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From Trail to Tent: The Story of LightHeart Gear

Judy Gross didn’t get her nickname, “HeartFire”, from just anywhere. She got it while hiking the Appalachian Trail. In fact, over her lifetime Judy has hiked over 4,000 miles of trails, coast to coast. It was on one of these trails that the idea for what is now LightHeart Gear was born.

 “While hiking the Appalachian Trail, I met a guy who had a tent that, quite frankly, pissed me off. It was a lot lighter than mine and it was huge – like a palace,” Judy remembers from the experience. “I was schlepping a 4 ½ lb, 2-person tent. A tent that was really only large enough for 1 ½ people.”

That was June, 2006, and a seed was planted. Judy, a nurse practitioner by education, had been sewing all her life, and went to design school after retiring from a 30+ year career in nursing.  With a strong knowledge of pattern making, she set about designing her own tent. The plan originally was just to sew one for herself, but that was before Judy took her prototype to the SORUCK at the NOC in January 2009 to show her friends. One friend commented that she could make kits and sell them – after all, hikers love to “make their own gear”. Instead, Judy made the decision to launch the LightHeart Gear Solo tent.  Instead of ‘kits’, she made the tent to sell. 

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Judy's very first tent prototype in 2009

In April, 2009, at 27 oz, LightHeart Gear’s first tent, the Solo appeared at the Franklin, NC April Fools Bash. The Solo is a fully double-walled tent, which uses trekking poles as tent poles to cut the overall weight. While in Franklin, she met a hiker from Holland who asked if she could  purchase a LightHeart Solo tent in purple. Judy didn’t even hesitate. Yes! Two weeks later she met the hiker up the trail with her purple tent. The idea of color opened up new worlds. ‘If hikers want color, well, let them have color’. Custom tent options were then offered. “My very first sale that day was to a hiker that successfully completed a ‘Thru Hike’ of the AT.  This had to be a good omen. Originally, the plan was to make a few tents, and do a lot of backpacking, but somehow, the priorities got switched, and now, I make a lot of tents, and don’t get to hike as much,” Judy reminisces. 

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Judy on one of her many hikes

Over the years, Judy became even more innovative. 2010 saw the development of the LightHeart Duo, a true two-person tent providing 38.2 sq ft of room in a 2 lb 4 oz package. In 2011, she introduced the LightHeart SoLong 6 tent at the ADZPCTKO.  The SoLong 6 is ‘So Long, that 6-footers fit into it’; the first tent designed specifically for very tall hikers. Initially featuring multiple configurations, the SoLong 6 is now available with an awning fly on one side, two doors, and the ability to hunker down during bad weather or open up completely to view fabulous sunsets. Weighing just 1 lb 14 oz. tall hikers finally have a tent that fits. While the Duo is a mansion, the SoLong 6 is a palace. 

After an initial outsourcing of production to China, hikers complained, not about the quality, but just that they wanted gear “Made in America.” Judy listened, and started a small local factory in Asheville, NC. Now, all production of LightHeart Gear sewn products are made 100% in the USA in her own facility.

2013 saw the LightHeart Rain Wrap – an easy unisexed wrap ‘skirt’ – hit the market, followed soon by the LightHeart Rain Jacket andRain Pants.  The Hoodie Pack Cover quickly followed as an innovative way to deal with summer rains. LightHeart Gear’s designs are changing how we think about backpacking. 

“I love what I do as I feel I am still promoting health as I enabling people to get out and hike with high quality lightweight gear,” Judy said about her innovative lightweight line.

Bill Anders

The LightHeart Rain Wrap

It takes a lot of heart, hard work and ingenuity to propel a new outdoor company forward and make it profitable, but Judy continues to do just that. After 7 years of business, LightHeart Gear’s tents are easily recognized on many trails and have been spotted not only on USA trails like the AT, PCT and FT, but worldwide as well. She has expanded the LightHeart family by hiring her son, Josh, in 2014, and she continues to adapt and design her tents based on feedback from the hikers using her gear.

“My husband’s favorite motto is ‘invest in what you know.’ I know sewing, I know hiking and backpacking, so I put the two together” she says about starting her company.

Judy Gross’ story is a story of hard work and perseverance against the traditional.  Having hiked all of the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, countless miles of the AT, and thru hiked the Colorado trail to name but a few…she knows what backpackers need to be successful finishers.  She started out wanting to make something that worked for herself, and instead became a major player in the lightweight, cottage industry gear market; her trail, 7 years later, has landed her exactly where she never expected to be.

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All LightHeart Gear tents now feature a patented, structural support system, which makes them unique and allows their open and spacious designs to work. See the full range HERE!


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