The following basic safety information is provided with permission from the National Speleological Society. To learn more about caving or find a local grotto (chapter) of the National Speleological Society visit www.caves.org. While you are there, become a member!
Basic Safety Information
There are several versions of cave safety guidelines. Having adequate training and reliable equipment are the main points in each one. Safe use of equipment can be achieved only by sharing information, teaching and demonstrations. Chances of being injured are reduced by awareness of dangers and by knowledge of your equipment and techniques.
Statistically, caving accidents are mostly attributed to poor judgment, little or no caving experience and falls. The most common causes of caving accidents include: falling, being struck by falling objects and hypothermia.
Falling: To reduce the risk of falling, one should avoid jumping and uncontrolled sliding down slopes, wear proper footwear, check and discard any faulty or worn vertical equipment and obtain proper training. When caving, you should always try to have three points of contact when moving over uneven ground. This means having three points on your body supported on immovable objects to stabilize your body while moving through difficult areas.
Falling Objects: Injury caused by falling objects are best avoided by always wearing a helmet. It is best to stay clear of the base of drops and climbs. Secure all items of equipment so that they will not drop on cavers below you. Remember to always yell "ROCK!" for all falling objects, even if it's your water bottle. Saying "WATER!" will take too much time for the person to think when a second of reaction time is all they have.
Hypothermia: If the temperature drops more than a few degrees, the body can no longer function properly. Dress appropriately for the weather and carry extra clothing or something that can protect you from the cold. The first signs of hypothermia are fatigue, drowsiness, exhaustion, unwillingness to go on, feeling cold, poor coordination and stumbling.
Other Hazards: Not all caving problems involve injuries. A few people do get lost in caves, become stuck or are unable to climb up a ledge or rope to get out of the cave. Exhaustion and a lack of light (or light failure) may cause someone to become lost who might otherwise have found their way out of the cave.
A Closer Look Into Safety
As you plan to go on a cave trip, there are several things you should include in your pre-trip planning. Proper preparation will help you have a safe trip and will give some amount of protection against the many dangers of being under ground.
The mere fact that you are interested in caving implies that you are probably comfortable with some level of risk and are somewhat comfortable with the unknown. These are good things, but a person preparing for a cave trip considers the risks, tries to anticipate the problems and thinks about the unknowns. No one wants to have a problem while we are under ground, but we should never go into the cave without at least taking a few minutes to think about the things that can go wrong on our trip.
NEVER Cave Alone
This is dangerous, fool hardy and is a sure recipe for a disaster. The smallest size group recommend is four people. With this number, if someone is hurt, one person can stay and comfort the injured and the other two can get help.
There are several things that should be discussed with people who have never been underground before. Discussing the following points with them will help them be mentally prepared, safer and have a better experience.
- Three points of contact should be exhibited when moving over uneven ground. This means having three points on your body supported on immovable objects. Whether it is your left foot, right shoulder and knee; your left elbow, head and right hip; or your right hand, bottom and back.
- The group needs to stay together. The only reasons not to have people stay together will involve either someone with an injury or an emergency.
- Do not exert yourself beyond the limits of your endurance and never do anything that your are not comfortable with. Remember, discretion is the better part of valor. If anyone should have any questions or anxieties, he or she should make their concerns known. It is a team effort when underground.
- Do not leave trash behind, pick up others' trash, do not vandalize and do not take souvenirs. Everyone should know the importance of cave conservation on the trip. The caver's motto: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing footprints, kill nothing but time.
- Have an emergency plan and discuss what will be done if something goes wrong. Everyone should know to wait for instructions from the trip leader, unless he or she is in a life-threatening situation. They need to understand that the trip leader makes the decisions in case of an emergency.
Every caving trip requires the same basic equipment and supplies. These items include light, head protection (helmet), food, water, first aid kit and proper clothing.
Caving responsibly involves planning a trip, moving through the cave safely and returning on time. You and your partners are responsible for protecting yourselves and the caves you visit.
Tell Someone Your Plans
Establish a time to be out of the cave and a contact person who knows this information. Notify a reliable person about your caving plans, including the name, the location of the cave you are visiting and your estimated time of return. Agree on what to do if you do not return on time. He or she should understand that they will be the person to call for help if you have not checked in with them after the trip should have ended. If you exit the cave after your estimated exit time contact this person as soon as possible to prevent an unnecessary rescue.
A good group size is four to six people. Groups larger than six tend to be slow and difficult to manage, so divide a larger group of cavers into separate groups. Each group should have at least one, preferably two, people who are familiar with the cave and good caving skills and practices.
Alertness and Challenges
When caving it is important to remain clear headed. Drugs, including alcohol, that affect your alertness, judgment or ability to think clearly make you a threat to your group’s safety.
Everyone going on the trip should be physically and mentally ready for the challenges that will be associated with the trip. He or she will also need to have the skills required for the kind of cave. For example, does someone have a limiting medical condition? Is someone claustrophobic and you are going on a tight trip? Will everyone on a vertical trip understand on-rope techniques like a change over? The bottom line is, if you think that you or someone else on the trip is not up to challenges that you will be encountering, it is far better to bring it up before a serious problem arises inside the cave.
A novice’s apprehension before a caving trip is healthy and an awareness of possible hazards helps you avoid them. Here are some of the dangers of caving.
- Getting lost
- Running out of light
- Passages flooding
- Falling rocks
- Poor footing, falling
- Falling down pits