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Jesse Weber | 08.01.2016

Caves introduce an entirely new dimension to outdoor adventure. Darkness and confinement defy the senses as the earth is seemingly turned inside out and upside down, pinched and pulled into subterranean formations that rival anything on the surface in complexity of design.

The underground really is its own world, so exploring it requires different skills, gear, and mindset than most of us are used to. Of course, necessary experience and equipment varies with the difficulty and commitment level of each cave. Some of the destinations featured here are rather serious “wild” caves within which you will be truly on your own, but others are kept brightly lit and visited by guided tours.

What to Bring

If you venture into a cave on your own, here are a few helpful tips. The first thing to know is that caves are dark--obvious, yes--but artificial light is absolutely crucial to have in a cave. A dead lamp can make the difference between human life and death, so be sure to always have extra batteries and lights. Also, bring a watch. Without it, total blackness easily muddles all notion of time.

You should not enter a cave without protective clothing. Sturdy shoes are a must, because bare rock floors are almost always slippery with mud, water, or ice. Helmets are always a good idea, because low ceilings and sharp protrusions can jut in from all sides. If you do slip and fall, there is no such thing as a soft landing in a cave, so you must protect your noggin. Long pants, sleeves, and gloves are also good for fending off scrapes and bruises.

The depths of a cave can be surprisingly cold, so bring layers and dry clothes to change into. In cooler climates, inside temperatures may linger around freezing even during the heat of summer because cold winter air sinks and becomes trapped in the cave. This is why many caverns in the West are known as “ice” caves even though they are formed of rock. Water seeping from the walls freezes once exposed to the air.

Another common-sense fact that people too easily forget is that cell phones and GPS do not work in caves. If you get in trouble underground you are truly on your own. Be sure to always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. If you are tracking with a GPS, make sure to get an accurate point as close to the mouth of the cave as possible.

Most important to remember is that caves are fragile environments. Formations take millions of years to form and cannot be replaced once broken or defaced. Waste has nowhere to go inside a cave and does not readily degrade, so everything must be packed out. Practice general Leave No Trace ethics, but take them to an extreme in any cave environment. The organisms that live here are particularly sensitive to human interference, and damage to cave scenery is particularly evident to future visitors, so be responsible.

Where to Go

For a family-friendly adventure that requires no special expertise, try one of these destinations

For a more serious exploration that puts you in charge, gear up for one of these less-traveled caverns


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