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Exploring caves and caverns, or caving, is the recreational companion of speleology, which is the scientific study of natural caves. Caving enthusiasts call themselves cavers rather than "spelunkers," which is a term often used by noncavers.

The word "spelunkers" was used during 1950s as a general term for those who explored caves. Later in the 1960s, the term spelunking began to convey the idea of amateurs who were untrained in caving. In general, caving is the recreational sport of exploring caves. Back in the history of mankind, caves were first used as protected places and served for shelter of early family groups and tribes. For this reason, a number of archaeologists are solely interested in exploring caves as places of historical settlements, and conducting excavations to enlighten certain pages of history. Since caves stay at the same temperature during the whole year, they were favorite places of shelter for humans as well as animals.

Caving has become a hobby for many different reasons. Some cavers are interested in gathering hard data about caves. Geologists explore caves for the purpose of studying rock formations and sedimentation. Some cavers are interested in plant and animal life in caves, and study bats, fish, salamanders, small lizards, insects, and mammals. Finally, some cavers are interested in conservation of this kind of nonrenewable natural resource. But most people who visit are interested in them for recreational purposes.

Each cave is a unique experience and provides excellent opportunity for learning and having fun. Visitors feel a thrill of excitement as they follow underground pathways through a cave or cavern. Some caves are entered by walking, others by boat or elevator, and at one cave, the visitors ride through in a tram. Because trails follow the natural contours of the cave, visitors with disabilities should inquire about the accessibility of the caves they plan to visit. Those with serious medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart conditions, and breathing difficulties are cautioned about the risks of being underground. Comfortable walking shoes and light sweaters are recommended during the guided tours. In the United States (including Puerto Rico and Bermuda) there are ninety-one caves that are called show caves because they provide guided tours and other visitor services. These caves are registered members of the National Caves Association (NCA), which was founded in 1965 as a nonprofit organization of publicly and privately owned show caves and caverns developed for public visitation. All are natural caves and caverns. Members of the association stress the preservation and conservation of these natural resources. Cooperation and exchange of information between member caves is promoted as owners and operators work together for the betterment of all aspects of the show cave industry and to better serve the traveling public. Many NCA show caves have received special recognition as Historical Sites or as Registered Natural Landmarks. The NCA is a member of the Travel Industry Association of America. On the international level there is the International Show Caves Association, which has members in nineteen countries. The organization has objectives similar to those of the NCA: to preserve these natural resources; to promote cooperation and the exchange of information between member caves as owners and operators work together for the betterment of all aspects of the show cave industry; to better serve the traveling public.

It is interesting to note that about 90 percent of caves in the United States are on private property, and that some of them are managed as show caves and others remain closed for the public viewing for various reasons like protection of underground water, accessibility, and legislation. Those caves that are located in public lands like national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, and other lands administered by various federal departments are subject to the provisions of the Federal Cave Resources Act of 1989. This legislation was designed to prevent destruction of caves on federal lands. Protection of caves is especially important because it takes thousands of years to repair damages to cave formations. Several states have enacted cave protection laws. It should also be noted that endangered species protection legislation also covers caves. One important point deals with karst areas above caves, which are not covered by legislation. The pollution above the caves can easily seep through and reach to the water source in the caves and may create health problems due to contamination. For this reason preservation of the surface area is as important as the cave in protecting water resources.

Since the majority of caves are located on private lands, especially in rural areas, several problems must be addressed for those interested in exploration as well as the landowners. Another important issue deals with multiple alternatives for owners like quarrying, mining, farming, and raising livestock. In these cases protection becomes a delicate matter among the interested parties. Damage caused by excessive visitation, vandalism, and souvenir collection is one of the problems that cave owners face.

Another important problem deals with left-over carbide on grazing areas that may poison grass and water. In order to alleviate the problems, various caving organizations recommend good education as a remedy. First of all, the National Speleological Society (NSS) recommends that visitors to caves take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but footprints; kill nothing but time ("A Guide to Responsible Caving").

Most of the show caves operate like theme parks, with regular tours and educational programs. Some of the caves, in addition to their regular tours, offer adventure tours for those who are interested in exploration. Show caves operate almost year-round because they are protected from inclement weather. Most of the show caves have gift shops, craft shops, trading posts, or country stores, in which to browse, and select gifts and souvenirs related to caves. At some caves it is possible to find historic, pioneer or Indian villages; museums; rock and mineral displays; wildlife parks; and boats and canoes. At other places there are theme parks. One show cave also provides prospecting facilities for gold and other precious metals and gems enthusiasts. Some caves also provide rock-climbing facilities and rental equipment. There are often picnic areas, playgrounds, and nature trails. Special seasonal festivals and events are held throughout the year. Many caves operate snack bars, restaurants, cabins, and motels that are located on their property or nearby.

Safety is the most important issue in caving. Hazards can include light failure, falls, rock instability, floods, getting lost, getting stuck, exhaustion, and hypothermia. Depending on the level of difficulty and the length of the cave visited, caving can be a strenuous activity requiring reasonably good fitness and health. For all of these reasons, especially for those participating in exploration as adventure, certain safety precautions—such as never caving alone, carrying multiple lights, leaving notice where you will be caving—should always be taken before any attempt.

The NSS has a long list of other recommendations for safe caving practice, as well as suggested reading, that can be found on their Web site, Visitors should have in place a plan for rescue for each cave in case of unexpected accidents and mishaps.

The NSS also states that visitors to caves and caverns should follow this conservation policy:

Caves have unique scientific, recreational, and scenic values.

These values are endangered by both carelessness and intentional vandalism.

These values, once gone, cannot be recovered.

The responsibility for protecting caves must be formed by those who study and enjoy them.

In line with their stated policy, the NSS encourages projects such as:

Establishing cave preserves

Placing entrance gates where appropriate

Opposing the sale of speleothems (cave formations)

Supporting effective protective measures

Cleaning and restoring over-used caves

Cooperating with private cave owners by providing them knowledge about their cave and assisting them in protecting their cave and property from damage during cave visits

Encouraging commercial cave owners to make use of their opportunity to aid the public in understanding caves and the importance of their conservation ("A Guide to Responsible Caving")

It seems that there is excellent cooperation between cavers and cave owners in protecting this nonrenewable resource. The NSS recently established a reward for protection of caves from vandalism and visitor abuses.

Restoration of damaged caves is very difficult because of the possibility of contamination during cleaning processes. In general, volunteer groups under scientific supervision perform restoration work. If not done properly, restoration may cause more harm than benefit.

In conclusion, caving is a growing outdoor activity for those who are interested in exploration and adventure. Caving also represents a leisure activity similar to visiting theme parks and museums. Caves are nonrenewable resources and must be protected through legislation and proper education.

See also: Backpacking and Hiking, Mountain Climbing, National Parks, State Parks


"A Guide to Responsible Caving." National Speleological Society (NSS). Available from

"Caves and Caverns Directory." National Caves Association (NCA). Available from

McKenzie, Ian. "What Is Caving?" Canadian Speleological Society. Available from

Turgut Var