Because caves are typically cold, you should plan on wearing layers of warm clothes, including long underwear. Cavers should avoid wearing any type of clothing made of cotton because it absorbs and holds more water than synthetic materials and will make you cold more rapidly. Remember that hypothermia is one of the most common dangers associated with caving. Clothing must be made of wool or synthetic materials like polypropylene and polyester and should cover your entire body. Any type of old jeans or rugged pants can be worn, along with a long sleeve shirt, synthetic underwear, wool or synthetic socks, fleece jacket, a windbreaker or raincoat and synthetic bras for women.
The best types of footwear are lightweight hiking boots that are flexible, have sturdy ankle support and have excellent traction. When caving, you may encounter loose rocks, mud, dirt and areas where it may be particularly slippery. Some military boots may also be appropriate, but it’s important not to invest a great deal of money if you’re only planning on caving once or twice. If that’s the case, you may want to consider purchasing a used pair of boots at a used clothing store like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. One other important tip is to avoid running shoes, tennis shoes, cross-trainers and mountaineering boots. Mountaineering boots tend to be overly expensive, but more importantly, are far more inflexible.
If you expect to be treading through water or it is expected to be extremely cold in the cave, a wetsuit should be considered mandatory (and depending on the time of year, you may want to go with a spring wet suit that has short sleeves and covers down to the thighs). Other items to consider include waterproof gloves for protection and warmth and knee pads and elbow pads.
Each member of your party should carry at least three independent light sources. Your primary light is a headlamp that either comes with your mandatory helmet or is sold separately. Your backup light sources should be a spare headlamp and a compact and waterproof flashlight. The National Speleological Society recommends you wear a helmet that meets standards of the European Committee for Standardization, has a buckle chin strap, solid head protection and a mount for your headlamps. A helmet shouldn’t have to be an unnecessary expense, but protection for your head is absolutely necessary. In addition to the three light sources, you should also carry at least one set of new batteries and a spare bulb. If you want to conserve your light, turn it off if you’re not moving or have someone leading the way with another light. If you’re hoping to take some photos while inside the cave you may want to purchase a disposable or waterproof camera. You could use your smartphone (which can also be used as an emergency light source or compass), but protect your valuable device when it’s not in use by keeping it in a plastic bag. And finally, to store all of your gear and supplies, you’ll need a backpack. Just remember the more items you bring, the more you’ll have to carry.
Glow sticks aren’t an ideal light source for navigating through a cave. However, these inexpensive items can glow up to 12 hours and can be used as markers to help you find your way back. Another smart choice is reflective, colored flagging tape, but make sure to pick these up on your return trip.
Because caving can be physically challenging, you must bring enough water to last you for the duration of your venture. Basic recommendations are to bring at least one liter of water (33.8 fluid ounces) contained in a non-breakable water bottle, such as Nalgene. Also, plan on bringing something to eat that won’t get squashed in your backpack. Trail mix, nuts, candy bars, energy bars and beef jerky are all smart choices. Other items you may want to bring along include a first aid kit with insect repellent, Moleskin, sunscreen, a towel, hand sanitizer and water purification tablets.
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Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.