Scouts and Caving

From: Tray Murphy <>
Newsgroups: rec.scouting.usa
Subject: Scouts and Caving (long)
Date: Sat, 28 Sep 1996 04:18:12 GMT
Lines: 428
Message-ID: <>

Forgive the formatting errors, it was a Word .doc, intended as an

Caves and Scouts or Caving and Scouting
by: Tray Murphy

Some time ago, I was asked to write the definitive work on the ever
popular subject of Scouts going caving. This short (?) treatise will
be posted to four places: alt.caving, rec.scouting.usa, Cavers' Digest,
and SCOUTS-L digest. I suggest you extract it to a text file, and read
it off-line, then maybe make a few copies and pass it around. Maybe
this will help to lessen the friction between the two groups (Scouters
and cavers) that I'm hearing about on both fronts. This will be in two
major sections, one for Scouts and their leaders, the other for
cavers. First, a little background, and some common elements.

I started caving 23 years ago at 14 years old. The cavers of ESSO
Grotto took me under their wing, and taught me how to cave without
getting hurt, and to minimize my impact on any cave I visited,
"sacrificial" or not. In other words, cavers taught me how to preserve
caves, and do it safely. At 18, I joined a Boy Scout troop that my
brothers belonged to, mostly to take the older Scouts caving, and
teach them climbing, and ropework. I've been involved with both groups
on a local, regional, and national level ever since. I regularly take
Scout troops caving, and so far, have a perfect safety record. Some of
these Scouts have become accomplished cavers, others have never been
underground again. The next few paragraphs should help to explain how
we do it safely, and why I do it the way I do.  Unless otherwise
cited, the opinions herein are mine, amassed over the previous 20+
years of Scouting and caving.

Caving has been found to be the third fastest growing "adventure"
sport in the country. That means the pressure on cavers to introduce
people to the underground environment will only continue to grow. This
is a fact of life, owing greatly to the exposure caving has received
in recent years in the news media (Lechuguilla's discovery, rescues of
both cavers and non-cavers, articles in magazines such as Boy's Life -
featuring the caving Brown family, Outside and National Geographic -
featuring Bill Stone during his Huautla expeditions, etc.). All we as
cavers can hope to do is educate, alleviate (more later), and find
cave trip leaders that know how to take groups caving safely and
responsibly. What cavers are trying to avoid is finding 25 Scouts with
little or no equipment, several hours back in a cave with high
exposures, and other dangers, mindlessly stomping through a cave
tramping down everything in sight, while daintily plucking bats from
the walls; this is an accident waiting to happen not to mention
against the law. What Scout leaders are trying to do is find ever more
challenging, educational, and exciting things to inject into their
program, since they compete with so many other activities for the
boy's attention.

Cave resources are limited, and threatened on many fronts, all across
the country. Laws have been enacted to help protect the natural
resource of caves, and we all need to do everything possible to
protect both the cave and its environment, and the health and safety
of the people who explore them.


For the Scouters:
First, read the Guide to Safe Scouting. It is available from your
local Scout Service Center. It is the bible that you should follow
when planning trips and activities for your Scouts. It has a specific
section on caving, climbing, and rappelling. It says:

"These minimum safety requirements apply (emphasis mine):
1.   Cave exploring, other than simple novice activities, should be
limited to Scouts and Explorers fourteen years of age or older.
(Emphasis BSA's, indicating mandatory standards).
2.  Group leaders qualify through training and experience in cave
exploring and through knowing established practices of safety,
conservation, and cave courtesy (meaning land owner relations, etc. -
my addition).*
3.  Leader and group must understand and agree to follow the basic
practices and policies of caving approved by the National
Speleological Society and the Boy Scouts of America.
References: Venture activity pamphlet, Caving, No. 33458, and detailed
information prepared by the National Speleological Society available
from the Council Services Division at the National Office."
*My asterisk, too - just because a father says he went caving 20 years
ago with his frat buddies (or even a grotto), don't assume he knows
about modern, safe caving. A lot has changed in the last few years
concerning safety, equipment, techniques, conservation, and landowner

Pretty clear. Yet, a lot of the SM's I see writing, and calling, seem
to think the rules don't apply to them. The 14 year old age limit is
there for a reason. There has to be a carrot-and-stick approach to
keeping boys interested. If they've done everything by the time
they're 14, there's not much left. That's why it is a Venture Scout
pamphlet, and not a merit badge! Also, it's very clear in Scouting
literature that not every activity is for every boy. Project COPE
limits its participants, as does Philmont and the other high adventure
bases, even National Jamborees have age limits. This age limit also
helps with another problem. The literature cited as references talks
about it: group size. Cavers try to limit the size of any group to 12
or less, except under some exceptional circumstances. This includes
caving trip leaders, and the 2-deep leadership (that means 2
registered adults) required by the BSA. That only leaves about 8
youth spaces. The size limit helps to control the group, its
whereabouts, and its activities. Small groups are more easily
supervised, and are generally better behaved. Realize that an injury
to a Scout only an hour from the entrance of a cave could take 15 or
more hours to effect a rescue. Only one Scout has to get out of line
for someone to get hurt. Also, limiting group size helps the group in
moving through the cave smoothly. Except for show cave trails, few
caves have hiking grade footing throughout. Tight spots, or a tricky
crawl or climb can slow the group to a snail's pace. Too many people
means the ones in back get cold and antsy while waiting, and the ones
in front tend not to wait for them, creating a situation where the
group is split up - obviously a dangerous situation. If you have too
many 14 and ups, find another way to cull out some - use attendance,
rank, dues status, or other method to weed out those who only show up
for the "fun stuff". Limiting the group size also lessens the impact
on the cave. Studies have shown that very small air temperature
changes in the cave, caused by body heat, can adversely affect bats
living there, especially if they are hibernating. Lint, trash, and
other human debris is left in caves, no matter how small the group,
but smaller groups tend to police the cave better, leaving it in
better shape than a convoy of people on a stampede. Also, consider the
older Scouts, too. In the last stampede I witnessed, the older Scouts
were clearly tired of having to push the younger, smaller Scouts
along. The younger ones were exhausted, cold, and in way over their
heads. The older ones resented having to push them every step of the
way. As a result, the group saw little more than the entrance room and
a couple of dead passages, while my crew visited the prettiest
sections of the cave, only 45 minutes beyond where the other group was

Now, what about that "simple novice activities". Lots of discussion
with leaders and cavers has brought me to this conclusion: 
Simple novice activities are: no exposure (danger of falling) over the
height of the shortest participant, and that exposure must be
spottable. The trip should be no more than 2-3 hours long (not enough
to challenge a gung-ho patrol of 14-year-olds, plenty enough for a
bunch of 11 and 12's). Our troop sends younger Scouts to commercial
show caves for their trail tours, and since we only schedule caving
trips about every two years, after a 12 year old goes to a commercial
cave, he's generally eligible to go on the sport trip next time. Young
Scouts simply don't have the maturity to handle many of the
challenges, both physical and mental, that go along with sport caving
if you intend to go much beyond an entrance room. Our grotto leads
"kids" trips with a ratio of 1 caver to no more than 2 kids ratio for
the families in our grotto, but we still stay within simple novice
activities. This approach would not work well with Scouts because only
three or four Scouts could go with a 1:2 ratio of cavers to novices.

Another question I often hear: Why won't cavers talk to me about
taking my troop caving? Well, it will be a lot easier if you read the
above references first, and plan to let them know that you will abide
by their rules for going underground. Remember, you're the one asking
someone else to do you a favor, and possibly expose him- or herself
to liability by taking your Scouts caving. No one has a "right" to
go caving. Many cavers are simply not willing to leave themselves
hanging out like that. If they have insurance, they're a potential
litigation target. If someone gets hurt, they have to prove they
weren't negligent, and if some judge or jury doesn't understand the
what the case is all about, they could lose everything they own. Sound
like fun? The BSA will not help them if they are not registered
Scouters, so most cavers are on their own with liability coverage, and
most probably have no more than their homeowner's blanket policy, if
that. Another reason is that so many Scoutmasters seem to think that
they know all about taking boys on adventure activities, even if
they've never done it themselves. Books and literature are no
substitute for experience when it comes to adventure programming. You
should no more take a group to the top of Denali without years of
experience than you should insist that someone else take your crew
underground. Realize that some cavers may not feel qualified to lead a
novice group underground. I've seen some excellent underground group
leaders, and some abysmal ones. Trust the caver if he/she says they
can't (or won't) lead and offers no further explanation. I don't like
to admit when I can't do something, either. 

Probably the biggest reason that cavers don't respond well to requests
to go caving is that they get so many. Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts,
college (and high school) outdoor clubs, parks and recreation groups,
the list goes on and on. So, many grottos have had to say "no more
outside group trips". They're just inundated. If you were my the fifth
caller on a given night, I think I'd be a little short, too. 

And finally, there's the question of equipment. Cavers have to be
properly prepared to be safe in the underground. Remember how long it
takes to get an injured person out? Where's the food and water? How
about warmth and light? A lot of cavers live on a shoestring caving
budget, and cannot afford to outfit 12 other people with helmets with
chinstraps and a light source, spare lighting for each, and all the
other things you need to be safe and comfortable underground.
Construction hardhats with string under the chin will not cut it. $5
headlamps are OK only for the simple novice activities. Packs need to
be bigger than a wallet, and hold all the correct stuff. It's mighty
expensive if you're trying to equip a whole crew.

If you do approach a caver, try to do it in person. The NSS Home Page
can help you find a grotto and contact near you. Go to a grotto
meeting. Meet some of the cavers. Maybe go caving with them, if you
can. Stress that you want to teach your Scouts something about caves
and caving, rather than coming off as a thrill seeker, and maybe
they'll talk to you. In any case, they're going to talk to you about
it on their terms. So accept that, and go from there. Cavers aren't
necessarily standoff-ish or cold. They just don't get approached in
the right way (I know from first hand experience!). Don't ask to camp
underground in a cave. Your Scouts can get the full caving experience
without spending a night underground. Few cavers will accept such a
request anyway. Little camping is ever done underground, except for
expedition style cave exploration where there is no choice. The reason
is cave conservation: how do you manage human wastes, trash, and body
heat warming the cave? What about drinking water? Lots of reasons to
camp in campgrounds and cave in caves.

Now what happens, if no one will take you caving. Well, you can keep
looking, perhaps contacting a another grotto, or another caver. Or you
can limit your trip to a commercial show cave. Some of these caverns
offer "wild" trips, typically for a fee. They are usually geared for a
lowest common denominator, and can be little more than exploring unlit
commercial trail, or they can venture out into undeveloped areas of
the cave, adding in something more than simple walking. A last resort
can be cave-for-pay operations. With cave for pay, it's a toss-up as
to what you get. Few "operators" carry liability insurance, and as
"commercial outfitters", they certainly should. Checking credentials
can be extremely hard. There is no organization which "certifies"
cave trip leaders. With a profit motive, they are more likely to cut
corners with equipment and safety. They may or may not have permission
to be in a cave. Not many landowners are happy to have cave-for-pay
operations going on in their caves, and the discovery of trespassers
can be embarrassing and expensive for the operator and his charges.
And, you are not likely to get any education in caving techniques.
They also seldom limit group sizes ($$$$$), and a huge group in a cave
just isn't going to have any fun. 


For the cavers:
As I've said before, the requests to take Scout groups caving are not
going to go away. I do know that some cavers simply will not, under
any circumstances, take a youth group, or even any other non-caver
group underground. In this case, you're wasting your time reading
this, it won't change your mind, no matter what your reasons for your
decision: liability concerns, concern for the caves' well-being, lack
of equipment to loan, etc. Nor am I going to encourage groups to
contact you, or even suggest that you take them caving. What I do ask,
is that you at least consider the possibility, for reasons I'll set
out later.

Not all Scoutmasters are enemies. If you read the section intended for
them, you'll see some of the reasons why caving is such an attractive
activity, and where many of them are coming from when they contact you
and ask for a caving trip. Most all of them are looking for an
activity that is both educational, challenging, and exciting. Their
motives are 99.9% pure: they're trying to fulfill their commitment to
Scouting by providing the best possible program for young boys to grow
into young men. 

Some of the reasons we as cavers should consider fulfilling at least
some of the many requests to go caving are these:
1.  We are, on the whole, better educated about caves, and therefore
better able to teach the conservation and safety aspects to novices in
a convincing way.
2.  We have knowledge as to which caves can safely be visited by
various groups, and we keep up with landowner status regarding by
whom, and when their caves may be visited.
3.  We have the resources available to teach the general public about
caves and cave resources, and dispel some of the myths about caves and
caving (and bats, too).
4.  We will undoubtedly have to rescue at least some of the people we
refuse (not that we should accept any and all requests). Some
bull-headed people never learn, and will try to go on their own,
without any preparation, and there's nothing we can do about it.

Probably the best way to explain this topic is to use our grotto's
method of accommodating requests to go caving (by any group, by the
way, not just Scouts). We have had an Education Committee for many
years to handle the requests, from initial contact, until the trip
comes off. They also arrange public demonstrations, and schedule our
grotto display for outdoor shows, and other public events, such as
Earth Day. We are not soliciting new cavers, we are merely educating
the public about caves and cave resources, and hoping to reel in the
few that are really interested in caving, and steer them right from
the beginning, as I was at 14 years old. Anyone who calls our office,
or contacts any member of the grotto about taking a group caving is
put in touch with the Education Chairman. The Chairman explains our
policies about age and numbers limits, and a few other minor things.
They also explain that for us to take them caving, we require an
orientation by a grotto member about the trip. Then, dates are
negotiated. Then Chairman is responsible for finding a trip leader
(from a pool of cavers who have indicated a willingness to take
groups, and who, in many cases, go out with more experienced trip
leaders to learn cave routes, and techniques for dealing with the
groups). Usually, a new leader will go on a trip as an "assistant
leader" to get used to working with crews of non-cavers. 

We require an orientation meeting or two, especially with youth
groups. We have developed a scripted slide show that any member can
present to a group with only a little preparation. It covers
everything from how caves are formed, conservation of resources and
why, what formations are, biota, and the human history of cave
exploration. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to present. Then, we go
over cave safety, more conservation, and give out an equipment list.
Every item is required to be supplied by the participants: proper
clothing, extra lighting, food, water, extra light sources, and
batteries. We, as a grotto, supply helmets with mounted electric light
sources. We are not afraid to refuse to take someone underground who
shows up ill-prepared for the trip. SAFETY COMES FIRST!!! This
orientation usually takes about 30-45 minutes, which is why we usually
take up two Scout meetings. It also provides a different program for
the Scoutmaster for 2 weeks. We never supply maps, directions to
caves, or other information directly to group leaders. If they make a
map to the cave as they drive, there's nothing we can do about that.
Hopefully, the orientation teaches them that you must have more than
just a map to the cave to cave safely.

We limit trips to one per group per year, at the minimum. Usually, we
won't take Scout troops more than once for several years. Participants
with Scout troops must be 14 or older, and we require First Class
rank. The rank requirement weeds out slackers who don't participate in
the Scouting program except when it is "exciting". You get a better
bunch of kids this way. The troop must supply two leaders to go
underground. That way, if there is an accident, the Scout leaders can
deal with the boys, and the cavers  can deal with the emergency. We
take a minimum of two cavers, which is why we occasionally stretch the
group limit to 14 total - 2 cavers, 2 Scout leaders, 10 Scouts. We do
not camp underground. Our trips stress safety, conservation of cave
resources, and education about the cave. If it's exciting, too, great.
Usually, they boys are so engrossed with the formations and other
pretties, or so busy slogging through whatever fun the leader has
found now - a nice mud crawl, or a belly crawl through a stream, that
they are having fun, whether they realize it or not!

Picking the proper cave can be a chore. It's a good idea to pick
something with relatively large passages that a group can move through
fairly easily. Tight crawls slow everything to a crawl, and the guys
in back get cold and anxious waiting their turn in the barrel. The
cave should not be vertical at all. Some low exposure is OK, but
avoid slippery ledges that pitch off into a bottomless chasm.
Remember, these guys don't have the cave savvy that we cavers have to
move easily over the tough stuff. Belays really aren't much good with
an inexperienced group unless you are going to take the time to rig
them properly, and supervise the crossing of the heights. It's easy
and safer to find another route with less danger. Excitement doesn't
necessarily have to mean dangerous places where sure injury or death
can occur on a misstep. See my description of "simple novice
activities" in the Scoutmasters' section of this paper for further
guidance. Base your selection on your best judgment of the groups'
capabilities and desires.

What about liability? That's a question best left for the lawyers, but
this is what little I know about it. If you do not accept money to
take someone caving (and we do not even solicit a "maintenance
donation" for helmet use), you're only liable in cases of negligence,
i.e., where you go off and leave the group behind, or quit supervising
them, or take them somewhere they clearly don't belong (like the edge
of a 200 drop without vertical gear and training).** Of course, anyone
can sue for anything, and if little Johnny gets hurt underground on
your trip, someone will probably sue you for it. Proper safety
training can go a long way towards alleviating that risk: witness our
grotto's perfect safety record (and mine, too). You can't ignore, or
duck all risk, just taking a group underground is risky, and if you
aren't comfortable leading groups because of this, by all means
explain this to a Scoutmaster. If you are a registered Scout leader,
working within your training and experience, and within National BSA
safety standards, they will help defend you, unless it is clearly
negligence or worse. Get yourself a copy of the Guide to Safe Scouting
from a local Scout Service Center, along with a copy of the Venture
Scout pamphlet Caving, and the Scout Fieldbook, both of which have
sections on caving in them. Also, get the NSS guidelines. You'll know
the rules, and if nothing else, you can fend off the Scoutmaster who
insists on taking the 11 year old muchkins along with you on the trip.
Our grotto has helmet users sign a liability waiver, but no state
allows you to sign away your right to sue. The waiver basically says
that caving can be hazardous, and the participant assumes these risks.
The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has an assumption of
risk form - unlike a liability waiver, it spells out in plain English
the risks associated with outdoor adventure programs, and tells
participants they must take responsibility for their actions in the
activities they engage in. They will be happy to send you a copy if
you request it. Whether a judge will throw out a suit against a leader
if the plaintiff has signed such a form remains to be seen. So, there
is a risk involved in taking other groups caving, you can't avoid it.
It is a consideration.
**Like I said, I'm not a lawyer, if you are really concerned about
this, contact a liability or personal injury lawyer for more details.
The liability lawyer will give you the case law, the P.I. lawyer will
tell you he'll sue no matter what the merit of the case - you have to
balance the two.

If you've made up your mind that neither you, or your grotto will take
non-caving groups underground, at least use a little tact when turning
down Scoutmasters or other group leaders. Part of the friction between
the groups stems from Scoutmasters insisting that they should be taken
no matter what, or the cavers insisting they won't with no further
information. At least return the call, or send a form letter…"We
regret to inform you that we do not take outside groups caving
because…blah, blah, blah". Then, maybe the hostility will not turn
into an alt.caving or rec.scouting shouting match. If you won't do it,
explain why. A simple courtesy call saying "we're afraid of being
sued" at least does not promote the idea that we are "elitists" of
some sort.  


Cavers and Scouters can co-exist. As with any outdoor adventure sport,
it will continue to grow. Scoutmasters can try to understand cavers'
fears of too many people heading underground, and cavers can try to
understand a Scoutmaster's desire to provide a vibrant, exciting
program to his troop. Working together, cavers can tap a huge reserve
of conservation-minded folks like themselves to help spread the word
about caving and the natural resources associated with caves. Scout
leaders can find a whole new adventure just waiting for his charges to
learn about and try out as a new learning experience. Let's just douse
the sparks, and keep the lines of communications open.

For more information:
Your local Scout Service Center
The National Speleological Society, Cave Ave., Huntsville, AL
The NSS Home Page:
My home page, with links to other caving and Scouting resources on the

written by:
Tray Murphy
Assistant Scoutmaster, Troop 891, Bon Air, VA
Richmond Area Speleological Society, Richmond, VA
National Speleological Society, NSS#29211 Life member

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