How to survive if your light goes out when caving

What you should do when it’s ‘lights out’ underground.

EMERGENCY SITUATION: You’re caving with your crew when your light source burns out. Your batteries and other lights are in your pack, which is missing. And now you’ve become separated. How do you survive?

SOLUTION: If you’re in the Bat Cave, no worries. Alfred will probably be along soon enough. But if you’re not, you’ll need to take some specific steps to avoid injury. Or worse.

First, stop moving. Immediately. This is the most important step in cave survival. Wandering around in a cave without a light source is a recipe for disaster. You will almost surely fall, smash into something hard (stalactite, rock face), become completely disoriented, or otherwise be in worse shape than you were before you wandered.

Next, call out. Loudly and repeatedly. Or better yet, use your emergency whistle. Since you were with your crew a few minutes ago, they are certainly within earshot. A whistle can be heard from greater distances than the human voice, so blow it periodically and also shout for help. Continue to yell until you hear a response, or you risk potential rescuers getting out of earshot before they notice your absence.

Even if you don’t get a response, don’t panic. The rule of thumb for being lost is the same in a cave as it is for the surface: As long as someone knows you’re lost, it’s best to stay put and wait for rescue. You can survive in a cave overnight if you have to, but wandering around won’t help your cause. If you must move, only do so if you’re able to get some light source—anything—up and running first.

Shake your flashlight or headlamp to coax out any remaining juice, then use any other light source you have: cell phone, watch light, iPod. (Though we should note that bringing electronics into a cave is a quick way to ruin your favorite gadgets.) If you have a lighter or matches and a candle, light it so you can see while you wait for help. The light from a candle, cell phone, or watch won’t be strong enough to help you navigate, but it will keep you from having to wait in total darkness.

Most important, stay warm and dry. Your enemy in a cave is not the dark but the cold.


Next time, bring three headlamps. Store one in your pack, and wear the other two on your helmet. If the first fails, you can flip the switch on your backup right away.

  • The cool cave floor will draw heat from your body, so smart cavers bring along a 1-foot-diameter foam pad to insulate their bodies from the ground.
  • Your head loses a lot of heat, so pack a non-cotton balaclava. It’s warm, it works when wet, and it’ll fit under your helmet.
  • Bring a large trash bag—it’s a great emergency body heater. Just poke your head through the top of the bag and slip inside. Voilà!

Josh Piven is the co-author of the Worst-Case Scenario Handbook series. Visit his Web site

1 Comment

  1. Shouldn’t happen. EVER. When caving, your light sources are on you. Not in a back pack, not with a buddy, with you, means, on you.

    Next, a light source could be that watch on your wrist. Once your eyes adjust, the illumination from many watches will be sufficient.

    Have fun, but be safe. A scout is prepared.

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