Judy “Heartfire” Gross headed to the AT in 2006 with plans to complete a thru-hike. Instead, an injury took her off the trail. But an business idea that percolated during her hike now keeps her connected to the hiking community nationwide. I bought one of her early Lightheart Solo tents, and John & I lived in a Lightheart Duo on our AT hike.
What makes the outdoors a compelling place for you to be?
I grew up roaming the woods behind my house as a kid. My mother would take me on nature walks and teach me the names of all the flowers, the plants, the birds and trees. It just feels natural to be outside, to walk among the beauty of nature. I have often pondered the question of why some people feel compelled to be outdoors, and others don’t. Unfortunately, I’ve never come up with an answer.
A place or interaction on the trail that made a major impression on you.
I’ll never forget what got me started down the road of developing LightHeart Gear. I was on the Appalachian Trail, attempting a thru hike, and schlepping a very heavy 2-person tent. A tent that was really only large enough for 1 ½ people. At the time, the one-person tents were the size of coffins. My claustrophobia issues couldn’t handle that. I was in Shenandoah National Park when I met a hiker with a crazy big lightweight tent. At that point, I said there has to be a better way. I have sewn clothing all my life, I’ve been to design school and know pattern making.
After that hike, I went home and started designing. My husband’s favorite motto is “invest in what you know”. I know sewing, I know hiking and backpacking, so I put my skills and passions to work and in 2009 sold my first LightHeart Gear Solo tent. That very first sale went on to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. Originally, the plan was to make a few tents, and do a lot of backpacking, but somehow, the priorities got switched, and I make a lot of tents, and don’t get to hike as much. I started a second business in 2012, a small factory in Asheville, NC, where we manufacture all of the products sold at LightHeart Gear. I have 4 full time employees, and we sew for other small gear companies to keep things “Made in the USA”.
A memorable challenge you dealt with on a hike
It is hard to find a really good hiking partner. I think I have finally learned to “Hike your own hike”. When I try to hike with others that are stronger, weaker, faster, or slower than me, I turn into a quitter. I have learned to hike my way, my speed, my plans. Don’t count on others; it just leaves you with unfulfilled expectations.
How you’ve helped other women to get outdoors
I am passionate about getting women and men into the great outdoors. In the past, I have taught classes on wilderness first aid and I teach classes on dehydrating your own food. I (as LightHeart Gear) am a sponsor of the Trail Dames organization, and of course, I design from a woman’s perspective and manufacture lightweight gear to help people lower their pack weight.