Equipment for Caving

Basic equipment needed for a cave exploration trip in the Northeastern USA:

A sturdy rock-climbing type helmet is ideal – light, thin, comfortable, with a 4 point suspension that will stay on in a fall, a sturdy chin strap that can be easily disconnected, and safe for mounting brackets and battery packs. Construction type helmets are acceptable but almost always need an improved suspension to keep them from falling off when struck from behind (common in falls). Soft bicycle helmets not acceptable – they can be severely damaged by a single hard blow.
Headlamp mounted to helmet
A variety of lamp styles are available, tradeoffs involve initial cost, per-hour cost, weight, convenience, and durability. For 30 years, there was an on-going controversy – whether carbide lamps or battery operated electric lamps (incandescent) were better for caving. With the advent of high-powered LED based headlights, it now looks like both of these technologies are obsolescent. For novice trips, the Grotto has about a dozen helmet/light combinations that beginners can borrow for a nominal upkeep fee. These take 4 AA batteries, bring a package of fresh Alkaline batteries for best results. Helmet mounting is usually accomplished by a system of straps and/or brackets firmly attached to the helmet. Most Northeastern cavers now use an electrical lighting system, but some old-timers still use carbide/acetylene miner’s cap lamps occasionally. This usage has diminished in recent years, due to the restrictions on shipping carbide through the mail.
Equipment pack
A small pack is needed to carry your spare lights, batteries, food, water, extra clothing, and repair parts. Backpacks are popular, but tend to catch on the ceiling in low passages. Large fanny packs are better, but must be rugged. Easy buckling and unbuckling is a plus, since you frequently need to remove your pack to crawl through a small passageway.
Extra lights
A minimum of 3 working light sources is essential for safety on a Northeastern cave trip. If your primary headlamp is very robust, and you have adequate repair parts, then 2 small C or AA cell flashlightsare adequate for backup lights. Experienced cavers mount a small AA-cell flashlight on the side of their helmet, to allow an instant spare – or a focused light beam, to be ready in case the primary light goes out. If your primary light is prone to failure (most non-LED based systems), then it is useful to carry a spare headlamp to supplement or replace your primary light. In addition, you should carry enough battery or carbide fuel to last at least twice your expected trip length. Spare lamp bulbs are also necessary for incandescent systems.
Sturdy boots
Paved trails are essentially non-existent in Northeastern USA caves. More common is a jumble of broken rocks, with mud and water covering them. In these conditions, sturdy boots with deep lug soles and good ankle support are essential. Good quality hiking boots are commonly used, as are work boots. Assume they will get soaking wet, and prepare them accordingly. British style “Wellington” knee-high rubber boots are gaining in popularity.
Warm clothes
Exposure to cold and wet conditions are the greatest problem to overcome in Northeastern caving areas. Unfortunately, most people’s first choice in rugged clothing, blue jeans, are very poor performers in these conditions. They soak up the cold water instantly, and are not warm when wet. If you get wet in a cave while wearing cotton clothes, your trip will be cut very short, since you will likely be shivering uncontrollably within an hour. Since most Northeastern caves are wet, cotton clothing is simply unusable. The less cotton, the better, and this rule applies even to underwear. Expect that any clothes you wear caving will become so impregnated with mud that it will be impossible to wear them for any other purpose.
Generally, novice cavers should acquire caving outfits made of synthetic materials or wool. Poly pro or capilene long underwear and coveralls with a blend of cotton and synthetics are widely available locally. Wool pants and shirts are widely available in the fall and winter, and are a big improvement on cotton. An extra (medium weight) wool sweater is good, because wool stays warm even when wet. Stretchy tights are also good because they squeeze the water out from the underwear. Experienced cavers usually purchase a dedicated set of coveralls made specifically for caving.
A thin wool, poly pro, or pile hat is very effective at retaining body heat.
Sturdy gloves are also essential, and a wide variety of styles are acceptable. Avoid cotton. Look for a good fit, and a sturdy palm. Leather gloves work well and so do heavy-duty rubber gloves. Finger less bicycling gloves work well when rope work is involved, since significant finger dexterity is needed.
Use synthetic and wool socks to keep your feet warm in cold water. Neoprene rubber socks are the best, these are often available in stores that sell diving, kayaking, or canoeing equipment. You may need a different shoe size when wearing them. Small plastic bags worn under your outer sock are a remarkably effective, low cost, substitute.
Food and Water
For an extended caving trip, you will need to bring food to keep up your energy level and water to keep hydrated. Even after a big breakfast, the constant exertion and cold conditions combine to draw down your reserves in a few hours. And dehydration can lead to shivering even if the cave air is dry. Bring good food that you will eat, packed in a robust container, such as Tupperware. Granola Bars, GORP, Power Bars and Clif Bars are popular caving food. Plan to drink at least a pint of water every 2 hours, since dehydration is a major cause of hypothermia and exposure problems.

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