- Present continuous of spelunk, to explore underground caves.
Caving is the recreational sport of exploring caves. In contrast, speleology is the scientific study of caves and the cave environment.
OverviewThe challenges of the sport depend on the cave being visited, but often include the negotiation of pitches, squeezes, and water (though actual cave diving is a separate sub-specialty undertaken only by very few cavers). Climbing or crawling is often necessary, and ropes are used extensively for safety of the negotiation of particularly steep or slippery passages.
Caving is often undertaken for the enjoyment of the activity or for physical exercise, as well as original exploration, similar to mountaineering or diving. Physical or biological science is also an important goal for some cavers. Virgin cave systems comprise some of the last unexplored regions on Earth and much effort is put into trying to locate and enter them. In well-explored regions (such as most first-world countries), the most accessible caves have already been explored, and gaining access to new caves often requires digging or diving.
Caves have been explored out of necessity (for shelter from the elements or from enemies), out of curiosity or for mystical reasons for thousands of years. However, only in the last century or two has the activity developed into a sophisticated, athletic pastime. In recent decades caving has changed considerably due to the availability of modern protective wear and equipment. It has recently come to be known as an "extreme sport" by some (though not commonly considered as such by its practitioners, who may dislike the term for its perceived connotation of disregard for safety).
Many of the skills of caving can also be used in the nature activities of mine exploration and urban exploration.
Naming issuesClay Perry — an American caver of the 1940s — wrote about a group of men and boys who explored and studied caves throughout New England. This group referred to themselves as spelunkers. This is regarded as the first use of the word in the Americas. Throughout the 1950s, spelunking was the general term used for exploring caves in US English. It was used freely, without any positive or negative connotations, although only rarely outside the US.
In the 1960s, the term "spelunking" began to convey the idea of inexperienced cavers, using unreliable light sources and cotton clothing. In 1985, Steve Knutson (editor of American Caving Accidents) made the following distinction:
- "...Note that I use the term 'spelunker' to denote someone untrained and unknowledgeable in current exploration techniques, and 'caver' for those who are."
This sentiment is exemplified by bumper stickers and t-shirts displayed by many cavers: "Cavers rescue spelunkers".
Potholing refers to the act of exploring potholes, a word originating in the north of England for predominantly vertical caves. The term is often used as a synonym for caving, and outside the caving world there is a general impression that potholing is a more "extreme" version of caving.
Practice and equipment
Hard hats are worn to protect the head from bumps and falling rocks. The caver's primary light source is usually mounted on the helmet in order to keep the hands free. Electric lights are most common, with halogen lamps being standard and white LEDs as the new competing technology. Many cavers carry two or more sources of light - one as primary and the others as backup in case the first fails. More often than not, a second light will be mounted to the helmet for quick transition if the primary fails. Carbide lamps systems are an older form of illumination, inspired by miner's equipment, and are still used by some cavers.
The type of clothes worn underground varies according to the environment of the cave being explored, and the local culture. In cold caves, the caver may wear a warm base layer that retains its insulating properties when wet, such as a fleece ("furry") suit and/or polypropylene underwear, and an oversuit of hard-wearing (e.g., cordura) and/or waterproof (e.g., PVC) material. Lighter clothing may be worn in warm caves, particularly if the cave is dry, and in tropical caves thin polypropylene clothing is used, to provide some abrasion protection whilst remaining as cool as possible. Wetsuits may be worn if the cave is particularly wet or involves stream passages. On the feet boots are worn - hiking-style boots in drier caves, or rubber boots (such as wellies) often with neoprene socks ("wetsocks") in wetter caves. Knee-pads (and sometimes elbow-pads) are popular for protecting joints during crawls. Depending on the nature of the cave, gloves are sometimes worn to protect the hands against abrasion and/or cold. In pristine areas and for restoration, clean oversuits and powder-free, non-latex surgical gloves are used to protect the cave itself from contaminants.
Ropes are used for descending or ascending pitches ("Single Rope Technique") or for protection. Knots commonly used in caving are the figure-of-eight- (or figure-of-nine-) loop, bowline, alpine butterfly, and Italian hitch. Ropes are usually rigged using bolts, slings, and carabiners. In some cases cavers may choose to bring and use a flexible metal ladder.
In addition to the equipment already described, cavers frequently carry packs containing first-aid kits, emergency equipment, and food. Containers for securely transporting urine are also commonly carried. On longer trips, containers for securely transporting faeces out of the cave are carried.
During very long trips, it may be necessary to camp in the cave. This necessitates the caver carrying sleeping and cooking equipment.
SafetyMany cave environments are very fragile. Many speleothems can be damaged by even the slightest touch and some by impacts as slight as a breath.
Pollution is also of concern. Since water that flows through a cave eventually comes out in streams and rivers, any pollution may ultimately end up in someone's drinking water, and can even seriously affect the surface environment, as well. Even minor pollution such as dropping organic material can have a dramatic effect on the cave biota.
Cave-dwelling species are also very fragile, and often, a particular species found in a cave may live within that cave alone, and be found nowhere else in the world. Cave-dwelling species are accustomed to a near-constant climate of temperature and humidity, and any disturbance can be disruptive to the species' life cycles. Though cave wildlife may not always be immediately visible, it is typically nonetheless present in most caves.
Bats are one such fragile species of cave-dwelling animal. Despite their often frightening reputation in fiction and in the movies, bats generally have more to fear from humans than vice-versa. Bats can be beneficial to humans in many ways, especially through their important ecological role in reducing insect pest populations, and pollination of plant species. Bats which hibernate are most vulnerable during the winter season, when no food supply exists on the surface to replenish the bat's store of energy should it be awakened from hibernation. Bats which migrate are most sensitive during the summer months when they are raising their young. For these reasons, visiting caves inhabited by hibernating bats is discouraged during cold months; and visiting caves inhabited by migratory bats is discouraged during the warmer months when they are most sensitive and vulnerable.
Some cave passages may be marked with flagging tape or other indicators to show biologically, aesthetically, or archaeologically sensitive areas. Marked paths may show ways around notably fragile areas such as a pristine floor of sand or silt which may be thousands of years old, dating from the last time water flowed through the cave. Such deposits may easily be spoiled forever by a single misplaced step. Active formations such as flowstone can be similarly marred with a muddy footprint or handprint, and ancient human artifacts, such as fiber products, may even crumble to dust under the touch of any but the most careful archaeologist.
Caving organizationsCavers in many countries have created organizations for the administration and oversight of caving activities within their nations. Among the oldest of these are the National Speleological Society (1941) of the USA (originally formed as the Speleological Society of the District of Columbia on May 6, 1939) and the Swiss Society of Speleology created in 1939 in Geneva, but the first speleological institute in the world was founded in 1920 in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, by Emil Racovita, a Romanian biologist, zoologist, speleologist and explorer of Antarctica. For a list of these organizations, see Caving organizations.
In popular culture
- Journey Into Amazing Caves (2001)
- Caverns of the Mojave: An Expedition with Real Cavers (2006)
- Planet Earth (2006), fourth episode "Caves"
- Alpine Caving Techniques by Marbach and Tourtes ISBN 3-908495-10-5: widely considered to be the bible of caving techniques, particularly by European cavers
- Cave Exploring by Paul Burger ISBN 0-7627-2560-5: Good beginner to intermediate guide to caving, focusing primarily on US caving techniques
- Speleological Abstract (SA/BBS) Annual review of the world's speleological literature, edited by the Bibliography Commission of the UIS.
spelunking in German: Höhlenwandern
spelunking in Finnish: Luolatutkimus
spelunking in French: Spéléologie
spelunking in Hungarian: Barlangászás
spelunking in Indonesian: Caving
spelunking in Japanese: ケイビング
spelunking in Russian: Спелеотуризм