Everything you need to know about caves

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Joseph Campbell

When bushwalkers talk about using caves to sleep in on overnight trips, they usually mean a sizable rocky overhang with a flat sheltered space underneath rather than an underground cave (a fully enclosed cave is generally dark and wet – not great for sleeping!).

These ‘camp cave’ overhangs are a fun way to experience the bush by night, and can make great shelters for overnight bushwalking trips.

Check Checking what caves are ok to use for camping

If you’re planning to use a camp cave on a bushwalk, check the cave conditions before heading out on the track. Look for recent track notes or online blogs from walkers that have been in the area to make sure that the conditions are still good. Ask around to see if you can find someone that has been there recently and have a conversation about the cave condition and if it’s still suitable for overnight use.

Double check that the cave you are planning to stay does not have artwork or is known to be significant to indigenous peoples. Check with local National Parks visitor centres for more information, or contact the Office of Environment and Heritage.

Some of the more popular camp caves can get pretty busy at certain times of the year, so it can be worth check that other bushwalking clubs aren’t planning a trip into the same area as you. Caves can get fill up if a few groups arrive at the same time, so be prepared to camp in a tent if needed.

Plan ahead for your water supplies. Many caves are not close to a water supply, so you may need to carry in water or collect from a distance. This is something that needs to be factored into route planning as it may not be easy to backtrack to a water supply. Water bladders or old cask wine inners make excellent water carriers as they fold down easily and are lightweight (excellent when not in use). Some caves have a regular water drip and pool of water that can be used to drink from, but under certain conditions, this may dry out. Find out whether a water source is likely to be there based on recent rainfall events and chatting to bushwalkers that have been in the area recently (or know it well).

Lastly, check what your backup shelter is. Always carry some kind of backup shelter in case you don’t make it to the cave, or the cave is full and you need to find an alternative. Consider carrying a lightweight shelter such as a fly for a backup as it doubles as a handy sun/rain shelter for breaks along the track.

Once you’ve got to your cave in the bush, here are a few checkpoints to make sure that it really will be suitable for camping:

  1. Protection from the elements
    Check the direction of the cave and how protective it is from the elements. Does the overhang provide enough shelter from rain and wind? Will the area be dry inside, despite a downpour?
  2. Air flow
    Fresh air flow is important as stagnant moist air can lead to lung issues. Check that the air is fresh and not dusty.
  3. Enough space & flat areas inside
    Check that there is enough space for the group inside including flat areas for everyone to get a good night’s sleep.
  4. Water availability
    Check that you have enough water to spend the night here. This may involve doing a water collection trip if the cave is away from a water source.
  5. Collapse risk
    All geological features change over time. A cave roof is guaranteed to collapse at some stage, although the risk is normally low the outcome if it does occur can be very bad. Check the ceiling and rock above the cave for cracks or recent movement. Without a lot of study, experience and measurements it is not really possible to predict a collapse reliably, but look up and if looks too risky to you then find a safer place to camp.

Use in field Using camping caves on a bushwalk

Great caves to spend the night in are those that provide protection from the elements and generally have large flat areas where groundsheets and sleeping mats can be laid out. Of course, in an emergency, protection from the elements is the primary concern, and comfort (i.e. space to sleep) is secondary.

Caves can be tiny, just large enough to sleep one person, right through to the infamous 100-man cave on the Ti Willa Plateau at Kanangra Boyd National Park.
Caves indeed are a first-come-first-serve basis, so make sure to carry enough gear to be self-sufficient and able to camp elsewhere if the cave is already full. However, if there is room, make new visitors welcome and share.

Do not camp in a cave that has artwork or that are known to be significant to indigenous people. If you unexpectedly come across indigenous artefacts, do not touch or disturb. If you believe you have found an unknown piece of artwork or artefact, please contact the Office of Environment and Heritage.

For cave camping, use a ground sheet to protect your sleeping pad and bag, and prevent dust getting all throughout gear. Some bushwalkers use a material called Tyvek, which is a lightweight building sheet that is extremely effective at providing a waterproof protective layer. It can be purchased by the metre and cut down to meet the exact dimensions you need, hence saving on weight. It’s also incredibly cheap at less than $10 per metre.

Never light a fire within a camp cave itself. Campfires produce soot and smoke which will quickly blacken the cave walls with a charcoal layer. Instead, find a suitable spot outside the cave, or use other cooking options (e.g. stove).

If there is a logbook in the cave, sign it before you leave and make the place good. This means leaving no trace by carrying out all rubbish and leaving behind no evidence of your being there.

Care & Maintenance Caring for camping caves in the bush

Paintings, engravings, middons, grinding grooves and more are evidence of Indigenous Australians using caves for as long as they have inhabited the land. While some caves simply provided shelter, others were sacred, for instance, Baiame Caves, where women were not allowed to enter, and men were initiated.

There is an incredible amount of history and culture depicted through cave wall paintings, telling Dreamtime stories, depicting animals and their relationship to humans. Near Sydney, Red Hands Cave is one of the best depictions of rock art in the area.

Spending a night in a cave, you can’t help but feel connected to the indigenous heritage of Australia. Bushwalkers who visit should consider how they can pay their respects to indigenous people past and present and acknowledge the long rich cultural history that Australian caves hold. Never touch any artwork, engravings or other cultural artifacts. If you believe you have found an unknown piece of artwork or artefact, please contact the Office of Environment and Heritage.

Selection Selecting a suitable camping cave

While there are a few camp caves that are extremely well documented with precise GPS coordinates online (e.g. 100 man cave), the vast majority of camp caves are not well known or documented.

Often, you can get a sense of what caves are in an area by reading track notes and trip reports online as they may be mentioned in passing. The other key way to find out about camp caves is simply through word-of-mouth. Often, simply chatting to another bushwalker can be a fantastic way to glean information on suitable camping caves in an area. In some cases, the camp caves that you can learn about through these conversations are merely caves that people have stumbled upon by accident and remembered as great spaces to be used on future trips.

If you’re planning a walk in an area and want to find a suitable camp cave ahead of time, search through bushwalking blogs and track note descriptions to get a bit more information about the area. Sometimes, a trip report write-up might have some clues as to where suitable camp caves are. If possible, find someone that is familiar with the area and ask them a bit more about it – how likely will you be able to find a particular camp cave?

Another alternative is to examine maps and look for cliff lines that are likely to contain suitable cliffs. Sometimes you can use the Satellite view of Google Maps to get a sense of the land layout and take a reasonable guess as to whether or not an area will have camp caves. Of course, you will need to have a backup camping shelter set up in these cases, as you could very well turn up to the area and not find a suitable camp cave.