Caving equipment

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Caving equipment is equipment used by cavers and speleologists to aid and protect them while exploring caves. The term may also be used to refer to equipment used to document caves, such as photographic and surveying equipment.

Due to the greatly varying conditions of caves throughout the world there is a multitude of different equipment types and categories. Cavers exploring a largely dry system may wear a fleece one-piece undersuit with a protective oversuit while cavers exploring a very wet cave may opt to use wetsuits. Cavers in large dry systems in the tropics and in desert climates may simply opt to wear shorts and a T-shirt


The earliest cavers in Europe and North America were limited in their explorations by a lack of suitable equipment. Explorers of the early 1800s, when caving began to become more common, caved in tweed suits and used candles for illumination. Exploration was usually limited to drier caves as there was little to protect cavers from the cold once they became wet. Later, cavers began to adopt miners lamps, which were designed for underground use and were reasonably reliable, though their light was not especially powerful. Lighting magnesium strips was a popular way of illuminating large chambers. E.A. Martel, a French caver, created a collapsible canvas canoe which he used to explore several caves containing long flooded sections, such as the Marble Arch Cave in Northern Ireland. His expeditionary equipment was describe in 1895 as: "a canvas boat, some hundreds of feet of rope - ladders, a light portable folding wooden ladder, ropes, axes, compass, barometer, telephone, map etc.'".[1] Acetylene lamps, powered by carbide, was one of the main light sources used by cavers during the 20th century. Electric miners headlamps, powered by lead-acid batteries were later used, eventually superseded by LED lighting, which offers superior duration and brightness and is considerably lighter.

Vertical caving was undertaken with rope ladders. These were cumbersome and unwieldy, especially when wet and sometimes requiring teams of donkeys to carry them. The French explorer Robert de Joly pioneered the use of ever lighter rope ladders until developing the Elektron Ladder, a light wire ladder with aluminium rungs.[2] The lightness and portability of these ladders revolutionised the exploration of deep caves, paving the way for the exploration of the Gouffre Berger, the first cave in the world to break the 1 km depth limit. Early systems of ascending ropes were developed by Pierre Chevalier in the Dent de Crolles cave system in France in the late 1930s, Chevalier also being the first to use nylon rope in a cave as opposed to natural fibre rope. Single rope technique (SRT) began to be developed in the US in the 1950s, a similar system was developed in Europe in the late 1960s, which was quickly standardised and is still in use today. SRT offered the advantage of greater speed and versatility in the descent of vertical shafts, previously one caver would have to remain at the head of the final pitch to belay the returning cavers up a ladder climb.

The increasing popularity of caving during the 1960s and 1970s led to the creation of specialist caving equipment companies, such as Petzl, which made equipment specifically for cavers. Previously, cavers adapted equipment from other sources, such as using miners helmets and electric lamps, or made their own equipment. Caving equipment made today conforms to high safety standards, decreasing the amount of injuries and fatalities experienced by cavers.

Protective clothing

Thermal protection

Caves in temperate regions such as Europe and North America maintain an average yearly temperature of 11–13 °C (52–58 °F).[3] While this is not especially cold, exposure to water and fatigue can increase the risk of hypothermia. Cavers usually wear a one-piece undersuit made of fleece or fibre pile, sometimes used in tandem with thermal underclothes. In warmer caves, such as those in France and Spain, lighter undersuits are used to prevent overheating.

A pair of Wellington boots

When caving in wet caves neoprene wetsuits provide superior insulation to fleece underclothes. While cavers often use wetsuits designed for surfing or diving, specialist caving wetsuits are available with reinforced elbows and knees.[4] Hybrid fleece/wetsuit undersuits are also used.

Abrasive protection

Cavers commonly wear protective oversuits, similar to boiler suits but made of heavily abrasive resistant material such as cordura. In wet or windy caves PVC oversuits may be preferred, as they provide a greater degree of protection against getting wet and keep the caver warmer. Oversuits often come with reinforced areas, especially at wear points such as the elbows, seat and shins. Internal pockets and hoods are sometimes provided.

Knee pads, and less commonly, elbow pads are worn both to protect the caver and the caver's clothing. Gloves are also worn by cavers. In wet caves neoprene gloves can be worn as added protection against the cold.


Wellington boots are a popular choice of footwear, being hard wearing, cheap, having good grip and great water resistance. Hiking boots are also worn as footwear, providing superior ankle support. They do however let water and grit in much easier and are often damaged by the harsh cave environment. There is also the risk of lace hooks ensnaring on ladders. In large dry tropical caves they are superior to wellington boots, being cooler and restrict movement less. Specialist canyoning boots offer an expensive alternative to wellingtons and hiking boots.


While helmets are used to protect the cavers head against occasional falling rocks, they find much more use in protecting the cavers heads from bumps and scrapes as the caver moves through low or awkward passageway. Helmets are invaluable for mounting lights, often cavers will attach an array of lights to their helmet. Many helmets used in caving can also be used as climbing helmets.

Vertical equipment

Many caves have shafts or drops that require ropes or ladders to pass. Wire ladders have largely been superseded by ropes for descending Pitch (vertical space) since the early '60s, though ladders still have useful applications on shorter pitches, where full abseiling gear would be inappropriate.

Single rope technique

Single rope technique (SRT) is the most commonly used technique for passing vertical obstacles.

Standard Equipment

  • Climbing harness - These are static and more abrasion resistant than the harnesses used in rock climbing.
  • Climbing rope - The rope used for abseiling is low-stretch static rope, typically 9 mm-thick in Europe. In the US SRT rope is thicker (11mm) and more abrasion resistant, given the greater amount of rope rub tolerated. Ropes are cut into varying lengths
  • Ascender - These are used to ascend ropes. Devices that used lever cams were once used, though these have now been overtaken in popularity by toothed cam devices which slip less. A minimum of two ascenders are used, one attached to the harness at waist level, and another attached to a footloop and moved by hand. A third ascender may be attached to a foot and a ropewalking technique used.
  • Descender - This is used to abseil down the rope. There are two main types of descender – a bobbin descender such as the Petzl Stop, or a rack descender, favoured in parts of the US for its smooth descent and excellent heat sinking capacities. Bobbin descenders are favoured for European style SRT as it is easier to change ropes with at rebelays and is lighter.
  • Cowstails - These are lanyards used to clip into safe points of contact when changing over at rebelays and while using traverse lines. They are made from a length of dynamic rope with two lanyards of differing length ending in carabiners.
  • Knife - Knives are used as safety equipment to cut ropes, cut hair caught in descenders etc.
  • Whistle - On long pitches where shouting is ineffective, whistles are used to signal other team members.


Wire 'Elektron' ladders were once the most common method of descending large shafts. Today they are largely used for descending short or tight pitches. The rungs of the ladders are usually made of light metals such as aluminium. Ladders are usually made in 5 m, 8 m, or 10 m lengths, and can be clipped together to make longer lengths. While ladders can be used without a belay, this is unsafe and is not recommended. Ladders may be carried loose until needed, or may be carried inside tough PVC tackle-bags.


Dynamic rope, more commonly used in climbing, is used in caving for belaying cavers on climbs or using ladders.

Static rope, once past its useful life for abseiling, is often used for fixed aids, such as handlines on climbs. The rope may be knotted to help climbers. Rope may also be recycled for digging.


Most caves require artificial anchor points to secure abseiling rope. A common method of placing bolts is to hand drill them using a hammer and a self-drilling bolt, using bolts adapted from the construction industry. A hangar can then be screwed into the bolt. Since affordable battery drills came on the market it is more common to see cavers drill the holes and use a variety of different bolts and concrete screws. Stainless steel resin bolts are used on routes that see a lot of traffic as they have a long life and, if placed correctly, are safe and reliable.

Surveying equipment

Cave surveying is a specialist activity undertaken within caving to produce maps of caves. The type of equipment used depends on the intended accuracy of the survey. A basic survey may be carried out with an orienteering or diving compass and distances paced by foot or estimated. A more accurate survey would make use of a tape measure and specialist surveying compasses and inclinometers. Recently there has been a shift to wholly digital cave surveying

Measuring instruments

A standard Brunton Geo, a combined compass and inclinometer, popular as a cave surveying compass until recently

The most common device used by cave surveyors is a sighting compass, such as that manufactured by Suunto or Silva, that can be read to the half-degree. Compasses used for cave surveying have to be rugged to cope with the harsh conditions. For high grade surveys, inclinometers are required, and are sometimes made in combined units with compasses. Recently, digital compasses and inclinometers have been developed by enthusiasts, some with wireless connections to PDAs, though these have not yet attained widespread use.

Measuring distance

A standard fibreglass tape measure is commonly used to measure distance, usually in lengths of 30 m or 50 m. Laser rangefinders have recently gained popularity, though tapes remain preferable in especially wet or muddy conditions.

Recording data

Tough waterproof paper is used to record data, the advantage being that, if the paper becomes excessively muddy, it can be washed off in a stream or pool. Paperless surveying is now becoming a reality as digital measuring devices can be wirelessly connected to PDAs where the data is stored and drawn.

See also


  1. "Full text of "The Irish naturalist"". Retrieved 2015-04-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Jochen Duckeck (1970-01-01). "Famous People: Robert de Joly". Retrieved 2015-04-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Archived from the original on December 11, 2007. Retrieved July 2, 2011. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Caving Wetuits - Clothing for Cavers". Retrieved 2015-04-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>