A Beginner’s Guide to Caving

by A Manly Guest Contributor on August 2, 2010 · 19 comments

in Health & Sports

Images from riptheskull

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Pete Zefo.

Men have an innate need to explore. As boys we wanted to know what was behind those woods, over that hill, or on the other side of that lake. Some of us imagined ourselves sailing with Magellan, climbing with Hillary, or stepping out of the Apollo 11 with Armstrong. Today we are left with few options of unexplored territory. The world’s greatest mountains have been conquered. The depths of the oceans have been reached. Flying into space is not available to the common man. Everywhere else can be seen via Google Earth. Caving remains one of the best options for the individual to set his foot where no other man has been and no satellite can see.

My Introduction to Caves

I was first introduced to caves while going to college in Southeast Tennessee. One cannot travel far along I-75 without seeing signs for The Lost Sea or Ruby Falls. I was fascinated and disappointed with both of these tourist attractions. I could not help but appreciate the beauty that these caves offered, yet I knew there was a whole new world waiting beyond where our tour guides would allow us to go. It would not be long before I was introduced to a man who had personally mapped nearly seven miles of a wild North Georgia cave. When Hubert Crowell offered me the chance to join him on a cave trip, I jumped at the opportunity. As I stood looking down into the entrance of Pettyjohns Cave in Lafayette, GA, I knew this was the “beyond” I was looking for.

Getting Started

The beauty of caving is that it does not require a great deal of equipment or training to get started. Once you have made the initial investment in gear, you can go on to enjoy a relatively inexpensive pastime.

Physically, as with most outdoor activities, the better shape you are in the more you will get out of caving. But, you do not have to be ready to scale the Matterhorn to begin enjoying underground exploration. A typical cave trip will consist of walking on uneven terrain, crawling (and squeezing) through low passageways or tunnels, and climbing up or down into whatever rooms the cave may feature. A good four to five hour trip has the potential to work every major muscle group in your body.


Two pieces of equipment are absolutely essential before you enter the cave. The first, and most obvious, is a good light source. Most hardware stores and sporting good outlets sell headlamps with an elastic strap. There are usually several styles to choose from depending on how much you want to spend. You should be able to find a good headlamp for $25 – $35. You do not need to illuminate the entire cave, and you will be surprised at how quickly your eyes adjust once you are underground. But, be sure to have extra batteries and at least two additional sources of light for backup: additional headlamps, handheld flashlights, or even candles.

The second piece of essential equipment is a good helmet. Look, caves can be dangerous. They are often wet and muddy, and you can slip easily. If you are in a tight place, it is easy to turn the wrong way and hit your head. You have a couple of options here. If you are just starting out, go the cheap route and pick up a construction helmet with a chin strap at your local hardware store. Get some duct tape to attach your head lamp. Once you have decided that caving is something you want to continue doing, buy a good climbing helmet such as a Black Diamond or Petzl, most of which will have attachments for your headlamp.

Additional equipment depends on what you desire to do in the cave. If you are entering a vertical cave where you will be descending several hundred feet, you will need rope, harnesses, ascenders, carabiners and other necessary climbing gear. If you have the desire to begin surveying and mapping your cave routes and discoveries, you will need a compass, clinometer (measures inclination), and a laser range-finder.


In addition to your essential equipment, a few supplies you will want to bring include the following:

  • A small backpack which can be easily removed when crawling through tight spaces
  • Bottled water or a “camel pack”
  • Gloves, knee and elbow pads
  • Granola or protein bars, beef jerky, or other food items that will not get crushed (I have a friend who brought Little Debbie snacks. Not a good idea!)
  • Matches, batteries, extra duct tape, small first-aid kit, etc.
  • A camera with a flash
  • A large zip-lock bag for human waste (really!)
  • A complete change of clothes waiting for you in your car


There are 52 ways to die while caving, but it is generally safe if you follow a few guidelines. First, never go caving alone. In fact, a good group size is four to six people. If an accident occurs on your trip this allows one person to remain with the injured party and at least two others to go for help. Groups larger than six tend to get slowed down in congested passageways. It is also a good idea to know a telephone number for the county fire department. Many counties that feature wild caves will have a local Cave Search and Rescue team.

If you happen to get stuck in a tight crawl do not panic. When you panic your lungs fill with air, expanding your chest, making it more difficult or impossible to move. You have to control your breathing and exhale as you gain those precious few inches that will eventually release you from the squeeze. For most men, if you can get your shoulders and chest through a hole, the rest of your body should make it through. However, do not take unnecessary risks and always send the smallest guy through first.

Be sure that someone outside of the cave knows your plans. If you are entering a previously mapped cave write out your planned route and destination. If you are exploring virgin territory be obsessively observant, looking behind you every few feet and memorizing rock formations so you can guide your team out.

Caving is a physically strenuous activity. Maintain at least three points of contact with the cave as you are traversing uneven terrain. Do not exert yourself beyond your limits. However far you travel into a cave is as far as you have to travel out.

Most cave accidents are due to errors in judgment, but be aware of other hazards such as hypothermia, flooded passages, falling rocks, trusting worn-out ropes and poor footing.

Be a Responsible Caver

The caver’s motto is “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and kill nothing but time.” I am not saying that you have to join Green Peace, but please treat the cave with some respect. Many of the formations you find in caves have taken thousands of years to develop. A careless nudge can destroy them in an instant. Do not use chalk or spray paint to write “This way out” or other directions on the cave walls. Carry out your own trash, and leave the bats alone. If you really begin to fall in love with the sport, I would suggest joining the National Speleological Society where you can learn more about cave conservation.

Oh….and do not call it “Spelunking”

This might sound a bit pretentious. But, if you want to be taken seriously as a caver, avoid the words “spelunking” and “spelunker” at all costs. Using the word “spelunking” is the equivalent of asking how many points a team scored in a baseball game. Technically, it works, but it immediately marks you as a novice. Think of it this way: “spelunk” is the sound someone makes when they fall through a hole and land in a puddle.

Get Out There

Are you ready to start caving? Locate caves in your area by going to www.caves.org and contacting a local grotto (caving club). Most grottoes plan monthly cave trips which provide responsible guides as you become acquainted with caving. Many National Park caves, such as Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, offer “wild cave trips” beyond the normal tourist routes. Be safe and enjoy exploring!


Jenkins, Mark. “Deep Southern Caves.” National Geographic. June 2009. Vol. 215. No. 6. 124 – 141.

Middleton, John and Tony Waltham. The Underground Atlas: A Gazetter of the World’s Cave Regions. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1986.

Taylor, Michael Ray. Cave Passages: Roaming the Underground Wilderness. Scribner: New York, 1996.

www.caves.org (National Speleological Society)

www.hucosystems.com (Cave Mapping Software)

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Allen Maddox August 2, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Pete, Great article. Nice to see a positive caving piece written by someone who knows.

2 Pete Zefo August 3, 2010 at 12:31 am

Thanks Allen. On the Facebook page, there have been a couple comments about “White Noise Syndrome.” I should have addressed that in the article.

Basically, it is believed that a disease called “White Noise Syndrome” is killing cave bats and is being spread by recreational cavers exploring different caves with dirty equipment. As bats are an important part of our ecosystem, please clean your gear in between trips. Your wife will also appreciate that your muddy clothes are no longer in the garage.

3 Drew August 3, 2010 at 1:13 am

Great! im glad I live in southeast Tennessee. Been looking for something new to do, caving is the thing.

4 The Spelunker August 3, 2010 at 6:34 am

Not sure if I agree with the author on “spelunking”, which is a word used in some parts in the US equivalent to the common word “caving”, so how it marks a person a novice, I believe there are no origins to the statement.

5 Mike August 3, 2010 at 8:01 am

Do you mean white NOSE syndrome? that white fungus that bats get on their nose before they die?

6 JB August 3, 2010 at 9:41 am

Do you really want to tell people to trust their lives to a $20 or $30 piece of plastic? I know I wouldn’t… You should always have a minimum of three sources of lighting when you go into caves (IMO). A floody headlamp with several modes (different amounts of output, able to select bright light when you need it, and dimmer light elsewhere), a bomb-proof, more “throw” oriented task light, again with several outputs, and a bomb-proof back up light.

I use a Zebralight H30-Q5 ( http://www.zebralight.com/H30-Q5-Headlamp-CR123-Flood_p_9.html ) as my headlamp…

A Ra Clicky 140 narrow ( http://www.ralights.com/?id=ClickyTactical ) as my task light… Extremely durable light, on par with Surefire as far as build quality goes. A Small American company, with a reputation of producing some of the most functional, durable and user adjustable lights out there. The lights have 4 modes, each of which can be programmed to have one of 22/23 different outputs, or one of three strobes. Extremely long battery life, which is a major plus in a Cave. Also water resistant to 66 feet, a plus if it gets dropped in a stream/pool of water, etc.

And a Fenix E01 as a backup… (http://www.4sevens.com/product_info.php?cPath=22&products_id=435&osCsid=a5af17f1d592e6b6fe388dfd37fc6766 ). Load it up with a Lithium AAA cell, and you’ve got a long running (20+ hours, continuous),very durable, albeit dim, back up light. Also a good light to use while changing batteries in your other lights.

Yes, that’s over two hundred in lights. But I’m going into a very hostile environment. I need lights that I can trust to function without fail, every time.

Otherwise, good article. I really enjoy your blog. Keep it up!

7 Hubert Crowell August 3, 2010 at 10:26 am

Good writting Pete, I believe that you have added another hobby of writting to your one of caving. Keep up the good work.
About the word Spelunker, Most cavers I have meet over the years would look at you kind of strange if you refer to yourself as a Spelunker. Caver is the most common term, unless you are in another country, then you may be a Pot-holer (no such word, but in England they go Pot-holing in Pot-holes), or something else. Each country has there own name for the sport.

8 Dauvit Balfour August 3, 2010 at 11:18 am

Good article. I did quite a bit of caving my freshman year of college, but have only been on a few trips since then (all in southern Indiana). I would definitely encourage people to go try it out. Grotto trips are a good way to get started.

I concur with your assessment of the word “spelunking”. I had it put to me once in a way I quite liked: cavers rescue spelunkers. I’ve never met an experienced caver who called it spelunking, but then I’ve rarely met any that weren’t from Indiana or the TAG region.

If anyone from Indiana is interested, the Central Indiana Grotto meets the first Wednesday of the month at 7:30 in the War Memorial downtown. It’s a good group, though I only attend sporadically.

9 Jeff August 3, 2010 at 12:27 pm

My only point of contention is that I believe “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time,” is actually a boy scout motto (Granted it applies to caving as well).

Wild caving was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and hope to do again. We went about a mile down or so (not straight down obviously).

10 jason August 4, 2010 at 7:56 pm

This has been something that I have been thinking about for some time now. I live in Atlanta so the GA cave you mentioned will be easy for me to get to.

11 mens designer t shirts August 5, 2010 at 6:54 am

Great piece guys! This is something I’ve always thought I might try but being honest, never dared try due to the obvious risks involved. Great advice though, although a lot of it I suppose is common sense.

Keep ‘em coming guys.

12 Will August 5, 2010 at 10:03 am

Jason, If you’re interested in caving, you should come to a Dogwood City Grotto meeting. It’s a great way to find folks in the Atlanta area to cave with. We meet at the Atlanta REI (off I-85) the first Tuesday of every month @ 7:00.

Also, I second the statement about “spelunkers”. Just don’t use it. When you hike, you’re a hiker; you climb, you’re a climber; you get the idea. Or to quote an old bumper sticker, “Cavers rescue spelunkers”.

Excellent article, by the way. This article, paired with the mountain men write-up, has secured this site as my all time favorite.

13 Pete Zefo August 5, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Will, I am also in the Atlanta area (Kennesaw). Maybe we could host an Art of Manliness Cave trip to Pettyjohns.

14 Will H August 5, 2010 at 6:17 pm

I’m not sure if this has already been mentioned, but some caving grottos have many more trip reports than announced trips if you know what I mean.
In order to get going in the groups, all you need to do is be outgoing. Find out who has been going on some neat trips, and if they don’t announce their intentions, go up to them, introduce yourself, and ask them if they have any more neat trips coming up.

Also, cave surveying is a great way to get into caves that you usually would be turned down at. For instance, Wind Cave in South Dakota doesn’t usually encourage free-form caving, but even re-survey teams usually find brand new exciting parts of the cave. Here is one of my favorite trip reports from a survey trip into Wind Cave:


If anyone wants more explanation on the job of surveying, post the phrase “I want to know about surveying please” so I can ctrl+f the article later and respond.

15 Clint August 5, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Great post.
Love caving. Did it 2 years ago (i live in Sydney, Australia so Jenolan caves offers some great caves to explore).

Tight spots are one thing, the next challenge will be to explore underground river systems. The danger level increases significantly however :)

16 Aquilifer August 6, 2010 at 11:52 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with JB about his point concerning bringing three modes of light. Yet I know that I would not spend two hundred dollars on flashlights either. Whenever I have gone caving with the Scouts (Eagle ’08) I would bring a headlamp attached to my helmet and at least one handheld light (MiniMag) as well as many extra batteries for both. No matter how many flashlights you bring however always bring something that will not break a bulb or run out of batteries — a candle and matches. Of course, keep your matches water-proofed, caves are wet places.

Unfortunately the caves in KY are closed right now due to White Nose, so no trips in the near future…

17 Kristen August 28, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Hi my name is Kristen Axton, and I am interested in going on a day trip/ caving trip Labor Day weekend. The last time I went I was 12 years old, so that was years ago. I have a group of friends who are interested in going too, but we were wondering if anyone knows a number we can call to find out the details of caving, costs etc. in Georgia. I live in Roswell, GA and would be interested to know which grotto to meet and where to meet them. Thank you for any assistance you can give me! (the novice SPELUNKER-LOL!)

18 Zombie Caver November 12, 2012 at 3:23 pm

One other thing that needed to be mentioned in the article. Never cave alone. Can’t find anyone else to go with you then find something else to do. If you get hurt then you could die, nobody knows if you’re still there or hurt or anything. Rule of thumb is a minimum of three people and the three need to be experienced cavers or at least one of them needs to be. This rule follows the axiom of one to get hurt, one to stay with the injured and one to get help. That is a worse case scenario.
Also never attempt advanced caving techniques without proper training. Several people have died while on a rope climbing, they got in trouble and couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. Caves.org will provide links to groups all across the country that will have people who can teach (and 99.99% of the time for free). Save your money and try out various climbing rigs before you buy. There is no one rig fits all. Some rigs work beautifully for some and awkward for others.
If you find a cave and it has a gate on it, respect it. It’s there for a reason. To protect the cave, to protect the novice/inexperienced and to protect the land-owner from liability.
I’ve been caving hard-core for over 30 years and 20 of those have been on a rope. There is much to learn but it’s all worth learning.

19 Sameer Gupta December 16, 2013 at 3:38 am

Wow. This has got to be one of the most important caving posts of the century. I had practically no clue as to where to start. Thanks so much for writing this. :)

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