In my opinion, the best way to know if you like something is to try it and decide for yourself.
This is written for my friends who heard about this thing I do called caving and want to know how to start. This is an incomplete guide that will be updated as needed.
If you want to know if caving is for you, I recommend visiting a wild cave with someone you trust. As a newbie it is not easy to locate a wild cave. If you want to go caving, I will take you. If I can't take you, I will find someone I trust who will.
If you want to cave, locate a caver, visit a wild cave, then decide if you want to cave again.
The best way to find other cavers is to go to a grotto meeting. Grottos are local caving clubs across America, and technically chapters of the National Speleological Society.
In Seattle I recommend the Cascade Grotto. In New York City, I recommend the Central New Jersey Grotto. I am a member of both the Cascade Grotto and Central New Jersey Grotto. In the city there is also the Met Grotto. I personally have never caved with Met, but have heard good things about them. In the Bay Area, I recommend the San Francisco Bay Chapter and Diablo Grotto.
For everyone else, you can find a local grotto near you using this handy tool. If you're scared of reaching out to a stranger, email me and I can make a direct intro to the right caver.
Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.
After you locate a caver you trust, ask them to take you to visit a wild cave, preferably a horizontal cave. The caver that takes you to a wild cave will be your trip leader. Grottos often have planned newbie trips that happen a few times a year, so you can ask about that.
You need at least four people on a team to make a safe team. I like to go with five. The reason I like to go with five is because if one person gets hurt, two people stay with the injured caver and two people go for help. One of the golden rules of caving is "never cave alone." If someone gets hurt you want one to stay with the injured and two to go out for help.
Wild caves are often off the map. When you search for most cave names on Google, the search results return next to nothing. Your trip leader will have her own rules she lives by, but it is generally best practice not to transmit cave locations. To be safe, do not share cave locations publicly online. Do not share cave location through email, direct message, or text message. If you are unsure if it is okay to share something or unsure of the medium in which you are sharing, double check with your trip leader.
The general reasoning for preserving cave location is to keep caves as pristine as we find them, to conserve the cave environment. When we visit caves, we are visitors. Other creatures such as bats, bacteria, or salamanders call caves their home. When cave locations get out, it is an opportunity for people who are not conservation conscious to come through to destroy formations, graffiti the walls, or generally trash the cave. Once the location is out, we can't take it back. Cavers spend countless hours each year doing cave clean up to protect the caves and scrub off graffiti. Cave vandalism and cave accidents are common reasons caves get closed. Many caves are now permanently closed by landowners because of ignorant actions humans.
The worst case is when people enter a wild cave unprepared, get lost or get hurt, and don't make it out alive. We have the National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) ready, but the NCRC can't rescue if they don't know people are lost or missing.
It is smart to have a call-out for every trip. A call-out is a person above ground who is expecting the trip leader to make contact at a certain time. If the call-out does not hear from the trip leader by a certain time, they call NCRC. The call-out is preferably a caver who has been to the cave you are visiting and someone who has the direct line to your local NCRC team.
As a newbie, confirm with your trip leader that she has assigned a call-out.
Your trip leader can show you how to put together your gear and cave pack. Keep in mind that everything you bring into a cave is possibly, and probably, going to get destroyed.
Here are a list of essentials to wear:
three sources of light (preferably headlamps that all use the same batteries)
caving helmet (you can often borrow from your local grotto for the first few trips)
knee pads (i like these ones)
coveralls (i like a cotton/polyester blend and buy mine used on ebay)
boots with good traction and ankle support (they will get wet)
gloves (i like neoprene gloves, but gardening gloves are fine)
cave pack (a small durable pack, ask your trip leader)
rain coat (if raining, to stay dry when walking to the cave entrance)
Here are a list of essentials for your cave pack:
water bottle with water (i like this one, this one is more practical, don't bring glass)
plastic tupperware (for your batteries and snacks, don't use glass)
snacks (preferably not too crumbly or soft)
extra large garbage bag cut into a poncho (in case of emergency to keep warm)
beanie or balacava (not baklava, though also good)
I like to bring other things like my watch, extra layers, wool socks, webbing, Advil, pizza, cherry pie, but these will not be necessary for your first horizontal trip. I bring my iPhone, but I bring it knowing it may not make it out of the cave operational. A pee bottle and poop kit are required for caves where you are required to pack out everything you bring in. Consult with your trip leader if you are unsure about anything.
Cave temperature is usually the average temperature of the local area. If you are in West Virginia caves stay fairly warm. If you are in Washington caves can stay fairly cold. If you are a person who gets hot easily, prepare accordingly. If you are person who gets cold easily, prepare accordingly.
If you are meeting with a larger group of cavers, it is likely that you will meet at a public place like a fast food restaurant, gas station, or parking lot. The location of the meeting spot is safe to share publicly or through direct message and text. From the meeting place, the trip leader will lead you to the cave entrance generally by car, and then by foot.
Some cave entrances are huge and majestic, but often cave entrances are just a small discreet hole in the ground. Some cave entrances require a key. Caves can be on public or private land. It is your trip leader's responsibility to get the necessary permits or permission to access the cave. If you are on private land it is a good idea to let the land owner know you are entering the cave. If the land owner is not around, it is a good idea to leave a note on your car.
Put on your gear. Put on your pack. Turn on your headlamp. Enter the 8th continent and enjoy.
Try not to rush. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Look around you. Now tread slowly and softly. It may feel awkward at first, so try to move around and get comfortable. Move with the cave. Eventually you will develop what we call cave legs and movement will come naturally. If things don't feel like they are working for you, stop moving, breathe, wait, try again. Don't fight the cave. You will never win.
Stay within vocal distance of the person in front and behind you
A good rule of thumb is to be within vocal distance of the person in front and behind you. If you can't see the person behind or in front of you, speak up and check that you can still hear them and they are doing okay. It is your responsibility to keep track of the person in front and behind you. If someone goes missing, stop your team.
Keep a mental image of your surroundings
If you are in the very back keep a mental image of what the cave looks like behind you. You are relying on the collective memory of your fellow cavers to get out of the cave.
If you are in the very front leading, always look around you and go slow. Keep an eye out for anything abnormal. You may find loose rocks, huge ditches, hodags. If you see something, say something.
If you are going into a small passage, look around you and take a mental snapshot before you enter. If you are exiting a small passage into a larger room, look behind you and take a snapshot of where you came out of. Exiting a small passage into a large room without keeping track of the hole you exited from is an easy way to get lost.
Caves can be heavily decorated with formations. The most well known formations are stalactites and stalagmites. If you cave more, you will encounter all sorts of pretties underground. These formations take thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or more years to grow. Respect the cave. When going through a tight space look up and watch your head. It is easy to accidentally hit formations above you. If you see a fellow cavers close to formations, notify them.
There are a lot more things you will learn if you choose to get into caving, so I am going to stop here. Caving is more than just exploration. For many cavers, caving becomes a way of life.
If at any point you feel uncomfortable, tell your trip leader. A good trip leader will not continue with a trip unless all cavers feel comfortable moving forward. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, for any reason, a good team will stop for as long as needed.
After you exit the cave, make contact with your call-out relaying that your team is safe. If you are on private property, find the landowner and thank her for allowing your team to explore their cave. Let the landowner know about any anomalies your team found in the cave. She will appreciate it.
If caving is for you, you will know. It is one of those things where you know when you know. I was reborn the day I exited the Norman entrance of the Bone-Norman through trip in Greenbrier County, and I knew. Many cavers live their whole lives not knowing this is what they were meant to do. I am trying to locate these humans. If you belong underground, at this point you will know.
If you think caving is for you I would love to hear from you. I am happy to uncover an entire world unknown to most humans. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until then, cave softly.