When you are underground, your gear is your life!
Too many times I’ve seen people enter caves under-prepared. Luckily in Victoria we have had few incidents. Recently I saw a family pull up at the Wilson’s Cave car park in Buchan, pull out two dolphin hand-held torches between a family of 5, and walk down the hill in their sneakers and jeans with no helmets. Totally unprepared, and an accident waiting to happen. Luckily, they quickly realised they were not prepared and backed out.
These are the basics (All available at The Wilderness Shop and Bogong Outdoors)
The gear to begin with is very simple:
- A helmet. Rock climbing helmets are what we use, but even a bike helmet is better than nothing. A helmet will set you about $120 or more depending on model. Ideally look for a helmet with clips built-in to secure the straps on your light.
- A head light, to be mounted on your helmet. These range from $10 reject shop jobs through to $1300 professional super bright models. It’s up to you, but as a beginner don’t spend too much. I would say $50-$70 will get you a good LED light with a 3 Watt or brighter globe. Make sure the light runs on AA batteries (just so you are not changing batteries all the time), try and get a waterproof and shockproof light too. Good brands for lights include Black Diamond, Petzl, Scurion (very bright!), Led Lenser, and many others. Lights are getting brighter and brighter and cheaper and cheaper, and the models with rechargeable batteries save money in the long run. I use a Led Lenser MH10 as my primary light, which is bright, has a great rechargeable battery, is splash proof, and rugged.
- 2 Backup lights and spare batteries. Anything at all, but make sure one of your backup lights is easily accessed, because your primary light will fail at the worst time and situation such as in a squeeze or climbing up a waterfall. Having a light around your neck is good too or attached to your helmet so that you can turn it on quickly and easily – which means safely! And have another (cheaper) headlight in your pack. I have had 2 of my 3 lights fail on me in one trip – so it can actually happen.
- Footwear. Just gumboots are fine, or boots with ankle support and good grip. Many cavers wear dairy boots which are available at work wear stores. Remember whatever you wear on your feet will get wet at some point. Some people drill holes in the soles of their boots so water can drain out.
- Clothing – Overalls are best to begin with. If you do some hunting, you can find a second-hand pair at an opportunity shop for about $10. You can buy purpose-built caving suits for about $150+ if you have the money, but I recommend a second-hand long sleeve/leg pair of overalls first. The main advantage of proper caving suits is they are made from Cordura – an ultra-tough abrasion resistant fabric which also has the advantage of not absorbing much water and thus adding less weight. Cotton overalls when wet add several kilos and as such make the trip more taxing. But for the same price as a caving suit you can get 10 pairs of overalls – you do the math. English and some Tasmanian cavers wear a ‘furry’ suit (i.e. a one-piece suit made of fleece) underneath a plastic boilersuit which is great for colder wetter caves as most English and Tassie caves are. That setup keeps you really warm – too warm for Victoria
- Many cavers wear thermals underneath their overalls, although the caves in most of Victoria are not particularly cold (about 17 degrees in Buchan). I personally wear either nothing or just a tee shirt under my overalls, because I personally overheat very easily. Although if you do wear nothing or little underneath you will get cold if you sit for too long so if the trip involves rigging complex rope systems that takes a while, think carefully about what you have on. If it is a wet cave, then establish HOW wet. Just your legs? Or your whole body? and how often are you in the water? The whole time? Or just once to cross a stream? Every caver is different in how many layers they wear, and really you’ll just have to experiment.
- I’ve caved in caves that require a wet suit in England, and there are caves in Queensland that only need shorts and a tee shirt. So, the environment is a factor too. For Victoria, the most common setup for wet caves is two sets of polypropylene thermal underwear and overalls on top. That is for a cave where you are in and out of water. For a cave where you are immersed for long periods a summer wetsuit is probably best. For a cave where you get wet once briefly, it doesn’t really matter. Remember that NOTHING apart from a wetsuit will keep you warm while you are in the water, but what you wear will impact on how quickly you warm up again and how well you stay warm once you are out of the water again. Polypropylene thermals are excellent as they draw moisture away from the skin and two layers insulates really effectively. But remember they MUST be polypropylene – cotton or wool thermals will actually make you colder if they get wet. Also, as a rule while you are walking or especially crawling you are unlikely to feel the cold even if you’ve been fully immersed. But when you stop for any longer than a few minutes you will cool down very quickly. That’s why it is essential to carry a dry set of clothes in a dry bag.
- Knee Pads – Not essential but very nice to have, especially in areas like those in Victoria that have a lot of hands and knees crawling. A close friend made some knee pads for me using motorcycle leg guards which are amazing as they cover my shins as well as my knees, meaning I can brace my weight against my shins if I want or need to (which I do often). Otherwise a good bet are ‘Knee-on’ knee pads which are for gardening and are available at Bunnings. They are a black plastic knee pad on blue neoprene straps with Velcro. Bear in mind pretty much any knee pad you buy will shift on you if you are crawling a lot, and it is really annoying, but unavoidable. Roller skating knee pads don’t really work as the plastic cups are too big. And cheap foam knee pads just shift too much and aren’t thick enough. Generally, the knee pads are worn beneath your over suit.
So what do you take into the cave with you?
The following is a basic kit for a basic caving trip. Not every caver in the whole group needs everything on the list – IE, spread it out amongst all the cavers so that everyone has an equal share of the pack. If you can fit enough gear to be safe into one or two packs amongst 4 or 5 cavers, which can be done easily with larger packs, then the etiquette is to take turns carrying the packs. Also by way of etiquette, when you come to an obstacle such as a climb or a squeeze, you pass the pack to the person in front first and they either take it as far as to have it out of harm’s way, or just puts it down carefully in an area where it won’t fall down a drop or whatever.
- A cave pack. Purpose built caving packs are good but initially any kind of pack will do. You want at least one pack between 2 or 3 cavers. The purpose-built packs are made from a flexible plastic that doesn’t soak up water and is abrasive resistant, and has configurable back straps. Aspiring in New Zealand make the best caving packs money can buy (in this part of the world). When in a cave often if you are exploring around a localised area you will leave your packs in a central and never too far away place – which is a prime reason why you need a second light source on your person somewhere at all times.
- A first aid kit – the more comprehensive the better – include a space blanket in case someone is unable to walk as you get cold quickly. In that situation it is also wise to find something to sit on as you lose a lot of heat sitting on cold rocks. An empty caving pack is perfect. Also pain killer, compression bandage, salt for leeches, band aids or band aid tape, etc. Usually one first aid kit per trip is fine (and the average cavers on a trip is usually 4 or 5).
- Lights, batteries, etc – remember three light sources per caver, two of which need to be helmet mounted. Good lights take AA batteries which is much better, not having to change batteries too often during trips.
- Water. In most stream caves you can drink the water, but not always – sometimes cave catchments can come from paddocks that have cattle grazing, and hence bacteria. I get hot easily and sweat a lot, so I need a lot of water on active trips. Factor a litre per cave as a minimum. If the cave is longer than about 4 hours, then 2 litres per caver. It’s a fine line before the trip of being adequately hydrated and having too much water and needing to pee straight away
- Food – The duration will dictate what type of food -a short trip of 2 or so hours chocolate or sweets are good – any food that gives you a quick boost (on top of a good breakfast of course)…. some cavers take a thermos of Chai or Tea if there is room in the pack, especially for wet cold conditions. Generally, a 2-3 hour trip won’t include a food stop, or maybe just 5 minutes for some sweets. 4-5 hours one substantial (20 minute) food stop for a significant snack. A 10 odd hour trip would be 3-4 stops and some really serious consideration on foods that are more carbohydrate dense, instead of sugary foods you’d take on a 2-hour trip. A lot of cavers take ‘breakfast bars’ which are like oversized muesli bars and are very energy dense. A good option for a long trip. My personal favourite are ‘Cliff’ bars which are very easy to eat and have a lot of fuel in them.
- Any surveys, maps or information on the cave preferably laminated. If using a survey and self-guiding in unfamiliar cave then 2 compasses. Always bring a backup of essential items.
- A hand line (climbing tape) about 10 metres long, one per person and carabiner to use on difficult, slippery or exposed climbs. Some people choose to use it as a belt and take it off if needed. Handlines can really help in many caving situations (although one person always has to go first without one to set it up if you are climbing upwards). They can be turned into harnesses for laddering, they can act as load bearing belts, you can more or less abseil on them, they can be used as guides through water especially roof sniffs, etc. A real multipurpose tool.
- An empty bottle to pee in if you need to go (for guys). It’s a little more complex for female cavers but you can get devices you wear if you feel you will need to go. I think one model is called the ‘Whiz Freedom’. And for really long trips an anti-smell anti-bacterial poo bag is the go. Peeing into fast flowing water is generally done, although not good practice and the author strongly discourages it – and obviously peeing in a dry cave is not acceptable at all. If you have gastro please don’t go caving.
- Cameras – Caves destroy cameras!!! I’ve seen at least a dozen cameras get broken in a cave. Or there is so much mist from the breath of the cavers the shots don’t show. Or there is too much dust. Or the chamber is too big. Or it gets dropped or banged around inside the bag. A lot of cavers are into photography but most serious speleo-photo nerds have elaborate cases with lots of padding for their gear. And really if you are serious you also need slave flashes and an SLR camera.
So that’s the basic gear that you need for caving. As you progress with your skills that list will grow with all sorts of gadgets and things. Once you start SRT (Vertical caving) your SRT rig will cost about $600 – which is cheap compared to rigs for things like sky diving and SCUBA diving. But for your first trips that’s all you need.
Its plastered all over the site, but in case you missed it…..
The next question is where to get it from. Easy. Under-Victoria is sponsored by two outdoor stores. These are:
The Wilderness Shop, 969 Whitehorse Rd Box Hill VIC 3128 – (03) 9898 3742 and web site http://www.wildernessshop.com.au. Email: email@example.com
It’s hard to miss this place – it is across from Box Hill Central and there is a dummy climber on the wall above the door.
They will often do a discount for a large order of gear and can mail-order pretty much anything you want. They stock most of the Petzl gear, a large range of helmets and lights, and also both dynamic and static rope. Their prices are good. And please just for our statistics it’d be great if you could mention that you were referred through this site. VSA members get a 10% discount.
The second store is Bogong Equipment. They are at 374 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne (03) 9600 0599 and email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. and web site http://www.bogong.com.au. This is handy if you live in the city or inner suburbs. Both stores are owned by the same people, so prices and stock won’t vary much, at least in terms of being able to order anything not on the shelf. Bogong is in the middle of the ‘outdoor district’ with several other outdoor stores nearby, but you will find that Bogong easily outdoes the others in terms of caving gear. Again, they are flexible with discounts for especially large orders. Bogong also has a good range of books too including some on caving (not always in stock). Again, VSA members receive a 10% discount.
If you can’t get it from Bogong or Wilderness, you can mail order caving gear from overseas – New Zealand has a company called Aspiring that manufacture caving suits, packs, and other stuff. Almost all Victorian cavers use Aspiring gear for their packs and over suits – they are tough, cheap and not far from Australia, so shipping is cheap.
England is probably the cheapest place to mail order from, although you pay a fortune in shipping. Quite often the best way is to get a heap of people together and mail order a stack of gear all at once, the shipping is cheaper, and you may get a discount on the price. Google will show you quite a few British cave supply stores. I can personally recommend Hitch’n’Hike and Inglesport. For your headlight just go on Ebay and find the cheapest seller.
Caving gear includes books! And there is one book that I swear by and I think is the bible of technical caving. It is ‘Vertical’ by Al Warild. Al is actually Australian, but is more or less a professional caver. He has bottomed the deepest cave in the world! And caved all over the globe. His book is easy to read, comprehensive and straight forward. It is available online in book form and also on CD. When teaching people SRT I usually recommend they read Vertical either before or after their first training session, as there is nothing that isn’t in that book that they would need to know. A brilliant book! The book is also free online to read as well, if you don’t mind reading such a big book off a computer screen. I had the pleasure of meeting Al at a caving conference in 2008 and he is a very nice guy too.