Exploring caves: Here's the safe way to do it

Forrest Brown, CNNPublished 4th July 2018
Up next
(CNN) — For some people, the desire to explore a cave is almost irresistible.
It's another world of travel underground, full of potential wonders and possible mysteries waiting to be solved. Has anyone been there before? What lies ahead in the dark? Strange rock formations, underground rivers, animals -- maybe some treasure?
While spelunking -- that's fancy talk for crawling around in caves -- is an adventure, you can still do it safely.
Here are some tips and safety advice to make sure you'll come back to tell of your explorations:

Take a tour in an established cave

The Kentucky Derby may be Louisville's best-known event, but right under the Louisville Zoo, the Mega Cavern draws thrill seekers to the only underground zip line in the US.
OK, let's just admit it: An organized cave tour that caters to tourists with electric lights, staircases and guides isn't exactly an Indiana Jones-style adventure. But this approach does maximize the key words here: Safety and safely.
And you still get to see the glories of an underground destination. In fact, you're much more likely to see more spectacular features and in much better lighting than if you're off with a little group on your own with flashlights and lamps.
Here's a tiny sampling of established cave tours around the world just to give you an idea of the options:
-- Cango Caves, South Africa: You can take an easy tour -- called a "heritage tour" -- or an adventure tour. Either way, you'll find dripstone caverns with towering formations. (Cango Valleie Road, Oudtshoorn, 6625, South Africa; +27 44 272 7410)
-- Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico: Above ground, see cactus and desert wildlife. Below ground, see the Big Room, the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. (727 Carlsbad Caverns Highway, Carlsbad, New Mexico 88220; +1 575-785-2232)
-- Reed Flute Cave, China: This tourist attraction in southern China is named for the reeds found growing outside it. Access is by foot. Inside, you'll find various stalactites, pillars and rock formations. (1 Ludi Road, Xiufeng Qu, Guilin Shi, Guangxi Zhuangzuzizhiqu, China, 541000; +86 773 269 5075)

Safety tips if you're roughing it

So, an organized cave tour isn't your thing -- you want a more raw adventure. That's fine. Let's just make sure you exit happy and healthy.
"Caving is not necessarily a high-risk activity, but in certain situations and particular conditions, it can be," writes Sam Frushour for the Indiana Geological and Water Survey at Indiana University. "The level of risk involved in caving is, to a very large extent, related to the risk-taking behavior of the participants. ... Exercising good judgment will reduce the level of risk when caving."
Let's start with your companions. Have some. Do not go into a cave alone, warns the US Forest Service. It says your group should have at least four people and no more than eight. Children should never be in a cave without an adult.
Also, make sure someone knows your group is planning to explore a cave. Let family and friends know when you're leaving and when you expect to return.
Read up on the cave before you go. That might take away a little of the joy of discovery, but it's better to be prepared for your cave's particulars.

What to take

The Southeastern Regional Association of the National Speleological Society suggests you have the following items when you go caving:
-- Helmet: Bring a hard hat with a chin strap. Your primary source of light should be mounted on top.
-- Backup lights: Have at least two sources of backup light. Waterproof flashlights are a good idea.
-- Gloves: They'll protect against cuts and scrapes.
-- Knee and elbow pads: You may be doing some crawling in tight spaces.
-- Cave pack: A strong fanny pack or an old military pack can carry extra equipment (water, food, flashlights, batteries, plastic bags, etc.).
-- Food and water: Tote compact, high-energy food such as power bars. Carry extra in case the trip takes longer than your group thought it would or if you become lost.

How to proceed

Beautiful south africa Stalactite and stalagmite formations in the Cango caves
Cango Caves in South Africa.
courtesy South African Tourism
The US National Speleological Society has advice for how to move about, especially for caving newcomers.
It suggests the "three points of contact" approach when you're on uneven ground. That means "having three points on your body supported on immovable objects."
It also says to be sure to keep your team together. And if someone gets tired, rest. This isn't a race. It can be disorienting in a cave, and the last thing you need is to be overexerted.
You and your team should also keep in mind other possible hazards besides getting lost:
-- Watch for falling rocks: That's why that helmet and light source are so important. And secure your own equipment so it's not a hazard to others.
-- Hypothermia: You may enter a cave on a sweltering summer day, but it might be quite cool in there. You could find yourself with a lower body temperature without even realizing it. Be sure to dress appropriately for the cave you're exploring.
Frushour writes that "falls are by far the most common type of caving accident. Slow down and watch where you are stepping. Running, jumping and other fast movements lead to risk of injury."
And the US Forest Service says don't go into a cave when it's raining or even if there's a prediction of showers in the area. Caves often flood suddenly.

Vertical caving and cave diving

Scaling vertical heights and scuba diving in caves are highly specialized skills that shouldn't be attempted without special, rigorous training.
You may have rock climbing experience or you might be certified for open-water diving, but that doesn't mean you're ready yet to do that within the confines of a cave. Conversely, experience in spelunking doesn't mean you're ready for vertical caving or diving until you're experienced at outdoor rock climbing and open-water diving.

What if there's an accident?

This is why having at least four in your group is so important. If someone is hurt or stuck, one person should stay with the injured party while the other two return to get help, the US Forest Service says.
And make sure your cave team has that first-aid kit and extra food and water for the people staying behind as well as the people going for help.