Caving is one of the less expensive outdoor activities that one can get involved in, particularly for the beginner who can probably rent or borrow the basic equipment from a caving club or trip leader. There is, however, a minimal level of personal equipment that every caver should have with them, regardless of the type of cave or trip and that is what this section focuses on.
Photo: Petzl Ecrin Roc helmetEvery caver should be wearing a helmet to provide protection against low ceilings and outcroppings, falls, or falling rocks. Standing up too quickly in a low area or running into a low section of ceiling or projection while concentrating on your footing are all too common, and falling objects are a real hazard when other cavers are climbing above you.
The ideal type of helmet for most caving activities is a climbing style helmet, like the one shown at right, which provides impact protection and shock absorption to protect the head. Borrow one from a club equipment pool or another caver to get started, but if you decide to buy one get a good one. A good helmet will typically cost from $50 - $75 (USD) at a caving equipment vendor or outdoor sports store. Look for UIAA or ANSI approval.
An essential part of the helmet should be a sturdy, non-elastic chin strap equipped with a quick release and three or four point mounting. The helmet should stay on during a fall but be easily released if it should become wedged. The helmet will also be the mounting point for your primary light source, so any accomodation for attaching a headlamp is a plus.
Photo: Petzl Duo headlampHands-free lighting is the next essential item every caver should have. When traveling through a cave you will be using your hands for climbing and balance - trying to accomplish these feats while holding a flashlight is annoying at best and can be quite dangerous. There are a great many choices - personal preference and the types of caves you frequent will dictate your eventual choice.
Newer headlamps and flashlights using white LED's rather than incandescent or halogen bulbs are becoming very popular - they generally are more economical in terms of battery life and often provide dim, but usable, light long beyond their rated battery life. They also virtually eliminate burned-out bulb problems.
Borrow a headlamp from a club equipment pool or another caver to get started, or buy an inexpensive headlamp and upgrade when you have a better idea of what you need. Check out what other cavers are using and ask why they prefer that type. Headlamps with an elastic headband are also popular with backpackers and campers. Prices at caving equipment vendors will range from under $25 (USD) to several hundred dollars.
In addition to the headlamp each caver should carry two additional sources of light. At least one of these sources should be able to be helmet mounted if the primary fails. Murphy's law rules here - if you only have one source of light it will go out when you need it most! Avoid the typical drugstore/hardware store plastic flashlights, which tend to be unreliable and short-lived in caves. Small flashlights like a mini-mag or newer LED flashlights with high-impact plastic bodies are a good choice.
A utility candle with waterproofed matches is not very useful as a light source for traveling in a cave, but it can provide a source of emergency heat and comfort lighting. Cyalume light sticks may be useful for some applications, but they have limited light output and can't be tested to see if they work.
Considerations when selecting a headlamp and secondary lighting include battery size and availability and typical battery life for that headlamp. The shorter the battery life, the more batteries you will have to buy and carry with you. If possible use flashlights that all take the same battery size as your headlamp (AA is a very common size). You should have a shoulder or hip pack to carry your extra lights and batteries, as well as some food and water.
Clothing choices will depend greatly on the types of caves you will be exploring - cave temperatures in your area, how wet you will get during the trip, and type of trip will all affect the type of clothing you need to be comfortable. Consult your trip leader for recommendations.
Photo: Cavers outside cave after tripA good rule of thumb is that a member of a three or four person party will stay warmer in the same clothing than they would in a larger group trip. Larger groups generally move more slowly and pause more often, so you will generate less body heat through activity. For similar reasons, a surveying trip will tend to be much colder than a tourist trip in the same cave.
Hypothermia can be one of the greatest dangers to a caver, particularly if lost or injured, so don't underestimate the importance of clothing - visit the caving safety and cave rescue pages for more information. Taking along some extra clothing like lightweight polypropylene underwear and a balaclava in your cave pack can make your trip more comfortable and might be a life saver. A plastic trash bag stored in your helmet or an emergency space blanket in your pack can provide an extra margin of safety in an emergency.
For a typical West Virginia cave, with temperatures in the low 50s (°F), old blue jeans and a sweatshirt will suffice on a tourist trip for most people as long as you won't be sitting around a lot or getting very wet. A pair of gloves and sturdy footwear complete the outfit. Be prepared for everything to get muddy and be aware that it can be nearly impossible to get stains out of light colored clothing.