Yes, it is totally dark inside a cave. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. If your lights malfunctioned, you would likely die of dehydration or hypothermia unless someone came looking for you. Negotiating a cave without lights, with all of its obstacles, is nearly impossible in the dark.
No. Unless a snake happened to fall into a cave entrance, you would never see a snake in a cave. Snakes are cold blooded, and caves in the eastern U.S. are too cold for them.
Yes. The number of bats varies a lot from cave to cave. Most caves have at least a few, and some have thousands. Bats are the only life form that you are likely to see in a cave, other than insects and people.
Cavers in the Washington, D.C., area most often visit caves in the easternmost counties of West Virginia, including Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, Greenbriar, and Monroe counties. In fact, this is one of the best caving areas in the United States. There are also caves in the Shenandoah Valley, but they tend to be smaller. Another good caving area within a weekend’s drive is the Tennessee-Alabama- Georgia tri-state area, or TAG, as it is known to cavers.
Generally, by word of mouth: Cavers visit caves with other cavers who been there before. Most caves in the East are on private property, and it is essential to know whom to ask for permission. Also, the entrances can be difficult to find, and route finding inside the cave can be challenging.
The absolute essentials are three sources of light, one of which is helmet-mounted to keep your hands free, and a helmet. The helmet protects your head when you bang it into the ceiling. A construction-type hardhat will work, but a rock-climbing helmet is the best, since it will protect your head in a fall. A biking helmet will also work in a pinch. A decent pair of boots with good traction is essential as well. You will also need a small pack to hold water, snacks, and extra lights and batteries.
Caves in the eastern U.S. are about 55 degrees F. The humidity is between 50% and 100%. Caves can have flowing water, drips, sprays, and wet and muddy walls and floors. Any clothing that you wear into a cave is likely to receive permanent brown stains. Back in the 1970s, denim was common attire for caving, but cotton is not ideal because it gets heavy and loses its insulating properties when it gets wet, and is slow to dry. Better would be tough synthetic clothing such as military fatigues and polypro underwear.
Experienced cavers in the Northeast wear nylon coveralls made for caving and polypro underwear. Gloves are important too. The best have waterproof gripping surfaces.
What’s the deal with white nose syndrome (WNS)?
WNS is a fungal infection that has decimated bat populations in the northeastern U.S. Bats spread the disease from cave to cave. It may be be possible for humans to do so as well, but that has not been proven either way. There are protocols for decontaminating your gear if you are moving from an area with WNS to an area without WNS. The U.S. Forest Service closed all of the caves on USFS-managed land in the East when WNS was spreading rapidly, but never reopened them. As a result, the caves on federal land in the East are closed to visitation.