Caving — also traditionally known as spelunking in the United States and Canada and potholing in the United Kingdom and Ireland — is the recreational pastime of exploring wild (generally non-commercial) cave systems. In contrast, speleology is the scientific study of caves and the cave environment.
The challenges involved in caving vary according to the cave being visited, but – in addition to the total absence of light beyond the entrance – often include the negotiation of pitches, squeezes, and water hazards. Cave diving is a distinct, and more hazardous, sub-specialty undertaken by a small minority of technically proficient cavers. In an area of overlap between recreational pursuit and scientific study, the most devoted and serious-minded cavers become accomplished at the surveying and mapping of caves and the formal (though usually private) publication of their efforts.
Sometimes categorized as an “extreme sport”, it is not commonly considered as such by long-time enthusiasts, who may dislike the term for its connotation of disregard for safety.
Caving is often undertaken for the enjoyment of the outdoor 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, while others are engaged in cave photography. Virgin cave systems comprise some of the last unexplored regions on Earth and much effort is put into trying to locate, enter and survey them. In well-explored regions (such as most developed nations), the most accessible caves have already been explored, and gaining access to new caves often requires cave digging or cave diving.
Caving, in certain areas, has also been utilized as a form of eco and adventure tourism. Tour companies have established an industry leading and guiding tours into and through caves. Depending on the type of cave and the type of tour, the experience could be adventure-based or ecological-based. In many areas (e.g. Bend, Oregon, the oceanic islands of Tenerife, IcelandIceland and Hawaii), there are tours led through lava tubes by a guiding service.
Caving has also been described as an “individualist’s team sport” by some, as cavers can often make a trip without direct physical assistance from others but will generally go in a group for companionship or to provide emergency help if needed. Some however consider the assistance cavers give each other as a typical team sport activity.
Too much emphasis on the labeling of caving as a sport can narrow the goals of caving as a whole. Caving often puts the needs and welfare of a cave before those of the active participants. It is fair to say that while caving shares some attributes of sport activities, for many it transcends sports as many cavers pursue cave science, mapping, photography, and the management and conservation of cave resources.
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 LED lights are most common. 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 lamp 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 (“wet socks”) 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 over suits 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 SRT) 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 feces out of the cave are carried.
During very long trips, it may be necessary to camp in the cave – some cavers have stayed underground for many days, or in particularly extreme cases, for weeks at a time. This is particularly the case when exploring or mapping very extended cave systems, where it would be impractical to retrace the route back to the surface regularly. Such long trips necessitate the cavers carrying provisions, sleeping and cooking equipment.
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