“Are you kidding me!” I hissed under my breath as I looked up at the 30+ foot ladder leading to a dark ledge above me. I was miles underground, deep in the belly of the Cumberland Caverns near Sparta, Tennessee, and the ladder was just another challenge I faced as I explored the underworld.
I am a big fan of wild caving. Of course, I love well-lit cave tours with smooth trails that showcase stalagmites and stalactites for tourists. For many people, these exhibit caves are an easy and safe way to see the wonders beneath our feet.
But the still wild and still young part of me likes to crawl and scramble in the dark, feeling that edgy sense of danger while exploring wild caves with only a guide or my own courage. At Cumberland Caverns my friend Emily (who had never done caving before) and I opted for the Adventure Legacy Tour.
This tour was rated “extreme and tiring”, and boy, did it live up to its rating. With local caving expert Chuck Southerland and our 19 year old Collin Cave Guide, we spent 4 hours deep in the more than 30 miles of mapped passages of Cumberland Caverns, scaling ancient rockfalls; squeezing like worms through twisted and tight rocky passages; use guide ropes to navigate fragmentary landings; and marvel at impressive rock carvings that few people see.
North America has a multitude of cave systems. They range from massive like Mammoth cave in Kentucky, the largest cave system in the world and a biosphere reserve and a UNESCO heritage site, with lava tubes like Monkey cave, a 2.5 mile cave created by an eruption on Mount Saint Helens nearly 2,000 years ago. There are even caves you can rappelling into, like the Rat’s nest cave in Alberta.
I bought land in Arkansas with a little cave a mile long because I love caving so much. That said, caving is not for the faint hearted and does require some safety precautions and planning. Having the right equipment is essential, as is knowing what your limits are.
However, if you have that mole rat spirit and want to see parts of the Earth that few people have the opportunity or the courage to explore, you will find magical landscapes that never see the light of day and a rich experiences biosphere as well.
Chuck Southerland is an experienced Caving and Cave Guide who is active in his local Caving Club and participates in Tennessee Cave Surveys.
Before you go wild caving, read Chuck’s five tips for wild caving in North America.
Note: I was greeted in part by Tennessee Tourism and Visit British Columbia on a few of these caving tours. All opinions are mine.
1. Do your research
For the safety and conservation of American caves, experts discourage cavers from visiting most places until they are experienced. Chuck said most state park systems offer cave tours and many have wild caves open to the public.
“We don’t share cave locations. And we generally try to discourage people from visiting wild caves, as most people don’t have the experience or the ability to navigate through complex, three-dimensional underground terrain. We want them to be safe, ”he said. “Some of these caves have really valuable resources that, once destroyed, never exist again. And so for the safety and conservation of the cave, we like to discourage visits to most places until you are an experienced caver.
Chuck suggested contacting the National caving society to connect with local caves (caving clubs) or contact state parks or National park service for more information on cave tours and wild caving in national and state parks.
Pro tip: Decide which experience is right for you by pondering how difficult or exhausting any cave tours you find. Some are intended for beginners, while others can be quite extreme, even for experienced cavers. Don’t be afraid to admit that you are a beginner. Park staff are here to help you have the best trip possible.
2. Be honest about your abilities
Caving can be dangerous and difficult, so take an honest look at your physical and mental ability to hike long distance over rough ground and a lot of rock climbing. You will also need to consider your fears and your stamina.
“You should have a sense of your own personal limits and you should be in pretty good shape. The last thing you want to do is go underground and waste energy or lose your temper, ”Chuck said.
“It’s easier to get physically injured in a cave. Getting out of the cave when you are injured is very complicated. Some people are afraid of the dark. Some people are afraid of heights. Some people have other notions about things that go on in caves, like monsters, which sounds ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how often I hear this. Know yourself and know your fears.
Even a beginner’s wild caving experience requires physical strength and endurance, as well as good mobility.
3. Wear the right gear
When I caved in Cumberland Caverns I wore sturdy hiking boots, layers, and hiking pants. While my hiking boots, quick-dry t-shirt, and light jacket worked great, my poor lightweight cotton hiking pants didn’t survive the hours of spanking and scrambling. I ended up completely ripping my pants off on the seat and spent the remainder of the cave tour with my underwear and butt exposed.
“You definitely need sturdy clothes. I stay away from cotton, as it can also be quite cold and damp inside a cave. It’s easy to get hypothermia if you’re wet in a cold cave, ”Chuck said. “Wear quick-drying synthetic clothing. I also say that if you can’t easily bend your shoes lengthwise, these are good shoes for caving.
While many wild caving tours will provide you with gear, also consider wearing knee pads and athletic gloves to protect your knees and palms. A good caving helmet is an absolute must, as is a quality headlamp. You’ll also want to bring extra headlamps or batteries.
“I also tell people that they should have a good snack and at least 1 liter of water every 3 hours underground,” Chuck said. “The way we move our bodies through the caves is a full body experience, with climbing or crawling or walking or bending. As you warm up, you start to lose water through your skin and through your breathing, which is how your body tries to keep you cool. So it is quite easy to get dehydrated in this situation just because you are active.
Pro tip: Chuck wears heavy-duty cargo shorts when caving, as his knee pads conform to his knees better without pulling on his clothes. Good hiking boots or sturdy athletic shoes with good steps are perfect for caving.
4. Leave no trace
Responsible cavers follow the Leave-No-Trace philosophy. When caving, try to limit your body contact with the cave formations, stick to established paths, do not remove anything, do not disturb any wild animals that might live in the cave and take out all your trash. .
But what about going to the bathroom? Friends, that’s what an empty sports bottle is for!
“Recognizing that you are not part of this ecosystem and that whatever you do, you are going to have an impact is important. We’re just trying to minimize that impact as much as possible, ”Chuck said.
5. Start with a guided caving experience
Not only is it safer to take a caving excursion with a legitimate guide, it is also more rewarding, especially for those new to the sport. A guide can help you navigate difficult terrain safely, point out amazing cave features you might otherwise miss, and help if you find yourself at a dead end.
Guided cave tours usually have gear to use or hire as well, and overall you’ll be in better hands than trying to navigate a dark, deep cave on your own.
Almost every state in the US and every province in Canada has some wild caving experiences you can sign up for, but here are a few outstanding ones:
- Cumberland Caverns, McMinnville, Tennessee
- Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky (Many wild cave tours are currently unavailable but may reopen later this year.)
- Sonoran Caves, Sonora, Texas
- Horne Lake Caves, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
- Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, Oregon
- Marengo cave, Indiana
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico