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Finding New Caves

While many cavers are satisfied with exploring known caves, others seek to find and survey new caves. Even in areas that have seen heavy caving activity over the years, 'virgin' cave passages are being discovered through systematic searching on the surface and in known caves.

Whether pushing passages other have overlooked in known caves or digging open new entrances and passages, new caves are being discovered, explored and mapped in almost all active caving areas.


The search for new caves usually begins with a familiarity with a certain area and the feeling that there just has to be more cave there than is currently known. The search can be long and difficult, so a certain amount of faith and persistence is required. Frequently one person or a small group will begin the hunt and recruit others to assist as time goes on. Here is a summary a some typical steps in a project:

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Research - The first step in the process is to do background research on the area to be searched for new caves. This will typically involve checking published literature on known caves, including reports from caving club newsletters, and talking with the 'old timers' who have caved extensively in that area. Image; section of topographic mapTopographic and geological maps are the next stop to identify likely areas based on physical features such as sinkholes, known outcrops of cave forming rocks, and known cave locations. Topographic maps of the US are available from the US Geological Survey and you can search for and view topographic maps on line at This will help narrow the search area to a more manageable size. This is also a good time to identify the landowners and start working on obtaining permission to conduct your search on their property.

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Ridgewalking - This is where the fun starts, getting out in the field and walking the terrain looking for rock outcroppings, sinkholes, suspicious clumps of trees or brush in fields. There is no substitute for experience here and knowing a little geology won't hurt either. A very systematic search pattern with as many people as possible will improve your odds, since it is possible to walk within a few feet of a small pit or possible entrance in the brush without seeing it. In most case you won't find a nice open cave entrance beckoning, so be prepared to probe and dig in the more likely places, looking for that blowing hole, headwall or dirt filled passage that suggests cave beyond. Of course make sure that you have permission to dig before you start excavating on a landowner's property.

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Photo: GPS receiverRecord and report - Once you find an entrance or likely digging prospect you need to make sure you can come back and find it again. These days the best way to do that is by recording the location using a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to get an accurate location and writing down any nearby landmarks and what type of tools may be needed for digging. Report your finds to a county or state survey organization to make sure it isn't 'discovered' again by someone else. [If you want to keep your find secret until you have completed your digging or exploration the surveys should respect your wishes.]

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Survey - Surveying your find and mapping it (see the surveying and mapping page) is the next step. Today the standard is to survey as you explore, ensuring that the survey will get done while everyone is motivated by the enthusiasm of exploring virgin cave.


The resources required for a digging project need to be appropriate to the specific circumstances of the dig. Tools may range from bare hands to backhoes depending on the amount of rock or dirt to be removed, the space available, size of the digging crew, budget, and desires of the landowner. The best way to learn about digging is to get involved in a few active digging projects.

Digging is not without its hazards - landslides or rockfall are a serious hazard in some cases and may require properly engineered shoring. In rare cases explosives may be required, requiring competent cave blasters who will be able to minimize the risks to the digging crew and damage to the cave.


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  Copyright 2002-2004, Bob Robins
  Last Updated: August 9, 2005