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Kayaking In Caves: What To Bring, And Things To Know Before You Enter

Photo by: Tom Gaffey

If you are a seasoned paddler then you have probably come across some caves in your paddling adventures. Many caves are formed by erosion, so it isn’t surprising that there are so many along the water’s edge. Entering a cave while paddling in your kayak is a tempting and alluring thought. If you take the right precautions, cave kayaking can be a safe and memorable adventure. The key is to know when it is a good or bad idea versus a dangerous one, as well as all the tips and gear to stay safe when kayaking into these elusive natural marvels.

When kayaking into a new cave you should go with a guide who knows the intricacies and specifics of the cave. Always scout the cave and the waves for a few minutes before entering, and make sure you check the weather and tide reports diligently. Bring all the essential safety equipment with you, including a headlamp, glow sticks, first aid, a PFD, helmet, and gloves.

Cave kayaking is a unique and thrilling experience. It can also be very dangerous if you don’t take the proper steps to ensure your safety. If you are interested in venturing into a cave in your kayak for the first time, then keep reading. This article will highlight the top tips for staying safe when paddling into a natural cave, as well as tell you all the additional gear you should bring to ensure your experience will be a safe one.

Top Tips To Know Before Kayaking Into A Cave

1. Go With A Guide The First Time You Explore A Cave By Kayak

The first time you kayak into any cave, even a popular tourist cave, it is a good idea to follow an experienced guide. Exploring a cave in a kayak is all about knowledge of the landscapes above and below the surface. Only an experienced guide knows what's above the dark surface, and also below.

If you plan on exploring a larger cave system then a guide is essential, and often required. It is easy to get lost in a larger cave, and even if you paddle with a buddy, there is little help he or she can offer if neither of you is familiar with the area.

2. Take A Few Minutes To Scout A Cave Before Entering

When you arrive at the entrance of the cave you must resist your overwhelming urge to rush in right away. Take at least five minutes (and sometimes upwards of 15 minutes, depending on the wave patterns) to suss out the waves, currents, and water movement in the cave.

Notice how waves move (or don’t move) into the cave. After a few moments, you should be able to see if there are any dangerously shallow areas as well. You should also listen for sounds, like waves crashing in the cave, which is a major red flag that should inspire you to reconsider your cave exploration plan.

3. Choose A Calm Day (And Keep Checking The Weather)

Weather is always an important safety consideration when paddling, but it is a monumental factor when you paddle in a cave. Sure, caves will protect you from rain, but the waves and chp that winds and foul weather bring can have disastrous consequences when it comes to cave exploration.

If possible, choose the calmest day with very little wind when you plan to kayak in a cave. This should produce the most favorable and safe water conditions, and allow you to travel into the cave without having to worry about this added variable.

4. Take Slow And Shallow Paddling Strokes

It is important you enter and explore a cave slowly. Slow movements are more forgiving. This way, if you bump into the bottom, or encounter a bit of unexpected rockyness, you are prepared. Shallow strokes help to prevent you from hitting any unexpected shallow areas or stalagmites.

Once you enter that cave it is all about taking your time and taking in your surroundings. This is both the most enjoyable and safest way to explore a cave on a paddling vessel.

5. Research The Route And Cave Specifics

Do your research on the cave you are going to explore. If it is a popular paddling destination there should be a lot of information online, and possibly even an official park guide if it is in a state or federally protected area. This is particularly important if you plan to paddle around an area with caves and aren’t going with a guide.

6. Wear The Right Protective Gear

It is always crucial to wear all the right gear when paddling. This includes your PFD, the right clothing, and other items like protective eyewear and sun protection. When you plan to paddle through a tunnel or in a cave, however, there is extra safety gear you must bring.

A helmet is the first and most important piece of equipment. Paddling in an enclosed area greatly increases your risk of head injury. A light source, like a headlamp, is also crucial. Gloves are also a great idea since you might find yourself closer than you might like to sharp rock.

7. Consider How The Tides Will Impact Your Experience

Tides can have a profound impact on cave exploration. At high tide, a cave can be half the size it was (or even less) than at low tide. This can make it much more challenging and risky to explore. Alternatively, some caves have barely any water inside at low tide. This can make paddling quite challenging, and can even damage or risk capsizing your boat. Understanding your specific cave of interest and how it changes with the tides is crucial.

8. Remember Caves Are Also Homes For Wildlife

Caves are natural shelters. They were once used to house our ancestors, and they still provide shelter to several species, including sea lions, birds, and many species of bats. It is a thrill to witness these animals in their habitats, but it can be very startling if you are not prepared.
It is best to make sure you mentally prepare yourself for wildlife in a cave. Do research to find out what species might live there so you aren’t startled when you see them upon entering.

9. Keep Your Extremities Close To The Boat

You must be very aware of your body, most importantly its extremities, when paddling in the confined space of a cave. Even though your head should have a helmet on it, you should keep yourself low to avoid hitting the ceiling or any low-hanging stalactites.

You should also keep your hands and arms close to the boat. Caves can often have sharp edges, and you also want to avoid your fingers getting stuck between the boat and a rock.

Kayaking through a cave near Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

Items To Remember When Paddling Into A Cave

A Helmet: One of the most important pieces of safety equipment to bring along on a paddle through a cave is a helmet. Not only is there a risk of something falling on you, but caves are often very confined. Wearing a helmet significantly reduces the risk of head trauma if you capsize or hit the ceiling of a cave with your head.

Your PFD: Always bring a PFD, and make sure it is properly fastened before you enter a cave. If you have a PFD with a reflective surface this is most helpful in the darkness of a cave.

A Headlamp: Caves are very dark. Even if you are only entering a small cave you will quickly lose most natural light. This makes it difficult and dangerous to paddle further. Bring a headlamp that casts light for at least 30 feet or so. This allows you to see what's in front of you, and what lies further ahead.

Navigation Equipment: Bring reliable navigation essentials. A map, GPS, and emergency communication device are all helpful to keep you on track when trying to reach a cave and navigate within it.

First Aid Kit In A Dry Bag: Having a first aid kit is a smart idea when you plan to paddle near sharp rocks, or in any enclosed space. You should have equipment to treat scrapes and cuts. Make sure you keep it in a dry bag so it stays safe.

A Buddy: If you paddle without a guide into a cave, make sure you at least bring a buddy. Paddling into an unknown and enclosed space alone is reckless and ill-advised. Bring a kayaking friend along.

Paddling Gloves: You might find yourself in a situation where you need to use your hand to push yourself away from a cave wall, or to navigate a tricky space. Paddling gloves keep your hands protected.

Glow Sticks: Bring a glow stick or two that you can keep on your body. This helps keep you in view, making it easy for you and your paddling buddy to stay visible and close together.

Summing Up Safety Tips When Kayaking In A Cave

Kayaking within a cave can be an epic experience, but it’s not something you should do on a whim. You must take the time to research the cave, weather, tides, and the wildlife that lives within the cave. It’s always a good idea to join a knowledgeable guide the first time you explore a cave, or at least bring an experienced paddling buddy. Remember to bring a helmet, headlamp, and protective gloves in addition to all your standard kayaking gear when you plan to paddle into a cave.

Caves are beautiful to explore in a kayak if you are safe about it. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

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