Equipment and Kit Needed For The Caving Environment

In 1922, French speleologist Norbert Casteret was exploring the limestone region of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, when he came upon a resurgence near the village of Montespan. During this first exploration, Casteret simply undressed and took a deep breath before plunging into the dark, glacial waters. His second exploration was marginally more sensible, because he took along a few candles and matches, which he kept dry in a rubber bathing cap.

No more than bare essentials may have been enough to sustain Casteret during his epic five-hour journey into the icy gloom of the subterranean Pyrenees, but modern cavers should make use of the comfort offered by advanced technology, which ensures relatively warm bodies and reliable light sources.

Circumstances can vary dramatically from one cave to another. Being appropriately equipped for the exploration trip is essential for your enjoyment and, more importantly, your safe return to the outside world. It is difficult to decide which is more important both clothing and lighting are vital as you would not get very far without them.

Protective clothing

The primary functions of protective clothing are to regulate body temperature and offer physical protection against abrasion. Whatever you decide to wear, remember that once it has been into a cave it will never look the same again.

Overheating can sometimes be a problem in warm, damp caves, but wet and cold conditions are far more common concerns facing the caver. This means that protective clothing should retain body heat and effectively repel water at the same time. Your clothing should never be bulky for it would make tight crawls difficult to negotiate; it should also not be too tight and restrictive so that you are still able to climb a rope or ladder comfortably and easily.

There is no universal coverall suitable for all caves you may encounter. Before you invest in specialized gear determine which type will suit your needs. Decide what type of cave interests you and how regularly you will go caving. If you wish to explore different cave environments you must consider investing in more than one type of caving suit. In cold and wet caves you will need clothing to keep you warm; in warm dry ones, where protection from abrasion is more important, any good-quality coverall will suffice.

Although denim jeans offer protection from scrapes and scratches they restrict movement, especially when you are crawling. Another disadvantage is that, once wet they take a long time to dry. This can become uncomfortable and cold and drain vital body heat.

A good-quality synthetic coverall offers reasonable protection and dries out much faster, but ensure that it comes with a heavy-duty zip that will work even when it is caked in mud.

In most caves you will have to contend with water at some point. Even if you do not have to immerse yourself in it you may have to wade through a pool or duck under a waterfall. in warm, humid caves – especially those found in the tropics water presents no danger, it is just uncomfortable. In all other caves, getting wet can be highly dangerous: it can lower body temperature and lead to hypothermia.

When you know that you will get a little wet, but not completely immersed in water, layering is the best approach. Layered clothing comprises an inner layer that provides thermal protection and a durable outer ‘shell’ that repels the odd splash or spray. A suitable outer layer would be a one-piece coverall made from a tough, abrasion-resistant material. Such fabric usually has a woven nylon or polyester base with a waterproof polyurethane or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) coating. Several brands of outer suits are available from caving equipment suppliers. If none of them are to your liking you could even make one yourself. Take special care when choosing zips, however. They should be of a good quality to ensure that they will still work efficiently even when they are clogged with mud.

The inner layer of the suit, also called the undersuit or ‘furry’, is designed to keep body heat in. It is made from a synthetic fibre such as polypropylene that keeps a layer of warm air trapped close to the skin. Even if it becomes saturated, the water drains quickly and the synthetic fibre of the undersuit should keep its structure and retain most of its insulating properties.

in a cave where you must dive or remain submerged in water for long periods, a good neoprene wetsuit with a thickness of at least 6mm (0.2in) will have to be worn. Do note, however, that one can get very cold in such a suit when one is not moving around; they can also cause severe overheating and exhaustion when one is not in water. Becoming increasingly popular are 3mm (0.1in) shortie wetsuits (arm protection up to the elbow and leg protection up to the knee) that can be worn under the coverall.

Socks

Although dedicated cavers spend much of their time underground suspended from ropes or crawling along narrow passages, their feet are still the major mode of transport. Very careful consideration must be given to comfortable socks and boots.

For general caving outings, ordinary woollen hiking socks will do adequately as they are cheap, warm and comfortable. Some cavers opt for the thicker neoprene variety that offers excellent protection in very cold and wet caving conditions. Made from the same material as wet suits, neoprene socks are much better at keeping your feet warm. The downside is that they tend to be more expensive than a pair of good-quality hiking socks.

Another very good option is waterproof socks made of a patented layered material that allows perspiration to escape without letting water in. These socks come with an elasticized waterproof band around the top, which seals against the leg and prevents water from spilling in. Waterproof socks can be over three times as expensive as woollen socks, however, and might be viewed as an unnecessary luxury item unless you are really serious about caving.

Remember to take along your socks when you go to buy your caving boots -their thickness could affect the size of boot you must choose.

Boots

As with caving suits, the type of caving you do will determine the type of boot you should wear.

Hiking boots are designed to cope with the wear and tear of walking over uneven terrain. Caving boots must withstand much more than that, especially during crawls, when the toecaps often covered in gritty, abrasive mud are dragged over a rough cave floor.

Cheap rubber and fabric hiking boots, often designed for aesthetic appeal rather than durability, are not suitable. They are usually too soft, are not abrasion-resistant and provide very little protection.

In relatively dry caves, good-quality solid-leather hiking boots with a strong rubber sole will suffice. These are widely available, provide excellent ankle support and are relatively abrasion-resistant. Unfortunately, the more solidly constructed models are by far the heaviest and when leather gets wet it becomes even heavier (it also takes a long time to dry). Attempting to dry leather boots by leaving them to bake in the sun is unwise. They usually become stiff in the process and the leather may crack. By quick-drying boots in this way you will make them uncomfortable to wear and shorten their life span.

For wet caves, rubber Wellington boots are a good choice. The standard garden variety is effective as long as the soles are not too flexible, otherwise they may get sucked off your feet in very muddy cave passages. An ankle-length, lace-up rubber boot is a solution to this problem. It laces across the top of the foot, making for a much more secure fit. The advantage of both types of boots is that they are quite cheap, virtually maintenance-free and able to withstand week after week of splashing through stream passages with hardly any care. Before you visit your local caving supplier, try to find an outlet that specializes in protective industrial gear. You may be able to buy exactly what you are looking for, but at a much better price.

A few cavers opt for plastic boots. Although originally designed for mountaineering in snow, they stand up very well to caving conditions. They are, however, more expensive than leather boots and available only from mountaineering suppliers.

Accessories

Cavers use their hands, knees and elbows as much as the soles of their feet, so ensure that these parts of the body are adequately protected for comfort, as well as for safety and unrestricted movement.

Gloves

Although some cavers dislike wearing them, gloves provide good protection and may improve grip.

  • For general caving, fabric or rubberised gardening gloves will do. Choose a type with fairly narrow or elasticized wrists as these are suitable for most purposes. Gloves with wide wrists tend to get caught in ropes or pulled off the hands. They also fill with water and dirt easily, which completely defeats their purpose.
  • Rubber, gauntlet-type gloves with reinforced hands are available from specialist shops and suppliers of industrial gear. These work well in muddy conditions but may make climbing and rope work difficult.
  • Cavers who do much rope-work may be interested in special abseiling gloves. Made of leather. they feature reinforced patches stitched into the palm to protect the hands during fast rappelling.

Protective pads

In caves with long, low crawls, knees and elbows need additional protection. In such conditions, special elbow and knee pads are an important accessory.

  • Elbow pads are usually made from neoprene and slide over the arm like a supportive guard. For very long and very low crawls, elbow pads that extend down to cover the forearm offer even better protection.
  • Different models of knee pads are available; your choice depends on the type of caving you do and your personal preference. Neoprene guards slip over the legs. They cushion the knee during crawls along flat surfaces, but offer less protection on rocky ground.

For very rough, uneven surfaces, you may prefer knee guards with padded backing and a relatively stiff outer shell. They provide excellent protection from the hard cave floor. The downside is that mud and sand may get trapped between the straps and your skin when you are using the pads for an extended period. causing unpleasant chafing. They also restrict your movement and catch on rocks easily.

Helmets

Helmets are an essential part of protective gear and you should never go caving without oneThe head is a very vulnerable part of the body and the dark environment of a cave holds many nasty surprises: whether you accidentally hang your head against the cave ceiling or are hit on the head by a falling rock, such incidents could necessitate a major rescue mission. Safety must always come first, so invest in a good head covering to prevent trauma.

Caving helmets have a hard outer shell that is usually made of carbon fibre, Kevlar or polycarbonate plastic and designed to prevent head injuries. The inner lining of the helmet is designed to fit snugly around the head and cushion it from contact with the hard outer shell. Two designs are used to manufacture inner liners and both are equally effective. In the one, the outer shell is filled with foam rubber (this can cause overheating), in the other with air. In the second type the shell is suspended above the head by a cradle of sturdy straps designed to absorb the impact of any object that falls onto the helmet. If you opt for the latter, avoid

the temptation to use the air space between headband and hard outer shell for storing items like chocolate bars, spare batteries or space blankets. At the very low temperatures often encountered in caves a chocolate bar can harden substantially. If a sizeable rock lands on your helmet you may end up with a chocolate bar shaped impression in your head at best batteries are likely to do far more damage.

If you intend going on one or two easy, undemanding trips to familiarize yourself with caving and are unable to borrow a proper helmet, a construction worker’s helmet is better than nothing at all. Do ensure that you fix a chin strap to it, however, and buy or borrow a head torch that can be strapped onto the helmet, rather than opt for the less reliable clip-on models. Use a few strips of duct tape to keep the straps in place and prevent them from sliding off.

Lighting

Proper lighting is essential for safe caving. This means having a reliable lamp that is bright enough to navigate by and that will last for the duration of your intended trip. The wide range of technology and brands of lamps and torches available can make the choice confusing. This section describes the different components of a lighting system and concludes by putting them together to create a functional system.

The first major choice you need to make is whether you prefer a conventional electrical lamp or a carbide model. Carbide lamps burn gas to give light, while the more familiar electrical torch uses a bulb to turn the chemical energy stored in batteries into light.

The Carbide Lamp

The energy for a carbide lamp is present in a chemical structure made of calcium carbide (a chemical compound containing calcium and carbon). When water is added to this calcium carbide compound a colourless and near-odourless gas called acetylene is produced. (In reality, impurities in the carbide make this gas smell a little like ageing garlic, which some cavers find so unpleasant that they prefer using electric lamps.) When acetylene is burned it gives off a bright soft light that is perfect for caving. Although carbide lamps have been around for a number of years, their fail-safe ease of use and excellent light quality makes them a popular choice even today.

Electric Lamp Systems

The energy for electric lamps is stored in a variety of cells. In very simple terms, a cell is a single unit that produces electricity a number of such cells are combined to form a battery. There are two types of cells available: those that can be recharged repeatedly, and those that cannot and are thrown away.

Non-rechargeable cells are also called primary cells (not to be confused with the term ‘primary caving lamp’). Their energy, once it has been used up, cannot be replenished and they must be discarded.

Rechargeable cells produce electrical current using a reversible chemical reaction. While the cells power a lamp, they are converting chemical energy into electrical energy.

When placed in a charger, the process is reversed and the cells convert electrical current from the charger back into stored chemical energy, ready to light the next caving trip. The process of extracting electricity and then recharging is known as a charge-discharge cycle.

The chemicals a cell uses to produce the reaction that will result in light determine not only its voltage and the amount of electrical energy that you will be able to extract from it; it also determines the number of charge-discharge cycles the cell can withstand, i.e. its total life span. This can range from as little as 50 cycles for alkaline cells, to over 2000 for nickelcadmium cells, which obviously has price implications, so take care when you buy.

Lighting Supply Checklist

The following checklist highlights the key factors a caver should consider when choosing a particular type of cell or battery.

  • Will it produce enough energy to light the entire caving trip? The amount of energy in a cell is referred to as energy density (normally quoted in milli-amp hours, or mAhr). The higher the energy density, the longer the light will last.
  • Will the light be bright enough? The brightness is determined by strengths of the light bulb and the batteries.
  • Determine the reliability by assessing the discharge curve. Will the light be consistently bright throughout, or fade dramatically halfway through or towards the end of your trip? The voltage printed on the side of a cell is called the nominal voltage. As soon as you attach a light bulb the cell’s voltage drops. The rate at which it does this is called the discharge curve. A flat discharge curve means that light produced will stay reasonably constant, while a steeply sloping discharge curve indicates that the light will dim faster.
  • Weight should be considered. Are the cells light enough to carry comfortably? This matters less when they are going to be mounted on the belt, but if they are going to be mounted on your helmet, take weight into consideration.
  • Will the cell be reliable at a low temperature? Some caves can be very cold indeed and certain battery types cease to function when the temperature drops below a certain level.
  • Size is important in determining which cell will be the most economical for you to use. As a rule, bigger cells have a higher energy density than smaller ones as long as their chemical make-up is identical. This means that an alkaline cell of 4.5V, i.e. three times the size of a 1.5V alkaline cell, will produce more than three times the energy released by the smaller one.

Bulbs

A bulb is the part of the lamp that turns electrical energy into light. Although light output is correctly measured in lumens, most cavers refer to the amount of light a bulb can produce by stating the amount of electrical energy it consumes. Quoted in watts (W) this gives a reasonable approximation when comparing one bulb to another.

The most common type of bulb comprises a small tungsten filament inside a glass bulb. As electric current passes through the filament it heats up and gives off light. Ordinary filament bulbs are used for general lighting while travelling through a cave.

Halogen bulbs are filled with a special gas that allows a much higher current to flow through the filament. This results in a brighter light, but also means an increased energy consumption. The strong light generated by halogen bulbs is used in special lamps designed to illuminate long passages or probe the lofty ceiling of a high chamber.

Fluorescent lamps produce bright light by exciting a layer of phosphor. This process is much more efficient than the heating of a filament in a glass tube; the disadvantage is that it requires electronics to generate the high voltage needed to excite the phosphor. A few commercial caving lights do feature fluorescent tubes but these are not commonly used. LEDs are solid-state electronic lamps. They are relatively new to cavers as manufacturers have only recently been able to produce LEDs bright enough for use in this specialized environment.

Despite technological advances, one LED is still not sufficient for a caver’s needs (these lamps generally use between seven and 48 LEDs clustered together). As manufacturers continue to refine their products in an effort to improve the light output, this number is expected to drop.

2 Comments

  1. Robin Stiffin

    Plenty about draughting, but didn’t read anything about bad air, especially in some English caves, where some readers will start their caving. Or is that just a Derbyshire peculiarity….

  2. Robin Stiffin

    I find Wellingtons with a metal safety toecap preferable to ‘ordinary’ wellies, usually gave better tread too.

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