Safe and Responsible Caving
The equipment you need very much depends on the cave you are exploring, the difficulty of the route, and the amount of time you intend to spend in the cave.
A list of gear that you must have on any trip underground.
These lists are general guidelines only. Disclaimer
A helmet is the most basic of essentials. Hazards ranging from bumping your head on the ceiling to rocks falling on you can exist in the cave environment. For the majority of wild caving experiences a UIAA certified climbing or caving helmet is recommended. For very basic trips involving no vertical exposure, no overhead hazards, or any other hazards beyond stumbling or walking into a rock a good quality construction hardhat with a chinstrap is acceptable but not prefered.
At least one helmet mounted headlamp is needed for caving. A good quality lamp is preferred (one that doesn't fall apart when dropped). There are several good LED headlamps on the market that are reaonably priced.
Backup lights (2+)
At least two backup lights are required. These lights must be able to guide you out of the cave if your primary light fails. Candles are not backups. Light sticks are not backups. Your old flashlight that "sort of works" is not a backup. A backup must be in good condition and be reliable. Preferably one of the lights backups should be helmet mountable. If possible, your backups and primary light should use the same size batteries (AA are the best as they are the most common underground)
Bring at least 3 sets of batteries for your primary light source. If you are using a MSS rental helmet you will need 9 or 12 AA batteries. Also keep in mind that your backups may use different batteries so spare batteries may need to be carried for those.
Sturdy hiking or work boots, preferably with knobby bottoms, are a must. Flat bottom tennis shoes are not appropriate in the cave environment. The cave environment is tough on footwear.
The temperature in the caves of Southeastern Minnesota is 47F and the humidity is near 100%. Your clothing will depend on the cave trip you are on (dry cave vs. swimming) and the trip length. In general cotton is not good in caves due to its ability to get and stay wet. In a drier cave some cavers use coveralls over layers of polypro long underwear and wool socks. Other cavers use coveralls made from heavy nylon (similar to backpack fabric) over polypro. Of course, in a wet cave a heavy wetsuit is needed. If you are unsure of clothing talk to the trip leader for personal advice, including if jeans are an ok substitute.
Clothing should be worn in layers. Brisk walking at 47F is very different from prolonged sitting at 47F.
Gloves keep your hands happy. Happy hands are working hands so a good pair of gloves is a must. Many cavers prefer leather, others like rubber. Canvas work gloves are ok but tend to get and stay wet. Absolutely no fuzzy gloves in the cave as these will leave fuzz on everything they touch.
Some kind of cave pack is needed to carry spare lights, batteries, water, and snacks. Fanny packs work and are readily available. Gas Mask bags and other over the shoulder military type bags are great. Most cavers end up with some kind of custom cave pack that they like. If your pack has zippers, they won't last for many trips before the zippers are destroyed.
Large Plastic Trash Bag:
This can be used as an emergency heat tent in cave. It is also useful get used to bring home the dirty clothes. Many cavers stuff it into their helmet where it is out of the way and easily accessed.
Food and Water:
Food is nice while caving but avoid anything with crumbs. Bagals are durable, as are energy bars. Water is a must. Always plan extra food and water in case you are in cave long then planned.
Pee and Poo: (longer trips)
If you are in a longer cave remember a (durable) pee bottle. Some cavers use a dedicated water bottle, others pack light and bring one water/pee bottle and wash when they get home. Either way, be sure the bottle is a wide mouth bottle.
On very long trips (survey, expedition, etc) you may need a poo kit. This consists of a large turkey oven roasting bag (very durable), sheets of paper towels and a couple of zip lock bags to double or triple bag when you are done. A few anti-bacterial wet wipes will keep your hands happy when you are done.
Going Home Clothes:
Your caving clothes will get very dirty. Bring a full change of clothes including shoes and undies. A towel is also nice, as are baby wipes to get the mud off your hands and face after the trip.
Knee and Elbow Pads:
The rocks get hard on knees and elbows so both kinds of pads are recommended. However you can get by just fine with a few minor bruises without them. Hard plastic kneepads will be more misery than none at all so avoid them.
First Aid Kit
Cave Map / Compass
Nice to Have Gear
A list of gear that you might want to bring.
Caves are pretty and offer many opportunities for pictures. A friend's digital camera is recommened . Your cave pack will take a beating and even if you pad the camera, the humidity in the cave may condenses inside the camera. Pack your in a zipper sandwich bag to keep it clean(er) and dry. No matter what you do, the lifespan of a camera that is taken underground is short.
After the trip open the camera up (battery compartment, etc) and allow to dry for several days.
Foam butt pad
Not for comfort, but because for safety as rock is an excellent thermal conductor.
Note: GPS, cell phones, radios do not work underground.
Safe Caving Practices
Although the following list of safe caving practices is meant to help you, there is nothing - And make no mistake about it - nothing that will replace using good common sense. Some items listed below may have already been covered, but it wouldn't hurt to mention them again. We cannot cover every conceivable situation you may encounter while caving, and additional reading on the subject will benefit you.
- Never go caving alone (a minimum of 3 people on a team).
- Wear a good-quality hard hat with a chin strap and the primary light source attached. Carry three sources of light (should one source fail).
- Always leave word as to which cave you will be visiting and your expected time of return, allowing a few hours for any unexpected contingencies.
- Follow the lead of the more experienced caver or the one who knows the cave well. If all your lights fail, sit down and wait on the spot for help to come.
- Avoid jumping. Cave floors are seldom level, and a short jump may result in an injury.
- Practice ropework (vertical caving) under the guidance of an expert before doing any vertical caving.
- Caving is extremely tiring: know your limit, rest frequently, watch for fatigue in others.
- If you are uncomfortable with a passage, speak up!!
- Caving is a team activity - we all help each other.
- People with chronic medical conditions need to take that into consideration when deciding to go caving.
- Carry a small first aid kit. A large garbage bag or poncho will make a good heat tent using the heat from one candle or carbide lamp.
- If an immobilizing injury occurs, treat for shock (keep the injured caver warm) and contact the local cave rescue organization.
- Sitting still can cause shivering after a period of time, the first symptom of hypothermia. Get moving, initiate activity.
- The slowest caver sets the pace. Go only as fast as you can be followed, and check on the caver behind you.
- If lost in a cave, panic is your worst enemy. Remain calm, conserve your light, and if you followed the rule about leaving word, you have little to worry about.
** From A Guide To Responsible Caving. Compiled by Adrian (Ed) Sira Distributed free by the National Speleological Society
The NSS web site has a great selection of free caving guidelines