Tips for Sleeping in Caves from Israel McDaniel

For two decades ending in the 1940′s, a man named Israel McDaniel lived in an Ozark cave. I had the opportunity to visit his place of residence about 30 years ago.

I had to climb about 50 feet up a bramble-covered bluff to get to the opening. I saw Israel’s name carved in the rocks, complete with the dates during which he’d been in residence. I saw his old hearth, which vented naturally so he didn’t asphyxiate, and what appeared to be some tables and benches he’d hacked out of the limestone.

It’s a true story and in fact the local rural electric company installed a power pole by his cave so Israel could have a light bulb or two. The pole and insulator were still there when I saw the joint.

Now, to my way of thinking, living in a dripping, limestone cave in the Ozarks would be a pretty damp and chilly existence, but apparently Israel liked it. I imagine the mortgage payments were cheap (as in zero) and I’d bet he shot, caught and grew most of his own vittles. I won’t attempt to conjecture why a guy would want to spend a couple of decades living in a cave but over the years, I’ve discovered that people have their own reasons for doing their own things. From the tales I was told, old Israel got along just fine in his cave and as long as a body is happy more often than they’re sad, they fit my criteria for having lived a pretty successful life. To hell with what other people might think.

Not everybody would choose to set up housekeeping in a cave, but they can be a dandy place to camp or escape the elements if you’re way out in the sticks. Before deciding to park yourself in a cave, however, there are a few basic rules you should keep in mind.

Avoid Mines
Don’t confuse old mines with caves. Mines are dangerous as all get-out; timbers rot and cave-ins are common. A lot of old mines weren’t build that well to begin with.

Check the “No Vacancy” Sign
Caves are often frequented by everything from rattlers, snakes, bugs and  bears to coons, porcupines and big cats. These guys do not take kindly to trespassing. Check a cave out carefully and slowly before setting yourself up for the night/week/month.

Don’t Drown
Some caves double as drainage funnels and if a flash flood happens to hit in the middle of the night, you could wake up in a river. It’s really embarrassing to have to tell people you drowned in a flooded cave so look for high-water marks, debris, and other signs that your cave isn’t a part time downspout.

Remember the “Two-Zone” Rule A cave generally has two main parts:  The “Twilight” section up front, and the part that is pitch black (deep in the back). The aforementioned critters will hang out in the “Twilight” zone (usually).

Don’t Suffocate
Once you’ve decided that a cave has the needed amenities (no bears or skunks, regular maid service, satellite TV) check to see if it’s got decent air. Walk around a bit with a candle or lantern. If the flame dies out, you’ve entered an oxygen-deficient zone (perhaps due to rotten vegetation, dead critters, etc). If it smells like a sewer then common sense should tell you to find better lodgings.

Flame On
It’s usually best to build your fire right outside the cave entrance, rather than inside the cave. For one thing, you won’t want to smoke yourself out. Another consideration is bat guano. Inadvertently building a fire on top of a pile of bat guano is a bad idea since it’s extremely combustible (Bat guano used to be mined for its nitrates for use in gunpowder).

Watch Your Step
It’s best not to explore a deep cave alone. Wear a hard hat and bring plenty of reliable flashlights. Banging your forehead into ledges in a black-as-midnight cave hurts like the dickens. Also, you never know when your next step might drop you into a pit or a pool of freezing water. I managed to pull a couple of these stunts when I was young and stupid; now that I’m older, I’d solve the problem by having someone else take the lead.