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The Art Of Cave Digging


Cave digging is the process by which likely Karst features, most often holes, are enlarged to allow human passage. A likely candidate may exist within an already established cave or a surface hole in a Karst region—an area of irregular limestone in which erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns.


Cave digging is a high-risk endeavor. Pulling large rocks out of holes can result in extremely dangerous situations. Smashed fingers are common, but much more dangerous situations may occur. Before attempting a cave dig, contact a professional for an opinion. Touch base and get involved with your local National Speleological Society (NSS) chapter. Always wear appropriate gear such as gloves and sturdy boots. Also wear safety glasses and earplugs when appropriate, especially while hammering or using power tools.


Finding A Place To Dig

Never dig without permission from the land owner!

The best indicator of a continuing passage or a new cave is airflow. Since airflow changes directions based upon such factors as temperature and atmospheric pressure, the time of day needs to be considered.

Karst walks or ridge walking are often organized events used to find Karst features on a particular piece of land. The term Karst simply means "limestone cave country." Karst features are often holes, depressions, or fissures that may lead water down. A Karst walk might be organized such that people walk along a compass direction while maintaining a line giving regular sweeps of an area. Property that has just undergone a controlled burn makes for great feature discovery because of the ease of following the terrain and ability to see holes.

When an interesting hole is found, it is marked with flagging tape, a GPS point is taken, and a description is written down for mapping and later perusal. Holes are often near the base of trees because trees grow where there is water flow. Likely holes may have leaves and detritus indicating that water has flowed down that way. Sometimes a depression in the earth may indicate a potential passage for water. Previous landowners, especially ranchers, may have filled-in likely holes to avoid incidents with cattle. A cave filled with dirt is easily “unplugged,” but a cave filled using a backhoe results in a much more difficult dig.


The most important aspect of cave digging is safety—safety to yourself, safety to your colleagues, and safety to the cave. Keep in mind, too, that there may be poisonous biological dwellers around or inside the hole you wish to open. In Texas, for example, there are rattlesnakes who love to live around cave entrances.

Digging The Hole

Sometimes digging is as simple as pulling dirt, leaves, and perhaps a few rocks out of a hole. Other times, however, a dig is a more serious endeavor requiring sledgehammers, cold chisels, hammer drills, and jackhammers. Since caves are often "off the beaten path," power tools must be run from a gas generator.

Other tools that frequently come in handy: gloved hands, buckets, shovels, pickaxes, pry bars, and a lot of muscle.

Why do it?

Caves play a significant role in the "recharging" of the underlying aquifer; they are conduits by which rainwater replenishes the water table that we humans have tapped using wells for our own uses. The City of Austin Watershed Protection agency is concerned with the quantity and quality of the water that recharges an aquifer.

Cave digging is also a great workout, and it embodies the full spectrum of exploration. Finding a new underground room that no human has ever seen can be elating.


You say that a cave "goes" when there is further passage evident, but you cannot fit through just yet.

A cave "pushes air" when you can feel airflow with your hand at the opening.

The term "cave" means any naturally occurring void, cavity, recess, or system of interconnected passages that occurs beneath the surface of the earth or within a cliff or ledge (including any cave resource therein, but not including any vug, mine, tunnel, aqueduct, or other human-made excavation) and which is large enough to permit an individual to enter, whether or not the entrance is naturally formed or manmade. Such term shall include any natural pit, sinkhole, or other feature which is an extension of the entrance. (quote taken from BLM FRCPA REGULATIONS FOR OREGON AND WASHINGTON—FEDERAL REGISTER Vol. 60, No. 72)

To be considered a cave by the Texas Speleological Survey a void must be at least 5 meters (16 feet) long. In the actual definition there are other considerations—natural, in the ground, of human size, etc, but the length is the basic item. Other state cave surveys have different minimum lengths—most require a longer length than Texas.

How to Get Involved

Cave digging requires pulling rock, dirt, and debris from a small area. In other words, space is limited, and usually only two or three people are needed for a dig. Some digs, however, have availability for more people.

Contact your local National Speleological Society (NSS) chapter, e.g. the UT Grotto, for details on upcoming digs. Bill Russell has a signup sheet with names and E-mail addresses.

The City of Austin schedules Karst walks and cave digs throughout the cooler months. See the volunteer link below.


Wikipedia entry on Cave Digging
Caves.com Cave Digging Group
City of Austin Volunteer Page