The Terra Nova Ultra 20 is the first ultralight backpack made by a mainstream manufacturer to use Cuben fiber. Until very recently, Cuben fiber (called ULTRA fabric by Terra Nova) was the mainstay of ultralight cottage manufacturers like Gossamer Gear, Zpacks, MLD, and others. None of the more conservative mainstream manufacturers seemed willing to take a gamble on producing gear that looked so ridiculously flimsy as Cuben fiber. Not only is Terra Nova the first mainstream manufacturer to take the Cuben plunge, they are a UK-based company competing in an American dominated market.
Terra Nova are definitely not novices jumping on the latest Cuben fiber bandwagon. They have have been producing excellent lightweight backpacking equipment for many years. However, the Ultra 20 represents a significant milestone in the evolution of their product offering.
I received the Ultra 20 in the mail just last week. It arrived in a bubble wrap flat-pack envelope. It is the first backpack that I have ever received in the mail in an envelope! That should be the first indication that this pack is extremely light weight. On my scales, fully configured, the Ultra 20 weighed 138g (4.8oz) which is just 2g more than the listed weight.
The next thing that I noticed was that it's small. The name alone should have been a giveaway, but my mind completely failed to register that this was going to be a 20L backpack. Here is the Ultra 20 alongside my favorite pack, a Gossamer Gear Gorilla pack which holds between 39-46L and weighs 23.2oz. As you can see, the Ultra 20 is tiny by comparison.
The Ultra 20 is a frame less pack. In most other packs that I own there is at least some form of minimal frame to provide stability and transfer the main portion of the pack's weight to my hips via the hip belt. With a frame less pack like the Ultra 20, you have to somehow produce the same effect by other means.Put another way, when using a frame less pack, the gear that you pack inside becomes the frame. By properly loading your gear inside you can produce the necessary rigidity to make the pack comfortable.
With my GG Gorilla pack (shown above) I can do this using my either my ThinLight sleeping pad in the external rear pocket or by using my ThermaRest Z-lite pad inside the main compartment. However, the Ultra 20 is too small to hold either of those items and I wouldn't be carrying them with me if I was only using the Ultra 20 as a daypack. Therefore the only way to add rigidity to the pack is by making sure it is fully stuffed.
The hip belts of the Ultra 20 are almost non-existent. The wings of the hip belt are short (8 in.) and barely bridge the gap between the base of the pack and my hips. This is especial true when the pack is stuffed full and resembling a round "tube" profile. There are no pockets on either side of the hips belts and no foam padding for added comfort. Attached to each hip wing is a length of 3/4-inch webbing.
For some strange reason, Terra Nova have decided to use a whistle buckle as the attachment point for the hip belt straps. These types of whistles are typically used for sternum straps where you can easily reach them up to you mouth in an emergency. Having the whistle attached to the hip belt makes no sense at all and is unusable when the pack is being worn whether the hip belts straps are fastened or not. I'll no doubt be swapping this over with the sternum buckle when I get a few spare minutes.
The shoulder straps of the Ultra 20 are constructed using the same Cuben fiber as the main compartment with a mesh fabric backing sandwiching a very thin layer of foam padding. The padding is so minimal that it's hard to notice that it's even in there. I personally prefer to have a little more padding in my shoulder straps, but considering if you are using the pack as a daypack it probably isn't necessary.
The right-hand shoulder strap has three elasticated keeper loops for attaching gear or securing a hydration tube, whereas the left-hand shoulder strap only has the one keeper.
External Features and Storage
In keeping with the ultralight weight of the Ultra 20, the pack boasts very few external features. The main compartment features a draw string closure at the top with micro cord lock. There is a cover or flap that can be pulled over the draw string in order to provide basic weather protection.
The top cover or flap, I'm not sure what else to call it, is secured at both outer corners by means of the cord and micro lock from the side compression straps. This makes it slightly trick to snug the cover/flap tight because you have to ensure the compression straps are pulled tight before hand. It is a clever design and great use of a feature serving double duty.
There are no pockets or additional pockets inside the main compartment of the pack. In fact, despite there being several keeper loops on the right-hand shoulder strap, there appears to be no opening or port for a hydration tube, which is rather curious.
The base of the main compartment is covered with a lightweight silnylon ripstop material. This is no doubt to provide some additional puncture and wear protection to the Cuben fiber. The silnylon base is attached over the top of the Cuben fiber and does not replace it. When I look down inside the main compartment I can see that the Cuben fiber goes all the way down to the bottom seam.
On both side of the main compartment there are small elasticated mesh pockets measuring six inches deep. These are just deep enough to hold a water bottle or a few small items that need to be accessed quickly. no matter how hard i tried, I couldn't reach the side pockets when I was wearing the Ultra 20. I had to remove the pack or would have to rely on my trail partner if I were on a hike.
Running the full length of the main compartment on both sides of the pack are compression cords. As mentioned earlier, these are connected at the top of the pack to the cover flap.
With just 20 liters (1,220 cubic inches) of storage, the Ultra 20 couldn't hold all of the gear I typically carry for an overnight trip. Despite several recent weight and size reductions in my gear and getting my load down to almost 15lbs, the Ultra 20 was still too small to hold everything I needed. It's a shame that Terra Nova didn't make a 30L or even a 35L version of the Ultra to provide just that little bit more storage capacity. That could have been all it would have taken to make the Ultra design and material choices cross over into the backpacking category. Maybe there are larger models in the pipeline - I certainly hope so.
Despite all of my criticisms, the Ultra 20 is an exceptionally well made daypack. As with my other Terra Nova packs, the quality and workmanship is second to none. While I can't ever see myself using the Ultra 20 for an overnight trip, or anything longer, it makes a great daypack, which is exactly how Terra Nova have positioned the Ultra 20. However, I'd have to still question the usefulness of an ultralight Cuben fiber daypack? If I'm not backpacking on a multi-day trip with overnight gear and lots of consumables, what is the real weight advantage? It's still an ultra cool looking pack though.
I could see the Ultra 20 being a superb summit pack. It could be scrunched up super small and shoved inside of my Gorilla pack, then used for a short same-day summit attempt where I only have to carry a minimal amount of gear. I might consider this for my upcoming trip to Mt. Whitney in August.
Disclosure: Sport-Hansa gave Brian's Backpacking Blog a complimentary Ultra 20 for this review.
Brian is a Charlotte based backpacker, gear junkie, runner, and CrossFit(er). Originally from Southampton, England, Brian has lived in the US for over 20 years, finally settling in North Carolina. He spends as much time backpacking as his busy work schedule and family life will allow.