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*.
First, I wanted to share a list of gear I'm using to cave with right now (specifically horizontal cave).
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 instead 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:
- How bright is the light?
- How rugged is the light?
- What is its range of motion?
- Does it have a warranty?
- Is it rechargeable?
- Will people laugh at me?
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. Oddly, brands that we trust to produce quality camping and hiking gear don't necessarily create quality headlamps for caving. Talk with cavers more experienced than you about what lights they are using.
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.
Range of motion is another important consideration to make when purchasing a headlamp. 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 could be useful).
Zebra lights are quite articulate and can rotate 360° which alone is a great selling point. Zebras affixed inside silcone mounts are so easy to swivel and adjust as one moves through a cave that it borders on being a thoughtless process. Other lights I have, like the NiteCore require two hands and me being stopped to make an adjustment on its angle. It's less convenient.
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.
Rechargeable batteries will save you money, and help save the environment. Currently most cavers are using lights that accept 18650 batteries (Zebra, NiteCore, Phoenix, etc). These lithium ion batteries are small enough to bring a half-dozen on a trip, and at full charge can provide enough output to keep you underground for days on a medium burn.
Here's a list of considerations when purchasing a helmet:
A helmet that rock climbers use like the Half Dome, is a great caving helmet. However, in this caver's 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 modern women's helmets have a space to pull long hair through below the head strap.
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 weight does have its benefits. I wear no more than two lights on my helmet, and keep my third light around my neck.
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 13 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.
Steve didn't listen to me and he got that pair of cool skater knee pads at Walmart that he was eyeballing. Steve went caving with them and hurt his knees pretty badly. Instead of admitting he made a mistake or talking to cavers about how to not have bloody knees, he quietly disappeared from caving and resumed his life of humdrum-ery. Don't be like Steve.
Most of the time a simple pair of gardening gloves (synthetic fiber with a rubber grip) will suffice.
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.
Here are some considerations for selecting good boots:
- Rigid Sole
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.
When you get your cave legs, you'll learn that you walk along the ridges and points of rocks, as opposed to the flat ones when you're negotiating breakdown. This could wreck your feet without the right rigid support. Take that boot that you're considering and try to bend the sole. If you find this challenging to do, then you're looking at something that should hold up to the rugged sport of caving.
Leather boots don't tend to last long in cave environments. You could invest $100-150 in a nice pair of hiking boots and get three or four uses before you've completely destroyed them. A better idea would be to invest less money in something that would last longer. Muck boots, wellies, or something made of rubber or neoprene will hold up cave abuse for a much longer time.
How important is it that you don't get your little feet-sies wet? Waterproof boots seem like a great idea and may work excellently when water is shallow. The moment I drag you through waist deep water it means you're walking around with a few extra pounds in your shoes.
With any of your boot choices (and having a few of them may be good idea), I recommend a good pair of wool socks and some hard orthotics (not Dr. Scholl's) to accompany them.
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.
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 secret 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.
* 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.