Gear review: ULA Epic Backpack + Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag

After having completed all my previous walks with classic backcountry backpacks (I used my
Deuter Aircontact 75+10L for 6 years), adding a packraft to my packlist forced me to reconsider my backpack choice because of two reasons: (i) adding nearly 4kg of weight to my packlist, I had to economize elsewhere. With an empty weight of well over 3kg my Deuter pack was an obvious candidate. (ii) I needed a way to keep my gear dry on splashy Nordic rivers.

ULA Epic backpack attached to the bow of my packraft during a splendid evening crossing of Limingen Lake, Central Norway

ULA Epic backpack attached to the bow of my packraft during a splendid evening crossing of Limingen Lake, Central Norway

There are a few possibilities to achieve these goals. One could pick a light, frameless backpack (for example the GoLite Pinnacle) and pack all gear in waterproof bags inside the pack. Second option could be to put such a pack as a whole into a very large waterproof bag (80+ L) which you can then attach to the packraft. In this case, however, you will need smaller waterproof bags for your gear during rainy weather anyway. Finally, some backpacks offer an integrated solution, consisting of nothing more than a back panel and some straps, in which you can buckle a large drybag with all your gear.

Because of its versatility I eventually opted for the last option and purchased a ULA Epic pack. When buying it directly from the manufacturer, the Epic pack goes with the Sea to Summit 65L Big River Dry Bag. The combination goes for 275$ on the manufacturers website.

Backpack: ULA Epic
There are some very good online introductions (for example this video by Hendrik Morkel) to the Epic pack and I won’t go into detail about the overall design here. I stripped down my pack to the minimum before leaving on this trip by removing the Side pockets and the small mesh pocket attached to the top of the back panel. The weight of my backpack thus became a mere 1074 grams, plus another 306 grams for the Big River Dry Bag. That is nearly 2kg less than my previous pack.

Carrying the Epic pack in Bjolladalen, Saltfjellet, Northern Norway

Carrying the Epic pack in Bjolladalen, Saltfjellet, Northern Norway

The back panel contains 2 Aluminium Stays, which can be removed (about 140grams). I kept mine as I knew the weight of my pack would be well over 20kg on some remote sections in Northern Scandinavia. I found the mesh pocket at the front very handy to put away some stuff (e.g. litter) during the walk without have to open my main dry bag. The two hip pockets are pretty large and easily fit compact camera’s. I used one to have some daily essentials (water purifier, compass, cloth to dry feet after river wadings, cookies for during the walk) close at hand, and put my GoPro camera with head strap in the other. The straps at the bottom were perfect to attach my packraft.

I tested the combination on a few trips preceding my long walk. Having all your gear in one big bag is something you have to get used to, but after a few days I did no longer experience this as a disadvantage.

ULA states the Epic pack supports Dry Bags up to 75L. This is just a general value – the maximum volume mainly depends on the design of the drybag itself. The dimensions of the Big River Dry bag are 38x25x83cm (15x10x33 inch). When completely full, I had a lot of spare length on the side buckle straps, but only about 10 centimeters on the main top buckle. If you want to use a bigger drybag, you should thus mainly search for a broader one – the maximum height will be about 80-90cm depending on the diameter. Would be cool though if ULA could make the top strap a bit longer – the pack would then fit virtually every drybag up to 80L.

For backpack weights up to about 20kg (which corresponds to 7 days of autonomous backcountry hiking/packrafting in Nordic autumn with my current gear list), the ULA Epic is the most comfortable pack I have ever walked with. It fitted me from the very first day. Can’t tell much more about that, really. Only when my pack became even more heavy, a more robust frame would have been nice.

As from a durability point of view, the ULA Epic has outperformed my expectations. I have now subjected it to about 135 days of heavy duty use and most of the pack is still in perfect condition. Only the fabric overlying the Aluminium shafts and the hip pockets show some visual weariness. One seam of the mesh front pocket loosened during my trip.

Left: the hip pockets show some wear after 130 days. Right: the straps of the side buckles easily turn upside down

Left: the hip pockets show some wear after 130 days. Right: the straps of the side buckles easily turn upside down

The only small design flaw is that the side straps can easily turn inside out in the side release buckles because the latter are too broad. During the first days I used the pack, one of the male parts of the side buckles became bended (could still open/close the buckle though as it is designed to keep working with only one side fitting). I mailed ULA about this problem and they immediately sent me some free spares by post, good customer service.

The male part of the side buckles bends pretty easily, but the buckle still works fine

The male part of the side buckles bend rather easily, but the buckle still works fine

The ULA Epic is not a cheap pack, but it is the best pack I have ever used in nearly every aspect – and in my opinion thus worth the money.

A cheaper “clone” of the ULA Epic is the NRS Paragon Pack, but I have no idea how it performs.

Drybag: Sea to summit 65L Big River Dry Bag

As mentioned above, I used the Sea to Summit 65L Big River Dry Bag. At 306 grams this is not the lightest drybag, which is because of the very heavy 420D Nylon fabric (10000mm waterhead). The bag has one main longitudinal seam at the back and a seam connecting the body with the bottom panel. 4 lash loops are welded to the side of the bag – I did not use those though.

The very heavy fabric is, despite its weight, the main reason why I opted for this drybag. Unlike most (poly)urethane coated nylon or silnylon drybags it is virtually invulnerable to abrasion by for example bushwhacking through thick vegetation. And indeed, it is hard to notice any scratch after all those months on the trail. The bag clearly lived up all expectations from a durability point of view.

However, after just a few weeks on the trail, I started to notice moisture on the inside of my bag in rainy weather. First just some drips, but after a while the dry bag really started leaking in a very annoying way which forced me to double-seal all my stuff in plastic bags. I sealed all seams with silicones on a rest day, but the problem remained. Apparently it were not the seams, but the fabric itself which was leaking. With over 2 months of hiking and packrafting in rainy weather and splashy rivers left, I was facing a major problem.

I sent an e-mail to Sea to Summit and got an immediate reply. After some e-mails to and fro, a new drybag was sent to me directly from the Sea to Summit headquarters in Boulder, Colorado towards a post office in Sulitjelma, Norway. I picked it up a bit over three weeks after our first contact (weeks during which it fortunately hardly rained). I found this pretty exceptional customer service and would like to thank Sea to Summit for that.

I used the second bag for another six weeks, and it performed as promised: no leaking. I will thus give this drybag the benefit of the doubt – and suppose the first bag had a construction error.

Picking up my new drybag at the Sulitjelma post office, Northern Norway

Picking up my new drybag at the Sulitjelma post office, Northern Norway

—- Edit 29/01/2013 —-

I received an e-mail from the Sea to Summit customer service about my problems, which I will copy/paste below:
“I would like to share the opinion of our product developers, that the delamination of the TPU film from the inner face of the fabric was in all likelihood due to it remaining wet for a prolonged period, and that this would have similarly affected any other urethane coating or laminate under the same conditions. Please know that we have never had a Big River Dry Bag returned due to a ‘construction error’; never. In the five+ years of selling this product, we have been made aware of three Big River Dry Bags which experienced TPU film delamination – two of these were sent back to Australia where it was confirmed that the laminate had softened due to prolonged water exposure. The third is the original dry bag which you had.”

What about you? Questions or remarks? Any experiences with this gear? Please comment!

7 thoughts on “Gear review: ULA Epic Backpack + Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag

  1. David Hine says:

    I’m very pleased to read this review. I’ve been thinking for quite a while about buying one of these. I’ve seen some other reviews of this pack but haven’t seen a review which followed a sustained period of real use – other than the info which is available about the arctic 1000 trip, which was with a similar, earlier model of this pack. I have some questions:

    It is quite a personal preference I suppose, but what would you say the absolute comfort limit for this pack is for you? What is the heaviest weight you carried in it during your trip and how did that feel?

    I’m looking for a reasonably light pack which can work for trips with extended periods without resupply – ie, carrying 14 days worth of food. subjective a question as it is, what do you think about a 25kg load in this pack?

    How is it having the packraft hanging at the bottom? I generally roll my packraft short and stubby and pack it toward the top of my pack as a heavy item. I am a bit suspicious of a pack which will have a significant weight below waist line as it seems to me it could be tugging down – That may be a baseless concern.

    Any comments much appreciated!
    Dave

  2. dzjow says:

    This is a very informative review indeed Willem. I want to add some more experiences with my ULA epic.

    I own an ULA epic for 3 years now (I was one of the first persons to buy this pack from ULA when it came out). In total I’ve walked a bit more days with it then Willem has done now over its Scandinavia crossing. My pack shows more wear then Willem’s does, but this wear is only limited to wear on the back panel due to rubbing of the dry bag and to the zipper of the mesh pocket. So far I’ve only used a Sea to Summit ultrasil pack liner (both 70 and 90L versions) as a dry bag with the Epic and this dry bag is much more slippery then the Big River dry bag which seems to be the reason behind the wear on my back panel. I have to say though that this back panel wear does not seem to affect long term performance, it is just visual wear. The zipper of the mesh pocket has stretched apart recently on my pack. Will see if I can replace it with a new zipper. It is important to keep the zipper clean as is with all zippers of course. I’ve no wear at all on the hip pockets. So overall I’m also very pleased with durability of this pack.

    I want to add a remark about the side buckles. I’ve suffered the same problem as Willem, even more frequent and severe (even had a male part stretching out persistently with a few millimeters so that it became impossible to close the buckles anymore) and have had a discussion about it with Chris from ULA too. Judging from Chris his explanation on how to use the buckles I now bend the outer parts of the male buckles to the outside before every use and repeat this every few days during a trip. This way the buckles remain very secure when closed and ever since I follow this method I’ve never seen a buckle bend or stretch as before.

    I have a similar experience about comfort. This pack is the most comfortable pack I’ve ever used for a load above 15kg. Above about 25kg the pack becomes noticeable less comfortable (as every pack does, isn’t it?) but still for such loads I’ve never worn a pack that outperformed the Epic. I’ve carried loads around 30kg with the Epic several times on a few long trips. The maximum weight I’ve ever carried with the pack was about 42kg at the start of my latest expedition. The pack can handle this load perfectly (my back is another story though). The only point I don’t agree with Willem is that he says a more robust frame would be desirable for a load above 20kg. I don’t think a more robust frame would enhance comfort when carrying very heavy loads and speaking about performance and durability I don’t think a more robust frame would even make a difference at all here. A stiffer frame can only cause aches as often it is difficult to shape a stiff frames to the desirable shape for your body. The two aluminum stays in the Epic just bend automatically to the shape of your back when carrying a heavy load while still transforming the weight to your hips. ULA packs have the perfect balance here in my opinion.

    The packraft hanging at the bottom is no issue at all David. It does not tug the pack down. The only disadvantage I’ve experienced when your packraft is hanging at the bottom of the pack is that when you take the pack off during a pause and put it on the ground, the pack will never stay in balance and will tip (without a packraft at the bottom it is possible to prevent the pack from tipping over). This is just a little something I wouldn’t bother about.

    I can only say that this pack is the best you can buy in my opinion when making long trips in the wilderness with a packraft, provided that the pack carries as comfortable on your body.

    Joery

  3. Joe Newton (@thunder_night) says:

    Great review Willem. I love the Epic for packrafting and I’m looking forward to seeing how it might cope with ski touring loads this winter.

    I’ve been borrowing an Epic this year and, while I have not put this pack through anywhere near the (ab)use that you and Joery have, I will add my pros, cons and a suggestion:

    Pros:

    – Very comfortable with the higher weight loads associated with packrafting adventures
    – Generally very well made
    – Much faster to pack/unpack than more traditional backpacks between transitions of paddling/hiking

    Cons:

    – I also have concerns about the longevity of the buckles chosen by ULA
    – Needs a top grab handle to assist with lifting the laden pack onto your back
    – The issue of the pack carrying the load a little low is real in my experience. I never felt it made the carry uncomfortable, more that my centre of gravity was off slightly. The ‘beavertail’ that secures the bottom of the drybag should exit the backpanel higher up, possibly above the hips. I think Ryan Jordan did this mod on his Arctic 1000 pack.

    Suggestion:

    – try folding the packraft into a flatter package and compressing it between the back panel and drybag. I found this put the bulk of the packraft’s weight closer to my back. I carried my CCF pad in the ‘packraft’ straps as it is bulky but light. These photos might explain better how I packed the Epic:

    https://picasaweb.google.com/112307819916350072414/ThunderInTheNightV?authkey=Gv1sRgCM3Jz4HYvfCsJg#5836307560509276898

    https://picasaweb.google.com/112307819916350072414/ThunderInTheNightV?authkey=Gv1sRgCM3Jz4HYvfCsJg#5836307579449923554

  4. Willem says:

    Thanks folks for these very informative comments!

    Dave, I started to notice the pack becoming significantly less comfortable from about 20kg – but as Joery notes this is the case for every pack. The max load I have carried must be about 25kg. I think Joery’s experiences are more informative than mine if it comes to very heavy loads (42kg… are you kidding us?). Good to know all the seams are strong enough to deal with such heavy pack.

    You make a good point about the weight being relatively low, certainly with a packraft attached. I think this added weight below the waistline can be a disadvantage on steep climbs with the upper body bending over – on the typical rolling terrain in Scandinavia I didn’t care too much. I find it hard to assess what the difference would be with a pack with a higher beavertail like Ryan Jordan’s. Maybe ULA is willing to send me one to test?😉

    Interesting idea with the packraft between the back panel and the drybag. But now I’m wondering if this really ‘solves’ the problem? Centre of gravity will certainly be higher up, but also further away from your back with less efficient transfer of the weight to your hips?

    Joery: could you still close the upper buckle with the 90L Ultrasil Pack Liner (67x56x119cm accoring to Sea to Summit) completely filled? Would be impossible with the lenght of my upper strap.

  5. Woubeir says:

    I have an original Arctic 1000 and using it on steep climbs (in the Alps, the Pyrenees, …) gives not a single problem (for those concerned that the lower centre of gravity may be a problem on climbs)

  6. jeroenbouman says:

    Willem, have you tried Ortlieb bags? They come in different qualities and sizes up to 79L and 109L. The PS-21r is one of the lighter lines (PS350 and PS490 are heavier duty) and it seems just as strong as the S2S Big River – I own both but haven’t not field proven the PS-21r yet. The lime green versions which have a valve, very handy for compression – as long as you keep the side with the valve to your back to avoid accidental undoing in the bush😉

    If your top strap is too short, ask a shoemaker to replace the strap with a longer one, or make an extension strap (gives you more flexibility). You can buy straps and buckles from http://www.extremtextil.de for very reasonable prices + postage.

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