Explore the Underground with Caving
In the 21st century, there are very few unexplored or unmapped parts of the world. The two notable exceptions are the ocean and caves.
Countless miles of untrammeled caverns and undiscovered tunnels exist underground, and they contain a multitude of unique features and lifeforms,
including blind and pigment-free animals, unique crystal formations, and huge, untouched pools of water.
If you're tired of above-ground adventures and are looking for a new way to explore the natural world, caving may be just the sport for you.
Caves have played a role in human history for thousands of years. There's evidence that caves were used as shelter by early humans.
More recently, caves have been used for storage, for religious shrines, and even as secret bunkers during war.
Today, cave exploration is common for scientific research and recreation. In the non-caving community, the activity is often referred to as “spelunking,”
but the preferred moniker among experienced explorers is “caving.” Caving can be a secretive sport: in many caving communities,
the locations of cave entrances are kept secret to prevent inexperienced people from accidentally (or intentionally) destroying the area.
Caves, and the creatures that live within them, are incredibly sensitive and can be easily damaged or destroyed by human contact.
Keeping cave locations secret is also done to help keep inexperienced cavers from getting hurt or lost in caves.
Some caves are private, meaning their entrances exist on private land and the owner must be asked for permission before the entrance is accessed.
Maintaining a positive relationship between landowners and cavers is a serious issue within the caving community, which also contributes to the secrecy of cave locations.
Worldwide, there are many beautiful, well-known caves that are managed by conservation or government agencies.
These caves are generally open to the public through self-guided tours or guided tours with an experienced caver.
Many of these are walk-in caves, which require little to no technical skill to enter and explore.
Public caves are a great way for beginners and families to travel underground for the first time.
Just because they're public, doesn't mean they aren't spectacular.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, for example, is home to some of the world's most stunning stalagmites and stalactites.
Types of Caves
A large percentage of the world's caves are solutional caves, which are created by moving water slowly dissolving rock.
Limestone and gypsum are the most common rock types of solutional caves.
As water eats away at the rock, it creates underground tunnels that grow larger and larger over time.
Eventually, caves can grow to be several hundred feet tall from ceiling to floor and extend for miles.
Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, for instance, contains 400 miles of underground tunnels.
Other types of caves include lava tubes, which are common in Iceland and Hawaii; ice caves,
which exist within glaciers; and sea caves, which are created by ocean waves eroding the land.
Caving has a reputation for being dangerous, which isn't without merit.
Exploring caves means traveling into incredibly remote terrain that contains unique risks.
Underground rescues take time and technical skill, neither of which are conducive to a quick response.
This said, as with any risky sport, experienced cavers have techniques and strategies for managing the risks of caving.
One of the biggest risks of caving is also one of the easiest to prevent: hypothermia.
Because they are underground, caves are often much colder than the above-ground environment.
Additionally, there's often water in caves, which cools the body much faster than cold air.
When caving, it's important to dress in layers so you can adjust your clothing to the surrounding temperature.
Synthetic clothes, which stay warm when wet, are far superior to cotton clothes when you're traveling in a cave.
Another easily preventable danger in caves is getting lost. Never go into a cave alone and always make sure there are people above ground who know where you are going and when you expect to return.
Having plenty of functional light sources is a necessity in caving. Always travel with three independent,
fully-charged light sources. Waterproof lights are far superior to non-waterproof light sources.
In the UK, drowning represents almost half of all caving fatalities in the past century.
Caves are often formed by flowing water, and many caves contain pools of standing water, the depth of which can be difficult to judge.
Flooding from above-ground rainstorms can surprise cavers and poses a serious risk, so know the exits and always check the weather forecast before entering a cave.
Just like traveling above ground, in a cave you should avoid going into water that you don't know anything about, including its speed and depth.
Cave diving, or scuba diving in caves, is a highly specialized sport that requires extensive training and certification.
Rockfalls are another hazard of caving. These are often caused by other cavers rather than by cave collapses.
Wearing a helmet and being aware of your surroundings can help mitigate the risk.
Give people in front of you plenty of space as they navigate narrow passages and rock formations and stay off areas that look unstable.
Never go caving in mines, which are prone to rockfalls and collapses.
Although many of the risks in caving can be managed with experience and training, caving is a technical sport and beginners shouldn't go caving on their own.
Caving should always be done with someone who has knowledge of the sport and cave safety.
Experienced cavers generally travel in groups of three or more to ensure there are enough people present to have someone stay with an injured caver as others leave to get help.
Although it's not as straightforward as other sports like running, this doesn't mean caving is inaccessible or that you should pursue a different activity!
Caving clubs and organizations help beginner cavers get started in the sport and teach them how to do it safely (for themselves and for the caves).