By: Kipp Tribble
What the hell is spelunking, you ask? Well, it involves endangering your life and crawling around beneath the earth. That’s my official description, and I am in no way a professional. I did, however, grow up in Kentucky, which is a state rife with caves and toothless people, and I have crawled through a cave or two. Deep, dark holes. In the earth…is what I meant. It may seem kinda’ geeky — or even alotta’ geeky — but spelunking (aka, caving) can be a great way to spend an afternoon. But don’t go running to the nearest cavern and just dive in. There are things you need to do so you will emerge in one piece. Or at least just emerge and live to tell about it.
Find a Hole
Obviously, you need a cave to explore. Some places in the nation will provide many of these — Missouri and Tennessee, for example — but depending on where you live, you might have to travel to get your exploring on. Do a search for caves in your area and find your first hole to enter. I suggest starting with a simple cave first just to get your feet wet so you don’t die, or something. There are some with an entrance and a separate exit, which provides a simple walk-through of sorts. The National Speleological Society is a good place to get you started in your search and they will supply you with a lot of good advice.
Tip: Your first cave should be a heavily traveled hole for safety reasons. The hooker of caves, so to speak.
Caving is not exactly a sport you can just throw on some Nikes and a pair of shorts and be good to go. You need stuff. Light is the first thing you need unless you are exploring a cave that has windows — or Mammoth Cave which has miles of lights stretched throughout and a guide walking you through. Light is something you definitely don’t want to skimp on because without it, you might end up bat food. Go with the industrial flashlight and bring more than one set of extra batteries. The head lamps are the best because it frees your hands up to fight cave crime while you are exploring. If you have the room, also pack a torch. Yeah, we’re talking Indiana Jones style right now. Other equipment you’ll need varies depending on the cave you’ll be exploring. You will certainly want warm clothes and preferably something water resistant. Caves are kinda’ damp in case you didn’t know. If the cavern you choose has some pits to climb into or some walls to scale, you’ll need an ice axe, rock screws, spiked mountaineering boots, clip crampons, and rope. Lots and lots of rope. I’ve only done the pit drop once and I loved it. But don’t do it until you’ve caved a few times.
Tip: Take a granola bar. You’ll want a snack.
Buy the Permit…Or Not
Some states — and nations — require you to buy a permit to go slogging through the under earth. Make sure to check out the rules before you embark or you might be arrested for entering a hole without permission (okay, I just can’t resist the hole comments). Most public caves are good to go and won’t be regulated, but there are the rare few that have guards posted and will need to see your caving permit before you enter. Osama Bin Laden’s cave comes to mind. Lame, yes, but some of those caves do rock. If you are channeling your inner rebel, then forego the permit and go for it. But if you are channeling your inner Poindexter, then get the paperwork. Either way, you’re rockin’ a cave, right?
Tip: Play dumb. No judge will stick it to you.
Don’t Be Claustrophobic
Caves in general are claustrophobic. But then there are the caves within the caves. The tight spaces that you wonder if you will ever be able to squeeze back out of. I have a problem with claustrophobia, so I purposefully try and find the ‘roomier’ caves. Like my living room. But to be a true baller when it comes to caving, you need to ignore that nagging fear about being enclosed in a tight space. I have read numerous things about getting over the fear of claustrophobia. Methods range from riding cramped subways for hours to sleeping in a closet. I’ve tried a couple and nothing has worked for me. But I’ve somehow been able to survive in caves without passing out from thoughts of the walls closing in on me. So far, at least.
Tip: Sleep in your refrigerator for a couple of nights. That’ll cure you.
Get Ready For Mud
Caves are dirty and damp. The classic recipe for mud. So said our mud guy. And cave mud is the cold, clay-like mud that cuts to the core. Like, destroy the clothes kind of mud. You will need to wear clothes that repel the grossness, but you will still feel the clamminess, so that means load up on Vitamin C and anything else you can think of to help ward off a severe cold. Although it hinders easy movement, long underwear (aka, Long Johns) does help keep the body warm — especially during a 75 minute crawl through a muddy tunnel. Packing something warm to drink like coffee or hot tea in a thermos is also suggested. And when you stop to take a break, have a self-warming cushion to sit on. Those cave floors are wicked cold.
Tip: Under Armour kinda’ works.
Go with a Partner
It’s always best to pair with someone else when you are doing something that could potentially end your life. Caves are lonely places and two is always better than one. But the second person can also serve a better purpose — like threading the rope when you are dropping 1,000 feet down into God knows what. If you are a newbie, make sure you partner up with someone who has at least a hint of what a cave looks like. If you’ve been around a cave before, try to avoid the newbie, but taking a person — newbie or not — is still better than bouncing around inside one of the earth’s vaginas by yourself. Again, the NSS is a good place to start when looking for a fellow caver. I’m telling you this so you won’t just invite your drinking buddies on this excursion. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Tip: Don’t go with guys named Floyd.
Leave a Trail
We only need to think back to Hanzel and Gretel. The whole leaving a trail thing, not being cooked in an oven by a witch thing. Or however that story went. This is so you can get back to the land of the living in case you lose your bearings. I have used the string method — which involves tying a string to the mouth of the cave and letting it unspool as you explore — but I don’t recommend it. Marking the cave walls or floor works much better. Of course, this is easily done if the cave is narrow and you can make your marks at will. If it’s easier to mark the floor, do so in a pattern every few feet. Make the marks with your walking stick/ski pole/cane instead of your feet…just in case the cave monster following you is also wearing the same type of shoes as you.
Tip: MapQuest won’t work down there.