By Sam KeppleMy sophomore year at UNC Asheville, I led college students on expeditions through Worley’s Cave in Bluff City, Tenn. Exploring caves, also called spelunking, can feel like being transported to an alien planet. But while caves are fascinating and fun, there are three major considerations when entering these underground worlds: the features of the cave, the wildlife within and personal safety.
Not everything is touchable! Caves are naturally decorated with sculptural features that hang from the ceilings or grow upwards from the ground. These formations are caused by a buildup of water with a high concentration of calcium carbonate, which is hardened by chemical changes within the cave. Oils and dirt from your skin can permanently affect and even destroy these features by inhibiting the mineral buildup that formed them. So please, admire with your eyes only.
The most common cave critters are bats. You are entering their home, so be a polite visitor. Never touch bats, and avoid shining lights on them, especially in the winter when they might be hibernating.
Bats are also highly vulnerable to a disease called white-nose syndrome, which has killed millions of bats. To combat this, cave visitors are often asked to take part in a cleansing routine after exiting the cave. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requests that spelunkers obey any cave closures and research their caving spot before entering. Stay out of caves with prior cases of the syndrome to help stop the spread.
You may also encounter other species within the cave, such as salamanders or crawfish. Some cave creatures may be blind and unbothered by headlamp light, but some could be highly light-sensitive. As with bats, try not to shine your light on these critters, as it can disturb their sleep or alarm them — and don’t touch!
There are no restroom facilities within caves. Human waste can damage the cave, so make sure to go to the bathroom beforehand and bring supplies to use the restroom and pick up trash (yes, you will have to pee in a bottle if necessary!). To protect both the cave and its wildlife, do not leave any waste behind.
The most important gear when caving is sturdy shoes, headlamps with extra batteries, and helmets. Many caves in the region are typically around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so dress accordingly and in clothes you don’t mind getting very dirty. As with any outdoor adventure, it is also critical to bring water and stay hydrated.
Never cave by yourself. Always go with highly experienced friends or trained tour guides. Every caver should have a map in the event that someone gets lost, and the group should review the map and route of the tour beforehand to ensure everyone feels comfortable with the upcoming adventure. It is also wise to bring climbing gear, such as ropes and harnesses, in the event that the route proves too difficult. If you find yourself crossing over a hole or on narrow pathways where the risk of falling is high, maintain three points of contact between your body and the cave.