Judy Gross runs the show over at LightHeart Gear. The company attitude may be lighthearted but when it comes to building tents she takes her business very seriously. Judy offers a range of hybrid single wall tents for the solo hiker, duo, and even an offering for those of us who are bordering on Sasquatch status. Take a look at what Judy had to say when we asked her about LightHeart Gear and her personal philosophies on self supported travel…
Hello Judy. Thank you for talking with us today. Please tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin hiking and backpacking, and how much time do you currently spend outdoors?
I grew up in Staten Island, NY. Back then the island was still very rural and I spent a lot of my childhood roaming the woods. My mother taught me to sew when I was about 5 years old. I recently retired from a career in nursing and started a sewing / dressmaking business which morphed into an ultralight tent business over the last few years. Now, I don’t get to spend as much time as I would like to be out hiking due to the business keeping me occupied.
What are some of your favorite places or trails to hike?
I’m currently working on the “Smokey 900” which is to hike all the trails in the GSMNP. I have 65 miles left to go. There is such a wide variety of terrain and trails in the Smokey’s and I love learning the history of the area, and then seeing that history up close.
Which of the following terms best describes your personal backpacking philosophy: Super Ultralight, Ultralight, Lightweight, Conventional, Sherpa.
Of these choices, I would probably choose Lightweight. I think the Ultra and Super Ultra philosophy is not for me. I won’t compromise on safety issues or some creature comfort issues… like my iPod!
What was your motivation to begin making gear? Can you recall the first piece of gear you ever made?
When I did my thru-hike attempt of the AT in 2006, I carried a Sierra Designs Lightning tent. It was a great tent but it weighed about 4.5 pounds and took up almost half of my backpack. I mostly stayed in the shelters but had to lug this heavy tent with me all the time. My last night on the trail, I met a guy who’s tent was less than half the weight of mine and had a lot more room. I knew there was a better way.
Initially I was just going to make a tent for myself, a friend suggested I could make kits and sell them since many people want to ‘make their own gear’. It was then that the idea of making tents to sell came into being.
How did you become familiar with fabrics and sewing techniques necesary to build tents?
I have been sewing all my life, and have had a sewing business for over 12 years. I went to design school 10 years ago, and I am a member of The Association of Sewing and Design Professionals. mostly though I’m self taught, and now I teach sewing to 4-H kids, and have a thriving alterations/dresmaking business as well as the tents.
Which aspects of your gear designs would you say set LightHeart Gear apart from other manufacturers?
I would say the simplicity of design. My philosophy is to “Maximize on Minimalism” and therefore, “Lighten Up Your Life” I also offer significant customization options. I have a selection of about 20 colors people can choose from, number and configuration of doors (left handed?) as well as different fabric options, such as Cuben Fiber & Sil Nylon.
Can you briefly discuss the evolution of your company and your present role?
In the beginning I was doing everything myself including designing, drafting, cutting, and sewing. Production started on a whim and the business has just snowballed. It soon became more than I could manage on my own. My husband, Marc, helps out on the business side and seam seals tents, but he can’t sew. So we had to look elsewhere for some production capabilities.
I still do all of the custom, specialty, and Cuben fiber tents myself. What I see as one of the biggest advantages to having such a small company is that I can innovate and change faster than other companies. When I get feedback about an aspect of the tent, I listen and change instantly. I value the input I get from my customers and appreciate their ideas about how things can be improved.
Which product or products are your best sellers?
The LightHeart Solo is by far our best seller. The ‘Wedge’ is becoming a very popular add on, and I suspect the new SoLong 6 will be a big winner.
Where are your tents currently manufactured?
Some are manufactured in China and some in the USA. When we looked into having the tents manufactured, we tried to find a local or US factory, but had very little success. Either the cost was prohibitive, or the quality control was not up to my standards. We did find a local manufacturer that was willing to work with us at a price we (and our customers) could afford by outsoucing the tent overseas. So our “standard Solo and the Duo were outsourced to China. Not only is the fabric they use 3 times more waterproof than what is available domestically, but the quality of their work is superb.
Everything else is done here in Western North Carolina which includes all of our cuben fiber tents, custom solo’s, the SoLong 6 and any other customization requests.
Does having an intimate knowledge of why, how, and where your gear will be used give you an edge, as an independent manufacturer, over the mainstream competition? What about added value for the end user?
There is absolutely added value for the customer. If you send an email to a major company asking about the product on a Friday night, you may here back on Monday. I make it a point to answer emails at any time of day and well into the night. If a phone call is needed then I’ll make that call. Customers get much more personal care from smaller companies such as ours’.
It seems to me that these cottage industries are doing a great deal of the real innovation in the market and customers are benefiting from those developments. For example, the lightest gear is clearly made by these smaller manufacturers.
Have you or your company collaborated with any other manufacturers on projects or production? What about just hanging out or hiking together?
We have gotten to know several of the other cottage industry participants at festivals and enjoy hanging out together since we have backpacking and gear as common interests. We have talked about some collaboration on raw material acquisition but to date, not much has actually occurred.
Will the evolution of new products benefit more from advancements in materials or advancements in design?
We tend to think that every idea for a design has been tried and how can better materials possibly emerge. Then we see the next thing and end up amazed – I think that will always continue. But as far as weight is concerned we are definitely getting to the point of diminishing returns. The weight curve is flattening and the price per ounce of weight reduction is increasing dramatically. The improvements are likely going to have to move from weight savings to improved utility.
What would you say to the folks out there who aren’t familiar with the smaller independent manufacturers and what to expect in terms of customer service, and product quality? Is there anything about your products, business, or the cottage industry in general you’d like to emphasize?
One of the big advantages of a company like ours is the ability to do custom work. If you want it in a special color, with an extra door, or another pocket; we can usually make it happen and get it to you in a matter of days. We are very customer-driven.
Can you tell us what your personal “big four” items are for a typical 3-season, 3-day hike?
My 14 oz cuben fiber LightHeart Solo tent
Granite Gear Nimbus Ozone pack – yes it’s 3 lbs, but is oh so comfortable
Neo Air mat – regular 14 oz
Mountain Hardware Phantom 15* bag – 31 oz.
Just for fun, what’s one of your favorite pieces of gear made by another manufacturer?
The “Packa” made by Cedar Tree – a great pack cover and rain jacket in one.
Is there anything new on the horizon that you can tell us about?
Our newest product that we are about to release is the SoLong 6 – a roomy one person tent for the big and tall hikers or just one that wants a spacious tent. The SoLong 6 is SO LONG, that hikers over 6’10” will be able to stretch out and still have room left over. We should be taking orders by the time this is published. [indeed, Judy is now taking orders on the SoLong 6]
Sounds like something that those of us giants among men will appreciate. Can you share any specs on the SoLong 6?
The tent is 100 inches long, 55 inches wide in the center and tapers to 30 inches at each end. The 4 corners are boxed off 8 inches high with carbon fiber stays so there is no chance of the corners collapsing. These corners give you the full use of the entire 29.5 sq feet of the floor space. The stays are sewn in so there is no fiddling with them, and they can’t get lost. The tent has 45 inches of head room, and has just a tiny little weight of 25.5 oz! It is not a fully double walled tent, but a ‘hybrid’ – part single wall, mostly double wall.
Complete this sentence: “I hope that LightHeart Gear tents will …”
…become as well known in the mainstream market as they are in the cottage gear scene.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today! Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any sage advice to bestow upon those reading this interview?
Thanks for including us in your interview!
You can check out LightHeart Gear on the web at www.lightheartgear.com. Big thanks to Judy for taking time to answer our endless barage of questions. We love to hear from our readers so please post a comment, question, or a shoutout to your cousin Bob! Hike It. Like It.
Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy.
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