Venturing deep underground to explore caves is an adrenaline-filled adventure activity. But traversing dark caverns, squeezing through tight spaces, climbing ropes, and sloshing through mud and frigid streams requires having the proper footwear.
With the right caving boots, you’ll be able to safely navigate the unique challenges of the underground environment. Sturdy, grippy, and waterproof boots will keep your feet protected and stable over the rocky and uneven terrain.
However, with so many caving boot options on the market, it can be overwhelming to pick the perfect pair suited for your specific needs.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about choosing high-performance caving boots to match your experience level, cave conditions, and preferences.
I’ll share pro tips from expert cavers, key features to look for, top recommended boot models and brands, proper sizing and break-in advice, and care instructions.
Follow these caving boot picking tips to find footwear you can trust while exploring underground cave networks across the world.
What to Look for in Caving Boots
Many factors go into choosing the ideal caving boots for your unique needs and the conditions of the caverns you’ll be traversing. Here are the most important components and features to consider when shopping:
Grippy, Aggressive Outsole
The outsole material greatly affects traction and grip over wet, muddy, and slippery terrain. Look for deep multidirectional lugs and tread patterns that extend up the heel and toe to really bite into the mud and enhance traction.
Rubber outsoles tend to provide the absolute best wet and dry traction in caves. Rubber also maintains flexibility over time rather than stiffening up and cracking.
Vibram, Megagrip, and other proprietary rubber compounds offer prime grip. The lugs should be widely spaced to shed mud and provide cranial traction.
Some key outsole features to look for include:
- Lugs at least 5mm+ deep
- Widely spaced lugs prevent mud buildup
- Extends partially up rear and front for grip
- Self-cleaning tread patterns shed debris
Maximum traction reduces slips and falls over slick mud, flowing water, and ascents/descents.
Ankle Support and Height
Since caving involves lots of scrambling over boulders and uneven surfaces, it’s critical to choose caving boots that provide ample ankle support and stability. Ankle tweaks and injuries are very common given the rocky and jagged terrain.
Mid-height boots that rise 4-6 inches above the ankle are ideal for delivering stability while still allowing flex and mobility. Look for padded collars and a snug fit around the ankle bones.
For extremely wet cave conditions or vertical caving, choose full-height boots that extend up the calf or shin. These will prevent mud, gravel, and water from invading your boots as you trudge through puddles or streams.
Waterproof linings are absolutely essential since caves involve stepping through rushing underground streams, walking across muddy passages, and generally wet conditions.
Popular waterproof membranes to look for include:
- Gore-Tex: The gold standard for breathability and waterproofing. It allows perspiration vapor to escape.
- Sympatex: Also allows vapor to pass through while completely blocking liquid water.
- Vibram Wrapping: Uses stretchy Vibram rubber to fully seal the upper to the sole.
Be sure waterproof caving boots also utilize gusseted tongues that integrate the tongue into the upper rather than stitching it on top. This prevents water and debris from invading your boots when walking through puddles.
Cushioning and Shock Absorption
Given the long hours traversing jagged rocks, slippery slopes, and uneven cave floors, having proper cushioning and shock absorption will prevent foot pain and fatigue.
Key features to look for include:
- EVA or PU midsole: Look for boots with thick EVA foam or polyurethane midsoles to absorb impacts.
- Removable footbeds: Let you insert custom orthopedic insoles for comfort and arch support.
- Shanks: Internal shanks or plates provide torsional rigidity and arch support.
Take the time to ensure the boots provide ample cushioning since you’ll be on your feet for many continuous hours contending with an uneven terrain that’s punishing on your soles.
Durability and Sturdiness
The underground caving environment is incredibly punishing on footwear. Your boots will be subjected to abrasions, bumps, being submerged in water, and repeatedly getting coated in mud.
That’s why durability and sturdiness are absolute musts when selecting caving boots. Look for:
- Full-grain leather or coated leather uppers: Resist moisture, scuffs, and abrasions better than mesh or fabric boots.
- Reinforced rubber rands: Bands of rubber around the heel and toe provide protection.
- Firm shanks and toe caps: Prevent injury when kicking rocks or on upward climbs.
- Heavy-duty stitching: Won’t loosen or bust after repeated wear.
- Minimal seams: Decreases chance of leaks or separation.
The boot must be able to withstand the repeated battery of caving in rough terrain over many, many trips.
At the same time, you’ll want caving boots that provide a balance of sturdiness and durability while still remaining reasonably lightweight.
Heavy boots can quickly cause fatigue in your feet, ankles, and legs as you’re traversing caves for hours on end. Plus, if doing any vertical caving, heavier boots make climbing more challenging.
New synthetic leather and athletic boot-style models can deliver protection while shedding weight. Vibram, EVA, and similar compounds are also lighter than traditional outsole materials.
While not as light as trail runners, look for the lightest caving boots that still offer ample traction, stability and sturdiness for your unique needs.
Snug, Contoured Fit
It’s vital to get a proper snug contoured fit so your foot doesn’t slide around causing blisters or lack of traction. Look for:
- Narrower, reduced volume fit to accommodate thick socks
- Minimal extra toe room
- Tight lacing over instep and ankles
- Kicking heel back to test grip
- Trying on later in the day as feet swell
I’ll cover proper sizing and fitting in more detail later on.
Now let’s explore some top caving boot options and brands that are popular choices among cavers…
Best Caving Boot Brands & Models
Here are some of the top manufacturers and boot models that are recommended over and over by expert cavers:
Scarpa Caving Boots
Italian brand Scarpa is renowned for their high-performance mountaineering boots. And their caving-optimized models boast equally technical, protective designs:
Scarpa Charmoz GTX: One of the most praised caving boots. Features a full-grain leather upper, Vibram outsole, EVA midsole, and Gore-Tex lining. Provides unmatched ankle support and traction. Costs around $259.
Scarpa Grandiosa: A heavy duty calf-height boot perfect for extremely wet or vertical caving. Also uses Gore-Tex and Vibram rubber. Retails for about $375.
Scarpa Ribelle Tech OD: Leather upper with Gore-Tex membrane and Vibram sole. More athletic than the Charmoz. $220 price range.
Scarpa SL Activ: Their lightest caving boot. Partially recycled components. Vibram outsole. Under $200.
Boreal Caving Boots
This Spanish brand designs boots specifically built for cavers rather than retrofitting hiking boots. Quality at a better price point.
Boreal Stix: Many expert cavers praise the Stix as the best value caving boot. Features a one-piece leather upper and athletic sole. Around $149 MSRP.
Boreal Salomon: A taller calf-height caving boot with a tough split-grain leather upper and rigid shank for stability. About $200 retail.
Boreal Booster: A heavy duty rubber caving boot good for extremely muddy or slippery caves. Starts at $125.
La Sportiva Caving Boots
La Sportiva incorporates its proprietary Impact Brake System Vibram soles on boots, ensuring top-notch traction and braking grip.
La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX: Leather and Cordura upper with Gore-Tex liner. Aggressive sole lug pattern. $290 price tag.
La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX: Reinforced leather boot good for mixed terrain. Under $200 retail.
La Sportiva Nucleo High GTX: A heavy-duty calf-height caving boot with IB rubber sole. $279 MSRP.
Lowa Caving Boots
Known for their comfort and quality, Lowa’s hiking boots adapt well to cavern terrain with added grip and waterproofing.
Lowa Tibet Pro GTX: A supportive backpacking boot upgraded with a Vibram outsole and Gore-Tex. Under $300 retail.
Lowa Renegade GTX: Leather hiking boot with Monowrap frame and Vibram sole. Around $240 on average.
Lowa Camino GTX: Leather upper and Vibram sole in a lighter low-cut hiking boot. $230 MSRP.
AKU Caving Boots
AKU’s Italian-made trekking boots boast excellent construction and materials for caving purposes:
AKU Tribute II GTX: Robust leather and Cordura boot with Vibram and EVA midsole. $259 retail price.
AKU NL Trekker III: Scratch-resistant suede upper with injected PU midsole. About $179 MSRP.
AKU Tengu Low GTX: Low-cut boot good for milder cavern terrain. Around $145 retail cost.
Key Tips for Properly Sizing Caving Boots
Since you’ll likely be traversing slippery, jagged rocks in caves, it’s critical to get a snug, close fit when sizing caving boots rather than your normal loose fit.
Here are some key tips for nailing down the perfect caving boot size:
- Try boots on while wearing the type of merino wool or synthetic socks you’ll use when actually caving. This gives the most accurate fit.
- Shop for boots at the end of the day when your feet are naturally most swollen.
- Repeatedly kick your heel back against the boot to test that your foot doesn’t slide forward.
- Avoid sizing too small where your toes pinch or jam against the front. You want firmness without pinching.
- Fully lace up the boots and walk around the store to judge long-term comfort and break-in needs.
- Size up around a half or full size over your normal athletic shoe size to accommodate thick socks.
- Seek out expert input from sales associates for their boot sizing recommendations.
Taking the time to get properly fitted caving boots prior to your first trip prevents painful blisters and lack of stability once you’re deep underground.
Breaking in New Caving Boots
Brand new stiff leather or synthetic caving boots can cause serious blisters and discomfort until broken in to conform to your feet.
Here are some tips for gradually getting your new footwear flexible and comfortable before your first caving adventure:
- Use a boot stretcher to gently stretch the leather or synthetic uppers overnight before wearing.
- Try the boots on at home while wearing your hiking socks and walk around the house to begin molding and flexing them to your feet.
- Apply leather conditioner to soften up the materials and aid break-in.
- Start by taking short walks around the block in your new boots, then incrementally increase the distance.
- Only lace up tightly over the toes and ankles at first. Fully tighten all eyelets as they break-in.
- Put moleskin, bandages or tape over any hot spots prone to rubbing as they break-in.
Plan on at least 5-10 hours of gradual wear before your caving boots fully break-in and conform to your feet. Don’t wait until the days before a planned caving expedition!
Caring for Your Caving Boots
Investing in high-performance caving boots means taking the time to properly care for them after each use. Follow these tips:
Rinse off mud: Use a water hose or sink to clear off dirt, gravel, and caked on mud after each caving trip before it dries and hardens.
Dry properly: Take out the insoles and air out boots fully to prevent odors and mold buildup. Stuff with newspaper to absorb moisture and maintain shape.
Condition the leather: Use saddle soap, wax, or oil-based conditioners to keep leather supple and water-resistant.
Inspect for damage: Check for any tears, excessive wear, damaged eyelets, worn out tread, or loosening parts needing repair.
Taking a little time to clean and care for your caving boots after each underground adventure will ensure they perform reliably for many trips to come. Your feet will thank you!
Ready to Pick the Perfect Caving Boots
I hope this detailed guide has given you all the information you need to find your ideal pair of caving boots.
The right footwear makes a huge difference in keeping you stable, supported, and protected during underground expeditions. So take the time to shop carefully for boots that match your caving needs.
Look for sturdy boots with traction, shock absorption, and waterproofing. But also prioritize proper fit and long-term comfort since you’ll be on your feet for hours traversing the caverns.
Your feet will definitely thank you once you’ve got the perfect caving boots! Now get out there and start exploring underground worlds – safely and in comfort.