What You Need to Know About Spelunking

World traveler and photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerström tells you what you need to know before planning your next trip spelunking or caving.

Photo by: Getty Images

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Nothing unleashes your inner Batman faster than spelunking – a global sport also known as caving. This increasingly popular recreational activity has you explore caves or grottos, as you walk, climb, squeeze and crawl your way through tight passages. Enthusiasts can also zip line or rappel down different cave levels, and even dive underwater!

With spelunking you never know what you’ll find around each corner while being guided by nothing more than a headlamp: Crawl spaces reveal interesting rock formations, underground streams, waterfalls, canyons and critters, such as bats.

My fondest memory of spelunking was my first, in New Zealand’s Waitomo Caves. Lying on my back, I swam through a hole no wider than an MRI machine with the cave ceiling a few inches from my face. Yes, it was a lot of fun! While my first caving experience was abroad, you can also find great caves and caverns throughout the US -- in fact, the longest cave system in the world is the 400-mile-long Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Once you pick your cave of choice, check out our top spelunking tips below.

Spelunking or Caving
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Spelunking Safety Tips
First, know your limits: While spelunking is an invigorating sport, if you’re claustrophobic, or afraid of heights, darkness or bugs, this recreational sport is definitely not for you.

Now the good news: B being underground, caves maintain mild temperatures year-round. They’re often much cooler than surface temperatures, making caving a great year-round activity. Keep in mind, though, that caves with streams or bodies of water are prone to flooding, so avoid these during rainy seasons.

In addition, you should always go spelunking with a group. Never go alone. While exploring pitch-dark caves solo can provide an adrenaline rush, it’s not too likely your cell phone will work deep underground. Caves are dark and potentially dangerous places -- it’s very easy to lose track of where you are because many tunnels look the same with similar looking formations. Bottom-line: Brush up on these safety tips before you go.

Spelunking or Caving
What to Wear
When spelunking, you should have as little gear on you as possible -- remember, you will be crawling, squeezing and climbing through confined spaces. Most caving clubs or groups will provide you with an essential gear list -- in a nutshell, here are a few general items to pack.

Helmet - Wear a helmet at all times. Because your flashlight only illuminates a certain view plane, you might miss low-hanging, knife-sharp stalactites within your peripheral vision.

Headlamps and batteries – Headlamps are so essential to spelunking that experts recommend you carry 2 with you. You should also pack extra batteries to power both headlamps. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck in a cave with no light source to guide you back out

Comfortable clothing and shoes – Wear comfortable breathable clothes but not loose enough to snag on sharp edges along the way. Long sleeves and pants will protect you from unnecessary cuts and scrapes, while sturdy hiking boots with good traction will protect you from slipping on uneven cave floors. Elbow pads, knee pads and heavy-duty gloves are also recommended.

First-aid kit – A handy first-aid kit is essential so you can quickly take care of scrapes and bruises before they get infected.

Food and water – Bring enough to replenish you -- spelunking is a demanding sport both physically and mentally.

Camera - You’ll want to commemorate your first caving experience. Who knows what other critters lurking in the shadows you might pick up on film once your camera’s flash goes off!

The National Speleological Society (NSS), which governs the sport of spelunking in the US, maintains an extensive database of local US caving clubs -- NSS calls these clubs “grottos.” The database is sorted by states, so you can search for groups close to home. So now you’re set, get your batman on.

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