Caving Beginners – Getting Started and Trip Preparation

Caving is a potentially dangerous activity so no outing should be taken lightly. Never underestimate your chances of getting hurt or meeting some other ill fate. Good preparation and thorough planning are essential the success or failure of a caving trip is often determined long before you get to the cave. As a newcomer to the sport you will not be required to do much planning until you have gained more experience. However, some basic rules and considerations must always be known and adhered to by all even novices.


Many caves are no longer accessible to cavers because previous teams failed to get the necessary permission. Very few cavers are fortunate enough to have free access to land on which caves are found. Before you set off on any expedition, obtain permission from the relevant authority. If you need to travel across privately owned land in order to reach the cave, be sure to approach the legal owner of the property in advance. Access procedures are often published in guide books or available from local caving organizations.

Contingency Planning

Caving accidents can happen unexpectedly so it is vital to take certain precautions beforehand just in case things go wrong. The leader of the expedition should leave important details about the route and the caving team with a responsible contact person, who should also receive detailed instructions about what to do in _ case of an emergency. If possible, the contact person should be an experienced caver too, preferably even someone who knows the cave you intend to visit so that he or she is able to judge whether something has gone wrong or not. The family of each team member must know who this anchor person is and be able to contact him or her if they have any concerns.

The Team And Its Leader

Before you go on a caving trip you should know why you want to visit that particular cave -be it to conduct a survey or purely for the adventure of caving as a sport. The team should always match the objectives of the trip and vice versa. This means that the type of cave and the reason for your visit will determine the team members, their level of experience and expertise.

Although some experienced teams, especially those who often go caving together, can do without a formal leader, most groups will appoint one person to take responsibility for the safety of the entire team.

A leader will have to think and act in the interest of all participants, and must have the courage to make judgement calls when required to do so. His or her duty begins with a careful evaluation of the intended caving outing and its specific degree of difficulty versus the levels of experience present in the team. If technical rope work is required, for instance, the entire team must be suitably qualified to go on the trip.

Not everyone is cut out to lead -certain qualities make some people better leaders than others:

  • A leader is responsible for the team and must assess the ability and experience of each member to ensure that everyone is suitably qualified for the trip. Emergency procedures and thorough contingency plans are put in place by the leader.
  • Confidence and experience are required to lead a team into a cave and safely back out again.
  • The team leader needs to ensure that all team members know exactly what to expect from the trip and what special gear they should bring along.

In teams that include one or more beginners (or a caver who is seriously out of practice), the leaders role becomes even more important, since inexperience or ignorance cannot be allowed to endanger an entire team. The leader must sometimes overrule a decision made by someone else and have the courage to do so. Although this may not earn popularity points, it will be in the team’s best interest and, therefore, to everyone’s benefit.

As the team leader will be responsible for the safety of the whole team, the choice should always fall on an experienced caver who is able to calmly guide and advise beginners in an unfamiliar environment.

If you are planning a working trip, such as a cave survey or a photographic session, for example, it is best to keep the team as small as possible. Working teams tend to move through a cave very slowly because each member has a specific task to perform. Since not many people are required to do what needs to be done, the others could end up sitting around bored and cold.

For training trips into easy caves, ensure that there is a good mix of experienced and novice cavers (the exact proportion will depend on the cave) so that the beginners have an opportunity to learn. Technical training trips into vertical caves require a much higher proportion of experienced cavers than sightseeing trips into horizontal caverns.

Getting There

Getting to a cave can be just as exciting and dangerous as getting into it. Many good caving areas are densely populated and it is often possible to drive right up to the entrance of a cave. However, if you intend caving in a remote wilderness, ensure that there is someone with you who knows the access route.

You may need to hire a local guide, so send out a reconnaissance team before the main team starts out. You should also have a detailed topographical map of the area (one that shows specific landmarks and physical features such as rivers and mountains) to avoid getting lost.

Away from the main roads, reliable maps and a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver available from any good outdoor supplier will make navigation easier. A GPS device uses satellites to determine your position, anywhere in the world, to within 10m (33ft); depending on location and number of satellites it can detect, it may even be 10 times as accurate. (Note: although a GPS receiver can determine latitude and longitude, it is ineffective for determining altitude.)

Before you drive your vehicle to a cave, check that the access area is not in restricted territory and be sure to obtain permits and permissions. If you have to cross private property, show consideration by leaving land and gates the way you found them. A friendly land owner will not be quite as accommodating next time, if his prize bull escapes through a gate you left open.

Pre-trip Briefing

Before starting out on an expedition, the leader should brief the team to ensure that they have realistic expectations and know what is expected of them.

During this briefing the leader must discuss aspects such as the walk into the cave, he must also highlight the potential dangers, mention specific requirements of the trip, point out obstacles that may be encountered and state any other relevant information about the environment the team is about to enter. The briefing is also an opportunity to put novices at ease by answering any questions they may have.

All team members must be informed of the expected duration of the trip. In addition, the briefing should inform everyone about emergency procedures and any contingency plans that have been put in place in the event of an accident. It is essential that each member knows exactly what to do in an emergency.

Some caves contain sensitive areas to which entry is prohibited for safety or conservation reasons, or due to ongoing scientific research. While obtaining permission to visit a cave, i.e. during the planning stages in preparation for the outing, a team leader would have enquired with the relevant authorities whether any such limitations apply to the cave or the territory in which it is located. If restrictions do apply, these are shared with the team in the briefing session (and if it is a cave your team has visited before, this is an excellent time to remind them of no-go areas).

Flagging tape (similar to the plastic tape the police use to cordon off sensitive areas) is sometimes used underground to restrict access or demarcate clear routes through vulnerable areas. Note that this tape is used to mark the path you should tread on, and in rare instances to block off entire areas no-one should venture into. All the cavers in your group must know exactly what the tape means,where they can expect to find it and how they should proceed.

If you use a survey map to assist navigation through the cave, team members should familiarize themselves with the survey and the intended route. This will give newcomers to the cave an idea of what to expect and lessen their chances of getting lost.

Food For Energy

Caving requires an enormous amount of energy, so it is important to ensure that you have enough sustenance and good general fitness that will allow you to complete the caving trip. Consult a dietician for advice if you have any concerns or need to establish whether your food intake is balanced. If you are able to partake in a strenuous day-long mountain walk, you should be fit enough to go caving for a day.

Your muscles and brain utilize glucose as their main source of energy. Although muscles can also use fats as a fuel, they will burn sugar first, so aim to keep the glucose levels in your blood relatively constant. Two . main sources of glucose are readily available: sweet foods that contain refined sugar (i.e. chocolate bars) and in carbohydrate-rich foods such as apples, pears, lentils, beans and oats.

Before you go on a strenuous caving trip boost your system by consuming complex carbohydrates the night before, just as any other sportsman or woman would, to ensure a relatively slow release of energy throughout the next day (the body converts carbohydrates into glucose).

Begin the day you go caving with a good breakfast of oat porridge to boost your carbohydrate levels. if you really must have eggs and bacon, add a good helping of

baked beans to provide the necessary slow release of energy you will need. If you are going caving for the entire day take along oatmeal crunchies or muesli snack bars. Even a light sandwich will boost blood sugar levels significantly, but be sure to store your sandwiches in a tightly sealed plastic container, or they will degenerate into an unappetizing soggy lump at the bottom of your bag.

If you require an energy boost in the cave, candy bars are good for this as they provide your body with energy in a ready-to-use form. Keep a few small chocolate bars handy, to use as energy top-ups before a long climb or a very tight squeeze through a narrow passage. They will also be useful in cold conditions, because the instant fuel is burned by the body quickly to keep you warm. If you are feeling light-headed, your blood sugar levels may be low: sit down, rest for a while and suck a glucose sweet.

Sufficient water intake is a must on caving trips, as the body can dehydrate alarmingly quickly. Plan on drinking at least one litre of water per day while you are underground even more if you are in a hot cave. It is advisable to take potable water into the cave with you rather than run the risk of having to drink polluted or contaminated water underground.


The type of cave and the planned route will determine the equipment you take along. After consulting with the leader, select the appropriate gear. it is a good idea to take a little extra in case of an emergency, but the key is to pack wisely. Too much equipment will weigh you down, slow your progress and make your caving trip a miserable haul. Please remember that your safety will often be dependant on your equipment – if you have low quality or old gear you may want to consider taking out a loan to buy replacements. Don’t forget to compare no credit check options or interest free options before taking a loan.

Hidden Hazards

Although the dark underground environment can be dangerous, you can avoid most caving hazards quite simply by possessing adequate knowledge about them. Apart from the obvious perils presented by tripping, falling into pits, banging your head and being hit by falling rocks, you will need to know how to cope with several other situations.


When you begin planning a trip, find out from the land owner or your local caving club whether the cave you intend visiting is prone to floods.

If there is any risk of flooding, take the warning seriously. Before venturing into the cave, contact the local weather station and also ask the opinion of local cavers who know the area. If wet weather has been predicted, postpone your trip.

Cave Diseases

Any waterborne diseases occurring in the surface water of a particular area is likely to be present underground as well, so cavers should be aware of them.

Again, check with local caving clubs and the health authorities before you go, or you could land up drinking what may look and taste clean, but contains parasites like roundworm, bilharzia or giardiasis. if you have to drink cave water, take preventive measures by using water-purifying tablets. Obtainable at most outdoor shops, these tablets are inexpensive and easy to use, but ensure that you follow the instructions carefully.

Histoplasmosis is a fungus that grows on bat guano and bird droppings. Although it often occurs in caves that house bat colonies, it is more common in warmer, drier caves. Exposure causes flu-like symptoms, as well as coughing and a headache, but can be quite serious. If you feel as though you are suffering from flu about a week after visiting a guano cave, tell your doctor where you have been as it may help him with the diagnosis.

Avoid caves that are known to be infected, or wear a face mask that filters the air you breathe. Check with health authorities for suitable specifications.

Caving Accidents

If your team has met with misfortune in a cave, either in the form of an accident or by getting lost in an unfamiliar system of passages, a number of crucial decisions will have to be made. The most important of these is whether to stay where you are and wait until help arrives, or try and find your way back to the cave entrance and the outside world.

Getting Lost

Losing your way can be a serious problem, especially in larger cave systems. If you are unfamiliar with the cave you are going to explore, it is essential that you try beforehand to obtain a survey map from a local caving club to assist you. Remember to keep a constant check on your position while you venture in deeper.

Some clubs publish their own guides to popular caves in the area and also provide surveys and useful practical information regarding any special equipment that may be required, as well as possible hazards.

If no survey is available, you will have to memorize your route. This takes practice as cave passages tend to look very different on the way out. A good tip is to turn around every now and again while you are going into the cave, to see what the passage looks like when you are facing the other way.

Build a small cairn (pile of stones) at the exit of a passage when you enter a larger chamber: There may be other passages that look very similar to the one you came from and you could get lost in a maze. The cairn serves as an indicator for the correct exit passage.

If you are completely lost, rely on the contingency plans you have made. Keep your group together, stay where you are and wait for help to arrive. You are expected back at a certain time and someone will come looking for you if you don’t show up. There is nothing to do but wait, save battery power and try and remain warm by sitting huddled together. If you have made no contingency plans, or been unable to do so – do not chance getting lost! Don’t venture into unknown systems and don’t explore too deeply.

Watch Out For Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition that sets in when the body rapidly loses so much heat that its internal temperature sinks below a level at which life can be sustained. This is a surreptitious and particularly dangerous threat to cavers because it is associated with cold, wet or windy conditions and the onset of the symptoms is insidious.

It is essential for every caver to be able to recognize the warning signs of early-stage hypothermia and know how to combat the condition quickly and effectively. Unless further heat loss is prevented, a patient‘s condition will deteriorate rapidly, eventually resulting in coma, cardiac arrest and death. Immediate treatment for hypothermia victims entails stopping to rest where you are and warming the patient without delay. The early warning signs are:

  • Uncontrollable fits of shivering and a very intense feeling of cold.
  • Confusion, poor judgement and irritability.
  • Repeated stumbling, slurred speech.
  • Stiff muscles.
  • Cold, blue feet and hands.

Coping With Injuries

Although detailed first-aid information is not within the scope of this site, every caver should know some general rules and have an idea of how to cope with injuries. if you intend to go caving on a regular basis, join one of the hands-on first-aid courses offered by a reputable training organization. The first step with an injured patient is to assess the situation:

HAZARDS: Check that the hazard which caused the injury is no longer a factor. If a caver was hit by a falling rock, check that rescuers can safely go in to assist or you may end up with more than one patient. HELLO: Check to see that the patient is conscious. A caver who is awake may be able to tell you where the pain is and whether movement is possible.

If the patient is unconscious, do not move him.

Always treat unconscious patients as if they have sustained a neck injury. Restrict movement of the neck and spine to an absolute minimum until the patient has been stabilized by a medical rescue team. HELP: Once the hazard has been removed from the patient, or vice versa, keep the patient warm and send for help. Moving an injured team-mate through a cave is very difficult and may further endanger him, so call for professional medical help right away.

Sensible Caving

Every caver must have at least a basic knowledge of how to get out of a nasty situation, or assist a team-mate who is in trouble or injured. This is particularly important when you have gone on a caving expedition in a remote area that does not have the infrastructure to support an organized mountain or caving rescue team.

Your foremost aim should be not to endanger yourself or others in the first place. If you use your common sense and adhere to a few simple rules, the outing is sure to be a fun-filled and interesting adventure, rather than a harrowing experience.

  • Memorize your route through the cave and take whatever precaution you can to avoid getting lost.
  • At least one member of your team must have a working knowledge of first-aid routines and should carry a small medical kit. I Especially important for vertical caves is that you should always carry spare equipment with you, in case your primary equipment fails or is lost down a steep crack and cannot be retrieved.
  • Learn how to use alternative methods for climbing and descending ropes. It is good to know how to use prusik knots instead of ascenders, or rappel (abseil) without a descender. Although these techniques are more dangerous than actually using the correct equipment, they could be a lifesaver one day, so ask your SRT instructor to teach them to you.

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