National Park Winter Caretaker’s Favorite Gear

I’m winter caretaker at Mt. Le Conte, in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here’s the gear I use at work every day.

National Park Caretaker Gear

Below is a closer look at some of my favorite pieces of gear that I wear and carry for winter caretaking. Before we get into that, though, let me tell you about my typical workday on Mt. Le Conte.

Park Caretaker’s Typical Morning

The gentle hum of my alarm pulls me from a dream. I open my eyes and quietly stare out through the frosted loft window. A snow-covered wilderness lies hidden behind the veil of darkness. The sight of twinkling stars puts renewed pep into my step.

After rolling out of bed, I begin gearing up for the day. My small green backpack waits patiently on a nearby forked tree branch, which now serves as an indoor coat hanger.

Seth Orme National Park Caretaker Gear
The author takes in a sunrise

I slip into my overalls and ignite the kerosene lantern sitting on top of the desk. The power of my 100-lumen headlamp pairs with the orange kerosene glow. I can see clearly now. Grabbing my pack off the wall, I feel the weight of its contents, already loaded with my essential gear. Anything not in the pack is worn on my person.

Closing my pack, I begin to break the ice buildup on the frozen door jamb. I’m not too worried about the fact that I’m trapped in my own cabin. I just keep chipping away at the block. The door breaks free, and I turn the knob and step outside. Sharp winds bite at my cheeks as sunrise calls me further up the trail, deeper in to the wilderness. Onward.

What I Wear

Muck Boots

Easy to slip on and waterproof, the shoes I use most often are my Muck Boot Edgewater II’s. Pairing these neoprene-lined rubber boots with a pair of wool socks, I’m ready to tackle 90 percent of my tasks for the day. Whether I’m checking weather instruments, hiking across camp to the pit toilets, hefting 14 gallons of drinking water up from the spring, or trekking through the snow to capture the sunrise, these boots are my first choice.

It’s just hard to beat the rugged functionality of this easy-on, easy-off boot. I’ve also worn Bogs’ rubber boots for many years and find them to be equally as dependable.

Overalls

Maybe I should’ve been a farmer. If I was traveling through the Smoky Mountains in winter, I would likely be cloaked in a plethora of synthetic fabrics. But when it comes to living and working high in the Smokies, I’m a big fan of Carhartt Insulated Overalls.

That’s because the sturdy cotton canvas is extremely durable and provides excellent wind protection. Not to mention, the cotton fabric is nearly silent when hiking. I often receive confused looks from hikers when they witness someone donning overalls and rubber boots on top of one of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River. A year ago, I would have been confused too. But now I’m siding with the approach farmers have taken for decades.

Neck Warmer

One piece I fell in love with this year is my Turtle Fur Neck Warmer. (Although I’ve never actually seen a turtle with fur.)

This double-layered fleece neck warmer is ridiculously cozy and comfortable. It’s essentially a beefed-up version of the well-known Buff neck gaiter.

Worn on the neck, the Turtle Fur Neck Warmer creates a toasty gasket between the head and core, trapping precious heat in frigid temps. I hate having cold ears, so I often wear an extra one as a headband during my morning hikes. If you live somewhere windy and cold, I highly recommend this affordable accessory.

What I Carry

Light and Capable Camera

The Sony A6300 camera with a Zeiss 16-70 f4 lens is the combo I’ve used for 98 percent of my photography over the last two years. At just over 2 pounds the systems retains a nice balance between image quality, function and weight.

I really appreciate the relative light weight when a short hike turns into a multi-hour photo escapade. I’ve recently added a few accessories to the system, but that’s a story for another time. There is a plethora of quality cameras on the market and it’s a slippery slope recommending a certain model to someone. Personally, I’ve found the combination above to be the right compromise that continues to work for me.

Boot Spikes

One interesting thing about living on top of Mt. Le Conte is the constant presence of ice on the trails. The mountain continually leaks from the seams; and once the temperatures plummet, all the trails become rivers of ice.

Crampons are unwieldly and wearing nothing is just plain sketchy. I’ve found that Kahtoola MICROspikes are the ideal tool for the job and have left a pair on my boots for weeks at a time while living on the mountain. I’ve used the lighter more affordable Yaktrax, but they just can’t handle serious prolonged use. Plus, I can’t afford to slip and get hurt while living alone more than an hour from care.

Headlamp

My version of a fashion statement. Aesthetically, gold chains are a better look. But when it comes to function, a headlamp wins every time. Clouds and fog often blanket the Smoky Mountains at dusk and during the morning hours; this makes it impossible to see without a light source.

Plus, headlamps free up your hands, which helps keep mundane tasks easy and safe. I’ve carried a Black Diamond Spot, in addition to the rechargeable Black Diamond Iota, but I’ve found the Spot to be more reliable, especially in wet conditions.

Thermos

My secret weapon for the coldest days and well … every day.

OK, OK – it’s not that big of a secret, but it doesn’t take long living in a cold environment before you discover the beauty of a simple Thermos.

I’ve had mine for years, and it gets the job done again and again. I prefer the simple model (pictured) because there’s nothing to bend or break off. Plus, the lid doubles as a cup.

Leatherman and Lighter

I’d be crazy not to have these two with me. Whether I’m on top of the mountain or lounging around in the valley, I’m rarely seen without a lighter and my Leatherman Style CS.

A lighter is an inexpensive fire and light source that has been indispensable living on Mt. Le Conte. The stoves and lanterns I use don’t have automatic ignitors, so having a lighter on me always helps keep these simple tasks simple.

And for tools, I’ve carried my Leatherman Style with me for years. I even wrote a review about how impressed I was with the tool after five years of regular use. Keeping these two little gems in my pocket not only makes my daily life easier, but I’d argue it makes it safer too.

Looking for more gear ideas? Check out a long-distance thru-hiker’s favorite gear:

Thru-Hiker Dan 'Knotts' Binde's Favorite Gear

Thru-hikers put gear through next-level testing, crossing thousands of miles on foot. We spoke with Dan "Knotts" Binde, who has completed some of America's longest trails multiple times, to get his take on the top gear for hiking. Read more…

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