How to Explore a Cave like a Scientist

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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.

Are you feeling like your caving adventures are lacking something? There’s nothing wrong with embarking on a fun new expedition, but you might also find it interesting to learn more about each cave while you explore it.

Consider exploring your next cave a little professionally, like an expert or a scientist would. Caves already provide lots of entertainment and excitement, but scientists go for other reasons. They learn about the environment, animals, plants, bacteria, and more. They learn about how caves form, depending on what type of cave they are visiting.

Unfortunately, even some of the most experienced cavers don’t know how to investigate a cave for research or any scientific purpose, and thus leave much of the hidden secrets behind.

Here are a few aspects to consider, when you begin to explore a cave more professionally.

1 – Formation

One of the first things a scientist looks into is a cave’s formation.

We know caves give a thrilling glimpse into a hidden universe, but understanding exactly how they formed .

The formation of the cave is known as ‘Speleogenesis‘; this field is all about the origin and development of the caves. For example, some caves form by chemical processes and water erosion, while others are widened and shaped because of tectonic forces and atmospheric influences. Each cave is different and its formation is determined by the timescale and geological events, which occur over the course of millions of years. There is an abundance of history in every cave.

For that reason, it is imperative to know which type of cave you are visiting. This knowledge assists in the research and tells you what you are looking at exactly. Knowing the history of a cave will reveal what you may find inside.

Types of Caves

Knowing the type of cave you’re visiting can reveal much about what to expect inside or around it.

Karst Caves: Karst Caves, also known as Solutional Caves, form mostly in limestone. However, scientists have found these caves in other kinds of rocks too, such as chalk, dolomite, and salt. They are often created when the rainwater or the groundwater dissolves the stone from below and create an empty space.

Primary Caves: These are caves that develop at the same time as the rocks. Some primary caves examples are lava caves, tufa caves, and reef caves. When the lava flow cools down, these caves form on a larger scale. You can often find primary caves near oceans, causing many to have sections flooded with water. If you explore a cave near the ocean, prepare for potential flooding or slippery surfaces.

A man climbs horizontally along the ceiling of a tufa cave in China.
A tufa cave in Yangshuo, China.

Corrosion Caves: Corrosion or Erosional Caves are formed by active streams or rivers that pass through them. They have many subtypes, like wind or aeolian caves. These types can form in any type of rock due to the pressure of the stream, which carries rocks and other sediments.

Glacier Caves: Exploring glacier caves is one of the toughest jobs for cavers. It is not for the novice or average caver. Only professional cavers with some experience can deal with their sufferings like melting ice and flowing water within and under glaciers. These caves contain year-round ice formations which are impossible to see in other types.

A caver looks at the Alaskan landscape from a Glacier Cave.
A glacier cave in Alaska.

Sea Caves: The wave action of the sea develops these caves. It is more like a mechanical erosion than a chemical process that we see in a karst cave. The holes which the waves create are known as blowholes. They release the pressure as a jet of spray.

2 – Exploration

Understanding the type of cave you are visiting helps in comprehending what you find in it. You can plan your journey and have the right equipment to facilitate exploring the cave as a professional researcher and not just a hobbyist.

For example, in a karst cave, you see natural bridges and Pepino hills.

Furthermore, there are lapies, a weathered limestone surface discovered in the karst region. It has a limestone base that becomes extremely hard after years of formation.

On the other hand, in case you are visiting ice caves, you will notice some impressive natural ice formations. The forces of nature create them in fabulous ways.

You see ponded water, accumulated snow, and airborne moisture.

If it is your first time and you don’t have time to research the type of cave you are visiting, just look up at the ceiling. It gives you a pretty good idea about the cave and millions of old formations and interesting shapes. If possible, try to touch and feel the walls of the cave. Are they smooth or rough? Do they have any texture or they are plain? Are they the same as the surface of the cave? Are they cold or warm?

Focusing on these small details won’t only expand your knowledge, but also teach you how to investigate a cave professionally as you explore more locations.

3 – Equipment

This almost goes without saying: if you plan to study any cave extensively, you need to have the right equipment.

The increasing popularity of caving compelled companies to produce many variations of the same caving equipment. Today, we have dozens of types and accessories, like headlamps, suits, boots, and jackets. We’ve reviewed the most vital caving equipment here. But for exploring a cave professionally, you need to focus on surveying equipment.

Camera: You need a camera that captures stunning photos in low light since you often face low light conditions in caves. Experts usually count on DSLRs, which are incredible at capturing scenes in limited light. However, it is pertinent to do some pre-planning. You must know what kind of light will be available to choose the right lens for when you explore a cave with no natural light.

Flashlight: Flashlights are useful in more ways than you may realize at first. They produce light very efficiently, and recent designs have become more technologically advanced. Due to built-in rechargeable batteries, you can use them for hours and even days for doing research inside a cave. Just make sure they are small in size, convenient to carry, store, and use so that you can explore dark caves easily. We recommend a good quality headlamp as well, of course, but keeping extra flashlights will serve well for a research expedition.

An extensive cave map of the Laurel Caverns in Pennsylvania.

Map: Cave maps help demonstrate how far away or nearby certain checkpoints are. Staying on the right track is key for efficient exploration and research, especially when regularly estimating the distance between two points. In a way, maps represent a whole cave on a much smaller scale. Also, the details are simplified or used as symbols that let you take in rich and complex information quickly.

Garbage Bag: Garbage bags are good for collecting rocks, plants, fossils, etc. for further research in the lab. You can use them to clear hazardous wastes from the cave too. You might not have your own lab, but you may encounter something interesting that you’d like to hold on to.


The more you spend time in a cave, the more you learn and research well. Every small detail becomes interesting and fascinating… So, keep on exploring caves and have fun. Scientific research is totally different from casual exploration, so if you’d like to get into it, this article should put you on the right track.

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