Last Updated on 13/09/2022
In this article, we discuss what to wear for caving and how to decide which clothing is best for different types of caves. We explain our approach to layering clothing for spelunking and what each layer should consist of. You will learn how the climate affects your choice of clothing and why caving in water changes everything.
The best tip we can share is to wear clothes you don’t mind wrecking or, get a caving suit. Crawling through tunnels made of jagged rock is hard on anything you wear so if you take nothing else from this article, take this.
Caving clothes should ideally be warm enough without overheating, breathable, stretchy, and water-resistant. Your outer layer should be as rugged as possible and provide as much protection for your skin as possible.
On your legs, cargo or workwear pants are often the best choice because they are super durable and relatively cheap. Base layer pants underneath are the best way to layer up in colder conditions. On our upper body, we like to layer a couple of t-shirts and a zip fleece underneath an old waterproof jacket. Footwear tends to hold up a little better than clothing and so you can wear sneakers, boots, or wellies.
How to Decide What to Wear for Caving?
The way to decide what to wear for caving is to research the conditions of the cave before you enter. If you know what to expect you can dress as appropriately as possible. The climate outside versus inside is totally different and so you may need to pack your gear in some kind of duffel bag until you get there.
Most of the time there will be water dripping from the ceiling of cave systems, other times the floor will be a shallow stream of water, and many high-elevation caves will be completely dry. Thick waterproofs are the best option in most cases but if you prepare for the worst you should be fine.
In addition to water though, the structure of the cave also affects the humidity and temperature. In warm caving systems with high humidity, you may choose to get wet and stay cool instead of layering up in waterproofs that get too hot.
Besides the amount of water and the climate of the cave, the features of your route determine what you should wear. The more rugged and/or narrow it is, the more durable the clothes need to be. It is a good idea to talk to locals and experts for advice on what to expect so you know what to wear.
Safety Gear You Need for Caving
Below, we have a list of safety gear that you will need to go caving as a beginner. You can see our full description of the basic caving gear right here.
If you are entering unexplored caves or caves with large drops then you will also need at the very minimum:
- Caving Ropes
- Climbing Gear
What Type of Clothing Should You Wear for Caving?
The type of clothing you should wear for caving is something that is lightweight and durable. Polyester or nylon blends are the optimal textiles for this because they don’t hold water like cotton does and so don’t become as uncomfortable if it gets wet. Spelunking clothing is better if it is stretchy as well as durable to retain a high degree of mobility.
I like to wear base layers underneath my outer layers just for comfort and then as rugged an outer layer as I have. Cotton (including denim) is very absorbent and, as a result, heavy when wet. Even though they are durable and most people have an old pair they don’t mind wrecking, jeans are not recommended for wet caving systems.
For organized caving experiences where a guide requires you to wear a suit, you will normally be provided with one.
Do You Need a Caving Suit for Caving?
You do not need to own a cave suit to explore caves, but they are useful. They give you comfort and protect you against the ruggedness of the rock when crawling or scrambling through tunnels. We find a caving suit helpful in narrow tunnels as they don’t get caught up as often and are easier to free if they do get snagged.
However, if you are new to caving, you can more often than not rent or borrow the equipment from the guiding company you’re with. Once you are familiar with caving, and you know what kind of caves you prefer, you can invest in your own suit and other gear or stick with what you already have.
Caving suits are ideal for all but the warmest caves and provide the most protection against water.
What Should You Wear on Your Legs When Caving?
More often than not, it is your knees that take the most abuse when you are caving and so this is where the wear and tear show first. To combat this you need to wear as rugged material as possible on your legs. Pants with reinforced knees will always last longer and will often have other reinforcements on the seat and around the ankles too.
Base layers are a good idea for better comfort, moisture-wicking, and warmth underneath your rugged outer layers. You can either wear Merino wool or synthetic base layers. Personally, Merino wool is my most trusted textile for a base layer.
In any kind of cave system with lots of cold running water, you will want to try and protect yourself with some waterproof pants or even better, a full caving suit.
What Should You Wear on Your Top Half When Caving?
On your top half, you should wear multiple layers to match the temperature of the cave wrapped in a waterproof jacket of some kind. The main rule is that the middle and top layers should have a zipper, so they are easy to remove if you get warm. A hoodie is impractical because you might not be able to pull it over your helmet.
As a base layer, you should wear the same material as mentioned above for the legs. If you want to wear an extra layer on your upper body, you can wear a fleece. Or, you can wear an undersuit, which is commonly made of either synthetic or fleece. The top layer should be water-repellent, windproof, and durable, so wear a raincoat.
Remember not to wear the clothes that you really like, as they are very likely to show signs of damage after a tough caving route.
What to Wear on Your Feet When Caving?
You need to know that you can trust what you are wearing on your feet and so a solid sole and ankle support is generally preferable. Sneakers are ok if you accept that your feet will probably get soaked early on and stay wet the rest of the time. You can wear gum boots but if they fill with water they can easily be lost. Your footwear has to have good tread and grip so that you don’t slip and injure yourself unnecessarily.
Just like when hiking, I like to wear a thick pair of wool socks to go caving in. I often also wear a thinner pair of socks underneath my wool socks to prevent blisters which can occur more quickly when your feet are wet.
Warm Clothing for Caving in the Cold
For cold caving conditions, you want to start with a good base layer or two followed by as many more layers as you need to stay warm without restricting movement or overheating.
If you wear one thick layer, it is easy to overheat and then you are forced to choose one extreme or the other, so wear multiple layers. It is more important to keep your core body organs warm than to insulate your legs and so it makes sense to add more layers to your upper body than to wear too many layers of pants.
If you need to abseil, climb or make your way through a tunnel, you should wear gloves. This is not so much because of the cold, as it is to prevent sweaty hands from losing their grip and getting rope burned. As a bonus, they prevent your hands from getting cold.
You can wear a thin beanie under your caving helmet, but it all depends on the fit. For your safety, the helmet should not be loose or tight. Ask your guide, if there is space for a beanie. Preferably, it should be made of Merino wool or synthetics, so you can sweat through it.
What to Wear for Caving When It’s Hot?
No matter how hot it is in the cave, you should wear clothes that protect your body from cuts and grazes. That means full-length pants and long sleeve tops. Ask your guide what the temperature is and whether you should expect drastic changes. Then you will know how many layers you need to wear.
You can easily wear a pair of synthetic pants and a shirt of similar material or wool. For your legs, we recommend hiking pants made from ripstop fabric. Whatever you wear, it has to be durable and breathable.
We don’t generally wear base layers in warm weather as they can make you too warm if you aren’t careful but they are more comfortable to go spelunking in.
What to Wear for Caving in Water?
You should wear a caving suit for routes with high exposure to water. If you don’t have one then wear clothes that are water-repellent, that dry fast, and are light when wet. This means that cotton is out of the question. Since denim is also made of cotton, you should not wear jeans either.
There are two types of caving suits: wetsuits and dry suits. The difference between them is that wetsuits let in some water, which will heat up your body, keeping you warm. On the other hand, dry suits barely let in any water, so they are great if you will be moving through cold water. Drysuits are not as durable against rock, and they are more expensive.
How to Layer Clothing when Caving
Always start with your base layer which are recommended unless the cave is hot and humid. On top of this, you can then choose your layers accordingly and then finish with your most durable clothing whether that be reinforced knees or totally waterproof.
The first layer, the base layer, has to be breathable, so you can sweat without building up moisture. Next is the middle layer, which keeps you warm, while letting the sweat from the base layer through. The top layer protects you against jagged rocks and cold water. Most caves are humid to some degree, and you may come across water sources, so your top layer should be water-repellent or waterproof most of the time.
What to Look for In Caving Gear
Essentially, there are four attributes that your clothing and gear for caving should have. Before elaborating, we remind you that you should look for gear that is designed for caving, like full-body suits. You cannot replace a caving harness or rope with that for climbing.
Durability is key with all caving gear because it needs to hold up to more wear and tear than almost any other kind of outdoor clothing. Imagine testing your favorite jeans or shirt by putting them on and dragging yourself through a wet and muddy cave made from sharp granite. Caving gear needs to be durable if you want it to last more than one time.
Durability also means safety. If you know that you can trust that your clothing and your gear work properly, you can focus on caving. Never compromise quality and safety in exchange for the price.
Your clothing has to be moisture-wicking so that it doesn’t hold onto unwanted moisture and become heavy. Cotton is bad for this. If you start to sweat in cold temperatures it is all too easy to get yourself into trouble with your body temperature.
For you to be able to move around in a way that caving requires, your clothing needs to be lightweight. If your clothing gets wet, it should not weigh you down, so the material should be light and water-repelling. Ropes are heavy, but that is no reason to purchase a thin rope. A rope needs to be thick, so you can rely on its capabilities.
Wear clothing and gear that you feel comfortable in. If you feel at ease, you can move with ease. An outfit should give you your full range of movement. If you invest in your own gear, you should feel that each piece of equipment fits you well and feels comfortable.
What Should Beginners Wear to Go Caving?
A beginner should wear comfortable clothing in layers and bring their own shoes. All other pieces of equipment will most likely be provided by your caving guide.
If it happens that the climate of the cave and the route are not described on the booking site and you can’t find any information about the cave online. You can always ask the guide just how warmly you would need to dress and whether they provide you with all the necessary equipment.
Remember, that the clothes you wear for caving should be durable, but do not wear your most expensive outdoor clothing. The friction between you and the rock might ruin your top layer. Consider the fact that you must have the ability to freely move your legs, knees, shoulders, and arms in the clothes that you will be wearing.
We hope this guide on what to wear for caving has settled your nerves and reassured you that you don’t need expensive equipment to enjoy going caving. Thanks for reading and as always leave your questions in the comments.