The various types of caves…
Did you know that caves can be formed in many different ways? Some have been carved out over thousands of years by the sea’s waves, while others were formed from the meltwater of glaciers. Let’s take a look at the most common types of caves - although not all of them can be found on the British Isles.
- As the name suggests, lava tubes are formed through volcanic activity. After hot lava flows down a volcano, the ‘top’ begins to set while underneath the molten lava continues flowing underneath. This ongoing flow causes hollow tubes or tunnels to form underneath.
- Glaciers - or ice caves - can be formed in two ways. They can either be carved out from the meltwater of glaciers, as harsh winds carve and hollow them out. Or, they can form as a result of cold, freezing air becoming trapped in glacial openings. You won’t find glacier caves in the UK, but if you are interested in seeing some then a trip to Iceland won’t disappoint.
- Cornwall and Devon are particularly popular when it comes to sea caves, but you’ll find plenty more along Britain’s northern coastline too. Sea caves are formed from centuries of wave action, as they erode the bedrocks of sea cliffs over many years. Often, they can only be accessed via boat or at low tide.
- Solution caves are the most common type of cave, formed within soluble rocks such as limestone, chalk or salt. These types of caves are caused by groundwater seeping into cracks and openings in the rock. Over many geologic periods, these cracks eventually turn into cave systems. In the case of limestone caves, their appearance is caused by slightly acidic water eroding the stone.
…and the different types of caving!
Just as there are many types of caves, there are plenty of different ways to explore them. Here are two of the most popular types of caving.
- Horizontal caving doesn’t usually require any ropes - cavers can navigate the passageways by walking, crawling or crouching when needed. Although this seems simple enough, it can quickly tire you out - especially if the passages are particularly narrow or low in height!
- Vertical caving - also known as potholing - requires more technical skills and the use of ropes to descend into and traverse deep cave systems. Unless you already have extensive experience, it’s best to try out this type of caving with a qualified instructor.
Guided caving tours
Guided tours are a great alternative if you don’t want to explore caves on your own.
Squeezing through narrow passageaways and descending on ropes into the great unknown isn’t for everyone. If you don’t feel comfortable exploring caves on your own, guided caving tours are a great alternative.
You’ll still get the chance to head underground, but in the company of an expert guide and with all the proper equipment - and usually, plenty of lighting. Here are some of the most popular caving experiences with guides in the UK:
Heights of Abraham Show Caverns
Location: Peak District National Park, Derbyshire
Photo credit: Heights of Abraham Show Caverns
Fancy a day of caving in Derbyshire? Heights of Abraham Show Caverns offers a guided cavern tour through The Great Masson Cavern and The Great Rutland Cavern. These caves were once filled with miners, chipping away at the lead and fluorite during the 17th century.
Now, visitors can find out about the history of the caverns - a story that spans over 350 million years. While this isn’t a particularly strenuous or technical tour, it’s ideal for families. Jess from Heights of Abraham says “the caves are only accessible via cable car, which only adds to the adventure!”
Location: Snowdonia National Park
Photo credit: Go Below
Snowdonia has its fair share of stunning natural attractions, including many underground caverns under its dramatic mountains and idyllic hillsides. Go Below gives visitors the opportunity to explore a hidden world beneath the mountains. Experience zip-lining through vast caverns, climbing vertical shafts, traversing over the abyss and abseiling your way down to the deepest point in the UK!
“Go Below is an award-winning, family-owned business offering authentic underground adventures, whatever the weather. Experience exciting half and full day underground trips through abandoned slate mines located in the heart of Snowdonia. They offer three unique adventures ranging in difficulty and thrill level. No experience necessary, no potholing or squeezing through small gaps!”
- Cait, Go Below Underground Adventures
Cornwall Underground Adventures
Photo credit: Cornwall Underground Adventures
Explore abandoned tin mines while learning the history, heritage, and significance of these caverns with Cornwall Underground Adventures. Carved out by Cornish miners, these activities take place under the district of St. Just - easily reached from St. Ives and Penzance. There’s a good selection of adventures, ranging from easygoing walk-in tours to abseiling down mine shafts if you’re feeling brave enough.
Photo credit: Speedwell Cavern
Take an exhilarating boat tour of Speedwell Cavern, a series of former tin-mining caverns underneath the beautiful setting of Hope Valley in the Peak District National Park. After descending 105 steps from the inconspicuous cave entrance, you’ll hop aboard a boat before gliding through all the workings of this historic mine. Eventually, you’ll arrive in a cathedral-like cavern, which is home to the Bottomless Pit - a massive subterranean lake.
Lost Earth Adventures
Photo credit: Lost Earth Adventures
Lost Earth Adventures offer a wide range of outdoor activities across the UK. With their expertise and guidance, you’ll have the opportunity to explore the most fascinating cave systems in Yorkshire and the Peak District - two of the most popular destinations for potholing in the UK. There’s the option of both horizontal and vertical caving experiences, with all the equipment fully provided.
“Alum Pot is my favourite trip in the Yorkshire Dales, it’s sheer size takes your breath away and combined with it’s hanging underground gardens make this experience one you’ll never forget. In the Peak District the two classics are Giants Round Trip and P8. These are hugely challenging caves, with big drops, tough climbs, descents into dark bottomless chambers and fast flowing underground rivers - just awesome!”
- Richard Goodey, Cave Leader, Lost Earth Adventures
Caving glossary, checklist and exploring safely
Whether you want to learn the correct caving terms, you're not sure what to pack on your adventure or you just want to ensure your exploring caves as safely as possible, we've compiled these helpful lists.
From belly crawls to boulder chokes, there are lots of terms exclusive to the caving world. Here are some of the phrases you might come across when reading cave guides:
- Belly crawl: A very low passage
- Boulder choke: A passageway partially or fully obstructed by rocks
- Cavern: A large cave chamber
- Pit: A space that requires rappelling equipment to enter
- Pothole: A cave that requires vertical navigation
- Spelunking: Another term for caving, typically used in the USA
- Sump: A flooded passageway
- Troglobite: An animal species that lives in dark caves
The essential caving checklist
Caving isn’t the sort of activity you can decide to do on a whim - there’s plenty you’ll need to pack before you decide to descend! Here’s a list of the most essential items to pack when planning a full day of caving:
- Helmet (ideally with a chin strap)
- Protective boots
- Thermal clothing
- Knee pads
- First aid kit
- Caving suit
How to explore caves safely
Caving can be a dangerous activity, especially if you’re not prepared. Some of the biggest risks while caving include:
- Running out of light
While this does sound quite scary, many of these risks can be kept to a minimum with proper planning. To help you plan your caving trip in advance, we’ve put together some of our handy tips for exploring safely:
- Always tell someone else where you are headed before you go exploring. If you can, give them an estimated time of when you expect to return to the surface.
- Ensure you have plenty of water and a good supply of healthy snacks, especially if you are planning to be out all day.
- Go with an experienced caver if you get the opportunity to.
- Don’t over-exert yourself; just do as much as you are comfortable with. You’ll have plenty more opportunities to explore on future visits!
- Discuss an emergency plan with others in your group - while it’s not something you’ll want to think too much about, it’s important to have something in place.
- Jot down the details for the local rescue services before heading out.
- When faced with a narrow cave passageway, try to relax as much as possible - tensing up can make it more difficult for you to pass through
- If you do become stuck, try to breathe slowly and alert another caver in your group. They may be able to unhook any trapped clothing or equipment.
Frequently asked questions
What’s the difference between spelunking and caving?
Spelunking is the term typically used in Canada and the United States, while in the UK we tend to refer to the activity as caving.
What is the best cave to visit in the UK?
That depends entirely on what you prefer. Those who like to explore on their own terms will enjoy the challenges of the New Golden Pot in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, whereas those who prefer guided tours are likely to enjoy the likes of the Dan yr Ogof in Abercraf, Swansea.
Can I go underground caving in Scotland?
Yes! Scotland is full of fascinating caves, including St Ninian’s Cave in Dumfries and Galloway, and The Bone Caves in Sutherland. If you would prefer the safety of a guided tour, then the Wemyss Caves in Kircaldy are well worth a visit.
What are the best natural caves in Wales?
There are many natural caves in Wales, the most popular being Porth Yr Ogof on the southern border of the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Lydsted Cliffs & Caverns in Pembrokeshire, and the Culver Hole Cave in Swansea.
What’s the difference between caving and potholing?
Potholing typically refers to vertical caving, in which cavers need ropes to descend to the bottom of a cave - rather than walking or scrambling.
What is the deepest cave in Wales?
The deepest cave in Wales is Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, with a depth of 901 feet. You’ll find it nestled under a hillside in the Upper Swansea Valley - it’s a firm favourite among experienced cavers.
What is the best cave in Yorkshire?
One of the most popular caves in Yorkshire is the White Scar Cave, boasting the title of the longest show cave in Britain. Other notable caves in the county include Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Stump Cross Caverns.
What is the biggest cave in the whole of the UK?
The longest cave system in the whole of the UK is the Three Counties System in the Yorkshire Dales. With more than 53 miles of passageways, it includes the Ireby Fell Cavern, Ease Gill, Notts Pot, Pippikin Pot and the Lost John's Cave systems.
Where can you go potholing in the UK?
You can try your hand at potholing in many caves across the UK. Some of the most popular caves include Alum Pot in Yorkshire, Swildon's Hole in Somerset, and Porth yr Ogof in South Wales.
Can I go on a caving tour with an expert guide?
Yes - please note this is one of the safest ways to explore a cave, especially if you’re a beginner. Many outdoor adventure companies offer guided tours of the UK’s most popular caves, including Lost Earth Adventures in the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District, and Black Mountain Adventure in the Brecon Beacons.
- British Caving Association
- Derbyshire Caving Association
- CNCC - Council of Northern Caving Clubs
- British Caving Library
- New To Caving - List of UK Caving Clubs
University of Bristol Spelaeological Society (UBSS)
Forums & beginner Guides
- New To Caving (BCA)
- UK Caving Forum
- Caving in the Peak District
- Ordinance Survey Caving Guide
- GoCave - Caving Adventures
- Cave and Canyon UK
- Rock UK
- Wild Wookey
- HowStean Gorge