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What is Spelunking?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Spelunking is the sport of exploring caves. In addition to being recreational, spelunking can have scientific and cultural value. For example, it might uncover a previously unknown animal species or archaeological sites that could be of interest. Spelunking might also be referred to as caving, and some people make a distinction between amateur spelunkers and professional cavers, with the term “caver” reserved for skilled professionals rather than casual enthusiasts.

Caves and Curiosity

People have been exploring caves for thousands of years, for a variety of reasons. Some cultures have had mystical associations with caves, viewing them as locations that have deep connections to the Earth, because they run beneath the Earth's surface. Other cultures have viewed caves with superstition or used them for cultural rituals, such as burials. Humans also have used caves for shelter and habitation. The natural curiosity of humans might be why people have explored caves for centuries, and it — along with seeking thrills — is why many people have taken up spelunking.


In a typical spelunking session, people gear up, locate a cave and go inside with the intention of exploring as much as possible while admiring the natural features of the cave, such as rock formations and underground rivers. Spelunkers usually go in groups for safety reasons, and conscientious spelunkers pay attention to warnings about areas that might be archaeologically or ecologically fragile, taking care to avoid these locations. If a cave has not been mapped before, spelunkers might also take mapping data with them and write additional notes for the benefit of future explorers.


Some special gear is required for safe cave exploration. Many people like to wear heavy-duty coveralls, because this sport can get quite dirty, along with hard hats to protect their heads from falling debris. Climbing supplies such as ropes, anchor points and carabiners are often necessary, as are heavy-duty flashlights and glow sticks to navigate in the dark. Many spelunkers also take global positioning system (GPS) equipment — which might not work underground — long-range radios and extra food and water in case they become lost or trapped.

A Group Activity

Depending on the size and condition of a cave, spelunking can be quite dangerous or very safe. For safety reasons, spelunkers are advised against going alone or splitting up while in a cave. It usually is a good idea for a beginner to go out with someone who is more experienced, to ensure that safety hazards are identified and dealt with properly. Some cave exploration associations welcome visitors on their trips and will post information on their websites for people who are curious about joining. It also is possible for people to pay for guided spelunking trips that are supervised by professional cavers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Sports n' Hobbies researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon40705 — On Aug 10, 2009

It's kind of hard to use GPS equipment in a cave --- tough to get a good satellite through all that rock.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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