Essential Caving Gear and Equipment

a caver down in a cave

Corey Hochachka/Getty Images

It's important to have the right caving equipment to enjoy your underground experience to the max. Caving clothing is warm, dry, and lightweight and proper caving equipment, like helmets and headlamps, is essential for caving safety and fun.

Proper Spelunking Gear Makes Caving More Fun

Many novice caving trips are possible using ordinary, but old clothing. You can use cheap waterproof rain pants and jacket or a cotton coverall as a top clothing layer, but for any prolonged and adventurous caving trip, it is highly recommended that you buy and use proper and durable caving equipment and clothing. You'll stay warm and dry and have a heck of a lot more fun than if you get dirty and cold in those old blue jeans and flannel shirt!

Rent or Borrow Gear to Start

If you're a beginning caver or just want to see what all the fuss is about underground, then contact a local spelunking club where you'll find not only lots of eager and enthusiastic help but you may be able to rent or borrow basic caving equipment from members. Some outdoor retailers, like those in Derbyshire in England's Peak District, rent out equipment like helmets, headlamps, and belts.

Caving Equipment Depends on Where You Cave

This caving equipment list is for cavers in Great Britain. The gear and clothes you would use in a Colorado or Kentucky cave will be different. Environmental conditions in caves vary hugely from one region to another, and certainly country to country, necessitating the need to use the correct caving equipment. If you can, seek out local expertise and help on all caving equipment matters.

Caving Tests Your Gear's Endurance Limits

Use gear, equipment, and clothing that is made specifically for caving whenever possible. While you might get by in an easy cave with shoddy caving equipment, if you explore most caves then your equipment will be tested to its limits. Nothing is more embarrassing than losing your fanny pack because its buckles break while you're halfway along an underground passage and have to return, or worse, have it snag on the sidewalls or fall off and hit someone lower down the pitch.

Don't Use Climbing Equipment

It's not a good idea to use climbing equipment for caving. Climbing harnesses, for example, are not made for caving since they can wear out or fail in the trying conditions encountered in a cave. Using a climbing harness while caving is like using your mother's clothes line to try rock climbing! Likewise, avoid using climbing belay and rappel devices, ascenders, and climbing ropes if you're in a vertical cave. Instead, use a caving rack or stop device for safety.

Basic Caving Equipment

  • Helmet - Essential protection for your head and the place where you mount your headlamp. Always wear a helmet when caving!
  • Headlamp - Essential caving gear so that you can see in all those dark places. Don't go underground without a headlamp or a head torch, as they call it in Great Britain. Avoid headlamps with elastic headbands which can break. Instead, mount the headlamp on your helmet.
  • Back-up Headlamp - Essential to bring a back-up spare headlamp as well as other sources of light so you won't get stuck underground in the dark.
  • Footwear - You need sturdy boots for caving with good rubber soles since you will encounter rock climbing sections while underground, with the added excitement of darkness and wet, slippery, and possibly muddy rock! Cavers in the UK usually wear Wellington boots—calf-high rubber boots with a grippy sole and protective steel toe-caps. In many American caves, a high-quality hiking boot can be used.
  • Caving Undersuit - A good fleece undersuit like those made by Jump Suits keeps you warm and dry.
  • Wet Suit - Bring and wear a wet suit if you're going to be wet for long periods of time underground.
  • Oversuit - A one-piece, abrasion-resistant oversuit or coverall is essential if you're doing much crawling in tunnels and small passages.
  • Waist Belt - Carry a small waist belt or fanny pack for batteries, spare headlamps, or other personal items.
  • Socks - Wear wool socks to start but buy neoprene socks when you get serious.
  • Headwear - Bring a thin balaclava or skull cap to wear under your helmet.
  • Knee Pads - Essential if you're crawling around. Neoprene ones work good or get heavy miner's kneepads if it's rocky.
  • Elbow Pads - Not essential but they protect your oversuit elbows on long crawls.
  • Gloves - Wear industrial rubber gloves if you're in wet and slimy passages.
  • Tackle Bag - Bring a PVC bag, like one for rafting, to keep gear, first aid kit, camera, and extras dry.
  • Harness - If you need a harness, buy a specialty caving harness that can be paired with a chest harness. Avoid using climbing harnesses; they're not made for caving.
  • Chest Harness - A specialty caving harness that fits around your chest. Paired with your caving waist harness, it's essential for ascending fixed ropes underground.
  • Ascenders - Use two ascenders or jammers, like the Petzl Croll, that are made for caving.
  • Descenders - Get a special caving descender like the Petzl Stop or Rack for descending ropes. Avoid using climbing rappel and belay devices; they're not safe in caves.
  • Cow's Tails - Use two accessory cords with carabiners for attaching to anchors and ropes. Similar to daisy chains in climbing.
  • Food and Drink - Bring some energy drinks, water, or a hot drink as well as energy bars for quick nutrition.