How to Explore Caves With Your Kids: Spelunking Basics
Want to add an exciting extra element to your next hiking, camping or vacation adventure?
Go spelunking (cave exploring) with your kids and introduce them to parts of the world they’ve probably never seen before.
In this article I’ll explain spelunking basics, and share what you need to know before you try caving with your family.
Why Go Spelunking?
There’s a reason that caves are a common setting in literature, TV, movies, mythology and even non-fiction stories: Caves are cool, dark and mysterious! These incredible hidden places, formed by nature, just beg to be explored by kids and grownups alike.
You probably won’t find a dragon or pirate’s treasure or even a hibernating bear on your spelunking adventure, but you and your family will see and experience wondrous things that stimulate kids’ imaginations and curiosity about the natural world.
When you explore a cave as a family, you’ll have both an exciting outdoor adventure and a fun learning experience that everyone will remember for a long time.
All of these are good, but why not try something different? Seriously, you can’t get more different than spelunking (also known as caving), and your kids will learn about the elements, cave formations and more.
Most people think caving’s a summer activity, but in actuality many caves are accessible year-round. There are even benefits of visiting when the weather is cooler.
To get the most out of a spelunking adventure, spend some time learning about caves and finding the right one.
Caves can be found in many places, so you can go caving near your home or as part of a vacation adventure.
Before you plan a spelunking adventure, ask your kids what they think caving is about—what they think they’ll see and explore. You’ll get a variety of answers, ranging from darkness to hibernating bears.
If they need some ideas, read stories that feature caves and ask how they think a real cave will be different. Have them draw pictures or write their thoughts down.
The bonus fun comes when, after you go caving, they compare their experience to notes from before.
This article is for beginning cavers and easy caves. This means the caves I mention will be a total length of 2 miles or less. Plus, they won’t have water features, maze-like tunnels, bouldering or maneuvering through crevices.
If your kids are ready for intermediate or advanced caving, check the Guide to Responsible Caving [PDF] from the National Speleological Society for additional safety tips.
Each cave is unique. With some practical knowledge and a little planning, you can have a fun and safe caving adventure with your family.
Here’s what you need to know before you go caving with your family.
#1: Dive Into Spelunking 101
Here are some basic characteristics of caves, so you know what to look for when doing caving research.
- Some caves have tunnels that extend for miles. Look for caves that are shorter than 2 miles, round trip.
- Know whether your cave is damp and muddy or dry and dusty, so you can dress accordingly and deal with any allergy issues.
- Check to see if the cave has water (streams, lakes, waterfalls) or is subject to flash floods. This could be a safety hazard. The only time I’ve gone to a cave with water was pre-children and with a guide.
- Find out how large the passageways are. Some are tall caverns and others have small spaces that must be army-crawled through. Find a cave with high ceilings for your first caving adventure.
Before you visit any cave, check out online resources such as the National Speleological Society to learn about the history, safety, groups to join, etc., for that location.
#2: Explore the Types of Caves
Caves are generally broken down into two categories: “show caves” and “wild caves.” I recommend you explore show caves before wild caves.
Show caves are developed and perfect for beginners. Plus, they may have lights, a “trail,” bridges and other safety structures over crevices.
Search online to find “show caves,” which are developed for tourists. Some show caves are owned by commercial entities. Note: Each site has different caves registered, so do a bit of searching to find the right cave for you.
You can also find out about caves throughout the U.S. from the National Park Service, which oversees the care and maintenance of some caves, as well.
The best way to find a “wild cave” is through word of mouth. Ask your friends and others in your community if they know of a good wild cave for beginners. Also, check with people you meet on show cave group tours.
You can also reach out through the National Speleological Society to find your regional coordinator, who can advise you on cave selection. If you’re leading a youth group, this is a great resource.
For developed/show caves, you’ll probably need to pay an entrance fee or purchase a permit and you may need to pay for parking.
Undeveloped/wild caves can be difficult to find. They are often unmarked, but when you find them, you’re not usually competing for parking!
#3: Choose Your Cave
Look for caves in your local area or near somewhere you’re visiting. You don’t necessarily want to travel somewhere just to see a specific cave. It’s better to plan a caving outing as part of your vacation.
After you’ve done your research, choose your cave. You may want to narrow it down to a few different options, and hold a family vote for the final decision.
When choosing your cave, be on the lookout for cool things that your kids will like. For example, they may be interested in “celestial” lights, which are basically holes in the ceiling where light can come into the cave. It’s especially cool if the light is shining down on a fern and moss garden inside the cave. We’ve been inside a cave where the ceiling lit up like gold!
Also, tours don’t usually pick the boring caves: they go through the coolest caves! And a good guide will know what impresses kids and keeps them interested and learning.
Learn from my mistake and don’t ignore guided tours if they are offered. I’m the kind of person who likes to do her own thing and not be grouped with strangers. But some caves can only be seen on tours with a trained guide.
#4: Plan Ahead
Find out if your cave has a visitor’s center. Tell them about your plans for spelunking and get their advice. They work around these caves all day. Ask them anything!
For example, there’s a beautiful cave that I wanted to see, but didn’t realize that there was an agreement with the Native American tribe in the area that only 10 people are allowed into this particular cave each weekend. I didn’t call ahead and make a reservation, so we missed our chance to see it.
Here are some questions you might want to ask:
- How difficult are the caves? Are they rated?
- Do you rent flashlights or other safety equipment?
- What’s the temperature? Most caves are between 50-60° F
- What are your operating hours? Directions? Fees?
- What are the closest cities? Any recommendations for gas, food and lodging?
- Do you have any restrictions (strollers, tripods, etc.)?
- Do you offer group tours?
- Is there something unique about this cave?
- Is there anything else I need to know?
Look at maps of the area to see where the closest cities are and if there are any other caves nearby. Whether you’re camping, glamping or staying in a hotel, figure out where you are going to stay and what other amenities are in the vicinity.
Make any hotel or caving reservations ahead of time, so you get to enjoy the trip and not stress about any of the details.
#5: Go Spelunking
Congratulations! You’re at the cave!
Before you enter, keep in mind common cave courtesy means no eating in the cave. There is a strict “leave no trace” policy. Can you imagine how quickly garbage would pile up?
Usually we take lots of snacks on hikes; however, our kids have learned to finish all snacks before entering a cave. Do, however, bring water in your backpack and have a warm sweatshirt or a jacket with you.
Cave entrances are exciting! You’re entering a new world and you won’t always know for sure what the entrance will look like until you arrive. In some caves you’ll maneuver down into a sunken bowl formation to reach the cave itself. In others you’ll need to climb down a ladder. You can easily waltz into most beginner caves.
The mouth of the cave is where you want to turn on your flashlights and put on a jacket (if you aren’t already wearing one) and a helmet.
Once you enter the cave, check out the many fascinating things to see. There may be lava tubes or soft limestone karst. Perhaps you and your family will see some amazing stalactites, stalagmites and other formations that take hundreds or thousands of years to form.
It’s one thing to read about these amazing formations and another to see them up close. Just be careful not to touch or break the formations; one careless act can destroy them.
Watch for creatures that live in the “dark zone” of caves for at least part of their lives, like troglophiles. And don’t forget the bats!
Bracken Cave in Texas is summer home to the world’s largest bat colony.
Many bats are dying due to white nose syndrome in North America, so some caves are restricted all or part of the year to try to halt the spread of the disease to uninfected regions via fungus picked up by unknowing hikers’ shoes or clothing. Told you there was a lot to learn!
If your kids get bitten by the caving bug, plan more spelunking adventures. Read books and do other research before your next trip.
And be sure to have your kids write down the most memorable part of the adventure. Parents can do that, too! That may be your greatest treasure.
Some Final Thoughts…
Many families safely cave regularly and love it. However, not all kids like the darkness and not all children are good listeners. Having kids run off without adult supervision is not safe.
One recommendation is to do an extra prep step. Make a cave fort in your home using blankets, pillows, etc., to see if your kids are ready to go exploring.
Caves can be safe and fun if you’re prepared. By discovering an easy, visitor-friendly cave in advance, you set yourself up for a successful excursion.
Regardless, start out with a short cave experience, and know that you may need to turn around after only a few minutes. The older your kids get, the more advanced your caving adventures can be.
What do you think? What are your favorite caves? How do you and your family prepare for a caving adventure? We love exploring caves as a family and have been in many caves in the western United States. Please share your other tips for caving or if you’ve visited caves that you recommend! Post pics too!
Kristin Ammerman is a mom, creative writer and the evangelist of fun for My Kids' Adventures. Her three kids love that their mom's job includes trying out new family activities. Other posts by KJ Ammerman »