Thursday, August 12, 2010

Caving: The Gear

So, you decide to go caving. Hoo boy, isn’t that fantastic.
But first, you have to gather together all the gear that separates true cavers from losers – or, as cavers are wont to call them, in a voice dripping with derision, “spelunkers.”
Helmet: For your first couple trips underground, a bicycle helmet or hard-hat will suffice. However, an actual climbing helmet is really important – it can take repeated hits, won’t fall off when you crawl, will protect your head from falls, and gives you that cool caver cachet.
3 sources of light & spare batteries: Underground, it’s dark. Very dark. Lose-your-way, break-a-leg, starve-to-death-while-being-eaten-by-packrats dark. You really don’t want to be caught without a light in a cave. And, as everyone knows, technology breaks – especially when you throw your pack around while climbing through tight spaces. Hence, it’s important to have multiple sources of light, and batteries for each. At least two of them need to be helmet-mountable, so you have your hands free.
First aid supplies: Everyone should have some basic stuff – bandaids, heat packs, space blanket, etc. If you have first aid training, you should bring supplies equivalent to your level of training. I usually also bring gauze, tape, a splint, an ace bandage, pills, a first aid reference, a pocketknife, and webbing/carabineers for carrying people. If I don’t know the people I’m caving with well, I bring a CPR mask as well. No need to be kissing strangers.
Pee bottle: I’m sure you can figure out what that’s for.
Gloves: You never want to forget your gloves. Not only would that be painful, but it’s also harmful to the cave: oils and skin particles from your hands can destroy cave fungi, provide a food source for biota, and irrevocably prevent further formation growth.
Vertical gear: You’ll know if you need it.
Rugged clothes: Many people, in warm, dry caves like lava caves, choose to wear jeans and a trashed tee shirt. Cave suits can be fancy things made of cordura costing over $100 – I personally find my $1 used coveralls perfectly effective.
What you wear underneath all this depends on the cave you’re visiting: a cold cave necessitates thermal underlayers, a warm cave necessitates merely something to cover your bum on the drive over.
Thick socks: In a cold/wet cave, these are necessary to stave off hypothermic wet feet. In a warm cave, they more provide cushioning.
Stout boots: This is a matter of personal choice, but you’ll find the support, cushioning, and protection of a boot worthwhile. Some highly experienced cavers do use tennis shoes or sandals, but they’re definitely in the minority. It should be noted: lava rips up boots like none other, so using either a really cheap or a really hefty pair of boots is recommended in lava caves.
Kneepads: When faced with a long crawlway, you’ll wish you’d brought them. Even if they pinch and keep sliding down to your ankles.
Extra clothes: These should be made of wool or a synthetic material – no cotton. Should you be injured, or just take an extended break, an extra set of clothes and a hat will keep you cozy and stave off hypothermia. Which I hear is important.
Pack: This can really be any pack you don’t mind destroying, and doesn’t have too many straps. You can use some old daypack, but eventually the zipper will gum up with dirt. Then you’ll want to invest in a specialized cave pack – they start at about $50.
Water: Caving is tough work, so it’s important to stay hydrated.
Camera: For all the baller cave pictures you’ll take.
Paper, pencil: This is mainly for use in emergency situations – to leave notes for your rescuers. However, you can also use it to make notes about your epic cave adventure.
Emergency food: It’s not entirely kosher to eat in caves – you drop crumbs, which provides a foreign food source for the biota. However, when it’s necessary, you eat non-crumbly, non-drippy food while hunching over a ziplock bag or your cave pack. In addition, it’s really important to always have extra emergency food in your pack. I recommend those obnoxiously expensive Cliff/Power/Lara/Whatever  bars/gels/jelly beans/cubes. Other options would be carrot sticks, not-toasted PB&J, apple slices, etc.
Chapstick: Being distracted by chapped lips is lame.
Bandanna: This is a multi-purpose piece of equipment: keeps your hair back, keeps your head warm, serves as a sling, gathers sweat, and, in a pinch, can be used as a dust mask.
Trash bag: (Not pictured.) To collect your trash, and trash from the losers who visited the cave before you.

Duct tape: (Not pictured.) This is best stored wrapped around your water bottle. This is really useful for emergency repairs, like when your underwire snaps, or you crush your cell-phone in a tailgate.


Gaelyn said...

Haven't caved in Way too long but I think could cover most of your great gear list. Sure wish I'd had knee pads while crawling thru the tour lead Cango Cave in South Africa last Spring.
Hope you're having a grand time this summer.

helena.heliotrope said...

You went to South Africa?!
I am highly jealous.