From Academic Kids

Missing image
Inside the cave at Cave Stream, New Zealand

Caving is the recreational sport of exploring caves.

The challenges of the sport depend on the cave being visited, but often include the negotiation of pitches, squeezes, and water. Climbing or crawling is often necessary, and ropes are used extensively.

Caving is often undertaken solely for the enjoyment of the activity or for physical exercise, but original exploration is an important goal for many cavers. Unexplored cave systems comprise some of the last unexplored regions on Earth and much effort is put into trying to locate and enter them. In well-explored regions (such as most first-world countries), the most accessible caves have already been explored, and gaining new caves often requires digging or diving.

Caves have been explored out of necessity for thousands of years, but only in the last century or two has the activity become a sport. In recent decades caving has changed considerably due to the availability of modern protective wear and equipment. It has recently come to be known as an "extreme sport" by some (though not commonly by its practitioners).

Many of the skills of caving can also be used in the sports of mine exploration and urban exploration.


Naming issues

Clay Perry--an American caver of the 1940s--wrote about a group of men and boys who explored and studied caves throughout New England. This group referred to themselves as spelunkers. This is regarded as the first use of the word in the Americas. Throughout the 1950s, spelunking was the general term used for exploring caves in US English. It was used freely, without any positive or negative connotations, although only rarely outside the US.

In the 1960s, the term "spelunking" began to convey the idea of inexperienced cavers, using unreliable light sources and cotton clothing. In 1985, Steve Knutson (editor of American Caving Accidents) made the following distinction:

..."Note that I use the term "spelunker" to denote someone untrained and unknowledgeable in current exploration techniques, and "caver" for those who are."

This sentiment is summed up nicely by the simple message displayed on bumper stickers and t-shirts displayed by many cavers "Cavers rescue spelunkers".

Potholing refers to the act of exploring potholes, a word originating in the North of England for a predominantly vertical cave. The term is often used as a synonym for caving, and outside the caving world there is a general impression that potholing is a more "extreme" version of caving.

Practice and equipment

Helmets are worn to protect the head from bumps and falling rocks. The caver's primary light source is usually mounted on the helmet in order to keep the hands free. Electric lights are most common, with halogen lamps being standard and white LEDs as the new competing technology. Many cavers wear two sources of light on their helmet - one as primary and the other as a backup light in case the first fails. Carbide-based systems are still popular, especially on expeditions.

The type of clothes worn underground varies according to the environment of the cave being explored and the local culture. Typically, the caver will wear a warm base layer that retains its insulating properties when wet, such as a fleece ("furry") suit or polypropylene underwear, and an oversuit of hard-wearing (e.g., cordura) and/or waterproof (e.g., PVC) material. Wetsuits are worn if the cave is particularly wet, and lighter clothing may be worn in warm countries if the cave is dry. In tropical caves thin polypropylene clothing is used, to provide abrasion protection whilst remaining as cool as possible.

On the feet boots are worn (such as wellies), and often neoprene socks ("wetsocks"). Knee-pads (and sometimes elbow-pads) are popular for protecting joints during crawls. Gloves are almost always worn.

Ropes are used for descending or ascending pitches or for protection. Knots commonly used in caving are the figure-of-eight- (or figure-of-nine-) loop, bowline, alpine butterfly, and Italian hitch. Ropes are usually rigged using bolts, slings, and karabiners.

Cavers carry packs filled with first-aid kits, food, extra equipment and bathroom supplies. So-called "pee bottles" are now standard and cavers are expected to carry their waste out with them. For solid waste, several zip-lock type bags (one inside the other) are used, surrounded by aluminum foil (for aesthetic reasons). These are affectionally referred to as "cave burritos."


Caves can be dangerous places; hypothermia, falling, flooding, and physical exhaustion are the main risks. Rescue from underground is difficult and time-consuming. Full-scale cave rescues often involve the efforts of dozens of rescue workers, who may themselves be put in jeopardy in effecting the rescue.

Some common-sense rules apply:

  • Always check to be sure there is no danger of flooding while you plan to be in the cave. Rainwater funneled underground can flood a cave very quickly while the surface remains clear. Factors which can influence the risk of flood include the regional rain forecast, as well as how much rain has already recently fallen in the region: if the ground is already soaked, additional rainfall will be piped much more quickly into the cave.
  • Use teams of at least three cavers – four or more are best. Caving alone is particularly risky.
  • Always make sure someone on the surface knows where you are caving, when to expect you, and how to contact cave rescue services if you fail to return on time.
  • Use a decent light that will last long enough for the trip and a backup that will be sufficient to get you out of the cave. American cavers always recommend a minimum of three sources of light per person, but two lights is common practice amongst European cavers.
  • Sturdy clothing and footwear, as well as a hard hat, are necessary to reduce the impact of abrasions, caver falls, and falling objects. Synthetic fibers and woolens, which shed water, are vastly preferred to cotten materials, which retain water and increase the risk of hypothermia. It is also helpful to have several layers of clothing, which can be shed (and stored in the pack) or added as needed.
  • For trips of more than a short duration, it is best to carry food. A combination of quickly metabolized foods (such as fruit or sweets) and slowly metabolized foods (such as vegetable soup) is best. Unconsumed foodstuffs and their containers should be packed out of the cave for ecological reasons (see Conservation, below.)
  • In watery cave passages, partial or full wetsuits reduce the risk of hypothermia.
  • Beginning cavers should be accompanied by experienced cavers with proper respect for these safety considerations. An established caving group is a welcoming environment to meet experienced cavers, and to find out about cave trips opportunities matching the skills of the newcomer. (See "Caving around the world" below for links to different caving organizations.)
  • Cave passages look different from different directions. In long or complex caves, even experienced cavers become lost. To reduce the risk of becoming lost, it is necessary to memorize the appearance of key navigational points in the cave as they are passed by the exploring party. Each member of a cave party shares responsibility for being able to remember the route out of the cave. In some caves it may be acceptable to mark a small number of key junctions with small stacks or "cairns" of rocks, or to leave a non-permanent mark such as high-visibility flagging tape tied to a projection.
  • Remember that you normally have to get back out the way you came in, and going back up is harder work than coming down. Turn back before you get too tired to get out. When dealing with inexperienced cavers the leader is responsible for deciding whether a trip is suitable and how far they should go before coming back out.
  • Vertical caving involves ladders or SRT (Single Rope Technique). SRT is a complex skill and requires proper training before trying it underground.
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A vertical cave in Alabama, USA


The cave environment is more fragile than most people realize. And, since water that flows through a cave eventually comes out in streams and rivers, any pollution will wind up in someone's drinking water and can seriously affect the surface environment as well.

Cave-adapted living species are most fragile, and a particular species found in a cave may have evolved within that cave alone, and be found nowhere else in the world. Cave-adapted species are accustomed to a near-constant climate of temperature and humidity, and any disturbance can be disruptive to the species' life cycles. You may not even be able to see wildlife in the cave, but it is present in most caves.

Bats are one such fragile species of cave-dwelling animal. Despite their scary reputation in fiction and in the movies, bats have much more to fear from us than we do from them. Bats are friends to humans in many ways, including their important ecological role in reducing insect pest populations, and in the pollenization of plant species. Bats are most vulnerable during the winter hibernation season, when no food supply exists on the surface to replenish the bat's store of energy should it be awakened from hibernation. If you plan to visit to a cave where bats are known to hibernate, consider scheduling your trip during the warmer months when bats are less vulnerable. Be respectful of bats when you encounter them. They are sensitive to both light and sound.

It is best to educate oneself on the life forms found within the caves one explores. Consider contacting the biology department of a university located in the cave region.

Some cave passages may be marked with flagging tape or other indicators to show biologically, aesthetically, or archaeologically sensitive areas. Please respect these markings, and the judgement of those who placed them there, and stay on indicated trails through such passages. A beautiful floor of sand or silt may be millions of years old, dating from the last time water flowed through the cave. Such deposits may be spoiled forever by a single mis-step. Active formations such as flowstone can be similarly despoiled with a muddy footprint or handprint. Ancient human artifacts, such as fibre products, can crumble to dust under the touch of any but the most careful archaeologist.

Organized cave groups often sponsor volunteer efforts to educate the public, and to help preserve or conserve underground wilderness. If you enjoy caving, seriously consider donations of time, money, and/or talent to these efforts.

The caver's motto: Take nothing but pictures. Dont even leave footprints if you can avoid it. Kill nothing but time. What we have now is all there will ever be.

Caving around the world

New Zealand

A national organisation with local clubs represents the recreational caves. See the New Zealand Speleological Society ( for more information.


The best way to get involved in caving in the United States is through the National Speleological Society ( or NSS ( for short. There, one can find a local chapter (called a "grotto"), and meet other cavers who will help train and educate the novice caver and suggest the right type of gear to be purchased.

Most land in the eastern U.S. is privately held, so permission must be obtained from the landowner to look for caves. In the western U.S., a permit for publicly owned lands may be required. Some caves are gated, or closed completely for certain reasons, but even accessible caves may have many laws that apply in order to protect them.

Notable Cave Explorers

  • Bishop, Stephen (USA) Early (~1830s) explorer of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.
  • Boegli, Alfred (Switzerland) Explorer of Hoelloch, Switzerland.
  • Brucker, Roger (USA) Explorer and historian of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.
  • Collins, Floyd (USA) Early explorer (~1920s) of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky.
  • Conn, Herb (USA) Explorer and Surveyor of Jewel Cave, South Dakota.
  • Conn, Jan (USA) Explorer and Surveyor of Jewel Cave, South Dakora.
  • Coons, Donald (USA) Prominent American caver involved with numerous international caving projects. Major discoveries in Big Island, Hawaii and Mammoth Cave, Kentucky region.
  • Exley, Sheck (USA) Pioneering Cave Diver.
  • Kambesis, Patricia (USA) Prominent American cave surveyor. Involved with numerous international caving projects. Major discoveries in Big Island, Hawaii, and Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico.
  • Klimchouk, Alexander (Russia) Prominent cave explorer in Russia and eastern bloc countries. Involved with deep exploration efforts in Poland.
  • Martel, Eduard Alfred (France) Pioneering French cave scientist and explorer. Often credited as the father of speleology.
  • Quick, Peter (USA) Lead explorer involved with the Fisher Ridge Cave System, Kentucky.
  • Stone, William (USA) Pioneering cave diver and prominent explorer of southern Mexico's deep cave systems.

See also


  • Alpine Caving Techniques by Marbach and Tourtes ISBN 3908495105: widely considered to be the bible of caving techniques, particularly by European cavers

External links

de:Spelologie eo:Speleologio fa:غارنوردی fr:Splologie nl:Speleologie


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