2016/01/07

Gear for Caving in Tennessee


I am often in the position where I am taking people caving for their first time. In order to make the most of the caving experience, one doesn't need to be distracted by such things as bleeding knees, concussion, or death. To this end, I am compiling a list of caving gear appropriate for a first time caver*.


Lights

There are lots of lights available for cavers. Since I started caving, the brightness of headlamps has increased at least 10 fold. I want to avoid telling you exactly what to buy (because I really want to write this blog post and not update it) and tell you how to buy.

But first, let's talk about quantity of lights. For caving, we like to have three sources of light. Two of those must be headlamps. You want a light that doesn't take up valuable space in your hand, since you'll be using your hands to climb, crawl, and fight off deadly cave monsters. Having one hand held light is nice as it can be used to spotlight cave formations, or sidelight a wall in order to better see scratches left behind by salt peter miners. Also useful is to keep a headlamp around your neck. You can use this for the occasion that your primary cuts out, for changing batteries, or for when you're taking a lunch break.

Here's a short list of other things to consider when purchasing a light:
  1. How bright is the light?
  2. How rugged is the light?
  3. What is its range of motion? 
  4. Does it have a warranty?
  5. Will people laugh at me?
The brightness of a given light is typically expressed in lumens. Obviously, more is better. My current light peaks at 1020 (can run like this for about 2 hours), but has lots of other lower settings which extend the battery life. While more is better, it's also obvious that sustaining your battery for long trips is of the utmost importance, so having some variability in output is an important consideration.

A light's ruggedness, aside from it's brightness, is among the most important things to consider when purchasing. Some lights that I bought for $80 have lasted 3 cave trips. Some lights I paid $20 lasted 15 trips. My current light was $80, and it's going on 20 trips and I expect it to last for another 60 or more. How do you know which lights are rugged? Brands may not be the best way to determine this. I've used many Black Diamond lights, which may be great for backpacking, but fail when it comes to caving. The best method is to talk with cavers more experienced than you, especially if they work at the local outdoors store. Another helpful hint here is to avoid anything that takes three triple-a batteries and stores them in a drum configuration - they are the cheapest of the cheap and you'll do well to get through a single cave trip with it.

What do I mean by range of motion? Take a look at this headlamp, the Energizer Trailfinder. This headlamp affixes to the users forehead and points outward - only outward. One can not swivel it down to point at their feet. In a cave environment, this will result in walking hunched over until you throw out your back and we call a cave rescue. The output of this light is also horrible - with it pointing only forward, it is utterly useless as a primary light (as a neck-lamp, it can be useful). A light like those Zebra makes can rotate 360° which alone is a great selling point. 

Warranties can be important, especially when you're using your light a lot. Many of the well known brands, like Black Diamond, and Princeton Tec have lifetime warranties.


Helmet

Here's a list of considerations when purchasing a helmet:
  1. Appropriateness
  2. Weight
A equestrian helmet, or bike helmet may work fine for a first trip into a cave, but there are many advantages to getting an appropriate helmet. Namely weight, vents, style, and size. A helmet that rock climbers use like the Half Dome, is a great caving helmet. However, in this cavers opinion, the Petzl's Ecrin Roc is the very best caver helmet. Other things that I could throw in under the appropriateness heading would be male vs female helmets. Many women's helmets have lower adjustment points on the neck, so that women with long hair can pull a ponytail, or pigtails through.

After you've put one or more headlamps with batteries on your helmet, you may notice that it is heavier. Having a heavy helmet, especially after taking a long trip will put a strain on your neck, and may cause headaches. Keeping your helmet light does have its benefits.


Knee and elbow pads

Don't get anything that's got a hard shell. Let me say it again, don't get anything with a hard shell! They only distribute impacts, they do not absorb them. I wear volleyball knee pads that have been PlastiDipped, and I have been through three pairs in my nine year caving career. Other options are pads made for caving, like Dirty Dave's brand of knee and elbow pads. If you want to get something at Walmart, as folks often do, get some flooring kneepads like these.

Here's what's going to happen. You're going to get that pair of cool skater knee pads at Walmart that you've been eyeballing and come caving with them. The hard shells will kill your knees, and instead of admitting you made a mistake, or talking about your mistake, you'll quietly disappear from caving altogether to a life of binge watching Netflix. Don't make this mistake - follow my advice!


Gloves

Most of the time a simple pair of gardening gloves (synthetic fiber with a rubber grip) will suffice.


Backpack

Caves eat zippers. Find something that you don't mind destroying if it has a zipper. Alternatives to zippers include drawstrings, and the dry-bag-fold-over-thing.
I am currently using this PVC bag made by Gonzo Guano Gear.


Boots

Here are some considerations for selecting good boots:
  1. Weight
  2. Tread
  3. Waterproof
I wear something like this, and love to cave in them. But, they weight about 5 lbs apiece. If the hike to the cave is too far, it's exhausting just lugging them around. The advantage is that they keep my feet protected very well.

Caves can be incredibly slippery, and having good tread is the difference between walking around and enjoying yourself, and face-planting in the mud and dropping your camera in and missing that shot of Bigfoot.

As a final consideration, how important is it that you don't get your little footsies wet? Waterproof may work when water is shallow, but you may get drug through waste deep water. Waterproof then means walking around with a few extra pounds of water. With any of your boot choices (and having a few of them may be good idea), I recommend a good pair of wool socks to accompany them.


Water

If you're from the outdoor community, then you probably have a Nalgene bottle. Those are ideal for caving as they can readily put up with the kind of abuse that caving doles out. Sometimes people like to bring CamelBaks or other similar hydration systems. I would discourage their use in caves. First, there's the mud on the straw issue. Next, while I've never seen one of the bladders break, it's not too difficult to image that it could happen in a standard day of caving.


Clothing

If you are going to a wet cave, avoid cotton. This includes denim. Cotton will hold moisture and draw out heat from your core. Synthetic clothes that wick away moisture are very important in caving for this reason. Many of the caves we visit are wet. Having the ability to comfortably deal with the pressures of continued exposure to cold air and cold water is key to negotiating many of Tennessee's caves.

As a final note, caring for clothing, and much of cave gear (excluding vertical gear) - I have found that using a liquid fabric softener is the key to getting cave stink out. You won't believe how bad your knee pits stink until you pull off a pair of knee pads after a long trip. That smell doesn't come out with just washing either. You will be told not to wash your synthetics with liquid fabric softener, but I have for 10 years without problem. Liquid fabric softener also rappels cave monsters. My proof is that I've never seen one.

Cave softly!


* First time caver IN TENNESSEE. Elsewhere, such as alpine environments, or vertical caving scenarios, or underwater caves (duh), gear will be very different. Consult with your local grotto for regionally appropriate gear.
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