The best way for beginners to begin caving is to take a guided caving tour. Many of the larger, better-known caves in the United States have self-guided tours where you simply follow a paved or dirt path through easily accessible, well-lit passageways and rooms. If you want to explore the more remote corners of caves, you'll have to sign on with a guided group tour.
Guided tours vary considerably in difficulty and price. All of the major U.S. caves have Web sites where you can explore your options. Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, for example, offers ranger-led tours of Kings Palace that require nothing more difficult than walking up a steep slope and guided explorations of the Spider Cave, which requires extensive crawling through dusty, tight spaces. Guided tours range in price from $8 for an hour-long trip to more than $50 for an all-day excursion [source: U.S. National Park Service].
Kids and caves are an excellent combination, particularly on guided trips designed for children. Caves tap into a child's natural curiosity and allow them to show off their crawling, climbing and squeezing-through-small-spaces skills. Caves are also excellent opportunities for science education in an impressive setting. Most major caves support children's education programs for schools and private groups.
Vertical caving uses ropes and other rappelling and mountaineering equipment to lower cavers into deep vertical shafts. Beginners are advised to attempt vertical caving only with trained, certified guides.
Cave diving -- the exploration of underwater caves -- is not for beginners. Even seasoned scuba divers shouldn't attempt cave diving without the proper training and without specially certified guides. Cave diving requires different equipment, techniques and a unique mindset that very few divers possess. While the rewards of cave diving can be magnificent, it's also potentially deadly.
If you get hooked on caving and want to go beyond the basic guided tours and touristy spots, you might want to join a caving club. In the United States, the National Speleological Society sponsors more than 200 caving clubs known as grottos. Caving clubs organize training and excursions with an emphasis on cave conservation.
If you're ready to go out and find a cave, you're going to need the right gear. Learn about what you'll need on your first expedition on the next page.