Leave No Trace Caving
Minimize Caving Impacts
Take nothing but pictures.|
Leave nothing but carefully placed footprints.
Kill nothing but time.
A footprint left in the dust of a cave may remain for hundreds or thousands of years. The same is true of grafitti and garbage. A small stalactite may have taken 5000 years to form and 5 seconds to be destroyed by the helmet of a distracted explorer.
Cave explorers have been promoting cave conservation for decades in an effort to preserve the beauty and mysterious structures that can only be experienced underground. Just as we are overcrowding the above-ground wilderness, our subteranean wild places are also becoming overused. In order to protect fragile cave environments, a strong commitment to minimum impact techniques needs to be made by all visitors.
In order to leave no trace while caving, practice these special caving ethics:
- Plan Ahead
- Learn about specific regulations, closures, and hazards for a specific cave. Every cave is different with varying difficulties of routes and skills required.
- Use appropriate equipment. If you become lost or incapacitated, a rescue will cause significant impact.
- Wear a well-fitted helmet with chin strap.
- Lights: have three light sources, with the primary one on your helmet to keep your hands free. Use rechargable batteries and do not leave any batteries in the cave.
- Wear proper clothing. Depending on the temperature, dampness, and technical difficulty of a cave, anything from a wetsuit to light clothes might be appropriate. Wear synthetic materials that are in good shape to prevent leaving behind threads and lint that can effect the microorganisms living in the cave.
Gloves, long pants and shirts, and a bandana help prevent oils from your skin contaminating the environment.
- Never explore alone. A group of four allows one to stay with an injured person and two to go for help.
- have a surface watch in place. Tell someone where you will be and when you will return. They can start a rescue in motion if you do not return in reasonable time. Having a fast rescue will help minimize the extent of impact on the cave.
- Durable Surfaces
- Camping underground is not recommended. The amount of gear required must be carried in, resulting in higher impact. The campsite receives very high impact concentrated in one spot.
There are some highly used, commercially operated caves set up specifically for the experience of sleeping underground. Visit one of these for the experience. The only time overnight stays should be done is on exploratory or scientific trips into extensive caves with remote areas too distant for a one-day trip.
- Recognize and use resistant surfaces for travel. In caves that flood regularly, travel below the floodline.
- Only experienced cavers should travel through pristine cave areas. Beginners should stick to impacted caves.
- Step in existing footprints. Place your gloved hands on the same spots made dirty from earlier cavers' hands.
- Remember to keep using Leave No Trace principles around the cave entrance when you leave the cave. Cave entrances tend to receive a lot of impact.
- Campfire Impact
- Fires should never be used in a cave. There should be no cooking done underground.
- Dispose of Waste
- Pack out all human waste. Catholes don't work. Urine disrupts the ecosystem. Even spit and sweat can impact the local balance. There are many waste packing systems available and you should commit to removing all your waste with you.
- The smallest of food crumbs can effect cave environments. With very little organic mass deep in a cave, even bits of cloth, hair, or food crumbs can have a significant effect on the local nutrient balance. Eating food that has less crumbling tendancies is best. Choosing a chewy energy bar over crackers and cheese, for example.
- Pack out old flagging tape, string, trash, and other left-behind items you use or find. If it is yours, or obviously old, pack it out. If it might be part of a permanent trail marking system, leave it. If you are unsure, leave it and tell the cave manager.
- Leave What You Find
- Above ground, the environment is constantly changing. Recovery from a few poor choices such as picking wild flowers or burning too much wood takes months or years to occur. Underground, a single poor choice is usually non-recoverable. Removing anything from a cave is a permanent change.
- The entrances to many caves contain pictographs and other ancient artwork and artifacts. Take care to protect them.
- The stable temperature and humidity in caves helps preserve skeletons and other artifacts of the past. Complete skeletons of dead animals that may be hundreds of years old are an amazing discovery and should be left for the next explorer.
- Move slowly and carefully. Many cave structures are very delicate and are destroyed with a single misplace step, hand, or turn of the head. Be aware of your body's size and movement in the context of your surroundings and move to avoid as much contact as possible.
- Work as a team, warning each other of places to use or avoid. Check often on energy and fatigue levels and stop for breaks, water, and food more often than needed. End the exploration as soon as anyone begins to appear tired, leaving yourself plenty of time and energy to return to the entrance.
- Be extremely careful not to damage speleothems - any mineral deposits such as stalactites, stalagmites, or flowstone. These are often very fragile and susceptible to damage. Dirt or oil from skin or dust kicked into the air can alter or halt their development, and even just the breeze of a caver moving past can break the more delicate ones.
- Do not add to any cave grafitti, even where it is obvious, but especially where it may be prehistoric.
- Do not step into subteranean pools unless it is the most travelled route. The waves can destroy structures.
- When taking pictures, be conscious of the impact you make trying to get a good picture. Doing damage just to get a good shot does not support the Leave No Trace ethics.
- If you are doing vertical caving, review the Rock Climbing LNT topics.
- Respect Wildlife
- Avoid trips during bat hibernation and rearing times. Check with local authorities.
- Populations are typically very small in subsurface habitats. Killing one bug, salamander, or fish may be a huge percentage of the entire local population. Be very careful to avoid harming any living thing you encounter. Simply touching many of these fragile creatures is enough to kill it.
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
- Enjoy the views but don't hog the best spots. Allow others to experience the awesome structures.
- Keep your group's noise level down. Echos reverberate through caves, effecting everyone's enjoyment.
- Minimize your use of lights to a safe level.
Leave No Trace - or even LESS trace