’re keen to keep dry, really.
There’s also a webbed section along the back (or at the bottom, if you’ve laid it on its back), in which you can arrange flat stuff or just keep items together.
There are then two attachable zip wallets that you run the waist straps through. These are extremely handy, as they’re very accessible and with padded backs they sit very comfortably against your abdomen.
The pack comes with two 750ml drinking bottles. These have standard drink bottle lids, if you want them (I only use them when shaking up a refill of energy drink powder), but are most effective when using the lids that have the long tubes incorporated with drinking valves at the end. There is also a compartment for a 2L hydration bladder.
The other main element to this set up is the front pack, which clips in at the hip and then up to the chest. This is a good size, with bands across the top for an additional bottle lying on its side, a large zipped compartment and a velcro pocket at the front for small, thin items – perhaps maps or other papers. It took me two or three runs to get the adjustment right, but once I had done, it stopped bouncing against my gut and was perfectly comfortable.
The main pack also comes with a water resistant cover, that can attach into a zipped compartment in the bottom, and a poncho that can live in a compartment in the top. I tried the poncho once but have since chosen not to carry it, to save on weight. Another item I don’t carry but should try some time is the Nepalese carry system, a forehead strap that attaches to the two weight bearing clips of the main pack (normally clipped to the main shoulder straps). This allows you to take the weight off your shoulders periodically. It’s an intriguing concept, but would require a fair time investment to get used to.
This is the first element that springs to mind, as a running pack with a 20-litre capacity is by nature approaching a contradiction in terms. The pack is really intended for multi-day events, and is a purchase I made mainly with future unsupported fast-packing adventures in mind, although I bought it now because I knew my other pack simply wasn’t going to cut it for the GNW100 Miler.
When it first arrived I had that sinking buyer’s remorse feeling: this was simply not going to work. It’s too big, it goes too far down the back, and it looks like the weight is distributed much like a traditional hiking pack. In other words, I couldn’t imagine running with it. Now, I’m not an industrial designer and so I can’t explain exactly WHY none of these concerns turned out to be valid, and WHY this is such a comfortable pack to run with. It is, though.
The first time I ran with it, I suspected straight away that it was going to work for me. It felt well balanced, and the weight on my back and shoulders belied the way it felt when I hefted it in my hand before putting it on (it was loaded with nearly full compulsory kit for a hundred-miler and far more water than I needed for the 30km, wintry hills session I was heading out on). A subsequent 50km night-time hills session, and then the You Yangs 80km Ultra (over ten hours, for injured old me) confirmed that the box was ticked for comfort.
It took me a little bit to get used to drinking from these long straws, instead of whipping the bottles out for a sip, as I do with my UD vest. In fact, the latter approach isn’t a great option with this pack, as the bottles don’t just slip in and out of their holders – it takes a bit of practice even to do this efficiently for refilling at aid stations, as the holders are not actually stiff, and hence two hands are very much required to get the bottles in and out.
In fact, rewind, and one of my biggest concerns when I first received the pack was how on Earth these two large bottles were going to behave for me on the chest straps. A couple of trials around my house and garden did nothing to dispel my fears – they were bouncing around all over the shop. I’m used to wearing my hydration on my chest, so to speak, as that’s the key proposition of the UD Ultra Vest, but because these bottles are 50% larger AND attach to the pack by way of an external holder, there was movement in every direction. It actually turned out I hadn’t fitted the bottle-pockets on to the chest straps properly (they don’t come attached, as there are three different positions you could choose to carry the bottles: at either side of the bottom of the main back unit; on the chest straps, as I have them, or; on either side of the front pack).
The valves are of the type that need to be bitten down onto, in order to suck the fluid through (I also eventually realised they need to be pulled out half a centimetre first), this takes a bit of practice, but pretty much works okay once you’re adept at it, and provided you don’t clog the other end of the tube with partially dissolved Perpetuum (or any other liquid fuel)…to this effect, after disasters at the You Yang 50 Mile, I began carrying one of the normal closed lids with me, specifically to use for mixing at aid stations…then replacing the lid with the straw once properly shaken. Process maturity.
This is very much a two-part tale for the Ultra Bag. One of the things that attracted me to it was the ample front pack and the pockets on the waist strap. A glance at the product info tells you this puts far more stuff in an easily accessible position than you could hope for with, for example, a UD Ultra Vest – it’s also clear just how much more easily it is accessed (double jointed elbows are not required to reach items in the waist pockets, as they don’t sit halfway up your ribcage and halfway around your back).
At GNW100 I was rolling with a few bars, some gels, a small thing of sunscreen and some other items in my large front pack (I won’t be needing the front pack for the upcoming 82km Cradle Mountain Ultra, for which you see me preparing in these photos). One of the side wallets was full of gels. The other carried my gadgetry: USB charger, phone cord, Garmin cord to recharge watch and my mobile phone. This would also usually be where I’d find my GoPro batteries.
All of this is instant access and extremely convenient. The only slight downside when it comes to accessing gear is when you need something from the main pack. As mentioned above, this often involves lying it flat (often in dirt), unzipping it quite a lot, getting what you need, resettling the gear and re-compressing the pack. Still, for me this is usually quite rare, as the main pack is generally carrying mandatory gear I have no intention of using, except perhaps spare clothes to add on when night falls or heavy rain kicks up etc.
Pretty much every pack is going to require you to take it off and unzip it, though, so once accustomed to using this one, it shouldn’t really take up more time than expected to retrieve what you need.
I truly love the pack. It keeps growing on me. After packing it with the Cradle Mountain gear and photographing the process for this blog, I then went out for a 35km run in the Yarra Ranges with the Wolfrunners. Once I had crested a few hills and warmed up, I didn’t notice the pack at all. With sports nutrition in one bottle and plain water in the other, drinking from the tubes is a nice compromise between a bladder and bottles – the convenience of drinking from the straws, with the improved ease of refilling (versus removing accessing a bladder) plus the ability to have two types of fluid going at once.
I still haven’t taken this out on a fast-packing adventure, for want of available time, but I know it will handle the extra gear brilliantly. Did I mention you can attach your sleeping bag/matt across the bottom?
I’m not aware of any Australian distribution yet, but it’s readily available directly from WAA in Europe.
However, thanks to an offer from the generous folk at What An Adventure, the FIRST 15 ORDERS can get a 15% DISCOUNT using this code: 5OXNIRK5
Get onto it!
DISCLOSURE: I bought the Ultra Bag for my own use, but was party to a generous early adopter discount from WAA, which was independent of any review.