When I first called Judy “HeartFire” Gross, she kindly asked me to call her back in fifteen minutes so that she could get her current project cut and “off the table.” I understood the urgency. Her business is growing. Judy admits to being camera shy and not owning a TV among other things. She’s very much the people’s backpacker—a mainstay topic on the lightweight forums, training for a marathon at 60, and way too busy for interviews. She’s got over 4,000 miles logged on trails from coast to coast, and she’s using that accumulated wisdom to make some of the most practical gear on the market.
Founded in 2009 with the introduction of the Solo tent at the Franklin, NC Hiker Fool Bash, LightHeart Gear is truly a grassroots movement. “By hikers, for hikers,” Gross says proudly. And she’s put in the miles to back that up. Gross first thought of the idea to make tents while thru hiking the Appalachian Trail a few years back. “In 2006 I set out to hike the AT. After about 1,000 miles, I fell and tore my rotator cuff, so that ended the hike that year,” said Gross. Fortunately, all of the gear she used and saw on the trail had inspired her. “I met somebody on the trail that had a tent that just really pissed me off.” I laugh because I know how she feels. (Gear envy is real.) Judy continued, “This guy pulls this tiny little package (his tent) out of his backpack and it was very spacious, while I was carrying around this two-person tent–this gigantic package that was big enough for only one and a half people and it weighed four and a half pounds.”
“I met somebody on the trail that had a tent that just really pissed me off.”
Laid up at home with a shoulder injury, Judy started thinking about her experiences on the trail, the short comings of her tent, and the lack of quality hiking clothing for women. These would serve as the seeds for Light Heart Gear.
A Grassroots Movement
Gross has always been an active community member. She belongs to several women’s hiking and running groups and attends multiple hiker festivals annually. While the idea for the Solo tent haunted Gross until its materialization, much of her support to see the project through came from members of these groups as well as one of her very first customers.
It all came together that day when Judy set up her Solo tent for the first time in public at the Hiker Fool Bash. Gross said, “A woman from Holland came up to me and asked, ‘Oh, can you make me one in purple?’ I looked at her, and in a split second I said, ‘Yes! I can do that for you. I’ll meet you up the trail in two weeks,’ and I did!” Gross says, “I thought gee, if people want color—and people do want color—I can give them the choice. Any color I can get the fabric in, I can make them the tent, so I started doing that.” Hikers everywhere rejoiced, and just like that, LightHeart Gear was in business.
“This woman from Holland came up to me and was like, ‘Oh, can you make me one in purple?’ I looked at her, and in a split second I said, ‘I’ll have to for you in two weeks. I’ll meet you at the trail.
Being so connected to her customers has been a huge advantage for Gross as LightHeart Gear continues to grow and expand its product line. The recently released running skirt is a perfect example of this grassroots connection. Judy says, “I designed that for myself, because running skirts for women—if they have pockets, they have one pocket, or the little horizontal pockets in the waist band that don’t fit anything but a gel pack.” Gross goes on, “I run. I need a pocket for my phone, for my keys, I need gel packs—I’m training for a marathon! I need something with pockets!” It’s been a hit with her running group, too—as members get their hands on them, enter races, and share their experiences with other runners, it only strengthens the grassroots nature of her products.
By Hikers, For Hikers–Especially Women.
Judy is motivated to fill in the product gaps in the market—particularly for women’s apparel, and she allows her miles of experience to guide her design decisions. We lamented that too often, the designers aren’t end users themselves, and it’s evident in everything from pocket placement to fabric choices.
Eventually, Gross got tired of cutting the pockets off her hiking pants and sewing them on in the anatomically correct position (true story). So she used her years of dress making experience to create a hyper-functional hiking skirt complete with cargo pockets.
Gross says, “There’s no point in making the same thing that everyone else is making. I want my stuff to have an edge and be different.” When you look at it—it makes sense: large storage pockets within arm’s reach and no need to do a side bend to access your things; the thoughtful 7.5 x 8.5” map pocket specifically designed to hold section maps and booklets; and the hand pockets cleverly layered beneath.
“There’s no point in making the same thing that everyone else is making. I want my stuff to have an edge and be different.”
My favorite feature in the hiking skirt is the ability to snap it closed to trap more air and create more protection as needed. It is simple, functional, and clearly well thought out over miles and miles of use.
If LightHeart Gear’s products aren’t testament enough to their hiker centric culture, consider their loaner tent program, which helps keep thru hikers on the trail and on schedule by shipping loaner tents to them when their personal tents are in need of repair. Or the story of this North Carolina local, who at 7’3” wanted to make sure he fit inside the SoLong 6 tent, designed specifically for taller backpackers in need of a longer shelter.
The Solo & the Duo
I would be remiss to not at least bring up the tents that initially led me to reach out to Judy. Her Solo and Duo tents are hybrid single/double wall trekking pole supported shelters and are a favorite amongst the thru hiking crowd. The integrated rain fly attaches at the ridge lines and creates ample vestibule space and can be deployed as a backpacker’s covered porch with the optional awning pole for ventilation or riding out inclement weather.
Judy Gross has gone above and beyond in all aspects of taking care of hikers and condoning the things that the backpacking culture holds so dear. All of LightHeart Gear’s products are made by hand in the USA and have M.Y.O.G. and D.I.Y. DNA, a vibe that really resonates with every hiker and backpacker who has wished his or her gear was ever so slightly better.
All of Light Heart Gear’s products are made by hand in the USA and have M.Y.O.G. and D.I.Y. DNA, a vibe that I think really resonates with every hiker and backpacker who has wished his or her gear was ever so slightly better.
Before we ended our conversation, I asked her what she was most proud of. Judy told me, “I’m continuously amazed that I have this business and that people buy this stuff and we ship it all over the world.” She really is grateful for her success and the opportunities that equipping her fellow backpackers and hikers have provided her. She left me with this: “When I quit working as a nurse, I kind of felt bad because I had a very high-quality education, a master’s degree in nursing, and I wasn’t using it… Somebody looked at me and said, you’re still health-promoting—you’re making very good gear and enabling people to continue to get out and hike and be healthy.” By hikers, for hikers, right? That’s a perspective that I can get behind.
Judy will continue to blaze trails in women’s apparel as 2017 moves on. Be on the lookout for new products for the spring hiking season.
Want to learn more about LightHeart Gear? Visit their website, follow them on Instagram, or stop by at these hikers’ festivals linked below to say hello and check out the latest from Judy and the gang. Appalachian Trail Kick Off | Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off | Appalachian Trail Days