Getting ready to go on your first caving trip? Or maybe you've been caving before and just can't quite stay warm enough. Well, here's a list of necessary cave gear, the NSS Equipment Checklist, and what WUSS provides.
You don't necessarily have to get a caving specific helmet to go caving, but it is necessary to have something substantial on your head. Inadvertently, your head WILL hit the roof of the cave, which can cause major damage in the form of concussions, bleeding, etc. If you don't want to invest in an "official" helmet at first, a bicycle helmet with a flashlight or two taped to the top work well enough for a few trips.
Ideally though, you want to have a UIAA-approved, multiple hit resistant helmet with a strap like a climbing helmet. Biking helmets are made to break upon impact to soften the blow, whereas multiple hit resistant helmets are made to stay together. Although multiple hit resistant helmets don't absorb impacts as well as a biking helmet, in situations where you could bash your head several times (like in rock climbing and caving) they are safer. Just remember to get used to the extra inches on top of your head- you don't want to break off a pristine bunch of soda straws by accident!
Three sources of light is the recommended minimum. At least one of those should be a light that can attach to your helmet. Two headlamps are better. Flashlights, unless you have a holster on your helmet, limit ease of movement. The idea is, you want your primary lights to be big and bright enough for you to be able to move comfortably through the cave, whereas the last light is a backup, bright enough to get you out but not something that you would want to depend on.
For any serious caving, you'll want to get either a pair of (relatively) cheap hiking boots or a pair of heavy-duty rubber work boots. Tennis shoes don't provide enough traction for anything but the driest caves, and they don't have any ankle support, either. Hiking boots are perfectly fine as long as the laces stay mostly free of mud. Duct tape around the top or a pair of gaitors works well for that. Rubber boots, affectionately called wellies, usually have self-cleaning soles as well as the added bonus of being able to scrub and spray them clean. Besides, it's a lot of fun to pour water out of the boot at the end of a wet trip!
Caves are normally chilly (around 55 degrees in the Midwest), which is fine when you're moving quickly and staying warm, but once you've stopped moving, you cool quickly. So, cavers need to dress in layers. A base layer might have synthetic or silk underwear, light thermal leggings and a polypro (stretchy athletic type) shirt. Under Armour or similar brands have good base pieces.
Cotton and other plant fibers are next to useless underground. Once wet, they tend to remain that way, making them heavy and very cold. Wool also holds a lot of water, but stays warmer. Synthetic clothes, such as nylons or polyesters with a bit of spandex for mobility, are almost always a better choice. That said, cavers who don't own a cave suit almost always wear a "disposable" cotton top layer. Dark colored t-shirts and heavy cargo pants are suitable. (Lighter colored clothes do not wash back to their original color. Ever.)
Special attention should be paid to feet and head coverings. Don't skimp on the socks. You will be on your feet nearly the whole time underground, and at the end, you'll be glad for thick socks. Hiking socks with lots of cushion are especially nice. If you plan on getting your feet wet, socks made of wetsuit material, neoprene, will make your day. Sometimes thin synthetic liner socks are worn, too, but that's personal preference. Head coverings keep heat in your body, sweat out of your helmet, and mud out of your hair. Bandanas are nice for summer caving or short trips, balaclavas for longer trips with lots of down time or winter caving.
Padding for the knees is very important. Your shins and knees will be beautifully colored a few days after a caving trip without them. Sharp rocks and glass can cut through clothing in no time. Soft volleyball pads work well, though they tend to bunch painfully behind the knees after awhile. Special caving kneepads are available. Usually they are long enough to cover the shins, with extra-thick foam inside an extra-durable covering. They also have adjustable straps. Kneepads of any sort are useful as grip on slippery mud slopes, helping to keep the "three points of contact" rule. Elbow pads serve much the same purpose, but they truly come into their own during belly crawls. Not everyone wears elbow pads. Every caver will wear gloves. Normal gloves, such as gardening gloves or thin leather work gloves work well, but 3/4 finger biking gloves or fingerless weight lifting gloves are also nice. Again, personal preference.
Water and food should travel with you. Granola bars, trail mix, or anything that isn't completely inedible after being bashed over rocks for a few hours is a suitable snack. Water travels in a durable plastic (Nalgenes or Platypus) or metal bottle. Nalgenes and metal containers can be irritating to carry in a pack, since they sometimes settle in the completely wrong position. It happens. However, they are also nearly indestructible. Platypus bottles conform to the pack, but, being soft, they could possibly puncture. Disposable water bottles have leaky tops and can crack, so avoid carrying them if possible.
Any bag with a drawstring or buckle closure will work. Zippers and Velcro get clogged with sand or mud really quickly, so bags with those kinds of closings aren't the best choice. Don't over pack, but don't leave useful items behind just to shave a few ounces. You should always be able to get to your pack. In the best cases, you should be able to reach it yourself, but it's ok to have someone watching both you and your pack sometimes. The following things should always be in your pack:
Beyond those, you might want a map, something to write with/on, dry clothes in ziplocks, lighter and candle, some handwarmers, webbing/handline, camera, knife, duct tape, stove, whistle, glow stick, or flagging tape.
A Cave and Some Buddies
If you are just starting out, you might check out local caving organizations or the NSS's listing of grottos to see if there's one in your area. You might have a hard time finding caves to cave in without joining a grotto, since cavers are paranoid people. They've spent years cultivating friendly relations with park managers and land owners, so they guard the locations they know jealously. The potential for doing harm in some caves is astronomical, and their owners and managers have to be extremely careful. Once you've contacted a local grotto, you can usually find a few people that are more than willing to take you out, and maybe lend you some gear while they're at it.
You'll probably have a couple people with you on your trip. Cavers usually travel in groups of three to five people or so. Three is a minimum safe number (if someone get injured, you have one person to stay with them and one to go for help) and parties much bigger than five can get bunchy and cumbersome. For extra peace of mind, you might want to get some first-aid or NCRC training.
For every outdoor sport, you should have a contact outside your activity who knows where you are or where you're going, who you're with, and what time you plan to be back. It might feel like you're living at home again, but when you're underground, there's no sense taking extra chances. It's hard enough to find someone lost in the woods, and finding and rescuing someone hurt underground is much harder. Let someone know your plans!
Ask an officer about gear check-out procedures. Some items may require a deposit, and all items require an officer's signature.