Caving is hazardous. Accidents happen — and can happen to experienced cavers as the extraordinary rescue effort to bring the injured German caver Johann Westhauser back from deep underground after being hit by falling rocks testifies. But even novice spelunkers can mitigate the risks with proper planning and precautions.
If you are going caving, the main risk of injury is from falling, being hit by falling rocks other objects (including your fellow cavers' equipment) and hypothermia. Other dangers include getting lost, passages that flood, and running out of light.
There is best practice to follow for each.
But first, never cave alone. A survivable injury can be fatal if you don't have someone there to help or to get it. Go with a minimum of three others. If anyone of your group gets hurt, two of you can then go for assistance while a third stays with the injured person until the rescuers arrive.
- Tell some one not in your team of your plans, including where you will be caving, when you expect to be back, and whom they should contact if you are overdue by a pre-agreed amount of time. In the U.S., your backup would likely call the local police, sheriff or rescue squad.
- Once underground, except in emergencies, your team should stay close together, with the slowest caver setting the pace.
- Agree beforehand who is the team leader. That should be someone with prior caving experience and preferably knowledge of the cave you will be exploring. Have an plan of what to do in an emergency.
- Prepare for the trip. Make sure you have the basic equipment and supplies: sufficient light, a helmet, food, water, first aid kit and proper clothing including gloves and kneepads. Caves are cold, damp and dark, as well as jagged. You can find an equipment checklist prepared by the National Speleological Society here.
- Follow the three points of contact rule while caving, i.e., always stabilize you body on uneven ground by having three points supported by an immovable object, say, your foot, shoulder and knee.
- Don't slide down slopes or ropes, or take any unnecessary risks by overreaching or jumping from heights. Check for and discard faulty or worn equipment.
- Always wear a helmet with a chin strap to protect your head against things falling on it and you banging it on things. Secure all equipment so it won't fall on those below you. Avoid the base of drops and climbs.
- Carry extra clothing to protect you from the cold. Recognize the warning signs of hypothermia: fatigue, drowsiness, feeling chill, poor coordination and stumbling — and watch for them in your companions as well as yourself.
- Also keep a watch out for fatigue among your companions. Caving is strenuous and tiring. Rest frequently.
- Carry three sources of light, including a helmet-mounted lamp, and whatever you need to replenish them, such as calcium carbide and batteries.
- Don't cave in the dark. If your lights fail, stay put. Similarly, if you get lost. Wait for someone to come for you (and they will if you left word about when you were due back and don't show.)
- Don't go beyond your experience or physical capabilities.
- Don't use unknown ropes, slings and ladders you might encounter underground.
- Vertical caving, using ropes to ascend and descend, needs different equipment and skills than rock climbing. A cave is not the best place to learn how to climb like an underground mountaineer or to use ropes and cable ladders. Ensure you have had proper training beforehand.
- Cave diving is the most dangerous form of caving, and requires even more specialized training before undertaking it than vertical caving.
The number of cave rescues in North America every year is relatively small compared to other wilderness rescues, but there are still 40-50 a year on average, with about 10% of the reported incidents involving fatalities.