how to start caving
Caving, also often referred to as spelunking or potholing, can be a fun, adventurous and rewarding activity; however, getting started in caving can be a challenge. Caving isn’t as mainstream or commercial as other adventure sports like rock climbing, whitewater kayaking or snowboarding. You won’t find many how-to books or online guides that explain the gear, techniques and locations for cave exploration. In large part this is because most experienced cavers believe the best way to introduce new people to the sport is through direct in-person guidance. Caves are delicate and potentially dangerous environments that can be permanently impacted or cause injury without the right preparation, experience and conservation ethic.
The most common, and generally accepted standard process to start caving is to begin by finding a grotto (caving club) near where you live, contact an officer of that grotto or attend a meeting, and express an interest in going on a “beginner” caving trip. Once you find a trip to join you can be introduced to the importance of cave conservation, basic safety principles, fundamental gear requirements, and gain some experience in what it’s like to crawl, climb, and squeeze your way through cave passages that may be cold, wet, muddy and dark. Most new cavers learn that it isn’t for them, but a few go on to become proficient at reading maps, navigating complex mazes, and learning vertical caving techniques. For a very few it becomes their life’s passion.
Grottos vary significantly in how frequently they meet and how often they lead novice trips, so determination and persistence is often necessary. Alternatively, some commercial caves offer “wild” or “spenlunking” tours that take you off-trail to experience crawling and climbing in the undeveloped areas of the cave. This is a good way to decide if the rigors of wild caving have any appeal.
In the United States, the national caving organization is the National Speleological Society. There are roughly 10,000 members who are advocates for cave conservation, science (speleology) and cave exploration. The NSS has member chapters, known as grottos, spread across the country. Contact an officer of one of these grottos, or attend one of their many public meetings to get started.
safe caving practices
There are a few fundamental guidelines that are endorsed and practiced by most cavers that are best practices used to stay safe underground.
Get permission. Before anything else, be sure to have permission from the landowner or land manager (public lands) before visiting a cave. Unauthorized cave visitation puts future access at risk for everyone.
Establish a surface-watch. This is a responsible person who will not be on the cave trip and will be available to call for help if needed. Let them know exactly where you’re going (what cave, location of the cave, what area in the cave), who is on the trip, what vehicle(s) you are using and where they are parked, when you plan to exit, who to contact if you don’t notify them by an “out-time”. Most cave trips have a realistic time they expect to be out of the cave, and a drop-dead latest time that would trigger a rescue. Ensure the surface-watch understands clearly who to call and when to call them. Make sure that at least one person knows and keeps track of the time.
Never cave alone. Many consider a team of three to be a safe minimum, but under the right circumstances a team of two may provide a safe margin, but going solo means that there will be no help for a very extended period if something should go wrong.
Bring basic safe caving gear. This means a helmet, helmet-mounted light, two additional reliable backup lights, enough food and water for the length of trip, knee and elbow pads (if the cave demands them), a first-aid kit, supportive footwear, gloves, and clothing to stay warm. Appropriate clothing usually means all synthetics, i.e. no cotton, though some cavers have survived warm, dry caves while wearing jeans.
Cave within the skill and experience limits of the team. Understand enough about each team member’s fitness and ability, and don’t push people beyond their limits. Many cavers have some level of claustrophobia, or a fear of heights. Some team members may be out-of-shape or suffering from an adverse health condition. Be aware of these limitations and plan a trip that will keep it fun for everyone.
Check the weather. If visiting flood-prone caves then know the forecast and don’t let ego, peer-pressure, or complacency affect your judgment.
Know the cave. Bring someone who has been to the cave before and understands the route, hazards, and demands. If nobody in the group has been to the cave before then research it, bring a map, and use caution to ensure you can find your way back out and that hazards are avoided.
Caves are especially delicate environments. They aren’t exposed to the elements of wind, rain, sun and snow. They also don’t have the same type and quantity of animal and plant life that exists most places on the surface of the Earth, which can provide some level of natural restoration. The cave mineral formations in most caves take many thousands of years to form. As a result, any broken formation, any poorly placed footprint, or any discarded bit of trash will be evident to other cave visitors for many generations. It is for these reasons that many cavers are reticent to share cave locations in the way they would the location of their favorite trail or river. It is nearly impossible to leave no trace when visiting a cave, but every effort should be made to minimize impacts. It is for these reasons that the caver’s motto is:
Take Nothing but Pictures
Leave Nothing but Carefully Placed Footprints
Kill Nothing but Time
Many novices have had the experience of meeting an experienced caver, or attending a grotto meeting, and not feeling encouraged or welcome. The secrecy and caution used with potential new cavers may come across as arrogance or elitism. In most situations these cavers or caving organizations are simply trying to protect caves for future generations to enjoy, and trying to ensure everyone’s safety. Patience, persistence, a willingness to listen and learn, and a little humility will go a long way towards being included on cave trips or being invited to contribute to projects.
In some areas there are grottos or caving clubs that offer formal training classes on general caving techniques, cave survey, and vertical caving. Unfortunately this is not standardized and access to this type of training can vary significantly by region. There are also annual regional and national caving events such as Cave Camp (Montana) and the NSS Convention that offer numerous training sessions in a wide variety of techniques including such things as beginner and advanced single rope technique (SRT), cave cartography, conservation and restoration techniques, and cave photography.
General caving skills can often be learned on beginner caving trips with a little guidance and mentoring from more experienced cavers. These skills would include the choice and use of clothing, knee and elbow pads, cave packs, helmets and headlamps, and the additional gear carried in a cave pack. Other skills that can be acquired through experience may include map reading and navigation, crawling techniques, chimneying and free-climbing techniques, strategies for minimizing impact, and dealing with water in caves.
Vertical caving skills require more advanced training and is something that is usually available through most grottos on a regular basis. It is wise to learn vertical caving skills in a controlled environment such as from an anchor in a tree in someone’s backyard where you can be observed and lowered to the ground if a problem is encountered. It is a good idea to practice rappelling, ascending, and become proficient at changeovers (changing from rappel to ascent, or ascent to rappel) and crossing knots before heading underground. Depending on the type of rigging it may also be a good idea to learn the techniques for crossing rebelays and dealing with deviations. Let more experienced cavers handle rigging and rope protection and learn these skills over time with one-on-one mentoring.
Cave rescue training is a good idea for anyone who caves on a regular basis. The National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) provides excellent regular training events around the US. This type of training will be more useful once you’ve gained a little experience in general horizontal and vertical caving, and even if you never need to assist in a cave rescue, at a minimum you will learn the importance of never becoming a patient yourself.
Join the National Speleological Society. Annual membership costs about the same as a tank of gas. Membership helps support the Society and shows that you’re serious about the sport. With membership comes the Members Manual, which is a directory of others who share a passion for caves and caving. Along with membership you also get full access to the 70 year-old library of monthly newsletters, guides, scientific publications, and American Caving Accidents reports. There are many other member benefits including gear discounts, access or discounts to events, training, and access to NSS owned cave preserves.
Please read the NSS publication A Guide to Responsible Caving. This is an excellent booklet written by Ed Sira that will help get you started on the right foot.
Check out the book Cave Exploring by Paul Burger for a good introduction to caving.