Minimum-Impact Caving

Compiled from experience, these guidelines encourage practices that minimize negative impacts to caves. Cave resources are often irreplaceable. Move gently and be good stewards. Think safety—take care of yourself and your team. Take care of the caves.

by Val Hildreth-Werker and Jim C. Werker

  • Each caver wears a helmet with a light attached. Each caver carries water, food, a bottle for urine, and three sources of light with extra batteries (and bulbs if not LED).
  • Use freshly washed cave packs, vertical gear, boots, gloves, knee-pads, helmets, and lint-free clothing to avoid transfer of mud, dust, and microbes between cave environments.
  • Follow current WNS decon protocols at  or
  • Use footwear with nonmarring/nonmarking soles.
  • Use soft or padded cave packs. Avoid hard-edged boxes. Choose gear that is smaller, lighter, and more compact.
  • Protect cave location data. Never post or publish coordinates or instructions for finding cave entrances. Intentional vandalism and unintentional ignorance destroy many cave resources. Unauthorized sharing of cave locations can be a prosecutable federal or state offense.
  • Never disturb bats or other cave-dwelling creatures. Watch for insects and avoid crushing them underfoot.
  • Avoid touching microbial mats. Do not disturb geomicrobial communities living in a cave.
  • No smoking or use of tobacco in caves. No campfires in caves or near cave entrances. Smoke and fumes can kill bats, invertebrates, and other cave-dwelling animals.
  • No recreational drugs or alcohol while caving. Mental and physical impairment puts the cave and the team at risk.
  • Wear gloves. Check gloves for mud, dirt, and holes.
  • Don’t enter pristine areas with muddy or dusty garments and gear. Know which areas require clean clothes, shoes, and gear.
  • Avoid isolated pools.
  • Limit scratching skin and hair. Tens of thousands of skin fragments and debris fall from each human body every hour. Reduce introductions of new matter into cave systems.
  • Remove all solid and liquid wastes. Carry an emergency pee bottle and burrito kit. Carry out all urine, feces, spit, vomit, and other waste.
  • Avoid dropping crumbs and food particles. Eat over a plastic bag. Carry out crumbs and debris. Don’t eat on the move.
  • If you light a candle, catch the wax drips on a suitable base such as heavy foil.
  • If carbide is allowed, carry the spent carbide out of the cave in sturdy plastic bottles with threaded lids.
  • Stay on established trails. Sit inside the trails. Keep packs and other items within the path. Don’t stray off the most impacted pathways.
  • Move carefully and gently through the entire cave—avoid kicking up dust.
  • Spot each other on climbs. Safety first—maintain three points of contact.
  • Always spot each other in fragile areas. Especially watch heads, backs, hands, feet, and packs. In areas of low-hanging formations, ask spotters to watch. Remove helmet to improve body control. Move gently.
  • Maintain special care and gentle control of movements when lingering in a fragile area for survey, science, or photography.
  • Touch as little as possible. Avoid leaning on walls, ceilings, or speleothems. Don’t sit on formations. Look and avoid trampling floor deposits.
  • When movement requires handholds, look first to avoid delicate features and use small points of contact for balance (knuckles or fingertips) rather than dirty open palms.
  • During survey and exploration, establish pathways on durable surfaces to minimize future impacts.
  • Point out unsafe or damaging behavior. It’s every caver's responsibility to ensure that cave environments remain as pristine as possible and that every team member is safe and aware of conservation ethics. It’s okay to speak up and say, “Keep still, don’t move, or stay away.”
  • Take nothing from caves. Removal of natural or historical items is unethical and illegal unless you have a collection permit for authorized research. (Recently deposited trash usually should be removed—always carry extra plastic bags, and employ safety precautions. First check with cave managers, archaeologists, biologists, and historians before making decisions about large items or cultural materials.)
  • Leave nothing in caves. Never leave your mark on cave walls. No graffiti. No signatures or drawings. No trash. No waste. Leave no evidence of your visit.
  • Cave safely … Cave softly ... and leave no trace.

Permission is granted to share, repost, reprint, or use this these bullet points to build protocols for specific caves or cave regions.