An Introduction to Caving for the Novice Caver

MIT Caving Club

Revision 4.0: March 11, 1999

Take nothing but pictures
Leave nothing but footprints
Kill nothing but time

What is Caving Anyway?

Caving or spelunking as non-cavers call it, is many things. The reasons why people go include adventure, sport, scientific study, companionship, fun, and other things as varied as the individual cavers. It is one of the few sports in which you can go places no one has ever been before.

The most commonly asked question is probably "What do you find down there?" The answers are as varied as the caves themselves: mud; beautiful rock formations and rubble; water and dust; vast rooms and tight crawlways; awesome rivers and puddles; strange and fragile animals; deep pits and waterfalls; ice and warm water; and, of course, strange people. One finds, eventually, whatever one is looking for.

There are several different types of caves.

There are other places where people go "caving", but these are generally not advisable for one reason or another. Mines are very dangerous; they collapse a lot. Exploring large buildings or ships can be lots of fun, but could get you in trouble with the law. Subway tunnels can turn into a shocking experience. Sewers are really nasty places and are best avoided. Stick to real caves.

A commonly asked question is, "Is caving dangerous?" The answer is that caving is as safe as you want it to be and have the knowledge to make it. For this reason, caving is a sport for thinkers. Clearheaded thinking prevents accidents. Unavoidable accidents are extremely rare.

People often wonder if you can get lost easily in a cave. The answer is generally no. It is possible, but progress is generally slow enough so that experienced cavers can look around and keep their bearings. Cavers do not carry balls of string.

Who can go caving? Most people. Men or women. Age is a barrier only to the very young and very old. Persons with severe claustrophobia, fear of darkness or bats, severe physical handicaps, or other such problems are generally advised to forget it. Brute strength is generally not required. Physical agility is helpful but not required for all caves. Big people will have problems with small caves. Small people will have problems with wet caves. In short, people are expected to learn their limits and avoid caves which are beyond their abilities. The first few caves you go to should be caves which are generally recognized as easy. Always go on your first trips with experienced cavers.

Caving Safety

Caving is a potentially dangerous sport, but it can be made as safe as you want it to be. Unavoidable accidents are extremely rare; people make mistakes and they, or others, can get hurt because of those mistakes. There are many things which can cause an accident; you are expected to know about them and have sufficient foresight and use enough caution to avoid them. GO SLOWLY AND THINK. . .PANIC IS LETHAL.

The following pages describe some of the more common hazards of caving. Don't let it scare you off, though. In a certain sense caving can be compared to driving. If you had never driven a car you could get into a lot of trouble by driving out into rush hour traffic. Once you have the knowledge and experience, you can drive safely. The same is true of caving.

The General Rules of Caving Safety

NEVER go caving alone. Three people is the absolute minimum number for a trip. The reason for this is that if a person is hurt, someone must remain with the injured party while the third person goes for help. Four to six people is generally considered the optimum size party for the average caving trip. Also, other people can help you when you are having trouble (which happens a lot to varying degrees).

ALWAYS have three independent sources of light. Include extra bulbs, batteries, carbide, waterproof matches, or whatever other equipment or supplies you need to keep your lights going. Your light sources must be highly water resistant and strong enough to withstand severe abuse. Being without a working light is inexcusable, even for a beginner. Should all your lights go out ("I thought you had the batteries."), it is generally not advised that you attempt to get out. Wait for help to come. This implies that someone on the outside knows you are in there and will send for help if you don't return.

Wear the proper clothing. (See the section on hypothermia below.) Your clothing should be warm, tough, and without things which can snag o the rocks. Hardhats are mandatory.

Make sure you have all your equipment and that it is in proper working order before you enter the cave. It it your responsibility to know how to use the equipment you have before the trip starts.

One thing many newcomers don't realize at first is that caving is one of the few truly non-competitive sports. No one ever makes or takes a dare. No one is ever pressured to do things which he/she is afraid to do. Daredevils are unpopular. The reason for all this is that cavers are a very safety minded lot; competition and peer pressure leads to accidents. Removing an injured person from a cave is an awful job. We go to have fun, not to fool around. Remember this.

Don't go caving if you are sick, even if you have only a mild cold. Caving is an exhausting sport, and illness compounds your problems and might lead to an accident. Don't go caving while drunk, stoned, or otherwise "under the influence". A clear head is a requirement for safe caving.

Leave all jewelry outside the cave. A crushed ring could mean the loss of a finger in an otherwise minor accident. Make sure your glasses are very secure if you wear them. Leave your sunglasses in the car. (Don't laugh. Long-time cavers have been known to wear sunglasses into a cave and then wonder why their lights were so dim!)

Start caving with experienced cavers. Learn your capabilities in easy caves. Don't exceed your limits. Get to know the abilities of your caving friends. One often hears of "high school students" who get into trouble in a cave. This is caused by inexperience and/or a "swollen head".

Follow the rules and THINK!


The single worst danger faced by cavers is hypothermia, or loss of body heat. Your body must be within a narrow range of temperatures in order to function properly. Caves are generally cold and wet; their temperature is equal to the average of the local climate. AS a trip proceeds, your clothing will become damp or wet, making heat losses higher. Fortunately, most caves won't soak you, and your level of activity is generally high enough to keep you adequately warm.

Your first line of defense is the clothes you wear. It is far better to wear too much than not enough. Wear several layers. If you overheat (and it does happen) you can take some clothing off. When you cool down you can put it back on. The key point here is: if you haven't got it, you can't put it on when you are cold. Wool is best because it can still help keep you warm even when it is wet. Wool socks are highly desirable because your feet are often wet even if the rest of you is dry. Cotton is worthless when wet. Synthetics vary in their ability to insulate when wet, but are generally pretty good. As a test, wash the clothing in a washing machine. If it comes out of the spin cycle mostly dry, it's probably good for caving. A pullover hat underneath your hardhat cuts down on heat loss from the head. Your body gives your brain the highest priority for heat. It is always the warmest part of you. Put some insulation there: wear a hat.

Wet suits are required whenever you are going to be immersed in water. If you don't have a wet suit, don't go to caves where you know you will get soaked. An unpleasant but often used method of getting by short wet spots is to strip, go through keeping your clothes dry, dry off, and dress again immediately. Keep moving to warm up again. This technique should be used only after you know from experience about your heat control.

The second defense against hypothermia is to avoid becoming wet and extended contact with cold, wet surfaces. Stay out of the water when possible. Waterfalls are especially dangerous: they will soak you in a hurry and can drown you (no joke). Avoid drips when waiting for long periods. Stand, crouch, or sit on your pack, if possible, while waiting. Contact with rock or mud will cool you much faster than the air. Avoid breezes; chill factors in wet clothes are very bad. A garbage bag with a head hole is an amazingly effective shelter which is easily carried. Put your head through the hole, crouch down, and cover yourself up.

The third defense is to warm yourself up. Usually the only way to do this is to shiver on purpose, to run in place, to continue exploring, or some other heavy physical activity. You should do this whenever you start to feel cold. There can be other alternatives depending on the equipment you have: hot drinks, garbage bag tents, sleeping bags, dry clothes, etc.

The final defense against hypothermia is to know what it is, how it affects you, and how vulnerable you are to it. As a rule, small, thin people are the first affected. The first sign of the problem is simply that you feel cold. This is followed by increasingly severe shivering. Beyond this your body starts to lose its ability to make heat, a problem compounded by decreasing strength and mental abilities. Slurred speech and a lack of will power are signs of an advanced, dangerous case of hypothermia. Any time one of your party gets to the stage of violent shivering, it is time to get out of the cave. Everyone should leave as the affected person may need considerable help. If someone is accidentally soaked and there is no way to dry him, it is time to head out before hypothermia sets in.

Don't underestimate the problem of hypothermia. An unfortunately large number of cavers have died from it. Most of those deaths were avoidable. Dress right, stay dry, and keep moving. Only experience will tell you how best to handle it.


The next most common cause of accidents is falling. These can result in anything from a minor bruise to instant death. This type of accident is totally avoidable. Know your limits: don't try something you don't have the skill for. Don't fool around, don't show off, and DON'T JUMP. Caves have a lot of mud around. Situations which would never be a problem on the earth's surface can be dangerous simply because cave rock is often muddy and slippery. Think about your next movements before you make them.

Don't be afraid to ask for guidance or assistance. Better you should ask a stupid question than to have your friends carry you out. Watch how the more experienced cavers handle an obstacle.

Falling Objects

True solution caves almost never collapse. Worrying about it is like worrying about being hit by lightning. However, in almost any cave it is possible to find something which is loose: an unstable boulder, piles of rubble, rock held together by only mud, ice, etc. The best way to avoid this is to use your eyes. Things which look unstable very often are. Stay away from them. Most of caving's small number of unavoidable accidents are in this group, so use caution.

Stay out from underneath other people. Very often a person will dislodge something which could fall on someone else. If you do so, yell "ROCK!" no matter what it is that is falling. ROCK! is the cavers' universal signal to take cover from a falling object. A hardhat will protect you from small falling objects. ALWAYS wear a hardhat. It will also keep you from bumping your head.


Solution caves are generally part of the drainage system in their area. In some caves the water is carried at levels far below where people can go, but in most the cavers follow the actual water routes. The best general advice is to stay out of a strange cave if you think it's going to rain or it has recently rained. Also, watch out for snow melts. Listen to the local weather report before heading into a cave.

There are some signs that a passage may flood: debris or mud stuck on the walls or ceiling; an active river, especially at lower levels; the absence of mud in a stream passage may indicate rapid and violent flooding. Dry, cracked mud is a good indication that a passage floods only under extreme conditions. As you proceed through the cave, look for these things. Remember the low spots you had to go through on the way in. Remember the high spots, too.

Caves can flood because of unexpected weather changes or long lag times after storms. In the latter case the water rise tends to be gradual giving you some time to get out. Any time a stream rises noticeably in a low, wet cave, it is time to get out or take shelter on higher ground. Use your judgment: if you can get to high ground in the cave but the way out is a long low passage and the stream is rising fast, RETREAT! Go back to high ground and wait it out. This is an obvious case, but there is so much variety in caves that there are no fixed rules in a flood except: THINK, DON'T PANIC.

Bats and Other Cave Critters

Bats simply are not dangerous. They may startle you but they won't bite or fly into you. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone. In fact, bats are so fragile that your very presence in the cave can kill them. During the winter, repeatedly waking a bat will cause it to burn fat too fast and it will literally starve to death before spring! Avoid caves known to be bat colonies during the winter. Cave animals in general are very fragile. You should leave them alone.


Don't drink cave water unless you are DESPERATELY thirsty. Most cave water comes relatively quickly from the surface and, depending where you are, can contain all sorts of germs, sewage, and/or household or industrial pollutants. You can't tell if the water is good, so bring your own along to drink.

Some people go caving where there are large numbers (millions) of bats. While bats won't bother you directly, when there are so many of them around you risk picking up something indirectly; histoplasmosis is a fungal lung disease found in bat guano which is unpleasant but generally not fatal; bats have fleas, and large numbers of bats drop large numbers of fleas with all their associated diseases; rabies may be caught, but this is unproven and certainly very rare. This type of caving is strictly at your own risk.

Getting Lost

As you go through a cave, look around to familiarize yourself with the surroundings. The best way to solve the problem is to backtrack and look carefully at things. When you emerge from a small hole into a large area, study the hole before moving on. When you come to an intersection and must make a choice as to direction, proceed a short distance, turn around and remember the way you came. Taking these steps is generally enough to make you recall your path when you are backtracking or exiting the cave. The sight of something you have seen before is generally enough to make you remember. Also, giving names to landmarks is a good way to remember them.

Stay within earshot of your buddy. A caving group should never break up into individuals. Sometimes a person will go down a hole to "take a look". In this case, someone else should remain by the hole and an agreed upon time limit should be set for the explorer's return. This should never be more than a few minutes. When travelling in a large group, it is important that the leaders go slowly enough so that the people on the end don't become separated. Each person must stay within earshot of the persons ahead and behind.

Finally, if you do get lost and backtracking doesn't help, STAY PUT. Try to make yourself comfortable and stay warm and dry. Wait for someone to find you. It is important that someone outside the cave or at home know where you are and about when you are to return. That person is your final safeguard.

When you come out of a cave make sure everyone in your group is accounted for. At your earliest convenience, call home and tell them that everyone is out and safe.

Getting Stuck

Caves often contain tight and/or excessively twisty passages in which it is easy to become stuck. This is a major reason why we don't go caving alone. If a friend is nearby he can pull you out. Sometimes when caught between a rock and a hard place, a reassuring voice is all that's needed to get you through. Claustrophobia isn't a problem, although we all feel uncomfortable when we get stuck. Again, the voice of a friend will help you keep your head screwed on straight.

There are several things to remember when dealing with a pinch:


Accidents themselves can cause accidents. The extreme psychological pressure of trying to help an injured friend can cause people to get careless, which may result (and has resulted) in yet another accident. SLOW DOWN AND THINK. One accident got you into this mess. Another one will only get you in deeper.

Anyone seriously into caving should take basic Red Cross First Aid. PROMPT and PROPER action can save a life and/or prevent permanent injury. The Red Cross sponsors first aid courses nationwide for a small fee. Consider taking one and regular refresher courses. You might save a life someday, in or out of a cave. (At the very least, use your travel time to read and reread a good first aid pamphlet.) Also consider taking at least an introductory cave rescue class.

Serious caving accidents are generally in the category of hypothermia, falls, or falling objects. Learn especially the signs of head or spinal injuries. Trying to move a person with a broken back could kill him. Remember also that an immobilized victim MUST be kept warm by any means which do not aggravate the injury.

Whenever you are doing some serious caving, it is highly advisable that you know how to get in touch with the local cave rescue group. This information can be obtained from the local NSS grotto (see section about the NSS at the end). Do it.

It is highly advised that you leave your car keys outside the cave, hidden near the car. All the people in your car and others in the group should know where they are hidden.

Air in the Cave

There is usually sufficient air circulation so that there is no danger of running out of oxygen. The smallest noticeable breeze means you will not have any trouble with air. Watch out for small, dead-end passages. If you notice that you are breathing harder than you think you should be, leave immediately.

Large amounts of organic matter, such as dead animals rotting in the cave will make the air unpleasant but not usually dangerous. Let your nose be your guide.

Surface Hazards

Often, caves are located in hilly or mountainous country where you will have to travel over steep trails and climb rocks. Proper caution should be exercised in these cases. Also remember that surface rock is exposed to the weather and is much ``looser'' than cave rock.

Caving is an exhausting sport. Be careful on the drive home. If you get tired, swap drivers or pull over and get some sleep. Also, before you go into the cave, hide your valuables in the car (there is usually plenty of caving junk available with which to hide things), and lock the car. It is rare, but cavers' cars have been robbed.

Cave entrances are often in grazing land. Be wary around large farm animals. Watch out especially for bulls. Cave entrances are often in the woods, too. Be alert for hunters, especially if you go caving during the Thanksgiving vacation as it overlaps the deer season. The best protection against hunters is to make a lot of noise while walking through the woods.

Hanging ice blocks at cave entrances can cause (and have caused) serious injury and death if they fall. They are especially dangerous in the spring. They can sometimes be covered with leaves and difficult to see. Look around for them before approaching the cave.

A Final Note on Caving Dangers and Safety

If all of the above scares you or puts you off from caving, don't let it. Do let it make you think about safety. Caving can be a lot of fun. With a little foresight, thought, and care, it can be very safe fun. Enjoy.

Basic Caving Equipment Checklist

Caving will do awful things to your equipment. Everything usually gets covered with mud to some degree. You and your equipment will get wet, bashed about, scratched, torn, dropped, and other such pleasant things. And, oh yes, this is all on a normal trip where everything goes well. Tough trips are REALLY brutal. Plan your equipment accordingly. It should be tough and well made. It should contain nothing which is near and dear to you.

The following checklist is appropriate for a first time caver going to a "Beginner's Cave."


For Your Head




Optional Equipment

Remember that everything you take into a cave you must also take back out. You cannot leave ANY junk in the cave.

Basic Caving Technique

People move through caves in diverse manners. No two cavers handle a given obstacle in exactly the same way. For this reason, it is impossible to give an "optimum" set of suggestions as to how to cave. Often, when cavers are standing around watching others take on an obstacle, the comment is heard, ``You can't argue with success.'' Let experience be your guide. As you progress to more difficult caves, you will begin to know what your limits are and come to have confidence in your abilities within your limits. Confidence is important for safety, but like so many other things it is a matter of degree; gross overconfidence is deadly, so don't get cocky.

There are a few general rules which a novice caver should follow, however. Some can be safely bent or broken depending upon circumstance, but there is one rule which you must always follow: THINK.

While techniques and cautions listed above are applicable to any type of caving, they are specifically aimed at "horizontal caves". A Beginner's Cave is a horizontal cave which lacks other problems such as a high flooding potential or tricky obstacles.

Other Types of Caving

Vertical Caving

Vertical Caving is another matter altogether, adding the UP and DOWN dimension to caving and opening up many, many caves to a caver. This introduction to caving won't discuss "vertical work" other than to state a few simple things which should be obvious, but which are tragically ignored all too often:

Cave Diving

Cave Diving is the other major type of caving. This is THE MOST DANGEROUS form of caving. It requires a great deal of specialized knowledge and technique, not to mention mountains of very expensive, often custom made scuba gear. Each trip may also require substantial support from non-diving cavers to carry gear in to the point of the dive.

Cave diving is something which can be done safely only by the best and most experienced cavers. If you try it without getting extensive training from a long time cave diver, then you are asking to get yourself killed.

Caving Etiquette

There are certain rules which cavers abide by, not for reasons of safety, but simply because they make life easier and the caving better. These are broadly grouped under the heading of caving etiquette.

Landowner Relations

Landowner relations is a topic of extreme importance to cavers. To get to a cave, we must cross other people's land. When we are caving we are doing so on other people's land. It is crucial that you treat the owners with respect and do what they say. A single bad incident with a landowner can shut the cave to the entire caving community for tens of years. Most of this is common sense and courtesy, but some specific items are:


It takes hundreds of thousands or millions of years to make a cave. Damage done to a cave won't be fixed in a hundred lifetimes. Because of this, cavers are a very conservation minded group. If you should run across a cave vandal or rock collector, try to find out who he is, then turn him over to the authorities. If you yourself are a rock hound, leave your hammer at home.

Typically, beginner's caves are well known to the local population. They have generally been heavily vandalized, at least in the areas near the entrance. Look around when you go in and see how ugly the scars are that the vandals have left behind.

When moving through a cave, stick to the beaten path. Don't get your muddy feet or body all over the formations. Watch out for delicate formations overhead which you might accidentally smash with your head.

Bats are widely misunderstood creatures subject to a lot of irrational fear. Learn about them and stick up for them. Caves are sometimes closed part of the year in order to protect the bats. Don't go in when they are closed.

For reasons of conservation and safety, never give the location of a cave to people you don't know. Instead, point them at the local grotto of the NSS.

If you should stumble across some rank amateurs already in a cave who obviously don't know what they are doing, attempt to straighten them out. Don't come on too strong, though, or you will turn them off to safe caving technique. Point them at the NSS so they can get in with a group of established cavers.

Never leave any of your junk in a cave. Just before you go into a cave, it is advised that you find the nearest bush and relieve yourself. You are expected to "hold your water" on all short trips of 6 hours or less. Minimize the amount you drink in the cave. Smoking in the cave, tobacco or otherwise, is frowned upon because it stinks up the cave.

It is often absolutely necessary to change out of wet clothes when exiting a cave, sometimes in circumstances which are less than private. Do make an attempt at respecting the privacy of your fellows, even if there isn't really a good way to do so. Also, try not to put on a nudie show which might upset the locals or cause traffic accidents.

For Further Information

Caving is a group sport. If you are not already connected with a caving group, contact the National Speleological Society and ask them for the name, location, and meeting time of the nearest grotto, or for the name and address of a local NSS caver. Their address is:

National Speleological Society
2813 Cave Avenue
Huntsville, AL 35810
(256) 852-1300

The NSS is very safety and conservation oriented. It sponsors all sorts of activities: scientific, exploratory, educational, and even recreational. In addition, it is the primary method of contact between cavers in the United States. If you plan to do a significant amount of caving, you should strongly consider joining the NSS.