Basics of Caving and Cave Exploration

A beginner’s guide to caving.

| May/June 1984

Like Tom Sawyer, many of us feel the urge to enter and to explore those treasures that Nature and Time have carved deep into the earth. Of course, exploring wild (that is, noncommercial) caves is not a sport to be taken on lightly, but—with the proper awareness of the dangers involved—caving can be a safe and exhilarating hobby. There are few experiences that can match the thrill of following a dark, narrow passageway into the earth and finding yourself in a vast underground chamber decorated with crystals of calcite and gypsum, its floor and ceiling studded with stalagmites and stalactites. Many of the folks who initially make a trip into a cave just to "see what it looks like" soon find themselves immersed in a lifelong avocation. For in addition to its appeal as a demanding, strenuous sport, caving offers unique opportunities for photography, mapping, and geological and biological studies. 

Start Caving

You won't need to invest great sums of money to launch yourself into the sport of caving ($50 to $150 will cover all the equipment you could possibly need as a neophyte caver), but you will need to invest some time in learning about your new sport.

Before you purchase any equipment, in fact, you should tour a commercial cave to get a glimpse of the underground world. Because they're protected from unauthorized explorers, these caverns are generally well cared for, and some of them have breathtaking vistas and contain abundant cave formations. A guided tour will give you an opportunity to get an initial glimpse of some of the wonders that lie beneath our feet. (Obviously, anyone who has a tendency toward claustrophobia or an abnormal uneasiness about being in the dark is not a good candidate for caving!) If after this first taste you're still interested in underground exploring, you'll next want to get in touch with some experienced cavers by joining the National Speleological Society (NSS).

An affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the NSS is dedicated to the exploration, study, and conservation of caves. With more than 5,700 members, the society maintains over 200 local chapters (known as grottos) across the U.S. (To locate the grotto nearest you or to get more information about the society, contact the NSS.) You need not be an experienced caver to join: Your interest in the subterranean world and your desire to protect it from man's destructive activities are the only prerequisites.

There are numerous advantages to be gained from joining the NSS, so even if you generally shy away from organized approaches to recreation, you'll probably want to become a member. Above all, caving is not a solo sport, and membership in the NSS will put you in touch with local enthusiasts. The vast majority of experienced spelunkers belong to the society, and joining is the best way for the beginner to learn about the sport. Furthermore, in addition to the monthly meetings, training programs, and trips offered by the local chapters, the society holds regional conventions and an annual summer gathering that includes scientific and practical caving sessions, field trips, photography displays, and caving proficiency contests. The NSS also publishes the NSSNews (which features articles, reviews books, provides information on caving events, and lists names and addresses of equipment suppliers) and the NSS Bulletin (a quarterly journal that reports on original speleological research). Your $20 membership fee buys a year's subscription to both publications and helps support such NSS projects as the National Cave Rescue Commission and various conservation activities.

Besides keeping you informed on happenings in the caving community and providing you with instruction about techniques, equipment, safety, and conservation, your membership in the NSS will literally open doors—or rather gates—for you. The entrances to many caves are closed to protect the fragile environments within from vandalism, and those gates are opened only to NSS members who, having been properly educated, can be trusted to preserve our underground wilderness. Likewise, the locations of some hard-to-find caves, as well as maps of the passages, are distributed only to NSS members, through the local grottos. 

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