Insider Info

Caving is the sport of exploring caves and caverns. Sometimes these caves are natural, and sometimes they are man-made.

Enthusiasts of this sport are called "cavers." Caving can also be referred to as "spelunking," but this term isn't used as much as caving. The word spelunking comes from "speleology" -- the scientific study of caves.

Most caves are produced in limestone rock. Over time, the weak acids that are normally present in groundwater eat away at the limestone. This is how caves are formed. It takes water hundreds of thousands of years to form a cave.

Caves are a whole different kind of world.

"The coolest thing about caving is exploring another world that few people get to see," says West Coast caver Richard Varela. "You can't imagine gymnasium-size rooms full of amazing crystals -- and that fossils are waiting under the forest floor for you to explore. Caves are one of the last places on Earth left unexplored!"

A caver descends a drop in Leigh Cave. The cave is located in Clinton, New Jersey.
Courtesy of: Diane Reichert (Northern New Jersey Grotto)

Caves can't be found just anywhere. One way to know if you're in caving country is to look for hilly or mountainous landscapes.

There are two main types of caving:

  • Horizontal caving is the type most people are familiar with.
  • Vertical caving is often called technical caving. It is also popular with seasoned caving experts.

Some cavers have hobbies associated with caving. These can include cave photography, cave mapping, cave science and cave diving. Some cavers also get into cave digging -- removing rubble and debris from passages to open up new sections in the cave.

Almost anyone can be a caver.

"Cavers come from all walks of life," says Don Lance. "There are doctors, secretaries, scientists, construction workers, pilots, policemen, sign painters. All these people share the common bond of loving caves."

The sport of caving began in France before the First World War. It came to North America, where there are plenty of caves to explore! The sport is popular. The National Speleological Society has 12,000 members. There are about 200 local clubs, called "grottos," that belong to the society.

If you get hooked on caving you'll likely want to buy your own equipment. How much you spend varies, depending on what you buy. Here is a list and some estimates.

  • For horizontal caving you'll probably spend about $500 on new equipment. You might be able to purchase some good used equipment from other cavers in your grotto. This should include a helmet, primary and backup lighting, protective suits, thermal underwear, kneepads, gloves, kit bags, slings and other accessories.Varela estimates a good helmet will cost about $80, and a cave suit will cost about $175.
  • For vertical caving, figure on spending about $250 more for the ropes and pulleys you'll need. When in doubt, find out what other cavers in your area use. Varela estimates rock climbing gear will cost about $75 to $150.

You don't necessarily have to spend a fortune, says Varela.

"Your own gear could be put together fairly inexpensively. A regular hardhat at $8 -- plus a chinstrap and a $25 light -- is all you need to get started, assuming you have a spare flashlight, good boots, and some old clothing," he says.

Caving can be dangerous. The most common injuries come from falls. Other hazards include flooding, rock instability, getting stuck, getting lost, light failure, exhaustion and hypothermia (in which the body's temperature falls to a dangerously low level).

For these reasons, you should never go caving alone. In addition, you should always tell someone of your plans and when you are scheduled to return.

Caving is physically demanding. Yet there are ways for physically challenged persons to get involved. There have been blind cavers, and spelunkers with artificial limbs -- one person used his artificial leg as a piece of caving equipment!

For those in a wheelchair, accessing caves can be a problem -- but vertical caving (where you lower yourself by a rope) is well suited to those without the use of their legs. It's best to check with your local grotto and see what's possible in your area.

Cavers are very conscious of the environment. They have strict rules about what you can and can't do in a cave. You can halt the centuries of work that goes into producing a stalactite or stalagmite simply by touching it.

The caver's motto is: "Take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time, leave no trace." Littering or otherwise messing up a cave is a definite no-no.

If you really love caving, you might be able to find work related to it. Tourism-related caving is becoming very popular, so experienced guides are seeing a bit of demand for their talents. And, depending on how many cavers there are in your area, you could open up your own caving supplies and equipment store.

Getting Started

A new caver should start out by finding a caving club, or "grotto." Join it! There, you'll learn the basics of caving. Plus, since you should never cave alone, the club will provide you with lots of friends to go exploring with.

For your first few caving expeditions, members of the grotto will take you into some easy caves. They may even loan you the equipment you'll need.

Some community colleges have courses on caving, so check around.

Diane Reichert is a caving enthusiast from New Jersey. She has this advice:

"Visit the National Speleogical Society's Web site. There you can find your local grotto organization. They will tell you what to wear, what to bring and possibly lend you gear. They will also teach you many techniques for caving -- not to mention they know where all the interesting caves are!"


The National Speleological Society
2813 Cave Ave.
Huntsville , AL   35810-4413

National Association for Cave Diving
P.O. Box 14492
Gainesville , FL   32604


Basic Caving Info
Good beginner's information from the National Speleological Society

Northern New Jersey Grotto
Check out caving in New Jersey and the club's great pictures

Cave Exploring - Cave Types
Read info and see photos on the different types of caves

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