Mine Exploring Safety and Equipment

Common sense goes a long way in mines.  Being aware of your surroundings and behaving in a calm manner is critical.  Methodological exploration will allow you to process what you see and also be in tune with the mine environment.  The following is a list of do's and don'ts for mine exploring and includes a list of essential equipment.

  • Don't drink or do drugs:  Drinking alcohol or taking drugs is a sure fire recipe for disaster and should never be done inside a mine or before entering a mine.
  • Be in good condition:  Exploring mines is both physically and mentally demanding.  You must be in good condition and prepared for walking, crawling, climbing and sliding.
  • Use the buddy system:  Never explore alone and always make sure someone knows where you are and who to call if you're overdue.
  • Don't Touch:  Touching or grabbing support structures or timbers should always be avoided.  These wooden beams may look solid but many have been in place for decades.  In many cases, they may be the only thing holding the back up.  Also avoid picking at the ribs or back.  Removing one rock can be all it takes to cause a collapse.
  • Watch where you're walking:  Always be on the lookout for winzes and watch out for false floors.  These are winzes covered with timbers (and often dirt and rocks) that can give way when walked on.  Listen for a change in sound or a flexing of the floor.  If you discover you're on a false floor, get off or walk near the edges if you must pass by.
  • Location, Location, Location:  Keep track of where you are in the mine and which way is out.  Many mines are straightforward but some have confusing drifts and stopes which can easily disorient even experienced explorers.  Fluorescent vinyl contractors tape is an excellent way to mark your trail (as long as you collect it on your way out).  Avoid using spray paint to mark your path as this defaces the mine and also releases chemicals into the air that are harmful to breathe.
  • Avoid crushed or collapsing areas:  Over time the weight of overlying rock can cause mine sections to collapse or be crushed down from their original height.  These areas are extremely unstable and should be avoided.
  • Air:  Always be aware of the nature of the air in the mine.  Bad air can incapacitate you before you even realize what's happening.  Be on the lookout for dank musty smelling areas with no air flow and drifts with large amounts of dust on the floor.  If you feel short of breath or any other adverse physical symptoms get out of the area right away.
  • Have the proper equipment:  Having the right gear is crucial to a safe mine exploring trip.  There are simply no shortcuts here.  If you don't have the proper equipment, don't go in the mine.
    • Helmet:  A proper helmet should have a chin strap and anchors for securing a headlamp.  Climbing and caving helmets are best.  Some explorers use skateboard or kayak helmets but these can make light attachment challenging.  Hard hats work but can easily fall off and be lost and are not suitable for vertical exploring.
    • Headlamp:  A good quality headlamp is essential.  LED based lights are preferred for their low battery consumption and shockproof construction.  Quality lights are recommended over inexpensive hardware store models.  A backup headlamp is strongly recommended although it does not have to be the same as the primary light.  Almost any decent headlamp will do as a backup and several companies make very compact models specifically for this purpose.
    • Flashlight:  A small, bright and good quality handheld flashlight can be very useful for closer examination of distant mine features.  Several discount retailers such as Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Costco sell bright LED flashlights for reasonable prices.
    • Spare batteries:  Spare batteries for all your flashlights are a must.  Even with a backup light things can go wrong and the last thing anyone wants is to try and find their way out of a mine in total darkness.
    • Proper clothing:  The correct clothing is essential for a comfortable and safe mine exploring experience.  Mines often assume the average surface temperature.  Most western mines vary between 50 and 60 Fahrenheit.  Parts of the mine near the surface or with numerous openings may be much colder or hotter depending on the current outside ambient temperature.  Comfortable but rugged clothing which offers freedom of movement is ideal.  Loose blue jeans, cargo pants or military BDU "camo" pants are often employed.  T-shirts or sweatshirts work well and can be layered to deal with changing conditions.  Proper footwear is critical.  Solid boots with lug soles and excellent ankle support will serve you well inside the mine and while hiking in and out.  A good pair of gloves completes the list.
    • Food and water:  Dehydration can be a real problem in the dry and physically demanding mine environment.  Carry at least one liter of water, more if you are able.  A hydration style backpack is the best method.  Food is also very important.  Lunch and non-perishable energy bars work well for both planned meals and emergencies.
    • First aid kit:  Injuries in a mine can have serious consequences due to the difficulty in getting out and the remote locations typical of most mines.  Antiseptic, bandages and pain killer are a must.  Another good item to carry is a Mylar "Space" blanket or bag.  This can prevent an injured person from going into shock.
    • Emergency gear:  Besides a first aid kit, there are several things you can carry to help in an emergency.  Unexpired chemical glow sticks are critical.  A loud whistle, compass and signaling mirror are also recommended.  A Leatherman style multi-tool can be very useful as well.
    • Other gear:  Besides the essentials listed above, there are a number of other items which are very useful for mine exploring.  A gas detector can save your life but requires a significant monetary investment.  Carbon monoxide and low oxygen are probably the most important gases to keep track of in hard rock mines.  Knee and elbow pads will make your experience much more comfortable.  A camera (that you don't mind getting dirty and possibly broken) is very nice to record your adventure.  A GPS receiver is handy for navigating to and from a mine and also finding your way if you exit the mine someplace other than where you entered.  If you are going to exploring mines with vertical or inclined shafts, proper climbing gear is essential.  This includes harnesses, descenders, ascenders, proper rope, carabiners, daisy chains, slings and webbing.  Vertical exploring should only be undertaken by those experienced with working on ropes in a technical environment.

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