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A Beginner’s Guide to Spelunking (Caving)

Spelunking is the term used for the exploration of caves, though some prefer to call it caving.  The interesting thing is that the use of the word “spelunking” is frowned upon by some groups of cavers and they claim that people who use the term don’t know what they’re doing.  It seems more like a clash between the older groups of cave explorers and the newer.  The newer groups, or “spelunkers”, seem very accepting of both terms while the older groups create websites dedicated to speleological societies yet maintain that the use of the term “spelunking” is reserved for the amateur.  I wonder why they bother using a form of the original root word for their societies then have the audacity to ridicule others for using other variations of it.  

Most people are familiar with the tourist type caves where you have a parking lot and pay to be taken on a tour of a cave with lights and handrails installed throughout.  A lot of people get their first experiences of being in a cave at these types of places, but this of course is not cave exploring. 

Petzl Elios Climbing HelmetTo get started you first need a small group of friends as going alone can be dangerous if something bad happens.  A group of 3 or more should work well.  The basic items needed are a rock climbing helmet and 2 or more flashlights per person (it’s always a good idea to have spare lights with fresh batteries).  An important thing to avoid is people with claustrophobia, even in more open caves people can start to freak out and that’s no fun for anybody.  You should wear clothes that you don’t care about getting absolutely filthy including your footwear.  Shoes should be comfortable, protect your feet and have good soles on them still.  Having footwear that is waterproof isn’t worth much, for if the cave has running water it’s unlikely any waterproofing will protect your feet for very long.  The clothes you wear should be a good compromise between protecting you from scrapes from rocks yet being breathable enough to keep you cool.  While caves are cool in temperature at first (about 60°F), the air is normally not moving and your body heats up quickly as you move about.  If you dress too warmly you will likely be shedding layers to stay cool. 

It is not necessary to bring extra gear for a few hours of exploring but if you feel the need you can bring a daypack with drinking water and snacks.  Remember to never leave anything behind in a cave as you want to leave it as untouched as possible.  People who do not care about the caves they are exploring will often leave behind food wrappers and batteries which is by all means unacceptable.  I’ve encountered other people in caves smoking as well which is disturbing to say the least.  The ecosystem in a cave is very fragile and typically undisturbed.  The human presence in a cave should leave it as undisturbed as before you were there to help preserve this delicate ecosystem. 

Princeton Tec Apex LED HeadlampFinding a cave is probably the most challenging part as a lot of them are protected, on private property, or too small to be worth exploring.  Avoid places like which calls themselves the National Caves Association and is nothing more than a shallow listing of private caves that give paid tours.  Paid tours are okay for a first visit into a cave but completely unfulfilling as you cannot explore on your own. is the main page for the National Speleological Society where you think you’d find info on caves in your area.  Instead you get asked to join a club with an annual membership fee.  Even when you join a club you don’t get access to all kinds of information telling you where good caves are.  It’s basically a society of people who only share information with their close circle of friends.  I personally am not a fan of these types of organizations.  They pretend to be supportive of the activity then do their best to keep people away from the nicer locations.  The best way to find caves that are already known about is to talk to park rangers and search topo maps.  If you can get the name of a cave chances are you can find it on a topo map easily or with a quick search on the internet.  I’ve found some hard to find caves on the little National Geographic topo map kiosks they have at REI when I knew the name of the cave. 

The entrance to a cave is generally the home to a large number of insects as the air temperature is fairly constant and keeps them warm on cold nights and cool during hot days.  The insects will slowly disappear as you make your way further into the cave.  I mentioned earlier having 2 or more flashlights per person whereas on other older caving sites you’ll be told 3 or more.  If you’re using LED flashlights, then the battery life is considerably longer versus the older bulb based lights.  With 3 or more people in your group that should be at least 6 flashlights by my count and more than enough if something should happen to one.  The two lights displayed in this post are more expensive than some other lights you’ll find but are well worth the price difference in terms of performance and features.  I typically find myself turning my light off and relying on other group members’ lights for myself.  You however may not want to try this if you aren’t very sure-footed.  Gloves can also be of value to not only protect your hands but to protect the cave formations from the oils on your skin. 

Pelican SabreLite Recoil LED LightSome caves are straight forward with only one way to go while others have multiple paths you can take.  In the more complex cave systems you should either use some sort of marker system with stones or make a map as you go if you don’t already have one.  Getting lost underground can be easy as everything can start to look the same and you have no sun to help you get a sense of direction.  You should always have a plan for the event that something bad happens such as an injury or getting lost.  Always tell somebody not going with you where you are headed.  Just remember to not touch the formations, leave nothing behind, be safe and have fun. 

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