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When going caving the main concerns that one should worry about is the likely hood of getting cold, wet or overheated. Getting lost is pretty bad as well and maybe the most important thing would be finding the exit.

Caves can either be wet or dry but most of them have one thing in common - they stay more or less the same temperature all year round, and they are usually around 13-15 degrees. And yes, they are usually dark.

Most people can go caving - it really does dependent entirely on the chosen cave whether you would be fit for it or not. Obviously some caves have to small passages for more heavily build people to get through so here it is good to be slim and small. On the other hand in wet (and therefore usually cold) caves it could pay of having a bit of natural insulation although proper choice of clothing should eliminate the need of layers of fat.

     

 

Basic Requirements
Let's say you wanted to go into a Guatemalan cave - then your needs would be fairly minimal. What you will need is a torch and a helmet. The old Mayans supposedly did go caving without any pieces of gear whatsoever (okay maybe except for a few pots and stuff) but they never managed to get much further in than a couple of hundred meters which is pretty impressive anyway, but they often couldn't find the exit which wasn't so good. Here's what happened to one of the poor guys.

So if you want to explore further than most people go and get back again the two basic pieces of gear would be

  • The Torch - essential for lighting up this total dark environment - the most useful is the headtorch which can attach to your head/helmet allowing your free arm movement which is fairly critical in the more serious caving. There are two main companies who do caving lights one is a company called Speleo and the other one is Petzl. We both use Petzl's "Explorer" system which has been really great so far. More on this later. (Check out Mathias' custom build Light system nick named "The Lighthouse")
  • The Helmet - again - you could easily go caving without a helmet but it would take you 2 nano seconds before you bang your skull up in a big piece of rock and the fun would be over. It's not like in climbing where the helmet can be somewhat of a nuisance - in caving it quickly become your best friend. When we went caving the first couple of times we just used our climbing helmets and they work just fine - but as you get more into the sport it's nice to get some proper stuff. So - again Petzl is a major helmet manufacturer - and the Explorer system mentioned in above is a complete helmet/light system which is superb. Read further down for details.(I can't wait - take me there now!)

These are the two basic pieces of kit and for many caves this could probably be sufficient. But most of the time the caves present you with factors that makes it necessary to add a few more items to the list. Most of this comes down to clothing.

     

 

  Clothing
Click to see moreInner Layer. Let's assume your are going down into an wet English cave. First thing you need is ideally a pair of swimming pants of buffalo skids to take good care of your lower regions. Secondly a layer of thin wool (Helly Hansen, Patagonia Polypro). Then you need a thick layer of fleece - ideally a one piece fleecesuit. The advantage of these materials is that they will keep you relatively warm even though it is wet. If you are planning a trip which would involve a lot of swimming and fully submersible activities then forget the wool/fleece combination and put on an old wetsuit. I have my thin old windsurfer longjohn suit which works really well. Too thick and you'll have difficulty moving around, and it will probably be too hot when you're not in water.

Outer Shell. Your best option as your outer shell is the Warmbag Oversuit. It is durable, waterproof and it is cut so you have plenty of freedom of movement in the legs and arms. This is usually the problem with a standard oversuit - it will restrict your movements quite a bit. I have used a standard oversuit for quite some time and it is a good cheap option, but it does make a big difference wearing a Warmbag that fits you. A hood is nice if you are planning to hang around in waterfalls a lot.

Footwear. The accepted standard for caving is wellington boots ( gummistøvler). Mostly because of durability. Inside the wellington you should fit yourself with some wetsocks - I forgot mine once up in Yorkshire and instead I wore a thin pair of polypro socks and a think pair of woolen. Mid way through the cave I started getting seriously cold and the trip for me was then just a struggle to keep going and wasn't as enjoyable as it could have been. You loose a lot of heat from the feat and a pair of wet socks will keep your little toes nice and warm.

Kneepads. Kneepads are nice. They tend to restrict your walking a bit but if you are planning a lot of crawling, specially on pebbles and small sharp rocks they are definitely recommendable.

Gloves. We have said it many times before and we will say it again: "Vikings don't wear gloves". You see many people wearing gloves - these are just soft deskjob workers who care too much about there nails and manicures and too little about the challenges and pleasures of the underworld.

     

 

 

 

Additional Gear
Sometimes the cave can pose some obstacles that necessitates a bit - or sometimes a lot - of extra gear. The most common of problems is that of shafts deeper that one finds it safe to climb (called a pitch). Encountering one or more of these vertical challenges one should bring a ladder.

Ladder. The caving ladder is made of lightweight aluminum which look similar to a ropeladder thus making it easy to roll and pack for convenient transportation underground. They vary in size and can be connected to eachother for really long pitches.

For caves where several pitches might be experienced and where a small two person team want to travel ultralightweight, fast and with optimum safety, the Single Rope Techniques (SRT) has been developed.

SRT - Single Rope Technique. This is somewhat of a beautiful skill that has been developed and perfected in fairly recent years. For SRT'ing you need

  • Harness - get a special caving harness, the tie-in point is lower than on normal harnesses and the are more durable.
  • Rope - although climbing ropes can be used static ropes are the best. Preferably between 10.5 and 12 mm diameter. Length depends on the cave.
  • Descender - this is a gadget to will allow you to get down the rope. The one I use is the Petzl "Stop". (Pictured on the right)
  • Ascender - this allows you to get up the rope again and you need two. I use the Petzl hand ascender for the top and the "Croll" for the body. (Pictured on the left)
  • Cowstails - these are just a piece of rope with a carabiner in the end allowing you to clip yourself into bolts on re-belays and deviation points.
  • Various carabiners, maillons, spanners and bolts. I won't go into details.

The whole universe of techniques and the tricks would be too much to go into here but just buy the kit and find somebody who knows what they are doing, become their friend and go SRT'ing. It is excellent fun.

     
   

Where to go caving?
England is a pretty good place to start. France has loads and loads of caves as well. So does Spain, Greece, Germany, Eastern Europe, Ireland, America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. Basically you want a region of the world that has limestone and stuff like that underneath you. Geology was never my strong side so let's leave it at that.

Actually just about the only country which doesn't have any cave potential whatsoever is probably our home country Denmark. So whatever you do, try and avoid this otherwise nice little country.

Still curious? Check out this extensive document on srt caving. Approved external link

Foot note  
 

The Petzl Explorer system
Although rather tedious to keep in nice and clean condition the Petzl Explorer system is pretty much the sexiest bit of caving gear available on the shelf today. Just look at the photo on the left - it oozes coolness right? It features an Aceto carbide lamp, a Duo electrical torch, an Ecrin Roc Helmet, an Ariane plastic (very lightweight) acetylene generator, and a watertight battery pack on the back for the Duo headtorch on the front.

What I found trying carbide lighting for the first time was that the ambient warm light that a flame gives you made the cave look much more inviting and less claustrophobic that when using electrical light thus making you more adventurous and less affected by the scariness of the scary environment. The difference in experience is really significant as I have tried to illustrate at the diagram below.

And now you are ready to go caving. See you down there.


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