Cave Surveying: Map Making in Mammoth Cave

Isabel crawling on hands and feet through a tube-shaped cave passage

Cave Surveying: Map Making in Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave National Park is well known for being the longest known cave system on Earth, but it hasn’t always held that title. Many cave explorers throughout the past were consumed by the beauty and wonders of Mammoth Cave and greatly contributed to the addition of known cave passages. As word of the Mammoth system grew, so did the attraction of visitors who sought to create a map of the cave passages. Some simply provide insight to which passages were known when, but none published had critically considered spatial accuracy until 1908. Max Kämper, a German engineer, was guided by Ed Bishop during an eight-month period of surveying the known cave. Through Kämper and Bishops efforts, great discoveries such as Violet City arose. The final map Kämper produced was the first to record differences in the depth of passages, one important detail to assist in underground exploration. The Kämper map was used for many years prior to the formation of the Cave Research Foundation (CRF) in the early 1940’s. This group grew from cave explorers and researchers, with support from the National Speleological Society (NSS), who both strive to aid in cave exploration and resource conservation.

In the present day, the Cave Research Foundation works rigorously to create detailed maps of cave passages, assist researchers interested in the cave, and preserve and protect cave resources. To be clear, Mammoth Cave is not the only cave system explored by CRF, but this is where CRF entangled roots throughout the underground passages.

Digitally enhanced version of Max Kämper map (provided by MACA, National Park Service))

During my 12-week internship, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with caving. Two weeks after beginning my work at Mammoth Cave National Park, I was invited on my first cave expedition to survey a passage with the Cave Research Foundation. It was on this trip that I was first exposed to the surveying techniques used in cave passages. Point-to-point surveying underground allows data regarding the relationship between points along the cave passage to be mapped by a cartographer on the surface. I’d like to highlight the field surveying positions I’ve been able to serve as thus far.

Field methods

An example of point-to-point surveying within a cave passage ( MACA, National Park Service).


There are three main positions for a mapping team: front point, instrument reader, and the sketcher. I’ve been able to learn front point and how to read the instruments, and I hope to sketch passages with CRF soon. As front point, I chose a new station or ‘point’ on a suitable rock, then used flagging to label the station accordingly. There are many conditions necessary to consider when choosing a station, but I won’t detail those here. Front point is also responsible for pulling a measuring tape along from point-to-point, this is used for distance measurements as well as visually assisting the sketcher. 

The instrument reader stands at the point behind the newest and reads the azimuth (measures horizontal direction) and the clinometer (measures vertical angle). This position and the sketcher both require great listening skills, to ensure the data is recorded properly. Passage dimensions are recorded at each station as well, which the sketcher incorporates into the survey sketch. 

Example of a detailed cave passage map (Cave Research Foundation 2008, image provided by MACA, National Park Service).

I wanted to add a section to this blog post regarding cave equipment (‘what’s in my bag’ style) but I feel much more passionate writing about cave surveying. Gear is also subjective so it’s best to complete your own research.

If you also find yourself curious about crawly holes in a cave, check out the Cave Research Foundation website and head over to the National Speleological Society webpage to find a caving club near you.

I have found my deep love for caving here at Mammoth Cave National Park and made a new life goal to continue assisting in cave exploration. I must thank Rick Toomey and Elizabeth Winkler for guiding me through the first cave passages I had the pleasure of crawling through. As well as my supervisor, Terry Langford, for allowing me to participate in nearly every cave trip I was asked to join. I’d also like to thank the Mosaics in Science / Environment for the Americas supervisors for providing this opportunity that has allowed me to become submersed in the world of cave exploration, and for guidance throughout the internship, while enriching my mind with my main paleontology project and various surveying opportunities.


CRF website:


NSS website:

Isabel sat on a cave floor, searching for spiders.
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