How to Stay Safe while Spelunking

In case you are wondering what the hell is spelunking, don’t worry it’s not a new strange disease; it is the recreational sport of exploring caves and vaults in the earth. There is something about caves that is mysterious and fascinating. Caves could represent for us the final frontier –an unknown subterranean universe full of mazes, chambers, waterfalls, tight spaces, deep crevices, and even bizarre creatures.

Spelunking is more than just a walkthrough in a beautiful cave, it requires hiking, climbing, crawling, swimming, rappelling, and wriggling through tight spots, among others.  With the chance of doing some, if not all, of the previously mentioned activities, we can say that spelunking comes with some degree of danger.  But, with proper attention to safety, this extreme sport can be as safe as a regular walkthrough.  Here are some tips that will keep your spelunking experience as safe and thrilling as possible.

Educate yourself – Spelunking, also known as caving, can vary from a light exercise walk and climb to an extreme and physically demanding rappel.  Know how challenging the cave might be and if you are physically capable of doing it.

ALWAYS have a companion – Never go caving alone.  A small group of 4 to 6 people is preferable.  If you’re not hiring a guide, make sure that at least two of your companions are experienced cavers and know the cave well.

Spelunking safety

Have the proper gear – Always carry a hard hat, a headlight, and proper shoes.  It is recommended to have three different light sources and to carry extra batteries (your light is the single most important piece of equipment and you don’t want to be left in the dark halfway!).  Sometimes wearing gloves and kneepads –also known as spelunker’s best friends– will save you from a lot of pain.  You might also want to carry a facemask; some caves have a strong guano smell.

Wear proper clothes – Please… don’t wear your Sunday best.  An old pair of jeans and a t-shirt will suffice.  Your clothes will get wet and dirty; and in most cases, don’t expect to get them clean.  Your clothes should have a good fit on you and shouldn’t limit your movements’ flexibility.  Most caves have a comfortable warm weather but some chambers can go down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), so you might want to dress in layers with synthetic fabrics, like nylon and polyester.  These fabrics tend to dry faster –reducing the chance of hypothermia– and they are more resistant to scrapes and snags common to spelunking.

Test your ropes – Ropes are one of the most important pieces of equipment when you do an extreme spelunking with rappelling.  Test your life-line before caving; it must support you and your gear in a lingering hang. Use a safety-line as a backup in case of a fall.

Spelunking at Costa Rica

Carry a First Aid Kit – Cuts and scratches do occur often. Clean and medicate them immediately to prevent infections such as leptospirosis.

Check your breathing – Deep caves can have a reduced amount of oxygen.  Check for oxygen using a match, lighter, or candle.  If you start feeling dizzy, out of breath, or a burning sensation in your throat, stop and exit the cave at a steady pace.

Keep your energy – Always carry energy bars and water to replenish your energy.  Take breaks when necessary.

Never go caving when it’s raining – Caves can flood extremely fast.

Leave Markers – As you go further in, leave markers to show your way out.  On your return pick up your markers, don’t leave them in the cave as waste.

Don’t take unnecessary risks – Always look for the easiest way to navigate the cave.  When you have the choice of jumping over a crevice or taking 5 minutes to go around it, choose to go around it.  Injuries, even the smallest ones, are magnified by the difficulty of evacuating an injured person out of the cave.

Spelunking at Venado Cave in Costa Rica

Be patient and don’t force things – Go slow and take your time while crossing or crawling through tight spaces; a bad position can injure or cramp your muscles.  If you don’t fit, don’t force it.  Don’t run the chance of getting stuck.

Know what to do in case someone gets injured – If someone gets injured and can’t make it out of the cave on their own, stop there and send two or more persons for help –police or paramedics.  Make sure they know the exact location where the injured person is and the extent of the injuries.  Never leave the injured alone.

Inform others about your caving plans – Sometimes you can get lost in a cave.  In such cases, don’t panic and stay put.  Always let people know about your spelunking plans.  Inform more than one person with details like when you are going, which cave, with whom, and when you plan to be back.

If you are adventurous and haven’t tried spelunking, you should give it a try.  Who knows… you might even get hooked on this thrilling and exploratory sport.

Do you know of any other caving/spelunking tips? Share them with us…

Original images by lemuelreyes, ericandlucie, and GloboTreks respectively; taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

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16 thoughts on “How to Stay Safe while Spelunking”

    1. It is fun! You would be surprised of the huge range of spelunking “active/fitness levels”. Some caves are really smooth to walk and the most you have to do is duck in a few places and climb some small rocks. On the other hand, there are some where you drop over 200 ft through the mouth of the cave in order to go into its underground rivers… truly amazing! I’m sure you can give it a try. 🙂

      I wish that first picture was mine, but it’s a Flickr. It was taken at Hinagdanan Cave in the Philippines.

  1. adventureswithben

    What are your favorite places to go Spelunking? I’m thinking of trying it in the Blue Mountains in Sydney.

    1. I have only spelunked in a couple places in the Caribbean and Central America, but my two favorites so far have been Venado Cave in Costa Rica (pretty easy going) and Angeles Cave in Puerto Rico (really extreme!). Apparently Jamaica has some great caves too. Would love to experiment more caves in other parts of the world too. 🙂

  2. Great tips! You are brave. I think if I went into a small cave I would have a panic attack and it wouldn’t be good. 🙂 I have gone in some bigger caves, which is fine as long as I’m confident I know how to get out! I have heard that Utah is a great place to go spelunking.

    1. Funny, on one occasion I spelunked with a girl that is claustrophobic. At first she was hesitant of doing it, but she managed through and did it flawlessly. She overcame her fears. 🙂

  3. Very informative! I’ve only done a bit of splunking but it’s great fun. Although I gotta admit, I’m not a fan of the tight spaces you can sometimes encounter. We did one cave where one part was called “the laundry shoot” and I was worried about getting stuck.

    1. I like how they get all creative with the chamber names. The altar, the pear, the King’s Bed Chamber, etc… it makes it even more interesting as to look why they were named like that.

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