The Horizontal vs. Vertical Cave System and How to Navigate Each

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Planning to take your first underground steps into a cave system? You need to comprehend the complex structures of the caves and perceive their creation over millions of years. Besides, before taking a step into the dark, it is pertinent to know whether the cave is horizontal or vertical.

The underground caves fit into two categories – Horizontal & Vertical.

Both require many special techniques for dealing with them. In this guide, we’ve explained how to explore both horizontal and vertical caves safely, and which equipment you will need to move efficiently in them.

Horizontal Cave System

For horizontal caves, no previous experience is required.

You only need to be careful about underground big water streams. They might naturally flow through the cave system and then disappear through sinkholes. Sometimes it can be mineral-rich water. Both physical and chemical erosion work together to form mineral-rich water or a solution along the floor and wall of the caves.

A group of cavers in a horizontal cave.
Horizontal caves often do not have high ceilings.

The underground horizontal caves are mostly cut by ancient waters too, that’s why you often see beautiful crystal formations in them.

The crystals give an ideal first taste of underground adventure.

When opting for a ranger-guided tour, a highly experienced instructor guides you and carefully organizes the whole trip. He explains the geology of the cave and reveals how many million years it took to create it.

You also get tips regarding how to move with efficacy in an underground horizontal cave system, try hands at the wet section, and walk on muddy floors.

The horizontal caving activity is suitable for everyone. 

Each trip requires 2-3 hours, and can be enjoyed with kids also. Only a few horizontal caves are difficult and require hands-and-knees crawling or short climbing which are performed under the expert supervision of the professional guides.

For example, some passages are 4-feet or less and require crawling. The guide shows you first the most efficient method of moving forward. Other than that, in some cases, the floor surfaces can be unstable too. It can be immensely difficult to walk on them. The progress can be tiring even for an athlete. In that challenging situation, you may need to use your hands against the walls or roofs. This is the only way to get support and move forward.

Bringing the Right Gear

Caving gear laid out: Helmet, gloves, tape, rope, and waterproof coat.
It doesn’t hurt to be extra prepared and make yourself easy to spot in the dim light.

The following gear is highly recommended by the experts for horizontal caves.

  • Headlamp: Get a good headlamp that can adjust to conform perfectly to your head. These days some advanced headlamps have a magnifying lens that makes the light a lot brighter and zoom-in and zoom-out features that produce super bright circle or focus the light into a specific spot. We’ve made a review of some of the top headlamps here.
  • Gloves: Caving gloves are necessary for this hobby. Your hands may not grip certain walls or rocks well or might even get cut on sharp edges if you are not careful. This goes for both horizontal and vertical caves. Try to buy industrial rubber caving gloves as they are good for wet and slimy passages and they provide a good grip as well. A list of gloves can be found here.
  • Boots: Quality boots give a good grip on rock and mud and allow you to walk and climb easily. They also reduce muscle fatigue and support ankles and legs. Also, ensure that the boots you are buying are waterproof and have seal-seamed construction. Check our caving boots review here.

Vertical Cave System

A caver clutches a rope while the view of a steep drop is in the background.
Disclaimer: This is not for beginners.

Vertical caving is one of the most dangerous aspects of caving.

It is challenging and requires proper training. Experts call it ‘Pit Caving’ too, as it is quite like falling into a large pit rather than walking into a hole in the wall. In addition, you have to learn how to use caving equipment like a professional for vertical jumps and falls.

The majority of the vertical caves are formed from the top down. There are only a few caves that are explored exclusively from the bottom up, such as Austria’s Lamprechtsofen. It has a total height of over 3200 feet (1000 meters)!

Unfortunately, most people have never been on the rope before, therefore, they have to train first from a professional caver who can teach them the necessary skills to be a proficient vertical caver. He can teach many important things like the different kinds of ropes, how to understand the rope signal or techniques of rope tying.

Instead of buying vertical caving equipment, you can borrow it as well.

However, to borrow a set of vertical gear, level 2 vertical certification is required. Or, you can get a basic entry-level certification from your local caving center.

Austria's Lamprechtsofen cave, illuminated with some lamps.
Austria’s Lamprechtsofen.

Vertical Caving Locations

America has many pit caving spots.

For example, El Capitan Pit (Alaska), Ellison’s Cave System (Georgia), and Stupendous Pit (Tennessee). You can also go to Europe and visit the mesmerizing vertical cave Vrtoglavica Cave (also spelled as Vrtiglavica) in Slovenia. It is one of the wildest vertical cave systems with nearly 2,000 feet depth.

For vertical caving, you need extra equipment too, because advanced vertical techniques require it.

  • Rope: Buy a good static rope brand, since your life depends on it. SRT rope is better and works well in vertical caves. It has 11mm thickness and it is more abrasion-resistant. The rope should be long enough so that half its length is at least equal to the pitch you will be climbing. There’s nothing like running out of rope or not knowing the descent. We recommend not finding out what that feels like.
  • Ascender: This equipment makes climbing ropes MUCH easier. Also known as ‘Rope Grabs’, ascenders come in a variety of forms. You’ll need two ascenders for vertical caving, because one attaches to the harness at waist level and another connects to the foot loop.
  • Descender: Descenders apply friction to the rope. They have excellent heat-sinking capacities and they control the rate of descent quite effectively. The descenders are very helpful for technical rescue in a vertical cave; you can position yourself at any point of the rope easily.
A depiction of Vrtiglavica Cave in Slovenia, with the depth shown in a 600 meter scale.


Once you have all the right equipment, it won’t matter whether you are in a horizontal cave or a vertical cave system. You’ll move more confidently and explore beyond squeezes and short climbs, because you will feel more safe to venture further as you get more comfortable.

It is also important to make sure you have a good level of fitness, since it is required for a full-day adventure. It will be quite a workout, so rest up, eat well and stay hydrated during your adventure.

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