Caving in the Chattanooga area is an exciting way to explore natural formations underground while leaning into your adventurous side. But there’s a big difference between walking sloping pathways to enjoy stalactites and water features and crawling on your belly with a headlamp in the dark. If you’re prepping for an experience closer to the latter, it’s important to know what to expect (and what to pack) before you arrive. Whether you’re gearing up for a guided Wild Cave Expedition at Raccoon Mountain Caverns or a going it alone with friends in one of the 7,000 caves within an hour’s drive of Chattanooga, here’s what to keep in mind:
1. Size Matters (Sometimes).
When caving, you can expect an occasional limit on girth. If you’ve selected a commercial Chattanooga caving experience, you may have to pass a quick size test to be eligible to participate. The Parts Unknown Reserve and Legacy Tour Adventure at Cumberland Caverns, about 50 miles north on TN-111 from downtown Chattanooga, requires participants to take a test crawl through “The Box.” If you can’t fit through the 14” by 33” space, you will not be able to successfully fit through the tightest of squeezes inside the cave. It is possible that a cave tour will offer alternate routes, leaving the narrowest of belly crawls to those who elect to give it a go, so if you’re uncertain about whether your body frame is right for the adventure, ask before you book your reservation.
2. Know if You Need a Permit.
If you’re skipping the guided tour for independent Chattanooga area cave exploration, it’s important to know who owns and protects the land. Sometimes you need a permit. The Southeastern Cave Conservancy, for example, protects Gourdneck Cave Preserve and South Pittsburg Pit Preserve in Marion County as well as Mayapple Cave in Grundy County. Some permits can be secured same-day while others require 48 hours for processing.
3. Expect Impressive Rock Formations.
You’ll be more likely to pause and look up during your caving experience if you’ve studied beforehand what specific natural features are present for you to find. Pettyjohn Cave, 30 miles south of downtown Chattanooga, is the perfect spot to find cave pearls, flowstones, and cave popcorn.
4. Come with Clean Gear.
Cross-contamination among caves can be problematic. If you unknowingly introduce a foreign substance into a cave, both visible and microscopic life forms can be destroyed. Recently, a white fungus has caused disease among hibernating bats in the central United States. Before caving, you’ll want to scrub your clothing and gear free of sediment from your previous adventures and then disinfect it.
5. There’s a Dress Code.
No matter what the weather’s doing above ground, cave temperatures rest right at 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to avoid abrasions, you’ll need to be in pants and long sleeves, but avoid bulky jackets or sweatshirts that could get snagged or make it difficult to fit through tight spaces. Low-cut shirts will be revealing when you’re crawling on your belly, so stick to something tighter to the body. Sweatpants or tights with elastic waistbands also tend to drag when crawling, making jeans or durable cargo pants with buttons and zippers a better choice. Shoes should be lace-up and closed toed and will perhaps get the wettest and muddiest of all your attire, so wear a pair that you’re willing to toss or save for dirty outdoor experiences alone. If you’re not using a commercial caving company in or around Chattanooga that provides gear, you’ll need to pack a helmet, a headlamp, an extra light source (for emergencies), gloves, and knee protection.
6. Research Difficulty Before Commiting.
Guided tours are organized by difficulty level, so if you’re a newbie, start slow. You’ll find expeditions are also organized by minimum age and height. Even if you consider yourself relatively fit, consider completing a tour labeled as “moderate” before moving on to something more challenging. Some sites require a 1 to 2-mile hike before reaching the cave entrance. Case Cave, located in Cloudland Canyon State Park, requires repelling equipment to get you down a 30-foot descent. The more you know before you select a site, the more confident you can be that you’ve chosen the best cave for your first Chattanooga area caving experience.
7. Safety First.
Never trust ropes and lines left behind by previous cavers, and never go caving alone. Check the weather in case your cave is prone to flooding during heavy rains. And it never hurts to have an extra set of batteries on hand in a waterproof bag.