If you're going on a cave tour you might be wondering what to wear. Getting it right can make the difference between a great day and a cold and wet disaster.
What to wear on a cave tour? Wear light-weight, warm clothes in multiple layers. Don't wear heavy cotton; neoprene and polyester clothing is ideal. Wear a long-sleeve shirt and full-length pants. Most caves are cold (40 - 60 °F) and humid. Rubber rain boots (wellies) are best for wet caves; combat boots with good traction are best for dry caves.
What to bring to a cave tour? Bring a flashlight, a bottle of water, and something to eat. It is recommended to bring at least an extra pair of socks. Ideally, you bring a complete set of dry clothes to leave in your car. This allows you to change into dry clothes if you get wet during the trip. Also, bring a garbage bag for your dirty clothes.
So do you have to spend a lot of money for a simple cave tour? No, you probably don't need to spend a single dime. But different tours require different gear, and sometimes it makes sense to buy some essentials (but not in all situations).
Getting the Basic Outfit Right
The basic cave outfit is nearly always the same: warm clothes that dry quickly, in multiple thin layers. You wear something durable, like a coverall as a top layer. But for every type of cave, there are other specifics. So how do you know what to wear for your situation? I walk you through the basic cave outfit below. Then, I'll discuss different conditions and how they affect what to wear.
Fundamentals of your caving outfit
Let's start off with some quick rules of thumb:
- wear warm and comfortable clothes - caves are cold
- clothes should be lightweight - neoprene and polyester is ideal
- clothes should dry quickly - cotton is too heavy when it gets wet
- make sure you wear clothes that you are willing to ruin - cave mud is very sticky stuff
Most caves have 100% humidity and are around 50 °F. So it's like a very humid refrigerator.
Guided cave tours
If you're just going in for a guided cave tour, you don't need any special clothing. These are, for example, the cave tour at Mammoth Caves, ATM Cave, or Waitomo Caves. These are called show caves, and they are managed by professionals. They are not dangerous at all. They are well maintained so most of the time you don't even need to wear a helmet. The passages are all lit, so you don't need to bring a headlamp.
For these cave tours, if a helmet is required, the cave tour guide will provide you with one.
For regular cave tours, it's important you wear the right footwear and basic clothing; you don't need to worry about anything else.
What to wear: Make sure you wear light-weight, warm clothes. Long sleeve shirt with jacket, full-length pants, and sturdy closed shoes or rubber boots. Don't underdress: caves are cold at between 40 - 60 °F (or 5 - 15 ° C). The best way to make sure you're comfortable is by wearing multiple layers. This allows you to adapt to the cave temperature on the spot. I would definitely bring a vest or sweater and a thin jacket. Wear closed shoes with (neoprene) hiking socks - they will keep your feet warm, even when they get wet. Same goes for your shirts: polyester sporting clothes are perfect - they dry quickly and are lightweight.
What not to wear: You should avoid any heavy fabrics. Especially ones that absorb water, like cotton. But I'd also stay away from wool (too fragile). Also, don't wear your good clothes to a cave; chances are they will be ruined. Don't wear open shoes like sandals. Don't wear jeans.
What to bring: I always bring some sort of flashlight, just to be safe. Rule no. 1 for cavers is: never come unprepared. Also, bring a bottle of water, and something small to eat.
I recommend you bring at least an extra pair of socks. Even better: bring a dry set of clothing and leave them in your car. This allows you to change into something clean and dry after your the tour. You probably won't need it, but I'm always glad to change socks after a caving tour.
Quick tip: some caves provide good information on the conditions of their caves. Sometimes, you can find the cave temperatures and what you should expect on the park manager's website. So I'd definitely recommend Googling your cave before you go. If you can't find this info, use the tips in this article.
The cave temperature stays the same year round.
Factors that Determine the Clothing and Gear
Okay, you've got the basics down. Now there are a couple of different types of cave conditions, and they all require different clothes. Below you'll find a list of factors and what clothing they require. Take the basic outfit and make changes as you go, depending on the cave type.
Wet caves are caves that are humid or contain water (pools, lakes, rivers). These caves are muddy. Most guided cave tours aren't wet caves, but if they are, you should pay attention to what you wear. Cave mud is notoriously sticky and it will be difficult to get out of your clothes. Even after washing. So make sure you wear clothes that you are willing to ruin.
Footwear: wear rubber wellies with good traction. Wellies aren't expensive at all. If you don't have wellies yet, consider getting a pair. It will be worth it.
Caves with pools, lakes, and rivers
There are caves that require swimming or wading at some point. Some passages are partially filled with water, or you have to cross a cave lake.
If you're up for it, it can be a lot of fun. Pro tip: wear your swimming suit underneath your clothes.
Most guided cave tours are in dry caves, so the amount of cave mud is minimal and you can wear pretty much anything you like. But it's still a good idea to use the tips in this article. Dry caves allow you to wear hiking boots or combat boots, although most cavers recommend wearing simple rubber wellies at all times.
I sometimes wear tactical boots but they do wear out quickly if you use them in caves (but they are more comfortable than wellies).
Caves can be a bit warmer when you go south, especially in the TAG area (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia). Caves there are about 60 °F (or 15 °C) year round. You'll get warm a lot quicker in these caves, so if you're doing an active tour or trip you might even want to wear a t-shirt instead of a long sleeve shirt.
For these caves, I also recommend bringing a thin long sleeve shirt in case you get cold. It's always a good idea to bring some extra layers of clothes.
Unguided caving trips (aka wild caves)
This is an entirely different ballpark. If you're going inside an unguided or unmanaged cave, you should really know what you're doing. You should always wear a helmet with headlamp, and bring a bag full of items that will help you escape/survive. I won't repeat the entire inventory here, because I've already written an article about it.
General Rules for New Cavers
So I assume you're new to caving. You should know a couple of things before going in. I don't want to lecture you, but it's a sort of caver code to always tell new cavers the general rules. Here they are:
- never take anything except pictures
- never leave anything except footprints
Those are the basic rules among cavers. Caves are fragile environments and you shouldn't disturb them. They are crucial for several species, like bats for example. So keep it clean, tidy, and make sure others will be able to enjoy these unique places for a long time.
Getting a Simple Basic Outfit
If you plan to do a lot of cave tours, and perhaps want to explore some more adventurous caves in the future, you should consider getting yourself a very simple, cheap, and basic caving outfit.
I recommend getting a good caving coverall, which will protect your regular clothes from rock wear and cave mud. It really makes a difference. Also, it makes it way easier to change after your caving trip. Just take off the coverall, put it in a garbage back and throw it in the trunk. You're done.
I also recommend getting a good pair of wellies. You could spend anywhere from ten bucks to a hundred on good boots, but it really doesn't matter that much. Make sure to check out my recommendation before buying, to get it right the first time.
Last but not least you should get a proper flashlight or headlamp. I always bring one, even on guided cave trips. Make sure to get the right one by reading my recommendation here.
If you're serious about caving, you should get some more (safety) gear like a helmet. Read my budget buyer's guide for a complete caving gear kit here.
You don't need a lot for a guided caving tour, but it matters if you get it right. Wear the right kind of clothes and your caving experience will be great. Wear the wrong clothes and you will be cold, wet, and probably not in a good mood.
If you're looking for good quality caving gear, I have other pages like this one recommending my favorite gear on the recommended gear page of this site. It’s all the battle-tested gear that I love.