The gear and equipment that you take into the cave is supposed to assist your
exploration endeavors, not hinder them. Bear this in mind when rounding out your
caving wardrobe. Inappropriate garb can not only hinder your exploration, it
can be downright dangerous.
Cave clothing, broadly defined, is anything you wear in the cave. For the sake
of this discussion we will break this clothing into five categories, and
individually. The categories are as follows: helmet, footwear, coveralls, inner
clothing, and accessories.
The helmet is the most important piece of caving equipment you wear into a
cave. This is the one piece of gear that you thank your lucky stars you're
wearing at least
10 or 12 times per trip. This is your primary form of protection from falling
rocks, and bumping your head on low ceilings. The helmet also has a secondary
of providing a handy place to hang your primary light source, thus freeing your
hands to do more mundane activities like climbing, crawling, etc.
Helmets can be divided into two categories, cheap and expensive. Cheap would be
a construction hard hat with a thin strip of metal bolted to the front for the
source attachment. You can put one of these rigs together for about $15.00.
This is the route most cavers take when they first get into the sport. A cheap
hard hat will suffice for about 99% of your caving needs. A note of warning:
the chin strap on a cheap helmet, if it comes with one, should be replaced with
release buckle to facilitate easy removal. This may seem to be an unnecessary
convenience, but in reality it is an important safety feature. A few years ago
strangled to death on his chin strap because he could not get out of it.
Later in your caving career when you start to do longer, more challenging trips
you will want a more durable form of head protection. This is where the second
category of helmets comes in. Expensive helmets come with neat stickers on them
like "UIAA Approved." This means that the helmet has been tested to meet certain
criteria, like puncture and crush resistance. The theory here is that if the
helmet can survive a hard blow, the head it contains will too. The suspension
helmets is more durable, and certainly more comfortable than the cheap helmets.
The chin straps already have quick release buckles attached so the user does not
have to modify it. Unfortunately all the extra safety features raise the cost
of these helmets to over $50 dollars but, when balanced against the pain of a
this is probably money well spent.
When talking about footwear for caves, your only option is boots. Boots are the second most important piece of gear you take into a cave. Your footwear is what keeps you attached to the terra firma. If you wear improper foot apparel into the cave you will be spending a lot of time sitting on your ass, whether you want to or not. Improper footwear would be tennis shoes, non- lugged sole boots, Pac boots, or any other shoe that does not have good traction. Two types of terrain are encountered in a cave, muddy or rocky. Attributes to look for in foot wear are lugged soles, stiff leather uppers, high enough on the ankle to protect it from twisting. The uppers of the boot should be thick so as to protect the sides of the foot from getting bruised when it gets jammed between two rocks. The boot should have a steel shank to protect the Achilles tendon. Most hiking boots will meet the above criteria. Find the cheapest ones you can, because you will find that they wear out fast. The life and death of cave boots usually follows the following pattern. The uppers go first, seldom outlasting the soles. The leather over the toes wears out from being dragged across rocks while crawling. Next all the seams start falling apart from dry rot from their frequent immersion in water. When your feet become visible while wearing the boots you should start thinking about replacement. At this stage of decay they no longer provide foot support, and your chances of a twisted ankle increase dramatically.
One last word on foot gear, socks. It stands to reason that if your boots gets wet, your feet will too. Once your feet are wet, without proper insulation they are bound to get cold. Not the most pleasant state of affairs, especially on longer trips. The best way to avoid this situation is to wear two pairs of socks. The material they are constructed from is as important as the thickness of them. Not only does thick material give better insulation value, it also provides a slight cushion for your feet. This can help prevent bruised feet when you are moving around on breakdown. The two recommended pairs are: an inner cotton or nylon pair to help get water away from your feet when they are not immersed, and a wool or polypro outer pair which will retain some insulating value even when wet or immersed.
Like helmets, coveralls can be broken down into two categories, cheap and expensive. Cheap would be your standard cotton or cotton/polyester coveralls. They can be purchased at most department stores, or anyplace that sells work clothes. They cost from $20 to $25 dollars. Outside of low cost, another good attribute of cotton coveralls is the ease of repair. There are a few products on the market that enable you to glue patches onto the indiscretions the cave leaves behind. Of these, Canvas Grip is probably the best known readily available clothing glue. Gluing takes a lot less time and effort than sewing patches or darning the slings and arrows of outrageous caving. The down side to cotton coveralls is that you do need to repair them often and they cool you instead of warm you when they are wet. A sound you will become familiar with in caving is the ripping of your coveralls as you squeeze through a crack or slide over a rock. The cotton/polyester version is slightly stronger and may have a small advantage in insulating value when wet.
The other route in coveralls are the nylon cave suits. These suits are made specifically for caving. They have a lot of good qualities, abrasion resistant, water repellant, and are very warm to wear. When properly fitted they do not hinder movement, and, due to the smoothness of nylon, there is less friction to overcome when squeezing through a constricted area. This last aspect of low friction can be a little disconcerting when you are trying to stick to a muddy surface. As nice as the nylon suits are they do have their drawbacks though. When they rip, and they will, you have to sew them back together. Products such as Canvas Grip do not work well on nylon. They cost over $100 dollars, which is a bit steep in price when compared to the cotton suits, but not so bad when you consider that they will last at least four times longer than the cotton suits.
What to wear in the cave can be viewed as a three layer affair. The outer layer is the coveralls, followed by a shirt and pants, with long underwear on the inside closest to the skin. The weight and type of material for the inner two layers is really a function of the type of cave being explored, i.e. wet or dry, and the individuals aversion to being cold. You can wear more than three layers, but your mobility will be severely restricted. The moral here is to balance the amount of clothes needed to keep warm to the amount of movement needed to cave.
The name of the game in caving long underwear is synthetics, silk, wool, or a wetsuit, never cotton. Cotton may be warm when dry, but when wet it actually sucks more heat from you than it helps to retain. The other materials, unlike cotton, keep some of their insulating properties when wet with wetsuits retaining the most and therefore being the best for continuous contact with water. Polypro has a wicking action that pulls water away from your skin to the outer layer of the material and drys more quickly than wool or silk.
The same reasons that make blue jeans the pants of choice on the surface make them the standard underground. They are abrasion resistant, and relatively warm when dry. Best of all everyone has a pile of old ones laying around that can be sacrificed in a cave. Despite their popularity, be aware that 100% cotton pants, such as blue jeans, are not appropriate for damp, long trips or even medium wet trips in 55 o water, especially if your next-to-the-skin layer is not a wetsuit. You do not have to necessarily wear pants (under your coveralls and over your long underwear), there are cavers who find long underwear bottoms alone enough protection for the lower extremities. This is fine if you're constantly on the move in the cave, but if you sit around a lot, like when surveying or taking pictures, long underwear just does not have enough bulk alone to keep you warm. For these situations jeans with the addition of long underwear is a better choice.
A long sleeve shirt is the common choice of apparel to cover the upper body. The shirt should be made out of either wool, or flannel. Here again, flannel made out of cotton is only warm when dry.
Knee pads; some cavers wear them, some don't. This decision must be based on the individual's pain threshold and your intent for using your knees throughout the remainder of your life. An adequate pair cost less than $10. Look for a pair that has two elastic straps that go around the leg, not one. The one strap variety tend to bunch up around the back of the leg joint, which can be painful on a trip of extended duration.
Gloves are another accessory that, although not required, are recommended. Cave mud makes a good desiccant; as it dries, it sucks the moisture out of your skin. If you do not mind dry chapped hands maybe gloves are not for you. Beside protecting your hands from cave mud, they also protect you from abrasion caused by grabbing sharp edged rocks, or cave corral, or a slew of other abraders encountered in a cave. One last advantage is that gloves grip muddy rocks better than bare hands. The choice of type of gloves is up to the individual, rubber and leather are best. Cotton gloves are alright but they do not stand up to the rigors of caving as well.
When you have been on a few trips you quickly learn what amount of clothes you will need to wear. Some find a pair of jeans and a wool shirt combined with coveralls to be warm enough for most caves. If the trip is going to be long or there is a possibility of getting really wet, some cavers then bring along a poly-pro top. For others three layers, including a full set of long johns, are worn on every trip. A couple other points should be made about cave clothes in general. One, not all cave mud comes out in the wash. Wear only clothes you do not mind thoroughly trashing. Two, caving is a very abusive sport on equipment and people. No matter how durable the clothes you wear are, eventually you will have to replace them. The more you cave the faster the replacement rate. Cavers have a reputation of being cheap. This is not because they cannot afford good equipment. It is simply because they know whatever they take in the cave will be destroyed, and they see no point in spending large amounts of money for clothing that will be discarded after a few hard trips. Remember, keep it as cheap as possible, but not so cheap that you jeopardize your safety.