I have been doing a lot of cave climbing recently. So I am not talking about your average tourist cave, I talk about real miles deep labyrinth like caves, where nature never thought of humans getting in. To rule-out trivial answers I'd like to sketch the current scenario:

You are with an experienced guide in a cave for about 2h, the guide loses consciousness after an accident and needs immediate medical attention. Since you relied on the guide's expertise, you are uncertain about the route back to an exit. You know that help may arrive in the next 48 hours or so since you may not return in time from your expedition. You have a light source, a compass and a map of the cave. Your light source will pose no immediate issue since you have power for at least the next two days. However, because the guide is in serious trouble and would possibly die in the next few hours (after performing first aid) you decide to try the escape anyway.

What is a good strategy to escape the cave in order to get help for the guide in trouble?

Note: The question is less about the guide in danger, rather about possible strategies to navigate back. "Stay where you are" is a valid answer if you hope for rescue.

A second similar scenario is: You were beamed by an evil villain into a cave unknown to you. You have a light source, a compass and a map of the cave. The cave has an exit. You want to get out.

What else would you need to get out of the cave? How would you plan your escape? How would you try to locate yourself and navigate to an exit?

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    If you truly don’t know the way out, you stay put and care for the guide. Otherwise you could make a ‘straightforward ‘ cave rescue into a cave search before a rescue.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 12:31
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    I agree with @JonCuster here, which is applicable to cave diving when the line is damaged so you cannot follow it back out. If you're with an experienced guide, then the guide would have given notice to someone of time when you're due back etc. if these conditions are for any reason missed they'll send out a rescue party, which will need you to be on the route expected.
    – Aravona
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 12:41
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    Stay where you are is definitely a valid answer if you hope for rescue. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 12:53
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    Apart from needing to be able to find the guide again, this is an old chestnut. If a rescue party is making a thorough search, and the target is also moving, they might never find the target. If you stay still, an exhaustive search will find you. Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 13:25
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    My first bit of advice for trekking through caves multiple miles below the surface, is to ask this question prior to doing it a couple times. The second would be to assume from the beginning that the guide will have a fatal accident and be prepared to retrace your steps.
    – mreff555
    Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 23:17

3 Answers 3


Assuming you have no way of safely and reliably leaving the cave to get help, your first priority is not to become a casualty yourself as well.

Even if the Guide needs urgent medical attention, it would take an appreciable amount of time for the first members of the cave rescue team to arrive on site and then to locate you and the Guide in the cave, so there is no such thing as the "Golden Hour" in cave rescue normally.

Even if you have the means to navigate (as you have said a map and compass) unless you know precisely where you are to begin with and have a reasonable amount of caving experience, then these would be of little help in a complicated cave system.

The best thing to do is remain with the Guide until help arrives and provide as much assistance to the Guide as you can, such as placing him/her in the Recovery Position, keep an eye on their airway and breathing and provide as much insulation as possible.


Get lucky

If you don't know where the exit is, getting out of a cave is a matter of luck. If you have watched T.V. you have seen people using a flame to check for a breeze, but in reality, there is no guarantee that one way or the other will lead to an exit you can use.

You might follow the water, but again you have no idea if the water coming in or out of the cave will lead to an exit you can use.

You can try always turning left or right at intersections, but you might start in exactly the wrong direction, or you might miss a hidden side tunnel.

If there is any chance that rescue is coming, then waiting is your best choice. If no chance of rescue, pick whatever makes you feel most lucky.

  • 3
    As far as I am ever aware, the turn X only works in a maze (hand on wall follow wall out even if you end up going down a dead end style looping around...) plus with some cave networks (Wookey Hole / Cheddar Gorge are great examples) they go on forever, definitely "get lucky" +1
    – Aravona
    Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 14:50
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    Hand on wall won't work if it is the wall of an "island". Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 15:17
  • Hand on wall won't work if the cave is 3-dimensional.
    – anatolyg
    Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 13:22

If someone is seriously hurt deep in a cave, and only hours away from dying, chances are they are going to die.

You have a map, but do you know how to read it? Cave maps don't read like a topo map, because they aren't mapping a planar surface. Caves can be just as much vertical as they are horizontal, with caverns zig-zagging and crossing over and under each other. If you don't know how to read a cave map you could end up leading yourself to a 100m deep pot with no way of getting across it to the caverns on the other side.

Caves are the most inaccessible areas on Earth. Depending on the cave, if you get seriously hurt, rescue can be nearly impossible. There are people who have died in caves and had to be extracted in pieces (with family permission) because their bodies couldn't be maneuvered through tight sections of the cave. Other caves have been blasted in order to widen sections and make room for a stretcher (random tip - keep your mouth open and your ears plugged when in a cave during a blast or you'll rupture your ear drums). Cave rescues are LONG, slow and very involved. Your guide's best bet for survival is if someone stays with them and keeps them warm and stable, they could be there for a couple days before rescue arrives, if a rescue is possible.

If they do die, and you don't know how to get out, then your best option is to stay put and wait for help to arrive. A good guide would have informed someone about their planned entry and exit times, and will check in when they exit the cave. They will also have a response plan in place in the event they don't exit the cave within a prescribed amount of time, which would initiate a search.

If you aren't confident you can find your way out of a cave, then there's a good chance you'll manage to get yourself terribly lost in the attempt. The exit to a cave isn't always the most obvious, or easiest route. If you know how to read a map and have a good amount of common sense, then you can probably retrace your steps.

If you magically land in a cave and have to find your way out, there is no secret to escape, just read your map, be safe, don't take any unnecessary risks, and make sure you can get back to your starting point if you need to.

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