Photo Credit:  Peter Hellberg

Photo Credit: Peter Hellberg

James Masters, Skipper


 Photo Credit:  Mitya Ku

Photo Credit: Mitya Ku

Vanessa King, First Mate & Dive Master


 Photo Credit:  dimnikolov

Photo Credit: dimnikolov

Jessica Lee, Chef


Caves are not all about research, I became interested in caves through caving and cave exploration. I have no idea how many caves I have visited or explored, although when I was keeping a caving diary, I visited 73 different caves in one year. Given that I’ve been caving for almost 20 years, that probably extrapolates into a number of between 500 and 1,000 different caves, in countries including Belize, England, Greece, Greenland, Guatemala, Mexico, New Zealand, the United States, Venezuela and Wales.
— Dr. Hazel Barton

Getting Started

Many people ask me how to get into caving, and the answer is simple: join a caving club. When I moved to the US from Britain I found the Colorado Grotto caving club (which was a bit trickier then without the internet) and went to my first meeting only 2 days after arriving in the country. Joining the club is the easy bit, getting someone to take you caving is a bit more difficult as you have to be trusted, not only from a point of view of safety, but also that you’ll help preserve the cave. The best way to do this is to learn from other cavers by joining a caving club. In the United States they are called grottos. There are nearly 200 grottos around the US. Grottos usually conduct regular meetings and bring cavers together within their general areas and coordinate activities. Many grottos publish a newsletter as a regular part of their programs. More information on caves and caving in the US can be found on the NSS Website. Within the UK, information can be found from the BCRA Website.
Caving itself can be a fairly dangerous pastime, so there is a lot of trust involved with the people you cave with. It’s important that you are patient and go on all the novice trips that the grotto offers so that people understand that you are serious, dedicated and trustworthy. EVERYONE has to go through this, it’s almost a right-of-passage within the caving community. I’d been caving for six years when I moved to the US and it took me about 6 months to be invited on anything beyond a complete ‘novice’ trip. But I persevered, and after going on more and more trips, eventually I was doing exploration trips. My favorite exploration trips were at Wind Cave and Lechuguilla Cave. If your not interested in this level of commitment, but are still interested in exploring caves, you might want to try spelunking trips offered at a show cave. These can be a lot of fun and will give you a good taste of what caving is all about.

Becoming a caver

Caving can be a relatively cheap hobby, requiring nothing more than a helmet, three lights and some old clothes – unless you’re gear-hog like me, and then you need vertical equipment, rope, ice-climbing equipment, cave diving equipment, more rope, hot cave gear, cold cave gear, wet cave gear, cold and wet cave gear, extremely cold cave gear, and did I mention rope…? But in general it’s a cheap hobby… except for that bit about getting to exotic places. There are a number of rules that we never break, or break at your peril (I have at least one story of going to a cave without telling anyone where I was, and the entrance collapsed while we were in there – we had to dig our way out). These are the rules for safe caving:

Get the appropriate training

Caves are inherently dangerous. They are completely devoid of light, contain unstable and slippery surfaces, loose rocks, deep pits, treacherous slopes and exposed traverses. If you don’t know how to safely navigate these obstacles, the remainder of these rules are moot.

Get a helmet

I’ve had rock climbers tell me they don’t need helmets because they never fall. They probably don’t bang their head much of the ceiling of those wide open spaces either – you WILL do this in a cave, no matter how good your spacial awareness is. If you are serious, you’ll get a helmet – it’s also a nice place to hang your lights.

Get three sources of light

You need a primary light, which will be your main navigation light. There are a ton of excellent lights on the market right now, I personally use a Sten light. You are aiming for bright with good battery life. You’ll also need a secondary or back-up, easily accessible on your helmet – if your primary goes out, it will inevitably be somewhere really scary, which is even scarier if you’re suddenly in the dark. I use a Petzl Myo – it’s super bright and useful for sketching big cave passages as well. Finally, you’ll need a third source of light, simply so statistics are on your side – I’ve had both my primary and secondary go out on a trip, but in all my trips have never lost all three. I use a Petzl 5-LED Tikka, which I keep in my bag. There are a number of different gear vendors out there, but I’ve had a lot of luck with Inner Mountain Outfitters and they’re really great to work with.

Tell someone where your going

And also, when you’ll be back. Caves are geologic features and, although rarely, things can change – like whether the entrance is navigatable or not. Sometimes ropes can be a tad short, or climbs can be a lot harder on the way up than you planned on the way down. If you are at the bottom of a cave, it’s hard to get someone’s attention for help, so folks need to know where you are.


Make sure you have the appropriate clothing for the type of cave you’ll be in. Remember, cotton-is-rotten, even under standard caving conditions, hypothermia is the biggest threat to your well being. I usually take an extra thermal layer of some kind, such as a polypro shirt. If the cave is wet, you might need a wetsuit. Starting out, jeans and a sweatshirt may be fine – check with someone who knows the cave and the condition to expect before you go. Your footwear is going to make the difference between enjoyment and a ’thrill-a-minute’ experience, so make sure you have good traction.

Leave nothing but footprints

Everything that goes into a cave, must come back out. That include all human waste. Number one’s are easy – carry a bottle (yes ladies, even you – practice in the shower ahead of time!). Number two’s require quite a bit more fortitude and a large zip-lock baggie. I’ll leave that to your imagination, but carry everything you might need on EVERY trip – you never know when nature might call.

Take nothing but pictures

Caves are beautiful, pristine environments. Good cave ethics dictate that you remove nothing from the cave so everyone else can enjoy this beautiful pristine environment, that includes broken formations, things on the floor, bones, crystals, even pebbles. They belong exactly where they are.