During a networking event on a frigid morning in March, Judy Gross of Lightheart Gear was bundled in a purple puffy jacket underneath a helmet and full-body harness. She was perched on a platform in the trees above North Carolina’s Green River Gorge getting ready to take her turn at the zip line when her cell phone rang.
“We’ll have it to you in a few days,” Gross said, before hanging up, plunging off the platform, and zipping through the trees. A customer had just placed a phone order for one of her tents.
Several times a week, Gross takes calls from customers all over the East Coast, and many of them call directly from the Appalachian Trail. Once, a woman reached out after getting soaked during a stormy night. She had ordered a seam-sealed Lightheart Gear tent that had plenty of seams but no seals.
“I said, tell me where you are and I’ll be there in two hours with a new tent for you,” Gross said. “That’s a safety issue. That was a mistake on our part and I was going to fix it. And so, I drove two hours to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with a new tent for her.”
That drop-off wasn’t a one-time occurrence for Gross. If somebody is within 100 miles from her, she’ll go.
“This is what I do,” she said. “If they’re here in North Carolina, I’m about an hour from the trail and it’s no problem for me to go run out and take care of them.”
Gross, who started Lightheart Gear nine years ago, is a 61-year-old retired nurse practitioner, U.S. Army and Air Force veteran, marathoner, and long-distance hiker with the trail nickname “Heartfire.” While hiking the AT in 2006 with a 4.5-pound tent stuffed in her pack, she met another hiker with one nearly half the weight. She thought, “I sew. I can make something better.”
Multiple measurements, sketches, and prototypes later, Gross had designed her first tent: The Solo. Her goal was to create an ultralight tent for herself. But after showing it to friends, she was convinced that other people would pay her for one just as light. And she was right.
At her first festival in 2009, she sold three of the seven she brought and took an order for one in purple that she delivered to the AT a few weeks later. Back then, Lightheart Gear tents were made to order, and customers could choose their colors and number of doors.
Now, Gross employs two full-time seamstresses, her son, and a chief operating officer, and customers order from a selection of five different models listed on her website. Two shops in Germany and Sweden, as well as a hostel in Georgia and an outfitter in North Carolina, both on the AT, sell her tents. (She’s in the process of transferring items to Shopify to make it easier for hikers to order on the go.)
When James Hibbert, a hiker based in Maine, was preparing for his AT thru-hike, he came across someone’s testimonial about Lightheart Gear. The man’s tent had broken on the trail and Gross met him there with a loaner while she fixed his back at her warehouse.
“You can’t get that type of customer service anywhere else,” Hibbert said.
Search “best lightweight tents” online and you’ll get list after list naming big brands, such as Big Agnes, REI, MSR, etc. But ask anyone who has spent some time on the AT, and they’ve indisputably seen a cranberry or camo Lightheart nestled in the bushes.
It’s Gross’ care for her customers that makes her stand out. Sure enough, when Hibbert was on his hike, he passed through the Smoky Mountains and set up camp at a hostel nearby, where somebody tripped over a corner and tore the fabric of his Lightheart tent.
He called up Gross.
“I hitchhiked from Standing Bear Farm into Asheville,” he said. “She picked me up, brought me right to her shop and gave me a whole tour. I got to see the tents from a roll of material to complete. And then we went out for lunch.”
Hibbert and Gross planned to meet up again. She’d be hiking in Maine later that year and in exchange for the repair fee, he agreed to give her a ride from the airport to the trail.
This summer, Gross has plans to run the Bridge of the Gods Half Marathon in Oregon and then afterward, hike north through Washington on the Pacific Coast Trail. But those plans are dependent on whether or not her new building—7,500 square feet and three times the size of her current digs—is finished. Since launching a women's clothing line last year, she was starting to run out of room.
On the PCT, she wants to introduce herself and her brand to West Coast hikers. While she won’t be able to provide the same factory to trail service, her cell phone is on her at all times ready for the next call.
“I’m a long-distance hiker and I know what they need and I know how difficult it is to get what you need,” Gross said. “If I can cater to them, I will.”