Oxford University Cave Club

Proceedings 10 : "Pozu del Xitu"

OUCC Proc 10 Contents

OUCC Proceedings Index

OUCC Home Page

Camping Underground

by Jan Huning
Editor's note, August 98:
I'm fascinated by the number of people apparently coming in to read this article only. Is it directly referenced from elsewhere? If someone could email me (steve.roberts@materials.ox.ac.uk), I'd be interested to know...
Steve Roberts


In caves such as Xitu it is only worthwhile setting up a camp if trips are taking more than about 20 hours return. With all the gear necessary we could get to the camp in 9 hours (6 or 7 if you're good) without busting a gut, and maybe get out in 10. 15 to 20 hour trips are then possible from the camp downwards. For most camping trips we took one trip to the camp, slept, a trip down and back to the camp, slept, then went out, i.e. 3 caving trips in all.

Choosing a Camp Site

The ideal place would be a fairly large, flat floored chamber with a stream low down one side with pools for washing in and for use as a general water supply. The rest of the chamber would be dry and draught free with a clean rock floor with a few boulders for sitting on. Nearby there would be a small chamber with a narrow blind pot for the inevitable calls of nature.

But, as we all know, these chambers either don't exist, or are in a very unsuitable place - an entrance chamber is no use (except maybe in Mulu).

A water supply close by is essential - it would be a real pain to have to crawl several hundred metres just to fill a pan for a brew, especially as the fewer pans, etc. needed the easier it is to get the camping equipment down (a major problem in itself). You'd spill most on the way back anyway.

Finding a draught free place is very worthwhile so that you don't freeze whilst cooking the meals and so that candles burn longer and give a better light.

As long as there is a reasonably dry area it doesn't matter too much whether the floor is smooth or not. The main problem with a boulder floor is that it's painful trying to walk around without boots, and things tend to get lost very easily. The floor should be very stable so that precariously balanced pans stay on top of their stoves. In most situations it should be possible to arrange boulders to provide an area for cooking and storing things (food etc.).

A sloping roof of decent rock is handy so bolts can be knocked in to support hammocks. Otherwise it is best to arrange things to give a flat space for sleeping.

Somewhere accessible but not too close has to be found, off the main route, for replying to the calls of nature. If a blind pot cannot be found then other arrangements must be made - take plenty of plastic bags down and find a safe place where they can be filled and then left. It is extremely important not to get any human excrement into the stream as it will poison it for the poor Spaniards using it for a water supply on the surface.

Sleeping and Clothing

So once we've found the ideal spot to camp at, something is needed for sleeping in. Feather and down duvets are definitely not on. The ideal thing is a good quality fibre pile sleeping bag as they remain warm when they are damp, which they will be within a very short time. (They are also strong, which is necessary when getting in and out of them on sharp boulders - thin cotton would just tear.) The thick pile provides some padding, not important if sleeping in a hammock but an added bonus when sleeping on a karrimat on rough ground. They also wick moisture away so that you wake up reasonably dry. The disadvantage is their bulkiness, although they are light (providing they are kept dry on the carry in - wrap them in a couple of polythene bags. More on this later).

If the camp is flat and dry it is easiest just to sleep on the ground, on a plastic sheet (the bag providing the padding) or a karrimat which is warmer but bulkier for lugging down to the camp. In a boulder floored chamber either arrange boulders to provide a suitably spaced space for sleeping, or use hammocks. These require a sloping wall or low ceiling (so that bolts can be put in to hang them from). Hammocks with a single point suspension save time setting the camp up (only one bolt!), but whatever type they should be positioned so that they are about half a metre off the floor to facilitate getting in and out. Don't let them touch the floor though, as they are fragile and may get torn. If a bolt can only be placed high up, a cow's tail will be needed to bring the hammock within easy reach. Everyone should practise getting into a hammock when inside a sleeping bag above ground - it's not easy, and provides a lot of laughs for spectators.

Several people found the hammocks rather constricting as one can only lie flat out, and tends to have one's shoulders pressed in. This would be avoided if hammocks with spreader pieces were used (again, more bulk).There are a couple of options for what to wear whilst cooking etc. Some people stayed in their furries (minus oversuit) until they were about to get into their sleeping bag, when they either changed into some Damart or just slept in the pink. Others preferred to get out of their caving gear and into something dry straight away. Wearing a furry without the oversuit may help it dry out a little, although most people eventually came to the conclusion that the effect was small. Wearing Damart is probably preferable as it will reduce the tendency to contract jock-rot. Footwear can be a problem - keeping the same socks and boots on can lead to cold feet. I took a pair of thick socks down and put my caving boots back on, which kept my feet quite warm even though the socks got slightly damp. For rough bouldery floors caving boots will be better than gym shoes or wet socks, especially if the site chosen for crapping involves a walk downstream followed by a sharp, very difficult climb (ours did)! Even so Graham was quite happy wearing only a pair of socks. (I'm glad I didn't camp with Graham: Ed.).

Jan and Keith at the Camp


Plenty of food is required on a camping trip, and one definitely shouldn't skimp on this. Volume is required; i.e. the food should be filling, and some variety is a good idea: chilli can carne for every meal doesn't improve most people's morale (except Graham's). At the camp one eats only two meals per 'day', one before going caving and the other before sleeping, so that they need to be large. You can get away with one day's caving on insufficient food, but not several! A main course of stew/meat with vegetables and spud, and something else such as oats and dried apple flakes with milk (powdered) provides variety and is usually enough for breakfast and supper. The food will have to be dried to get it down to the camp, but try not to get types of stew which need to be simmered for ages because it uses too much fuel, and wastes time. It takes long enough as it is between waking and leaving. Some people liked to have biscuits and things to nibble at - they do add variety but remember that they will have to be carried in, and a heap of biscuit crumbs isn't really much use. As an alternative to porridge at supper, thick soups are quite good, although to keep up body sugar it is best to eat chocolate as well. If dried meats and stews are unobtainable (or you run out as we did!) take thick soups and preserved meats such as chorizo or some other sausage which doesn't require cooking. Sardines are easy to take down (though fairly heavy). Tea bags are probably more convenient than coffee, and fruit juice ('Rise and Shine') type of thing is very refreshing.

Don't forget extra food for taking on caving trips such as chocolate and sardines.

A set of nesting billies is ideal for cooking in as it takes up little room and doesn't weigh much. Make sure that there are enough pans and stoves at the camp so that everything can be cooked at the same time, and so that each meal requires only one lot of washing up.

Small gaz stoves ('Bluets') were found to be very suitable for the cooking. The cylinders are cheap, easily available and reasonably robust - essential for the carry in. Petrol stoves and primuses are rather more delicate and in Spain paraffin seems to be unobtainable. A leaky petrol can could provide some excitement with carbide lights around.

A plastic (unbreakable) plate, bowl, mug and a set of cutlery (or at least a spoon) per person is helpful. Take some washing up liquid (biodegradeable!) and a scourer for cleaning the pans, though don't get carried away using the detergent, or else you'll end up fighting through great heaps of bubbles at wet pitches further down!

Cleanliness is important - if there is any doubt about the water stero-tabs should be used to purify it. In this case it would be advisable to have a large collapsible container for the water supply, as the tablets have to be left in for some while before the water can be consumed.

Other Supplies

Adequate supplies of bog roll must always be taken on each trip. Each roll should be put in a waterproof container, such as an empty 'Mornflakes' tin. This ensures that it arrives in a usable state after the grade V trip from the camp to the bog area, and also keeps it dry (but they're not very effective when dropped from 10m onto a waterfall, Simon!).

Carbide is best carried down in a strong waterproof container. Plastic jars big enough for 15-20 man-trips are easily obtainable in Spain although two smaller containers spread the load better. They can also be used for carrying the spent carbide out again.

Lighting at the camp is best provided by candles as they are easier to carry in than carbide. How long they last depends a lot on how draughty the camp is. Carbides can be left to burn out providing extra light (beware of sooted up jets though). Use a helmet light when traipsing off for a crap - it leaves both hands free. Lamp spares should be left at the camp, along with a torch.

A first-aid kit, including anti-diarrhoea pills, pain killers, bandages and antiseptic cream is necessary, as well as a mending kit for shredded oversuits, and spare pairs of gloves (assuming the type of caving demands gloves, as Xitu most definitely did!).

An alarm clock of sorts must be taken down, to prevent anyone from sleeping for 24 hours and thereby getting out of doing any surveying.


Gear is carried down in tackle bags, the large two strap variety being the most convenient (in Mulu just pack a rucksack and walk in). Everything should be wrapped in at least two thick polythene bags (bin liners) to keep it clean and dry(ish!). Put unbreakable things such as sleeping bags, clothing and carbide containers in the base and on top, with the more fragile items such as stoves and some of the food well padded with extra clothes in the middle. It may seem obvious but try to ensure that all the bags are of similar weight - having several very light ones and one weighing over 50kg makes handling them on climbs very awkward, more so if the lightest person has the heavy bag.

General Points

The length of camping trip must be decided in advance. We found two night trips the best. 3 night trips (2 trips beyond the camp) left everyone very knackered so that the exit from the camp could become dangerous. It always seemed to take 3 hours from waking to actually leaving and about 2 hours to get to bed after arriving back in camp. This should be noted in the planning. The most important thing is getting a good 8 hours sleep - even if you get to the camp at 6 or 8 am still try and have a reasonable sleep. One gets 'out of phase', sleeping during the day and caving at night which is knackering in itself, but not as bad as insufficient sleep. If you do manage to keep to 'normal' times so much the better, you won't be so tired.


(or crapping, to the plebs!)

Don't try to save it up, or take stop pills as you'll only get caught short in a very inconvenient place without any bog roll - like on a ledge between two wet pitches. Try and go in the 'morning' or 'evening' at the camp - this happens quite naturally anyway once you're used to camping. (Ed's note: one of the contributors has scribbled "make sure that you have lots of spare pairs of gloves" at this point in the original.) Once again, it is absolutely essential that no crap gets into the stream if people are to be able to use the water below the camp.

Water Supply

This may sound trivially obvious but you should use the stream at the camp in the following way:

a) the place from which water is taken to drink should be furthest upstream. Better still, use an aven or inlet.
b) Next furthest upstream should be the washing up place.
c) Just downstream from that should be the place where you wash your hands first. You can wash them again at b) if you feel like it.
d) Furthest downstream should be the place where you pee. This is OK to do in the stream but once again you must never get human excrement in the stream. Bury it unobtrusively in sealed bags well out of the way.

If you want to wash gear or lamps out in the stream do it between c) and d).


Finally, carry as much of your rubbish and carbide out as possible. If you can't manage to do this with some articles, bury them under boulders as deep as possible.

Typical List of Food etc. Taken Down by a Four Man Two Night Camping Trip

Two large 'Batchelors' catering packs of stew (or curry etc.) 
A tin of mashed potato mix or pasta
Two packets of dried soup
Two tins of 'Mornflake' oats
A chorizo sausage to chew
A 'five pints' container of milk
About 2lb of sugar
A dozen tins of sardines
About ten bars of Spanish cooking chocolate
A packet of biscuits
Eight small Spanish munchy things
About three 'Bluet' cylinders
Small container of salt
Two tinned bog rolls
Six spare Petzl batteries
About two dozen pedal bin liner bags (guess what for)
Large container of carbide
Six candles
Spare Damart undies for four
All of this fits into two 'Mulu' bags with the appropriate packing.