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I have found a rather large series of underground caverns in Minecraft, and have come close to becoming fatally lost several times. What are some best practices in making sure I get back to familiar territory? I have the compass but since it points to my original respawn point it's not terribly useful. What tactics are employed to make sure you can explore deep caverns and still make it home in one piece?

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+1 for fatally lost; been there, done that. –  Rapida Apr 10 '11 at 20:50
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I've read that you can set your spawn point by sleeping in a bed. However, the compass WILL NOT point to your bed until you die and respawn at your bed. –  John the Green Apr 17 '11 at 4:13
    
@John > My spawn point hasn't reset. This might only work if you started a new world after the update. –  ElfSlice Apr 18 '11 at 16:37
    
@Gnome: I just tested it. Started a new world, set the spawn to a bed, spawned from there, and disappointingly the compass still pointed to my original spawn. I wonder if we're doing something wrong. –  John the Green Apr 18 '11 at 17:57
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@Gnome: I'm stumped. :/ –  John the Green Apr 21 '11 at 3:53

19 Answers 19

up vote 51 down vote accepted

There are a number of spelunking techniques that lead to successful navigation and tracking while wandering underground. As with anything in minecraft, you'll want the right tools for the job:

tools

  1. bow+arrows (sword optional)
  2. food
  3. torches/raw wood
  4. a bunch of stone shovels/pickaxes
  5. iron/diamond pickaxe for rare ores
  6. steadfast resolve in the face of impending lava, and/or water bucket

I put the bow and arrows first as they're really the most important for surviving caves in minecraft, killing enemies at a distance will significantly reduce the amount of damage you take, which will allow you to go further, although food will help in the event that you get hurt.

Torches are key, you'll need lots. I usually pack 64 and make more from wood when I find coal veins.

stone shovels and pickaxes are just for regular old digging, and you'll need to do a bunch of that to get through the steeper jumps

As far as directions go there are a number of simple tricks to being able to find your way around.

lost & found

  1. Right/Left-wall rule – Follow the right walls while traveling into a cave, and you'll be able to do a 180 and follow the left walls to find your way out. This is a tedious rule to follow, but is one of the simplest rules for new adventurers to adhere to. As an extension of the rule, place your torches on the same side, and you'll have a better idea of whether you're going into or out of the caves.
  2. Signs – Signs used to take up a bunch of inventory space because they didn't stack. But they are stackable now, and they make for great posts for spots that are particularly confusing, especially when you find yourself at a 7-way junction that goes every direction but up.
  3. Arrows – Not the arrows for your bow, simply arrows made out of blocks, use dirt/gravel/cobblestone to make → in the walls or ground. Have fun and make a 3D floating arrow in the middle of the path, it'll be much more visible than a sign, and can be a useful way of getting rid of some of the materials that you've no doubt collected on your journey.
  4. Torch Patterns – use torches to make patterns to give you clues as to which way to go. Simple designs like ..: can be used to point the way in or out (make up your mind before you go in so that you're not confusing yourself with inconsistent signage.
  5. Drilling – If you've got a particularly deep system of caves that double-back and overlap, "drill" some 1x1 ladder holes or 2x2 staircases in any location. They're convenient fast-access points to the surface or other tunnels. As long as you can find your way back to the surface, you're bound to be able to get back to your home.
  6. Clean-up – If you've got a lot of time to burn, and you really want to be able to get home in one piece, dig out the tunnels so that they follow a nice pattern with decent lights and stairs.
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+10 for the right/left-wall rule alone; I have used this policy successfully since the day this question was answered. Kudos!! –  fbrereto Mar 20 '12 at 16:19
    
I would add block patterns... I use a block of sand with a torch on top to mark places that I need to further explore. I also put blocks across the path at eye level to mark empty caves that have no more to offer. –  Chris Nava Aug 21 '12 at 5:34
    
@ChrisNava, did you read #3? I suppose I said "arrows" specifically, but it was meant generically. –  zzzzBov Aug 21 '12 at 13:20
    
Oops.. I read that as part of torch patterns... Doh! –  Chris Nava Aug 22 '12 at 2:12
    
Definitely, dig up. Unless you're in the Nether, you're never really lost: Just build a spiral staircase to the surface. –  SF. Jul 12 '13 at 10:16

The technique I usually use when exploring a large tunnel network is:

  • Always place torches on the left side of the tunnel when moving forward. When I'm back-tracking I keep the line of torches to my right.

  • Keep a full stack of dirt blocks in case I'm hopelessly lost and just need to tunnel up to the surface.

  • If I enter a large cavern with multiple exits, I'll mark the tunnel I came in from with a few blocks of dirt (assuming the cavern is mostly stone).

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+1 for "Always torch on the same side" and another theoretical +1 for "Use dirt to mark your way". I actually put dirt "arrows" in the floor and on the walls to mark the way back to my main shaft. Seems like I always have tons of dirt lying around (I always mine out dirt when I see it, because it's super quick, and there are often exposed minerals behind it. I only mine deep, so it's not much of a waste of time for the occasional gold/redstone vein). –  Satanicpuppy Apr 11 '11 at 20:31
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stinks when you're going up and you hit water.. or worse lava! –  xaxxon Nov 5 '11 at 1:02
    
@xaxxon: Make a 1x1 hole up and put down ladders as soon as you dig another block. This is a bit slower, but lets you not care much about lava or water - they don't enter the space where the ladders are anyway, so can't drown/burn you. –  Martin Sojka Aug 21 '12 at 5:44

If you place cobblestone on the floor and look at the top, you should be able to see a L-shape (only with the original texture pack.) If the L is the correct orientation you are facing North

Cobblestone texture with the L-shape in the bottom-left

If you saw this texture then you would be facing North. This can help you keep orientation if you know which way you are suposed to be heading.

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He said he already has the compass, hence this suggestion is completely pointless. –  Lohoris Apr 10 '11 at 11:00
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@Lo'oris Only if the place he is trying to get to is the spawn point, if not then knowing where the spawn is isn't helpful. He even says: I have the compass but since it points to my original respawn point it's not terribly useful. –  Ronan Forman Apr 10 '11 at 11:30
    
I have to agree with @Ronan (although he needs to rotate the picture 90 degrees :) I definitely use the block markings to find North a lot, for things like placing underground water ladders, etc, where direction matters. Even having a compass, it can be a pain to figure out where I am in relation to my spawnpoint sometimes - blocks are easier. –  Cyclops Apr 10 '11 at 13:07
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Ah, "I have to agree with X" = "I agree with X". Just a figure of speech, not sure what you thought it meant. –  Cyclops Apr 10 '11 at 15:51
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Absolutely useless answer to this question, but that's a terrific tidbit of knowledge that I did not know! I'm going to be using that a lot now! Thanks! –  chandsie Apr 21 '11 at 14:41

If you have explored a region and found it to be a dead-end, and stripped it of all interesting resources, block it off — either build a wall or mark it in a way you will easily recognize. In this way you can reduce T-junctions to straight lines, and block off entire branching cave systems (by reducing them to lines and then blocking that line) once they're uninteresting, making fewer opportunities to get lost. It may even help you explore your way to the exit if you're already lost.

Of course, this doesn't help if the cave system contains loops. But if you know the shape of one loop, you can choose to block it off at one point since you know another path to the other side, and thus continue.

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If you're not averse to changing your texture pack, this can be a great solution. Alternate texture packs will change the look of your paintings as well as the rest of your textures. For example, the PieHole texture pack transforms some of your 2x1 signs into these directional arrows:

Directional Signage


The texture pack also comes with some good paintings for marking dangerous areas:

Warning Signage


Pros:

  • Unlike signs, paintings can stack in your inventory, meaning you can carry as many of them as you like without filling up your entire inventory.
  • These bright, & colourful 'paintings' are much easier to identify than standard signs, and don't require you to read them.

Cons:

  • You may not want to change your texture pack.
  • Paintings are randomly selected when placed, so it might take you a few tries to get the one you want. A trick to speed this up is to temporarily build around the spot you want to place your painting in; this will limit the selection of paintings that can randomly appear to the ones that can fit inside the resultant shape.

EDIT:

As Kevin Y pointed out to me, if you really don't want to change your entire texture pack, you can simply edit the paintings in the default texture pack. This will retain all of the standard textures, while letting you switch to 'custom' paintings.

If you're unsure how to edit your textures, you can read about it here.

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+1, I don't know why I never thought of this. Also, if you prefer the default texture pack or a different one you're currently using, you could alter the paintings in the .png yourself and still keep the other graphics the same. –  Kevin Y Apr 10 '11 at 22:29
    
can I convince you to propose this question as a Question of the Week? ;-) –  Ivo Flipse Apr 15 '11 at 17:22

Carry a few picks. If you get lost you can use them to tunnel back up with. The few times it's happened to me I cut stairs rather than a vertical shaft so the opening would remain in case I wanted to go back down.

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+1 for diggin your way to the top! –  Allov Mar 20 '12 at 13:48

There are some good suggestions, but a couple useful tricks are missing so I'll add them. The most certain way of knowing where you are (particularly if accuracy becomes important) is to use the coordinate system. Hit F3 and you get a HUD (Heads Up Display) which displays coordinates. Note down coordinates for places you know, and learn which direction they increase/decrease in, and no matter where you go you can find your way back there. It's worth noting that for some reason the Y coordinate is up/down instead of Z.

Another tip for exploring large caves is to set up totem poles at entrances to branches you've finished exploring. Place a stack of blocks 2 or 3 high with a torch on the front. Effectively blocking off places you're done with drastically reduces wandering/lost time.

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+1 for the HUD recommendation- I was hoping for a "GPS" at some point... I guess it's already in there! –  fbrereto Apr 15 '11 at 17:56

I have a habit of digging long, straight lines. I will place torches on the floor, instead of on the wall at important junctures, such as my stairs up. If worst comes to worst, I dig upwards.

When exploring caves, I will place torches on the right wall when walking around. If I need a torch on the left, I will place it on the floor. This way, I can see which way I was walking. If I want to find my way out, I can just keep the wall mounted torches to my left.

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Nice idea about the floor, instead of the opposite wall. –  theorise Apr 21 '11 at 14:39

I use a variation on torch placement:

  • FYI you can mount torches on walls (left, right) or on the floor
  • For normal lighting purposes, always put torches on walls
  • Only mount torches on the floor when you're near the exit
  • Mount additional 'floor torches' when you're within eyesight of another 'floor torch'

Thus any time you see a floor torch you should be able to stand on it and look around and find the next floor torch, and so on, back to the exit. It's like a breadcrumb trail.

Alternatively, if you have a lot of redstone, use redstone torches as the 'floor torch'.

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I use redstone to indicate a direction to an exit. A redstone torch or wire can be seen from a pretty good distance and nothing else looks like it. You'll run into endless amounts of redstone while exploring so that shouldn't be a problem

If you want to specify a direction, consider an "Arrow" with the torch as the head and redstone wire as the tail. Just go in the direction it points.

Other hints:

When exploring a large cave system I bring the following at a minimum:

  • A stack of wood--You can make anything you'll need but food with this and it's worth 4 stacks of planks.
  • A stack of wheat (The only stackable food)
  • A full bucket of water.

If you get damaged, wall yourself in, create a workbench and make some bread from the wheat.

If you see ANY free lava, dump the water bucket out on a tile next to the water. It will wash over the lava and turn it into obsidian, then scoop the water back up--repeat until all the lava is gone. Lava may be pretty but once you've died 10 or 20 times loosing stacks of diamonds each time, you'll realize the wisdom of doing it this way.

Don't dig straight up or straight down.

Fully light everything. You should be running a coal surplus anyway so just throw torches everywhere. this A) lets you know Very Clearly where you have and haven't been, and B) stops monsters from spawning.

If you run out of coal, make a small tree farm and start creating charcoal by using planks to cook wood.

If you have a HUGE cave system and you create a base of operations, I suggest you build a tree-farm there. At least one or two 3x3 areas of dirt with a torch in the center and saplings planted around it with the ceiling cleared as high as you can reach. The thing about this is it's Amazingly Visible--you can glance it from far far away because nothing else in the caves is green like that. Also you can replentish that wood supply and stay down longer.

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+1. Making bases of operation (my signage calls them "Workshops"), carrying lots of wheat and wood, lighting everything, and a tree farm for big delves—these are invaluable. As a bonus, when you have workshops all over, you can use signs for direction-marking without having to carry so many. –  SevenSidedDie May 4 '11 at 16:00
    
Uh, apparently I mis-clicked the downvote button yesterday and now it won't let me reverse it unless the post is edited. Sorry! Not intentional - if you can edit the post, I'll remove it –  Kai Aug 8 at 8:45

I have found the best way to go through tunnels and caves is using minecarts. Once you get enough iron (it is everywhere) just craft about 3 stacks of rails and make a couple of minecarts. build your base of operations near the entrance and start placing rails in any path that you are interested in It is a fast way to get through the caves and it is very direct. if you want to go exploring a section that doesn't have rials, just be sure to bring torches with you. If there is a fork ahead, go back to the nearest rail and make a railway to the fork. It might take a bit more time and use a lot of resources, but It is worth it and it is fun riding minecarts.

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This is an old question, but I just found it and have something to add :)

Apart from directional torches, I use a two-high stack of cobble in the middle of a passage as a "bollard" meaning "this is a dead end". I find this useful for finding my way in and out faster in a complicated network. Cobble is always available and only appears due to user activity (apart from around lava sometimes).

As for torches, mostly what others have said; wall-torches on the right going in (as others have said) and otherwise only floor-torches, if needed to light up and make safe a large area for example. So I only pay attention to wall-torches on the left to find my way out.

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+1 i like it great addition. –  Paralytic Mar 20 '12 at 13:19
    
I use a dirt block in a tunnel entrance to mean "this branch explored fully" and a sand block to mean "this is the way back". If the sand block would be ambiguous (rare) I place a dirt block immediately "behind" it so that walking from sand to dirt is the direction out. –  RedGrittyBrick Jun 9 '12 at 19:20

In mineshafts use blocks of sand with a torch on the side pointing towards the exit. You rarely find sand naturally in mines, theres scads of it about and torches (made using charcoal) are a renewable resource

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If you're not too attached to your house (which is unlikely), rebuild at or near your original spawn location. This way, no matter what (except for perhaps the Nether) you can tunnel to the surface and whip out a compass.

Building near your original spawn point is possibly the best way always find your way home.

As for in caves, try leaving bread crumbs. For me, I use sand as my bread crumb because it stands out against all the rock. Never wander too far from your last bread crumb, and explore in small increments. When you find/make a path that you'd like to continue pursuing, start adding more bread crumbs.

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I'm surprised this hasn't been posted yet... Only place torches on the left side while you are progressing (facing the newly discovered area of a cavern). That way you can return to your point of entry by making sure that torches are on the right side of you while you walk.

If you reach a fork, you can, and will explore both paths of that fork. Place torches on the left side of both paths. You're ability to return to the entrance is unhindered by getting lost in a cavern maze.

This is easy, and can be done as soon as you well, make torches. It's the only spelunking method I have ever needed.

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If I'm lost, or just far, I just dig to the surface. It's always there unless that's Nether.

As for travel, I developed a system with placing torches.

  • If I arrive at a branch of corridor, I place a torch on the wall of the corridor I came out from, at foot level.
  • If I'm backtracking from a dead-end, I replace torches to be right in the middle of the corridor.
  • If I decide to give up on given branch, first I build a wall (bar) at eyes level across, to prevent most monsters from crawling from the unlit territory, then leave the torches in standard location: walls, eye level, which means "explored, unfinished". This also applies to any branches I don't plan to explore soon.
  • "Dead end" mark travels backwards towards the entrance. If I'm at a branch of three corridors, and I'm placing the third torch in the middle of the last of it, the corridor I came from gets a "middle torch" at its entrance too - if it only leads to three dead ends, it is a dead-end too. Same if a corridor is a loop.
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Whenever I go caving, I take note of the co-ordinates that the entrance to the cavern is (or I set a warp there). Then, I always make sure I bring at least 6 stacks of wood (usually I store it in my enderchest, if not I'd bring 1-2). Also, I'd bring at least 32 iron ingots, for spare tools. Also, make sure you mine all coal you see, as you can make more torches, so you can light your path as much as necessary without worrying about running out. Bringing an several enderchests is also a good idea.

Firstly, mine all ores you see. Even if it going to be thrown into lava after, bring it. This is one of the reasons why I bring my enderchest, as I hate having to throw items away. Next, place all torches on the left or right of the cave, and if it's in a big room then place an easy-to-see block (such as hardened clay or wood) with the torch on top. Finally, at every intersection I have underground 'offices', and one base of operations. I like to be in the caves a lot, and I luckily have found a gigantic cave system, it goes on for x = 600 to around x= 3200, and it still hasn't finished, so I find using these prove to be useful.

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I use creative mode, so I have unlimited torches and redstone torches. At each junction I place 2 torches, one of each. This forms a line. The brighter torch points in the direction from where I came. This way the torches will always give me a breadcrumb trail out. If I follow a passage and it's a dead end, then when I get back to my torches I also sign-post that passage with some sort of name and then "grotto" (which basically means dead end, in a cave). If the junction was 3-way at that point, then I can remove the torches again if I like because the sign-post basically tells you to ignore that passage, hence there are now only 2 options: forward or back through the passage you were exploring. I use night vision potion a lot too, so as not to miss any gaps.

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Build yourself a new home underground

So you've been digging for nigh-on fifty years, and you can't find your way back to the surface? Time to become a mole-man and live underground!

No, seriously, build yourself a little home in a cave wall.

Line the bottom, top, and all four walls with wood planks, lay down a crafting table, furnace and bed, pop a door down, and rest.

You now have an underground home that you can easily recognize when travelling your cave system! Better yet, you can use it as a waystation to craft more tools, store useless junk, and respawn from if you should fall afoul of lava or monsters.

Dont' just do this once though! Build a new home for every big area you find underground. The bigger the area, the more homes you should make. Though to help yourself from getting your homes confused, label 'em with signs or unique torch/block patterns.

Now the BIG problem with this is you would then be respawning underground, instead of the cozy comfort of the surface, so if you do this, make SURE that you're doing this in conjunction with some additional way-tracking system, such as the other answers listed here.

Or...

Tracks!

More expensive than most of the solutions already given, but if you have a ton of iron and wood that's just lying around, and you want to explore a really deep cave, lay yourself down some mine tracks!

A key rule though - No matter where you go or how far you delve, keep your tracks connected in one, continuous line, or their usefulness as a wayfinding tool will be lost.

The added bonus of this is a much faster method for getting your loot back to the surface, preferably from one of your various underground homes.


Both of these methods can be time-and-resource consuming, but for big, big, BIG caves, they'll greatly speed up the mining process AND help you keep track of where you are within the deep caves.

Edit: If you find yourself with hundreds of stacks of Redstone, and don't do much circuit-making, laying down a redstone trail might be viable too.

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