Clandestine Caving: How to Prepare for your First Underground Adventure
There are few frontiers on Earth that have not yet been pioneered; humans have set foot on nearly every snow-capped mountain, every remote island, every patch of old-growth forest, but miles upon miles of uncharted cave passage remain to be discovered. This exciting notion is often the driving force behind why people continue to push into the unknown of the underground, hoping to shine light for the first time in passages that have never before been illuminated.
If this kind of exploration seems appealing, you may have what it takes to be a filthy caver! This article will seek to provide interested individuals with much of the ‘need-to-know’ info when it comes to getting started safely and conscientiously in the caving community.
To the uninitiated, cavers can often seem secretive in nature. Folks getting started sometimes have difficulty locating information about how to get started and are at risk of being misled by a mishmash of misinformation found online. As a result, many caves have been irrevocably damaged by even the most well-intentioned visitors. At worst, there are many cases of people being seriously injured or even killed as a result of entering a cave unprepared.
Anmar Mirza, the National Coordinator for the NCRC (National Cave Rescue Commission) is an expert when it comes to this tragic topic and explains why cavers feel protective when it comes to giving away information regarding cave locations:
“A reason cavers tend to be secretive is because the relationships with landowners (public and private) is often very sensitive. As population pressure increases, many owners of caves get tired of being bothered at all hours, or dealing with visitors who do not respect their property. A landowner can have a dozen respectful visitors, but that one jerk who litters or shows up in the middle of the night or leaves the gate open for livestock to escape can ruin everyone’s access to that property for years. When someone does get hurt in a cave it can cause a landowner considerable stress in concern for the person and concern for liability incurred. Many cavers spend considerable time and effort cultivating relationships with landowners of caves and are rightfully mad at anyone who jeopardizes this.”
Veteran cavers, such as Anmar, are known to be excellent teachers and are happy to help when it comes to setting up a safe trip for an interested individual. They realize that caving can be a life-changing, amazing adventure and want to share this with new pioneers. In fact, Mirza states that “one of the things that is great about caving is that there is opportunity for almost everyone, regardless of skill level or physical ability. Caving can just be going on a trip or two, or it can become a life-encompassing passion. The caving community is very close and while it may seem to the outsider to be daunting, it is filled with people who love to share their passion with new people.” Caving is a great full-body workout and can help cement friendships as you rely on your cohorts to help you through some ‘tight’ spots.
If you are looking to get underground for a real ‘wild’ cave tour, there are several resources you should look into first and a few things to keep in mind. Here is an abbreviated list of tips for potential cavers, though entire books have been written on the subject and a wealth of information can be found on the National Speleological Society’s website: caves.org (specifically this brochure “A Guide to Responsible Caving” ).
Find a Local Grotto
A local club of cave aficionados is called a ‘grotto’. Most meet regularly and encourage folks interested in visiting a ‘wild’ cave to contact them first. They typically have access (i.e. landowners’ permission) to caves in the area and are knowledgeable about the types of equipment you will need. It is often possible to borrow equipment this way, too. A representative from a grotto can act as a guide for your first trip or put you in touch with others who are experienced.
The first step of your trip is to find a group near you. If you do not have success when contacting someone in your area, try reaching out to other cavers through social media, such as the National Speleological Society’s Facebook group, for instance. Contacting other cavers will help you ‘up’ your caving game tremendously. Dave Everton, President of the Indiana Speleological Survey (motto: “Our idea of a good time may be your worst nightmare.”) believes a grotto’s goal “is to help you experience caving safely, whether you end up liking it or not.” He offers the following advice to new cavers:
“Whether you choose to [participate] or not, make every effort to utilize the experience and skills of cavers, who all want you to have a safe and successful experience. Not everyone is going to love it or become a caver, but for many of those who have discovered a love for it, it has opened up a world and a family they never knew existed.”
Dave Everton has taken countless new cavers on unforgettable underground adventures and has a passion for teaching, especially when it comes to participating in cave survey projects. Everton and the ISS team are currently focused on expanding the known length of the 39+ mile Binkley Cave system and welcome the help of new cavers who want a piece of the action.
One thing to understand is that caves can be very dangerous. Yes, they are all very dark, can contain potentially tight squeezes, and the possibility of injury from falling. However before you rely on your bravado to conquer these challenges, consider what it takes to rescue someone from a cave: there is no possibility of air-lifting an injured person to a hospital, and little chance of paramedics being able to provide medical attention inside the cave. In most cases, the injured person must leave the cave the same way they entered, and this can sometimes take hours upon painful hours.
After contacting a local grotto to assist you in trip planning, make sure you always tell someone trustworthy where you will be and a reasonable time window of when you expect to come out. Never go caving alone! Who would call for help if you are unable to leave the cave by your own power? The ideal group usually consists of four cavers: one to stay with an injured person and two capable people to leave the cave for help. Travel at a pace that everyone in the group can handle and know your limits. Remember that your journey will require as much or more effort to retrace your steps in order to exit the cave.
A helmet is a necessary piece of equipment for cavers. For your first trip, even a bicycle helmet or construction hardhat can be sufficient, provided it has a chin strap. You may think that being careful is caution enough, but banging your head on solid rock is inevitable—the many scratches and scuffs on the top of any caver’s helmet can prove that it is a 100% must-have! Not only that, debris can often be cast down onto cavers below from a climbing group—something you must always take care to consider.
Good shoes for caving include hiking boots, military style boots, or even rubber ‘welly’-style boots, if they have good tread. Tennis shoes are not the best option as they don’t provide adequate traction for climbing on wet and muddy rocks.
Dress in layers. Jeans with a t-shirt and a long-sleeve button down shirt can work for your first trip, though each person has their own level of personal comfort when it comes to feeling too hot or cold. Avoid sweatpants and other absorbent materials that can soak up water and become heavy and also make you colder. Depending on the location of your cave, temperatures vary. For caves in the Midwest, temperatures stay in the mid-50° range, but can feel quite cold if you get wet. Some caves even require full wetsuits to explore, but you can save that for future trips if you decide to keep venturing underground. Remember to bring a full change of clothes for after exiting the cave and a trash bag for all of your dirty items.
Light in a Dark Place
Light is perhaps the most important item to consider on your trip when it comes to a safe and enjoyable experience. A good light not only allows you to safely see and navigate obstacles, but can allow you to view lofty ceilings and beautiful formations. Today, the best source of light is electric, but cavers for years have used carbide lights in caves when electric lights were not available. Carbide is more dangerous to handle than batteries, but it’s still a tried and true method of pioneering caves.
Always bring at least three sources of light and make sure they are all functional before the trip. Your primary light should always be attached to your helmet to free your hands up for crawling and scrambling (duct tape and zip ties can be used to attach it, if needed). Hand-held lights can be dropped into unreachable places or submerged in water, which can cause a number of problems. The other, alternate sources of light can be small enough to carry in a pack, if you prefer. Be sure to pack enough light/batteries to last for triple the amount of time you plan to be underground. You never know when a short trip can turn into a much longer excursion due to complications.
Decent primary LED headlights can be found at local department or sporting goods stores for about $20, but if you plan to do a lot of caving in the future, check out Inner Mountain Outfitters and Karst Sports for some more substantial options. Ask your local grotto contacts for recommendations, as well. They will know what types of equipment work best for cave conditions in your region.
Depending on the length of your planned trip, you should pack sufficient water and food. Protein bars are popular items—the chewier the better; after a lot of crawling, you may find that your food has been reduced to a pile of inedible crumbs. Other cavers pack peanut butter sandwiches, trail mix, and candy bars. You’ve done a good job packing if you able to leave the cave with more water and food than needed, as you never know when a short trip will take longer than planned.
Gloves and knee/elbow pads will also greatly increase your comfort—you will be glad you brought them if you find yourself spending an extended amount of time in cobble-filled crawlways.
A copy of the cave map in a Ziploc bag can be very helpful. Using marking items, such as flagging tape, in the cave is often unnecessary on routine trips, but can be helpful in a very complex system that is more unfamiliar. Just be sure not to damage the cave or mark on the walls in any way. Take care to frequently observe the passages and look behind you often (especially around junctions and intersections) so you will recognize features on your way out of the cave. Leave your ball of yarn and bread crumbs at home. Everton also advises new cavers to “not pay attention to the markings other visitors have made, including arrows. Many times, these marks were made by people who didn’t even understand what they were doing!”
A cave pack should be small and easy to carry. Large backpacks with a lot of straps can get caught on rocks and other protrusions. A military surplus pack can work well and many cavers in the Midwest enjoy the Swaygo packs or Lost Creek packs, which can be found on the aforementioned websites.
Consider packing a dry shirt or even a trash bag (poke a head-hole first!) to be worn in case you start to feel overly chilled.
First aid items for blisters and other contusions are also good to bring, along with any needed medicines in a waterproof container.
“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.” This mantra is followed by cavers and other conservation-minded folks alike. Caves are very sensitive environments with delicate speleothems (stalactites, stalagmites, etc.) and rare species of life. Touching the formations can lead to their inability to continue ‘growing’ due to the accumulation of skin oils, and breaking them off for souvenirs is downright illegal! Disturbing cave creatures can leave them vulnerable to injury and death so it is best to leave them alone altogether.
“A few cavers will get the privilege of being the first person to ever see a new cave. Often this is through considerable effort expended in searching and opening. It is an awe-inspiring life event and sadly in some cases those beautiful places get destroyed by later thoughtless visitors. The easier the access to a place, the more likely it is to be damaged. There is something about having just spent a lot of time and effort to get to see something special that makes one more likely to want to protect it,” Anmar Mirza adds.
All litter, etc. should be removed, just as you would do when camping or hiking. Adopt a ‘leave no trace’ mentality and be respectful of the cave, fellow cavers, and landowners.
Currently, the concern about WNS (White Nose Syndrome), a fungus that is devastating bat populations throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States, has resulted in many caves being closed on public lands. Care must be taken to decontaminate all gear between caving excursions to prevent the spread of this deadly fungus. Instructions for proper decontamination can be found here. You can also ask your grotto contact to help you with decontamination, as well. Though not known to be harmful to humans, WNS is suspected to interfere with bats’ ability to hibernate, causing them to waken early and die of dehydration and lack of available food.
If you enjoy your first cave trip, consider becoming a member of your local grotto or the NSS. This is certainly not a requirement for going caving, but it can open many doors for you. Dues go towards cave conservation and education, WNS research, and survey efforts. Learn more about how to get underground from your local grotto representatives and always cave safely and softly.
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