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When we announce field trips, you'll most often read us asking you to bring your basic equipment kit. Here, we'll review the basic equipment kit essentials which includes: Helmet, gloves, and flashlights.
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For single level mine exploration, a bicycle or construction helmet will offer a minimum level of protection, but you really should want more than minimum protection for your head and get yourself something purpose built. Our helmets are covered with deep gouges from contact with low backs (ceilings), which is mostly what you'll encounter. Without the helmet, that same contact would have resulted in severe bruising or lacerations requiring sutures. Don't expect a whole lot more protection or gain a false sense of security from your helmets.
Mine is an older pot -style helmet. It's heavy and sturdy and can probably protect me from a half pound rock falling 10 feet. If that same rock fell down a 100 foot shaft and struck me on the head, it's very likely that it would crash through my helmet. If a 5+ pound rock were to fall from the same height, a helmet would make no difference. That rock will likely break my neck. If you plan on doing any kind of rope work, make sure your helmet has a chin strap.
My wife uses a Petzl Elia helmet. It's lightweight, vented, and has secure points for headlamp straps and costs in the $50-60 range. I also use a Petzl helmet, but mine is a model over 20 years old. It's heavy and the straps smell like fresh compost, but it's served me well and I'm not yet ready to retire it.
Just as important as protective footwear is a good set of gloves. There are plenty of things underground that can cut and injure your hands. Ideally, a good set of gloves will have thick, protective palms and fingers for rope burn resistance and straps to secure them at the wrists.
In addition to hand protection, gloves offer some distance between yourself and all animal droppings that are in every mine. Anyone that really knows me knows that I'm almost obsessive about germs and always cleaning my hands. On one of our field trips, we saw someone using bare hands to brush rodent droppings off an object inside a mine, then use those same filthy hands to eat lunch minutes later.
Aside from the obvious hygiene issue, Hantavirus is a real threat within these mines and can be deadly. People become infected with Hantavirus through contact with rodent urine and droppings. Hantavirus can be transferred with unclean hands, but is primarily a pulmonary disorder. For this reason, you should avoid stirring up dust when possible and wear a mask or scarf when unavoidable.
Most of the equipment we use is made by Petzl, a sport climbing equipment manufacturer. If you want to buy equipment and not wonder about the quality, you can't go wrong with Petzl. Locally, you can find Petzl products at REI stores.
Of the three essential equipment basics, I consider the flashlights of most importance. Your primary light should be a headlamp and you should carry a minimum of three light sources. Three seems excessive, but I've been down to my last light a few times. Changing your light batteries after each use just isn't practical, so there may come a time when your primary light batteries fade underground. It's much easier to switch lights than to change batteries underground, but sometimes, that can't be avoided either.
Something else I've been doing is using a double headlamp system on my helmet. One serves as a primary flood light while the other serves as a secondary/spot light. The weight is hardly noticeable and the convenience and safety of having an immediate backup light far outweighs any inconvenience.
When someone tells me they bought a new headlamp, inevitably, one of the first things they tell me is the maximum lumen output which is usually something over 300. While I have lights in the 300+ lumen range, I almost always have my lights turned to their lowest setting. Somewhere in the -100 lumen range. When you're underground, your eyes adjust quickly and a large amount of light isn't needed. It's great for occasional spotting, but it's mostly advertising and dick measuring.
Because a proper headlamp will keep you safer underground, try to buy quality. Find an LED headlamp that uses the battery size you prefer and try to match all your lights to that battery size for convenience. Stick to the better known brands like; Petzl, Black Diamond, and Princeton Tec. You can find those brands locally at REI and Bass Pro Shops.