It’s August and we’re in the dog days of summer. Temperatures are hitting their peak points, the sun is scorching the Earth and air conditioners are maxed out. You want to stay cool, but you want to get out of the house. Why not solve this dilemma by heading deep underground?
Caving, or spelunking as it is often referred to in the United States, might not be a competitive sport, but it ranks among the most extreme recreational activities you can participate in. Just think about it: you’re exploring dangerous, unlit terrain that relatively few human feet have ever touched.
In addition to the very real physical danger you face with cave-ins, unexpected drops and the like, you also face the rigorous mental exercise of ignoring the fact that you’re in a natural stone corridor deep within the Earth. You’re cut off from cellular and satellite communications and your access to emergency services is limited in the extreme.
The tradeoff to facing these rather extreme dangers is the thrill of discovering. Elaborate cave systems and deep ocean trenches are pretty much the last of the unexplored frontier on this planet, and since most folks don’t have access to deep-submergence vehicles, spelunking is the obvious choice for the willing explorer.
Knowing Your Stuff
The human race has been exploring caves for the length of its existence, but spelunking as a recreational pursuit has only become popular (relatively speaking) in the past 100 or so years. The most important thing to keep in mind if you’re considering taking up spelunking is that every underground environment is different and each will require specific tactics and gear.
You’ll always want to have some general survival skills, as well as some degree of training in rock climbing, but you also need to do your research to understand the underground environment you’ll be entering. Will it be cold or warm? Wet or dry? What sort of indigenous wildlife can you expect to encounter? How thoroughly has the area you’re going to visit been explored?
There are organizations all around the world devoted to spelunking, covering everything from mapping to preservation to general research. In the U.S., the two largest are the National Speleological Society (NSS) and the Cave Research Foundation (CRF). These are organizations you can join and work with. Due to the associated dangers, caving isn’t really meant to be a solo activity, and both of these groups offer field work opportunities even if you’re a novice.
Of the two organizations, the NSS is the best place to start if you are a total newbie. There are more than 200 local NSS caving clubs, called Grottos, scattered around the country, as well as more specialized sections which focus on niche activities like photography, cartography or vertical caving.
Getting Your Gear Together
Once again, it’s important to remember that there’s no real standard for spelunking. Each underground environment is unique, so researching what you’ll be facing and what you should bring along is necessary when preparing for an expedition. There are, however, a few must-haves for any underground journey.
A hard hat or helmet is an absolute necessity, preferably one that is attached to a halogen or LED lighting array of some kind. If you are anticipating a longer expedition, you’ll definitely want at least one backup light, too. Lengthier stays underground may also require some basic camping equipment, specifically sleeping and cooking gear.
You’ll also need to bring along a first aid kit. Even if every other person in your group is carrying one, you should too. You never know what might happen underground and the last thing you want is to suddenly find yourself injured and separated from the group without a first aid kit of your own.
Less obvious items to remember are containers to store your garbage in, since preservation is a major component of organized caving expeditions.
Beyond that, the gear you carry along depends largely on the environment. If you don’t anticipate there being much vertical caving, don’t weigh your pack down with climbing gear. You’ll want to wear boots no matter what, but wet conditions will require rubber boots while dry conditions will warrant more typical hiking boots.
The same thought process applies to what you wear. The temperature in North America’s cave systems rarely rises about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but exposure to water underground mixed with the lack of sunlight or any steady, natural heat source means that hypothermia is always a risk.
Most cavers wear a one-piece undersuit for thermal protection, sometimes with an additional layer of thermal undergarments for the lower end of the temperature scale. Neoprene wetsuits, even those used by deep-sea divers, are also a good idea if you’re going to be exploring a wet environment.
In addition to thermal protection, it’s also important to wear an outer layer to protect your body from the physical dangers a cave presents.
Oversuits come in a variety of forms, but the basic idea remains the same: heavy material with reinforced padding in parts of your body that are more likely to come into contact with the environment, such as your knees and your elbows.
Vertical caving requires a whole other set of gear, since you’re going to be doing a lot of climbing, Ropes, collapsible ladders, and, most importantly, a harness, are all necessary.
Vertical caving can be quite dangerous, so look to the organizations mentioned above for more information and guidance.