Your First Caving Trip

So you’ve been to your first club meeting, or maybe you’re excited to go caving and curious what it takes to prepare for a trip? How does one even prepare for their first (or first few) trips?

Communicate With Your Trip Leader

Your trip leader will be an experienced member of the club. Well before you are underground, you should make sure that the trip leader as well as everyone going on the trip is aware of the following:

  • Who is coming?
    • The trip leader should know who is coming on the trip–no last-minute surprises or additions! Many trip leaders impose limits on how many people can go on their trips, and some cave owners also restrict the number of visitors.
    • Be sure to determine and communicate logistics and limitations to the trip leader ahead of time! This may include:
      • Allergies
      • Rides and carpooling arrangements
      • Medical Conditions
      • Phobias (e.g. claustrophobia)
      • Other things that the trip leader should be aware of
  • What will be happening?
    • What kind of cave are you going to? (Wet or dry? Vertical or Horizontal?)
    • What will the trip leader be expecting from you?
    • How long does your trip leader expect the trip to be?
  • When and Where?
    • When and where are you meeting?
      • At a cave entrance or at a signout location? Caver time is lenient, but make sure to communicate if you’re running late!
    • Know your ETA (when your trip leader thinks you guys will be back) versus your callout time (rescue will be dispatched). Communicate the difference with anyone expecting you.

A Few Days Before the Trip: Needed Equipment and Clothing

For a caving trip, you should have:

  • A helmet (can be provided by the club)
  • Three (3) sources of light (can be provided by the club): You may be asked to bring spare batteries by your trip leader depending on the model of the lights (refer to the previous section).
  • Gloves: A nitrile-dipped gardening glove is a great and cheap option. Another great option is a gauntlet glove made of PVC or latex; these don’t soak up water in the same way a gardening glove might. Example
  • Clothing: The average temperature in a Virginia cave is around 54-56 F, but depending on where you are in a cave, you will benefit from a good base layer. This can be either a proper thermals to multi-layered polyester workout clothes. From biking shorts and synthetic stockings, to a bodysuit, there are many affordable ways to layer a beginner baselayer.
  • “The Muddy Layer”: You want something breathable for a sport trip that won’t be absorbing the moisture from the mud in the same way that a cotton or natural fiber would. Something like a long sleeve synthetic top works well for this. For the bottom, the same principles still apply but you will want a layer that is also abrasion resistant, so something like a pair of work pants or jeans is suitable.
  • Knee pads: Depending on the cave, a pair of knee pads (or even elbow pads) might be recommended by your trip leader.
  • Socks: A good pair of wool or hiking socks will work well. For wet caves, a pair of neoprene socks is ideal.
  • Footwear: It is essential for your footwear to have good tread and be durable in the cave environment. Examples include Walmart or Tractor Supply Wellington-type boots (“Wellies”), Muck Boots, Dairy Boots, Jungle boots, and durable hiking boots.
  • Cave pack: This can be an old backpack you don’t care about getting muddy, torn, or broken. If you want to purchase a bag that is ideal for caving, something like this or this are also good beginner options.

What to bring in your cave pack

  • Food/Snacks
  • Water
  • An extra dry layer, such as a fleece
  • Medication
  • A dry bag, plastic bag, or hard case (ideally waterproof) for any valuables (such as a smartphone)
  • (Optional, but useful) A heat source, such as hothands or a candle
  • Spare Light(s)

Other things to bring (to leave in the car for when you get out)

  • A trash bag to store your muddy gear
  • A change of clothes
  • Valuables, such as a phone, wallet, or car keys

Additional things you will need for vertical trips

  • A complete vertical set: Around these parts, most people use what is known as a Frog System. (This can be provided to you by the club or borrowed from a member of the club.) More details about assembling a frog system can be found here.
  • Leather gloves (optional): for rappelling longer pitches are recommended but not required.

Your trip leader may also be carrying items such as:

  • A heat source
  • An emergency space blanket or layers
  • Webbing
  • A first aid kit
  • A crevasse rescue kit

The Day Of: Last Few Things

  • Car Keys: Everyone on the trip should know where they are to be kept, in the event of an emergency.
  • Pack checks: Check the contents of your pack before leaving signout so that your trip leader is able to fill any gaps before entering the cave.
  • Keep communicating: Before and during the trip, you should communicate with the trip leader. If you are late or if something is on your mind, make sure that they know so they can help keep you as safe and comfortable as possible.
  • Vertical Safety: If you’re going on a vertical trip, make sure you remember how to use your gear, how to do calls, how to lock off and operate your descending devices, and have a member check off your gear before you descend. These are vital considerations to your safety.
  • Be courteous of Landowners and their property: When people give us the opportunity to cave on their private property, respect their presence and wishes.
  • If you see something, say something: If you see something that concerns you, tell your trip leader or reach out to the club’s safety committee so that the potential issue can be addressed.

Final Notes

When you start assembling your own set of gear and caving regularly, you will want to have a safety-oriented and goal-oriented approach. You should prioritize safety, accomplishing the objectives of your trip leader(s), and conserving the delicate cave environment. Read more about US standards of minimal impact here.