Venturing into the awe-inspiring depths of the earth to explore wild cave systems is one of the most thrilling adventures out there. Rappelling into gaping sinkholes, squeezing through tight underground passages, and crawling through muddy caverns to uncover dazzling geological formations offers an experience like no other.
Also known as spelunking, the sport of caving allows you to step into a subterranean world of stalactites glittering like crystal chandeliers, fossils preserved for millennia, and underground lakes and rivers carved through ancient stone.
If you’ve ever felt the irresistible allure of a dark cave entrance or gazed longingly down a sheer pit sinking into the depths, you’re not alone. Over 1 million intrepid explorers in the U.S. have caught the “caving bug” and made venturing underground their passion.
This comprehensive beginner’s guide will teach you everything you need to know about gearing up, developing key caving skills, finding local communities, and preparing for safe, responsible, thrilling adventures under the surface.
- Essential caving equipment
- Must-have skills and techniques
- Safety protocols
- Where to go as a beginner
- Connecting with local caving clubs
- Trip planning and preparation
- What to expect on your first real caving trip
Let’s shed some light on the basics of caving so you can start your journey into the mysteriousworld beneath the earth!
A Quick Intro to Recreational Caving
Before we dive in, let’s quickly cover what caving entails:
- Caving involves exploring non-commercial, undeveloped cave systems for enjoyment, scientific study, and the sense of discovery.
- Cavers are driven by the physical and mental challenges of navigating unlit passageways and the lure of being among the first to uncover caves’ natural wonders.
- Over 20,000 caves have been documented in the U.S. alone, offering endless underground adventures.
- Top caving regions are concentrated in states like Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama and Texas.
- Proper training and specialized equipment are needed to navigate tight squeezes, slippery passages, climbs, and the pitch black environment.
- With responsible practices and preparation, caving risks are minimized. Most injuries involve falls and sprained ankles.
Now let’s get into everything you need to start safely enjoying this rewarding hobby!
Caving Gear Guide: Essential Equipment for Underground Exploration
Having the proper caving gear makes an immense difference in comfort, safety, and capability when exploring underground. Here are the must-have items every beginner should have:
A specialized caving helmet is crucial for protecting your head from bumps against rocks. Look for adjustable chin straps, rugged outer shell, ventilation, and mount points for attaching lights. Top brands are Petzl, Black Diamond and MSA.
A headlamp frees up hands underground and illuminates dark passages. Look for adjustable beams, long battery life, high lumens (1000+ recommended), durable housing and waterproofness. Carry spare batteries and bulbs.
One-piece coveralls made of durable, water-repellent material will protect against scrapes when crawling. Look for built-in knee pads and non-slip booties. Synthetic fleece layers for warmth recommended. Avoid cotton.
Tough gloves help grip rocks and protect hands from abrasions and cuts. Look for full finger padding and armor plates. Popular choices are made by Mechanix, HexArmor and FIRM.
Knee and Elbow Pads
Hard shell knee/elbow pads prevent painful scrapes when squeezing through tight crevices. Look for flexible pads that allow freedom of movement.
Hiking boots or rubber Wellington boots provide ankle support and traction on slippery cave surfaces. Look for aggressive lug soles and waterproofing.
A 30 to 50 liter backpack provides room for extra clothing, food, water, first aid and emergency gear when exploring extensive cave systems. Key features are durability, external attachment points and internal frames for support.
Secondary Light Source
A backup headlamp or flashlight is vital in case your main light fails. Red lights help preserve natural night vision when needed.
Other Helpful Gear
- Climbing helmets for vertical caves
- Ascenders/descenders for ropes
- First aid kit
- Minimum 2 liters of water
- Emergency blanket
- Reflective arrow markers
Mastering Key Caving Skills and Techniques
In addition to quality gear, developing key skills for moving through the underground environment is essential. Here are important caving techniques to practice:
- Move slowly/deliberately. Test footing before shifting full weight.
- Point toes down when descending slopes. Dig heels in when climbing up.
- Side-step widely over pools of water and mud to maintain stability.
- Lead with hand or foot to test for stability and avoid sharp rocks.
- Shift weight between knees, feet and hands to prevent abrasions.
- Keep elbows tucked in and crawl flat on belly to fit through tight spaces.
- Look for solid ledges and “bucket holds.” Let arms straighten fully when reaching.
- Keep hips close to wall. Move smoothly.
- Create 3 points of contact when possible – two hands and a foot.
- Wedge back and feet against walls and inch upwards by pushing off opposing forces.
- Carefully assess rock stability before applying full weight when wedging in.
- Take an instructional clinic to learn proper anchors, knots and stance.
- Test anchor integrity before relying full weight on rope. Use autoblock knot backup.
Mastering technique through indoor climbing practice prepares you for real-world caving. Developing these skills will help you adeptly navigate obstacles.
Caving Safely: Essential Safety Tips for Beginners
Caves contain inherent hazards, but preparation and caution drastically reduce risks:
- Never cave alone – only explore with a group of 3-4 minimum. Having multiple light sources is critical.
- Check weather to avoid rain flooding caves. Know escape routes for flood-prone systems.
- Tell someone your plans – where, when leaving/returning. Establish check-in protocol if concerned.
- Watch your head when squeezing through tight spaces. Wear a sturdy helmet.
- Conserve phone battery – limit use to emergencies. Bring an external charger if needed.
- Know your limits – don’t push beyond your skill level. Build up gradually.
- Stay oriented – regularly consult maps/markers. It’s easy to get lost in mazelike caves.
- Mark trail with reflective arrows as you go. Use string in complex sections.
- Watch for shifting conditions – rising water, falling rocks. Be ready to exit ASAP if hazards arise.
- Travel with multiple light sources – headlamp, backup headlamp/flashlight. Bring spare batteries.
- Carry emergency supplies – first aid, food, water, warm clothing, bivvy sack.
Following these responsible caving practices and protocols will help keep your underground journeys safe. Never take unnecessary risks when caving.
Where to Go Caving as a Beginner
When starting out, begin with entry-level cave systems to develop skills before more advanced caves. Here’s what to look for:
- Horizontal caves – vertical pits require more specialized gear and training.
- Short in length – under 1 mile long initially. Build up distance slowly.
- Wide passages – 5+ feet across. Tight squeezes are very challenging at first.
- Easy entrance access – a clear opening without much climbing.
- Few technical obstacles – perhaps some basic climbing but no rappelling or swift water crossings.
- Map available – navigation is much easier your first time with a reference.
Top beginner show caves to gain experience in the U.S.:
- Lincoln Caverns, PA – Spacious routes with gorgeous formations. No tight squeezes required.
- Luray Caverns, VA – Towering ceilings make this cave easy for beginners to maneuver through. Contains paved pathways.
- Ohio Caverns, OH – Well-lit routes and wide chambers perfect for new cavers.
- Natural Entrance at Mammoth Cave, KY – Historic guided tours of the easy, lit historic section.
- Sea Lion Caves, OR – A roomy coastal cave with potential for sea lion viewings.
Check local grotto clubs, guidebooks or outdoor stores to find other suitable beginner caves in your region. Don’t be afraid to ask experienced cavers for recommendations.
Tip: Guided commercial cave tours are a great stress-free way for first-timers to get familiar with the underground before tackling more complex caves.
Getting Connected with the Local Caving Community
Joining local grotto caving clubs and connecting with experienced cavers in your area provides immense benefits for new cavers, including:
- Finding caving partners
- Access to trip planning resources
- Learning about lesser-known wild caves in your region
- Receiving mentorship from seasoned cavers
- Attending group caving expeditions
The National Speleological Society (NSS) has a cave club locator to help find a grotto chapter near you. Most grotto clubs host monthly meetings, trainings and caving trips open to new members.
Online caving forums like CaveChat.org are another way to connect with the caving community. Don’t be shy about asking for advice as a beginner on these forums.
Taking a Caving Course
Enrolling in a beginner caving course enables you to learn essential underground skills from experienced instructors in a structured setting. Even just a one day intro class provides immense value.
Typical curriculum includes:
- Cave geology/formation identification
- Equipment selection and use
- Lighting and rigging techniques
- Cave conservation ethics
- Basic climbing, chimneying and scrambling
- Rappelling pit caves (covered in vertical courses)
- Routefinding and navigation
- Emergency preparedness
Both local grotto clubs and outdoor programs through adventure shops offer caving classes. Taking a course gives you knowledge and confidence for when it comes time to head underground for real. Consider signing up for one.
Trip Planning and Preparation Tips
Meticulous preparation is key to a smooth, safe and pleasurable first caving trip. Here are important factors to address:
Selecting Compatible Partners
Look for partners through grotto members, classes or online forums. Ideal caving partners:
- Have some prior experience
- Share similar fitness and experience levels
- Own proper gear and practice responsible caving
- Will provide guidance as a beginner
Researching Permits and Access
- Check if caves require access permits from land managers
- Entry fees often apply for commercial caves
- Contact cave owners if uncertain about access rules
- Read cave descriptions in guidebooks/forums
- Check recent trip reports for current conditions
- Assess required gear and technical challenges
- Share trip plan and return time with a contact
- Confirm if cell service is available in the cave
- Bring a satellite communication device if no cell service
- Carry first aid supplies, food, water, warm clothing, bivvy blanket
Following this advice will properly prepare you for a smooth first caving trip. Enjoy the rare privilege of discovering the underground for the first time!
What to Expect on Your First Real Caving Trip
Here’s an overview of what your first caving trip might look like from start to finish:
You’ll arrive at the cave site and start donning gear – helmet, headlamp, gloves, kneepads, etc. Double check you have all required equipment. Ask partners to check for gaps.
Approaching the Cave Entrance
There’s anticipation as you descend into the cave mouth, either climbing down or squeezing through a tight gap. The darkness envelops you.
Turning on Lights
The group pauses to switch on headlamps once inside. Check lights are functioning properly. Experienced cavers carry backup sources.
Learning to Maneuver
You’ll start crawling, chimneying, scrambling and maneuvering through obstacles. This is where practice pays off.
One of the highlights as a beginner is staring in awe at your first up close glimpse of glittering stalactites, flowstones and crystal pools.
Staying on Course
Guides help navigate the maze of passages by pointing out trail markers and consulting maps frequently.
Exiting the Cave
You’ll retrace your path back to the entrance, relying on markers. Expect to climb, chimney and squeeze your way out just like on the way in.
Make sure to celebrate above ground once you’re back in sunlight after conquering your first cave!
Frequently Asked Questions About Getting Started Caving
Still have some questions? Here are answers to common FAQs:
How can I find local caves to explore?
Joining a local grotto provides access to trip planning resources and information on lesser-known wild caves in your region. Guidebooks also list cave locations.
Do I need prior climbing/caving experience?
No. Everything you need to know as a beginner can be learned through classes or experienced mentors. Reasonable fitness helps.
How physically demanding is caving?
Caving requires cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, balance and moderate strength. Yoga helps flexibility. Fit beginners can handle it.
How expensive is getting into caving?
Basic gear costs around $200-300. Technical vertical equipment adds more cost. Cave access fees are usually under $50. Overall caving is very affordable.
Can I go caving alone as a beginner?
Not recommended due to getting injured/lost risks. Always go with a group until you gain extensive experience. Solo caving only with years of experience.
Why does cave conservation matter?
Caves contain fragile formations and ecosystems that take thousands of years to form. Following Leave No Trace ethics preserves caves.
Let the Underground Journey Begin!
That covers everything you need to start your exciting journey into caving! With proper gear, training and responsible caving practices, you’ll be ready to descend into the magical underworld.
Join your local grotto to meet experienced mentors. Take a beginner caving course to build skills. Start with novice-friendly caves and work your way up as you gain experience.
Don your helmet, fire up that headlamp, and get ready to crawl, climb and squeeze your way through hidden underground passages few get to explore. Let the spelunking adventures begin!