Salamander Caving Gear Review
In preparation for an expedition to a cave in northern Mexico, I entered the market for a caving suit. After bouncing between a few, I decided to contact Salamander Caving Gear about theirs. When the Salamander Chameleon suit first arrived, it exuded quality worksmanship and thought; clearly the brainchild of experienced cavers. It’s no coincidence that Mary Rose, owner of Salamander Caving Gear, is an accomplished caver, having taken part in numerous expeditions around the world. The legs, elbows, and bum are all covered in ballistic nylon, providing tough reinforcement for areas in constant contact with the cave. Elsewhere, a quality nylon with just enough spandex to allow stretch is present. The suit is loaded with 5 pockets; 2 thigh, two chest, and one large map pocket across the left breast. While overall I was visibly impressed, two worries that I did have right off the bat were that the suit seemed bulky overall, particularly in the waist, and that the pocket zippers seemed light duty considering how much mud would surely be ground into them. So I took the Salamander suit on a pre-expedition jaunt to Deep and Punkin caves in the Carta Valley of Texas; and I was not disappointed. These two classic caves offer vertical work, walking, crawling, and belly sliding, along with a healthy portion of mud and sand of course. I worked the zippers constantly and took every opportunity to attempt to roughen up the suit in narrow squeezes and slides. The result? Not even a little bit of fuzz on the suit and no complaints from me. I immediately saw the pockets and built in hood as an advantage. The zip-off and tuck in arms? Genius. I was able to do laps up in down the 60 foot Punkin Drop on a warm Texas day without overheating. I also thought the suit may be a bit constricting: nope. The nylon/spandex blend and generous fit allow for complete freedom of movement! Satisfied, I headed back to College Station, Texas to prepare for the true test. The mountains of Mexico offer a remarkable contrast. A stunning beauty from afar is replaced with a brutal landscape up close. The limestone- razor sharp. The weather- bipolar. The flora- wants to stab you. Was the Salamander suit up for it?
Pozo de Montemayor is located near the town of Bustamante in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. We camped on the amazing Rancho Minas Viejas, an old mining area at about 4,000 feet of elevation. The owners’ grandson, Nico Escamilla, is a well-known expedition caver and was happy to share his family’s ranch with us to re-visit the cave. The cave was originally mapped and explored for about 5 years in the 1990’s. The advent of the Cartel Wars in Mexico stymied further exploration, but 8 question marks on the map, as well as the loss of the original survey data, was enough to head back with a team of cavers from Texas, Arizona, and Colorado, all led by Matt Zappitello of Austin, Texas. Under Matt’s leadership, we descended into Pozo de Montemayor to push the terminus of the previous explorations, identify new leads, and re-gather the survey data to produce a new map of the cave.
The cave is intense. A total of 9 drops (thus far) and 1 climb place Pozo de Montemayor at almost 1,600 feet underground; the second deepest cave in Nuevo Leon currently. The immense hauling of gear down huge drops, a lack of electricity and water, and the remote location (over an hour from the nearest form of civilization) make mounting an expedition (or rescue) difficult to say the least. Undeterred, we began on November 23rd, intent on spending a week in Montemayor.
The utility of the Salamander suit was recognized immediately and constantly lauded by the team. On approach, the suit could be worn as pants, which made wading through the spiny landscape much more bearable. Once in the cave however, the suit performed relentlessly. While mostly dry for the first 250 feet or so, the cave quickly becomes wet and cold afterward. The stowable hood and arms were perfect for this. While not fully waterproof, the suit shed the majority of water dripping on me and dried insanely fast. The hood is waterproof however, fits easily over a helmet, and does a fantastic job of keeping your noggin dry and comfortable. I always rappelled fully donned and simply stowed the arms on ascent. My job was on the rigging team, led by Fernando Hernandez, also of Austin, Texas. In this capacity, the suit took a beating as we worked feverishly ahead of the survey team, anchoring all the drops and placing re-belays where necessary.
The thigh pockets were excellent for storing both old hardware we removed from the cave and new bolts we were placing, as well as wrenches and pliers. The chest pockets were great for keeping snacks and my sketch book easily accessible. When space allowed, a cell phone serving as a stereo blared Ratatat and Alt-j to complement our drilling. The bottom of the cave was very sandy and dirty, requiring much chimneying and sliding that dirtied up the suit quickly. Despite this, the suit’s zippers still performed and the Velcro fasteners held tight. Once on ascent, I just stowed the arms and climbed, and the suit did a remarkable good job of not feeling to hot or stuffy. At one particularly extended delay, I was one of the warmest people on the crew, thanks to the nice extra layer afforded to be by the suit. The amazing part of the suit came at the end of the day, however. Being able to just step out of the suit and be squeaky clean (albeit wet) was incredible. The suits Velcro cinches on the arms and legs ensure dirt stays well out, meaning you can jump in the car looking like you’re ready to hit the town… just not a nice town (given the smell).
Upon my return to College Station following the trip, I got my money’s worth at the local laundromat as water the color of chocolate milk churned in the window of the washer. The greatest of all was removing the Salamander Chameleon suit and having it look like it did the day Mary sent it to me. Not a thread out of place and looking brand new.
One feature I did not use on this trip was the Velcro knee pad holders. Located on the outside of the suit, these clever additions allow the user to slide kneed pads into fitted pockets on the outside of the suit that Velcro shut. As soon as I got home, I cut up old wetsuit fragments to fit these pockets. I used them again at Airman’s cave in Austin, Texas, a crawling intensive cave, and they worked great! No need to get a chaffy, sticky, sliding-all-over-the-place knee pad! The fitted pocket makes sure they stay in place with no adjustment and the 5 mil suit fragments I used provided plenty of cushion for the mushin. As it happens, Salamander does produce custom fit cushions for these pockets, for only 15$.
The only downside of the suit I found is probably specific to me. I sewed my own harness for caving, and it is fit to my size. This made it difficult to don the suit, as the bunching of fabric around the waist necessitated much wiggling. I tried the suit on with a friends GGG harness and the process was totally normal. Given that once a harness is on, it tends to stay on, and since the suit was so fantastic, this minor annoyance faded out of mind almost completely however. While the suit was a tad baggy on me (I got a small and I’m 5’9, 135lbs) it never inhibited crawling or squeezing through some very tight restrictions. The streamlined suit has no catch points and the tough fabric slides right across sharp edges and ragged surfaces.
Fit- B (only because it was slightly baggy)
Overall, the Salamander Chameleon suit is an excellent piece of gear. Suits are the kind of thing you never think you need until you own one. Once you do, it becomes indispensable. The well thought out, well-built Chameleon suit combines performance with durability to make this an indispensable piece of equipment for all types of caving. So whether you’re tired of trashing the Goodwill clothes or need a suit that’ll get you through demanding work, check out the Chameleon. You won’t be let down!
A good knee-pad is hard to come by. Any piece of gear that you bind tightly to yourself for an extended period of time will grow uncomfortable and will work its way loose after enough movement. These are things that can only be minimized it seems, and never fully solved. However, the Salamander Gecko pads seemed to me to be as close as it gets. After having gone through my fair share of pads, it was great to have a pair that did work! I went with the full sized shin pads to help minimize the beating my legs would take on crawls and was not let down. The pads are ridiculously comfortable! Made of ½ inch thick neoprene padding with 1680 denier ballistic nylon on the exterior, these pads provide amazing protection for your knees and shins. With comfortable 3mm neoprene straps coated with hefty Velcro to provide quick on and off, these pads also feel great, even after some of the 13-14 hours pushes we were making. I wore the pads over my chameleon suit and they were simply awesome: they stayed in place, never chaffed, and provided more than enough protection for my legs. However, after almost two days, the Velcro did become a bit clogged and the top fasteners would not hold. Cleaning the fasteners was simple given the water in the cave, and after a quick brush they were back to new in no time! I began to move them under my suit after this which totally removed the problem, and even on bare skin, the Gecko Shin Pads were very comfy! Just like the Chameleon suit, I simply threw them in the wash when I was done and they look so new, I bet Mary won’t believe I used them.
Fastening System: B (because the Velcro could be an issue in very muddy situations)