What is Caving vs Potholing vs Spelunking vs Speleology

May 17, 2024 BY Luke Rees

There’s a rare breed of people who spend their time crawling through caves and descending into the depths of mountains. In this article we explore what is caving vs potholing vs spelunking vs speleology. Ultimately they are all pretty much the same thing, with subtle differences which you will find out about below.

Potholing and caving have never been mass interest activities but are serious extreme sports. They are not considered fashionable or easy to brand, nor are they typically competitive. But what is rarely noted is just how dedicated potholers, spelunkers, speleologists and cavers need to be.

Abseiling into a cave. PXhere royalty free image

I have only been caving twice, once in the Mulu National Park of Borneo, Malaysia and the other time in Australia. Both experiences were incredible, but I had a guide and we were on well trodden routes. For me the scariest moments were the tight squeeze throughs, and abseiling into the pitch black not knowing if the rope would run out before by feet touched down…

Caving vs Potholing vs Spelunking vs Speleology

The disciplines of caving, potholing and spelunking are all essentially speleology, which is the science and study of caves and their exploration. But a science doesn’t sound like a fun sport, or a past time! So they needed a cooler name… Here are their definitions:

What is Caving?

Caving, is the a is the recreational pastime of exploring wild cave systems – rather than show caves anyone can walk around.

Caving in Metory Cave pxhere royalty free image

What is Potholing?

Potholing is the name for caving in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

What is Spelunking?

Spelunking is the name for caving in the United States and Canada.

What is Speleology?

Derived from Ancient Greek words of spḗlaion ‘cave’, and -logía ‘study of’, speleology is the scientific study of caves and other karst features. It includes their composition, structure, physical properties, history, ecology, how they formed (speleogenesis) and change over time (speleomorphology). Thanks Wikipedia!

What is Caving vs Potholing vs Spelunking vs Speleology pxhere royalty free image of peace cave aggtelek hills slovakia

There is a huge amount of crossover between speleology, caving, potholing and spelunking. After all you can’t study a cave without exploring it, but you can explore it recreationally without knowing the science. That said many potholers, spelunkers and cavers end up getting involved in the science.

Extreme Caving, Potholing and Spelunking

At the more extreme end of this sport is the exploration of previously undiscovered routes. In the same way mountaineers above ground push the boundaries, this intrepid bunch go deeper and farther underground than anyone before. Even camping underground to rest before continuing their journey.

Teams around the world are forever revealing new underground cave systems and galleries, often using some techniques and skills shared with climbers and mountaineers. Climbers rate mountains by height, while cavers, understandably, measure heights in minus figures. For example, caves in Slovenia were discovered by teams based in underground camps from -620m to -860m.

What is Caving vs Potholing vs Spelunking vs Speleology pxhere royalty free image

Skills Used Caving

There are rope techniques to be mastered, new navigation tips to pick up, and your abseiling skills will soon be complemented by advanced laddering skills. Underground, there is really a new world to investigate, with mountains, lakes and rivers to navigate.

You’ll find yourself squeezing through narrow gaps, crawling on your knees of even sliding on your stomach. And remember finding your way around is never easy, routes change direction, double-back and often fall away in deep pits.

Cave Diving

The claustrophobic nature of caving, combined with being in the dark, elicit the fear response in many. But if caving sounds too safe for you, there is the offshoot of cave diving. Exploring flooded caves using scuba equipment is one of the most dangerous extreme sports. I did a very short cave dive in Sipadan, Malaysia and having rock between you and the surface is terrifying.

Cenotes of Mexico one of the best Caribbean scuba diving destinations Flickr image by dMap Travel Guide

Been caving? Have some expert tips for us? Let us know in the comments below…

I hope I’ve adequately answered what is caving vs potholing vs spelunking vs speleology? To try it for yourself pop along to our caving travel guide. And don’t forget to let us know of your experiences in the comments below.


Abseiling, Caving, Rock Climbing, Scuba Diving
Cave, Cave Diving

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