If you are reading this, you probably know what spelunking is already. Just in case you’re new to the term, spelunking is the sport of exploring caves and caverns under the surface of the earth. It is an incredibly demanding activity, and takes a lot of time, dedication, and an enormous amount of preplanning and preparation. That being said, should you take the time to dedicate yourself to this amazing activity, you will be hooked, because you can see sights that are incredibly beautiful, and yet alien to our surface-world eyes.
Preparing to Brave the Deep
Before you ever see the inside of a cave and head down into the depths, there is a LOT of preparation. You need to be of sound mind and body before even thinking about heading into the depths. The smallest thing wrong with you can become huge, as moving around in a cave isn’t always walking a straight path. It involves, many times, a lot of climbing, crawling and walking, and takes a great amount of endurance. Even experienced spelunkers know that they need to physically prepare well in advance, and it is always a good idea to make sure that you are working out regularly, and have a good sense of your healthy wellbeing before you head below.
One piece of advice: If you have claustrophobia of any level, heading to a big cave system can be a good idea to help you get over it, and there are some great places you can go. There are MANY places under the ground where it is hard to squeeze through. Here’s a helpful article by Ordinary Traveler on caving for claustrophobes.
Getting Your Gear
When you go underneath the earth, first, you should never go alone. Doing so is a good way, unless it is a very well documented cave with a lot of traffic, to have the potential to never be heard from again. You should have a good, yet very thin, backpack, and carry the supplies with you that you will need, for there will be no way to replenish anything where you are going. If you are planning an all-day trip, try to get high-energy foods that don’t take a lot of space or heating.
Pro-tip: MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, have been a military staple for many decades, but grabbing one of those and putting it in your backpack is literally all the calories you need for a full day. They are usually really tasty too!
It's cold underground. Not usually mind-numbingly cold, but it will be a constant and consistent temperature in the cave. If you are as far south as Texas, for example, you might find that it is 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If in Wisconsin, though, it will likely be down to a chilly 50 degrees. Try to plan your dress accordingly, and use many thin layers instead of a few bulky ones. Check out this great article on Wonderopolis on underground temperatures and more.
Make sure you make your checklist, including strong lights, enough batteries to get you through, matches and some candles (you never know!) and finally, water. A CamelBac, or similar hydration pack, is a good idea; make sure you have enough water for a few days, though. If the worst happens, well, you can survive a long time doing without anything, except water.
Planning Your Trip
We suggest that novice spelunkers don’t head to the nearest rocky hole in the ground and jump in. You never know what you are going to find, and it’s a gamble. Always try to go with a decent sized group, and never let one person carry every of one thing. For example, don’t let one person carry all the water or all the batteries. Always let multiple people know where you are going, and what path you are planning on taking, especially if it is a mapped-out cave.
Set up safety calls, to make sure that the person who knows you are going caving also knows when it is time to stop waiting on you to contact them, and contact the authorities to get you some help, if necessary. When going spelunking, also check out as much information as you can about the local cave system, and print out maps. Your phone won’t work that well down there anyhow (no cell service where you are going!).
Entering the Cave
For the more adventurous, heading on overnight stays in the great deep is a thrill beyond words. You may have to go through many twists and turns to get there, climb steep underground chutes and crawl through tiny tunnels, and walk through immense caverns. It is strenuous, so make sure you take regular breaks, hydrate, and keep your energy up with snacks.
Also, for longer trips, make sure you time your sleep with a watch, because it isn’t so easy to gauge the time for rest when in a nearly unchanging environment. It will also be wet in many places, and slippery. Waterproof everything is the best, and after a particularly strenuous descent, or a long crawl through a tunnel, you could be soaked if you don’t have good gear.
One good thing about more popular caves, though, is that there are networks of guides around the world who can take you through them. They will nearly always give you checklists for how to prepare, and the estimated times, etc. Going with a guide until you are well into the sport is pretty much a mandatory part of it. Check out the National Speleological Association website, which can give just about all the contacts necessary to get in touch with a caving club near you. Pretty much every country on Earth has some caving association, and they can help you plan your trip.
It’s Truly Unknown Territory
While spelunking can take you down well documented and known paths, the vast majority of caves on the planet have not even been discovered yet, let alone mapped. The longest known cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave in Tennessee, is over 400 miles long, yet even with many volunteer mapper hours (more than 10,000 per year!) the cave has still not been fully mapped and explored. On smaller caves and cave systems, you have an excellent chance at being the first person to see a cavern, or a beautiful stalagmite or stalactite that may never have been seen by human eyes before (and may not ever be again, depending on how far and deep you go!). That is a heady feeling, and worth the effort you will put in.
Famous Caves and Where to Start
Read about spelunking on the NSA website, and about some cool caves near you. The most famous systems in the world include the Mulu Caves in Malaysia, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the Skocjan Cave System in Slovenia, Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, the Reed Flute Cave in southern China, Mammoth Cave, the Eisriesenwelt Ice Cave in Austria, and many others. Check out this great list from Touropia.
Wherever you decide to go caving, be safe, stay warm, and have the time of your life! We’d love to hear about your spelunking adventures in the comments!