How Spelunking Works

Caving Safety and Tips

Six British speleologists were trapped in Mexico's Cuetzalan caves network in 2004. They were rescued but deported.
Six British speleologists were trapped in Mexico's Cuetzalan caves network in 2004. They were rescued but deported.
Rafael Duran/AFP/Getty Images

In 2007, the National Speleogical Society received 24 accident reports related to caving and cave diving in the United States and Canada [source: National Speleological Society]. This represented only a fraction of the annual accidents, as many go unreported. Most reported accidents involved minor injuries, but five were fatalities (four of them while cave diving).

Caving, like other outdoor sports, can be a perfectly safe, family activity when cavers are educated, prepared and treat caving safety with the seriousness it deserves. First of all, it's important to know the most common causes of caving accidents and injuries:

There are several things you can do before you even leave the house that will help you stay safe while caving. First of all, never go caving alone. A small group of 4 to 6 is preferable to a large group with potential stragglers. If you're not hiring a guide, make sure that at least two people in your group are experienced cavers who know the cave very well. Most important of all, let several people know about your caving plans -- exactly where you are going, who is going with you and when you plan on being back home.

Make sure you have everything you need, most importantly extra bulbs and batteries for light sources, ample food and water, good shoes and plenty of warm clothing.

When you begin caving, always stay together -- another good reason to keep the group small and manageable. If you have a larger group, break it up into small sections that can each be responsible for themselves. Keep the slowest caver in the front of the group, so you don't run the risk of leaving anyone behind. Even in a relatively easy cave, stop frequently to check how everyone is doing.

A basic rule of thumb while caving is not to take any unnecessary risks. Always look for the easiest way to navigate the cave. If you have a choice between walking 10 minutes around a crevice or jumping straight over it, go around. Any injury, no matter how small, is magnified by the difficulty of evacuating an injured person from a cave.

If someone does get injured and can't make it out of the cave on his or her own, don't leave that person alone. Send two or more people to go get help from police or paramedics. Make sure the people who leave know exactly where the injured person is and the extent of his or her injuries. Also make sure they have car keys or access to cell phones. Leave plenty of food, water, extra clothing and backup light sources with the people who stay in the cave.

If you get hopelessly lost in a cave or if your light runs out, the best thing to do is stay put and try not to panic. This is why it's so important to let several people know about your caving plans. When you don't return, they'll know exactly where to direct rescue personnel. If you're lost and you keep moving, you'll make it even harder for rescue workers to find you.

For more information about outdoor adventure sports and related topics, check out the links below.


Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Attenborough, David. "Sotano de las Golondrinas." Planet Earth.
  • Jones, Cheryl. "Guide to Responsible Caving." National Speleological Society.
  • Stanley, Matt. "About UIAA and CE helmet certification." Climbing Magazine.
  • Quinion, Michael. "Spelunking." World Wide Words.
  • "About Cave Diving." National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section.
  • "American Caving Accidents." National Speleological Society. 2007.
  • "Cave Directory." National Caves Association.
  • The Cave of Lascaux.
  • "Cave Science." National Caves Association.
  • "Explore Cave Animals." U.S. Geological Survey.
  • "History of human use of caves." Amazing Journey into Caves.
  • "How Caves Form." NOVA: Mysterious Life of Caves.
  • "How Stalactites and Stalagmites Form." U.S. National Park Service.
  • "Kazumura Cave" Caves of the United States of America.
  • "Ranger-Guided Cave Tours." Carlsbad Caverns.
  • "Recreational vs. Cave Diving Equipment: What's the Difference?" The Cave Diving Website.
  • "Safety." National Speleological Society.
  • "Techniques." National Speleological Society.
  • "Vertical Caving." An Introduction to Caves and Caving.