People & Caverns Lesson 2: Spelunking or Cave Exploration


Students will learn to understand the necessary precautions for exploring caverns.

Background Information

Even though all caverns are underground cavities with some similar features, each one is uniquely different. Some may be horizontal, some vertical or diagonal or contain a variety of chambers and passages. There may be no way to tell what a cavern is like from the outside. Will you need ropes and ladders? Is there an underground lake that must be crossed? Once you’re inside, will there be multiple passages that could be confusing and cause you to get lost and not find your way out? What about lighting? There are, unfortunately, many sad stories of people entering wild caverns unprepared. Some never come back out. The sport of spelunking can be a dangerous one if you are not properly educated about caverns or have the appropriate equipment.

If exploring caverns sounds like an exciting hobby, you should first visit developed show caverns that offer spelunking trips. These caverns have professional guides to lead you through and teach important caving techniques. If you are still interested, do not go out and start crawling into any dark hole you find. There is still much you need to learn, and specialized equipment that you will need. Ask around about a local caving club, or contact the National Speleological Society for information on chapters near you. Joining a caving club will not only give you access to caverns that are not otherwise available to visit, you will also learn all the proper caving techniques needed to safely explore a cavern. Start with easy caverns and work up to more difficult ones.

Here are some important safety rules that every cavern explorer should follow:

  • Never go into a cavern alone. It is best to go in groups of four or more, but too many people can also be a problem. Always try to go with someone more experienced than you.
  • Tell a responsible adult who will not be accompanying you, where you will be and about what time you expect to be back.
  • Have three sources of light and any replacement parts for them. If your light fails, sit down and wait for someone to come help you. Do not try crawling around in the dark.
  • Be prepared for emergencies. Bringing a pack may be useful. It should contain the extra lights and parts, water, a snack food, first aid kit, and matches. Do not bring such a large pack that it is likely to become burdensome. Some crawlways will be so small that you will need to push or drag the pack. The pack will be banged around a lot, so it should be made of a rugged material, yet be flexible enough to fit through those odd-shaped crawlways. Remember, you will also have caving equipment to carry.

Dress appropriately:

  • Always wear a helmet, even when the ceiling is high. Be aware of the possibility of falling rocks and low ceilings. Be sure your helmet has a chin strap. You don’t want it falling off your head into a pit where you cannot retrieve it.
  • Keep in mind that the cavern you choose to explore may have a cool environment. Even though you will be active, you may need to dress in two layers. The longer you are in a cool cavern the more your body temperature drops.
  • Sturdy shoes or boots are the best footwear. The various conditions in a cavern (water, mud, and sharp rocks) are not hospitable to open shoes like sandals. White-soled shoes are best since they will not leave marks on cavern rocks or formations.
  • Wear non-absorbent gloves. They will not only protect you, they will protect the cavern from you. If you touch a cavern formation with your bare hand, your natural body oils create a coating that prevents further growth. Wearing absorbent gloves may track mud and stains throughout the cavern.
  • Wear knee and elbow pads if needed.
  • Never use questionable caving equipment. It could be unreliable.

Be aware of weather conditions. Some caverns can fill with water quickly if a rainstorm hits. When first entering a cavern, look for possible areas of high ground just in case.

Be aware of time.

  • Know how long your light will last and keep track of time. Always take 3 times the expected amount of light capacity to be used. Make sure you exit the cavern well before the expected life of your lights.
  • If you take medication, either plan to be back on time to take it or bring it with you.
  • Be aware of what time of day you will exit the cavern. Coming out after dark can be disconcerting when you are unfamiliar with the landscape. Pay close attention to where you park, the distance you walked from the car to the cavern, and what direction you traveled.

Be alert:

  • Do not drink alcohol or take medication when caving. You need a clear mind.
  • Do not go caving if you are not feeling well. You will not be as prepared as you should be, may actually damage the cavern environment, and could be a burden to your group.
  • Never rely on a ball of string to mark your trail and never permanently mark on walls or features.

Of Sierra Nevada Recreation Corporation’s four caverns, two: Moaning and California Cavern, offer wild cavern expeditions that take visitors beyond what is seen on the walking tours. These trips are lead by trained specialists who teach caving techniques, help protect the cavern environment and describe the history and geology of the cavern

Experiments & Activities

Grades K – 4 “Create a Cavern”

Line up the students’ desks/chairs to form tunnels and have them crawl underneath.

Grades 5 – 8 “Create a Cavern”

In addition to requiring help from home, this activity takes extra work and more space than the K-4 activity. Students will need to bring the following items from home:

  • a working flashlight
  • a sheet (preferably dark).

In a large area use four-legged chairs, desks, and tables to create a meandering path (Chairs can be laid down on their faces so that they create small belly crawl areas and desks can be turned upside down to be crawled over). Cover as much of the structure as possible with sheets. Turn off the lights and let the students spelunk through their cavern using their flashlights.

Extension Project: let the other classes know ahead of time when you will be building your cavern and schedule appointments for them to visit your cavern. Your students could act as tour guides: issuing tickets, handing out flashlights, etc.

Grades 9 – 12 “Cavern Talk”

Contact a National Speleological Society (NSS) chapter near you and ask if someone could come to your school to give a talk and/or demonstration. In addition to bringing caving equipment, they may have slides to share. See the attached list of cavern organizations for the NSS address.

Grades 9 – 12 “Explore a Cavern”

If possible, the best learning experience is to actually do it. Find a show cavern that offers spelunking trips and make a reservation for your class to participate in one.