It’s a high tech Easter egg hunt. Someone hides a container of inexpensive knickknacks – a cache. Then they post its latitude & longitude on the internet, and other people go hunting for it. If they find it they trade knickknacks and sign a log to record their visit. The minimum you have to have to play is a handheld GPSr (Global Positioning Satellite receiver). Global Positioning Satellites are used in all forms of navigation today. They send signals that these receivers use to figure out where on the surface of the earth they are.
As the game has grown it’s developed a number of variations.
There are micro caches that are only large enough to contain a rolled up (or maybe folded flat) paper log for you to sign.
There are puzzle caches, and other spin-offs. (Here’s a list of cache types) There’s more than one website that supports this game, but far-and-away the most extensive and most popular is, what else, geocaching.com – also called Groundspeak.
You get cache locations there and then return there to record your success or failure to find them.
On the upper right of the main page you can enter your post code and get a list of the caches near you.
The real fun is discovering endless new parks and interesting places near you that you never knew were there.
It’s absolutely astounding how many interesting places there are near you that you’re probably unaware of.
If you resist the temptation to make this a contest and just have fun and enjoy the places it takes you, it will be a more rewarding activity.
Kids love it, so it provides the setting for outdoor family fun.
Which GPS Receiver?
To start geocaching you should be able to get a satisfactory unit for $200 or less.
If you intend to also use your GPSr for navigation in a boat or car you need to explore this question at a website that covers general use.
The two most popular brands are Magellan and Garmin.
The most popular GPSr for beginning geocachers may be a Garmin eTrex Legend.
The low end of the Magellan and Garmen lines are inexpensive, but you can’t transfer waypoints to them from your computer.
You’ll want a cable that hooks to your computer to download cache information into your unit.
Entering waypoints manually is very tedious; plus, the first time you wander off into some awful place because you entered one of all those numbers wrong you’ll regret not buying a unit that lets you enter them with your computer.
The cable itself is an optional extra with some inexpensive models, and it’s cost can make-up the difference in the price of a better unit, so consider that if using cost as a deciding factor.
How Do You Get Cache Locations Into Your GPSr
First and foremost, always enter the cache coordinates into your unit, even if you have to do this manually.
Do not try to wander around watching the coordinates on your unit change until they match the ones printed on the cache page. This is a very painful way to hunt. Go to the main geocaching.com web page.
Enter your post code in the upper right corner. This will give you a list of caches moving out from the center of your post code. You could go to each cache page and enter the coordinates manually, but that’s a lot of work, and an error can put you in the some terrible place. (You’ll have to do it this way if you don’t have a computer cable.).
At the bottom of the list is a button that says Check All. Click this and it will mark all caches on that page for download. Then click the Download Waypoints button and download the file that contains this list of coordinates. When you register, your username becomes your geocaching name, the name you will be known by.
Also, you will have to write it over and over and over in all the cache logs you sign, so you may want a short easy to write. Spend a little time thinking about what you want to be called before registering.
Now go here and download & install the program EasyGPS. You have to download these lists one page (20 caches) at a time. It’s a little clumsy to work with these sets one at a time. If you decide to become a Premium Member ($30/year or $3/month) there’s a more convenient way to get cache lists. They’re called “pocket queries.”
If you really get into this you’ll probably want to get a program named GSAK. It costs a few bucks and is more difficult to learn, but it does a lot more things with pocket queries than EasyGPS.
What Should You Carry When You Go Geocaching?
As you might expect, opinions vary on this question. I suggest having a small bag to keep things together/collected. Here’s a suggested list:
- GPSr & extra batteries
- A pen and/or pencil for signing logs.
- Printed copies of the cache description screen from Geocaching.
- A stick for walking on irregular ground, moving stuff aside, beating back brush/weeds, knocking down spider webs and poking around in worrisome places you’d rather not put your hand. Never go to a cache hidden in bushes or where you have to walk on uneven terrain without a stick. Urban micro caches don’t usually require it.
- A compass.
- A torch (if you go geocaching at night).
- A cap/hat if you’ll be in the sun or winter cold.
- A heavy leather glove – for sticking hand into/under worrisome places.
- A Digital Camera & extra batteries is optional, but it’s how I record my adventures. You can also upload pictures to your internet log. A few caches require you take pictures.
- A snack size ziplock bag (3″ x 6″) with 4 wet wipes, 4 alcohol wipes, 4 betadine wipes and 6 band-aids.
- Inspection mirror – a mirror with a telescoping handle. To peer into, above and under hard to reach places.
- Compact binoculars – for seeing places you don’t want to have to climb, crawl, wade or walk a log to unless you know there’s a payoff. Leave this in the car until needed.
- Leave a couple of bottles of water in the car. If you expect to be out in the heat for over an hour carry a bottle with you.
Go to places to see and for the fun of the hunt.
The only rule is you must sign the log.
Those who trade normally list what they took and what they left in both the written log at the cache and the web log when they get home.
If you don’t plan to trade you may still want to keep one nice trade item in your bag in case you discover something you really want.
If you have a Palm/PDA you can do Paperless Geocaching. This lets you save trees, and have more information with you on the hunt.
Some caches require long hikes.
A cardinal rule is, if you trade items, trade even or trade up. That is, leave an item of equal or greater desirability than the one you took.
Try to stay with regular caches in the beginning if you can. Micros are often hard for everyone, especially beginners. Probably the most common micro is a 35mm film container. The official micro container is somewhat bigger around and half as long as your little finger. Micros can be as small as a marble. Even when micros say one star they’re likely to be difficult and can be discouraging to a beginner.
On the right, near the top of the cache description page you’ll find the type. Micros are often attached by magnets to metal objects. Common small containers are Lock-And-Lock and serving size Rubbermaid . “Small” caches are typically about the size of a tennis ball, but small can be almost any size somewhat larger than a 35mm film container to smaller than 2 litres.
As you probably guessed, smalls are easier to find than micros, but harder than regular caches – surprise!
Caches come in a variety of sizes.
- Micro – Smaller than a tennis ball
- Small – Up to a litre
- Regular – Up t0 8 litres
- Large – Larger than a Regular
Try to stay with the easy to find regular size caches to start.
On the cache page it will rate the difficulty of caches from 1 to 5 stars. The first number is how hard it is to find. The second, how hard it is to get to it – the terrain. A 1/5 will be easy to find when you get to it, but may require a boat and scuba gear to reach it.
Try hunting caches in this order until you get some experience: 1/1, 1/2, 1/3 (1/4 if you’re athletic), then 2/1, 2/2, etc. Decrypt the hints and print the PDF file you can generate near the top of the cache description page with as many logs as you can for the first 5-10 you try.
Finding them gets easier with experience, but it can be challenging at first. Study all the logs left by others for clues to the cache location. They may also alert you to problems like – “Watch out for the hornets nest in that tree near the cache.” Make handwritten notes of anything special like this on the pages you print out . If the latest logs have been DNFs (Did Not Finds) wait on that one until someone else finds it – it may be missing.
If you print cache pages days in advance be sure to check the website just before you leave in case the cache has gone missing. It can be very discouraging to spend a hour searching for a cache that’s no longer there. Quickly scan all the logs for purple faces – DNFs. These often signal difficult caches. One, or two out of 30 may or may not, but 5 out of 20 means it’s almost sure to be difficult no matter how the owner rated it.
Try different displays/screens on your GPSr until you find the one(s) that work best for you. Most GPSrs have one or more screens that point toward the cache. You must be moving/walking for it to point to the cache. It knows where the cache is, but doesn’t know which way to point if you’re not moving.
Most units have a screen that looks like a compass, but instead of pointing north it points at the cache. If you stop walking they lose their mind. Try different screens. Keep these coordinates and try to find the locations again another day. Repeat this until you get a feel for how the gadget responds and which displays work best for you.
Sometimes a cache will be in an area where you can’t walk/move fast enough. (For the map screen pointer or the pseudocompass to work you must be moving about 2 mph/3 kph in a straight line.)
Your unit will let you record a waypoint for your present location. There’s usually a button you press that captures your present location. When I say “waypoint a location” I mean use this procedure to capture the location. If you’re going into uncertain territory capture a waypoint at your car (“waypoint your car”) as you leave it.
Create another waypoint at a trailhead, and any point where you go off-trail in a wooded area, so you can find your way back out. You will get so preoccupied wandering around looking for the cache you may get completely disorientated/lost – there are lots of stories of cachers who spent unpleasant nights in some godforsaken place because they got lost.
You should also learn how to use your unit’s backtrack feature, and be sure it’s turned on. Backtrack is a feature on most units that, if active, shows you the path you took to get were you are. You can follow it to go back the way you came. Practice switching to this mode, so if you get lost you can get to it to retrace your steps. The commands to operate these gadgets are arcane and you aren’t likely to remember how to do it when you need it if you haven’t practiced.
Be sure to take your GPSr manual in the car (and maybe on the hunt) until you’ve learned how to use its features.
As long as we’re on the topic of safety, tell someone where you will be and for how long. Add some to the time so people won’t start worrying too soon.
I mention again the importance of a stick. To some extent this is a game better suited to younger more agile people. Some caches require a mild form of acrobatics to reach it and get back. When you can’t find the cache you’re tempted to try more and more unusual things/locations.
Don’t take risks.
The cache probably isn’t in that risky location anyway. There are many other caches, and you won’t get demoted, lose money or be ridden out of town on a rail if you pass on this one, and on the next, and the next. If the terrain is a 1, 2 or 3 you can usually assume it can be found without doing anything unusual.
ALWAYS look around for easy paths before taking difficult ones. The trail may curve ahead, so you may fight a new path through the jungle just to come out back on the same trail. Stories abound of the guy or gal who waded the creek or got cut up climbing through the fence, or bushwhacked their way through 500 feet of undergrowth just to find when they got there the cache was 20 feet off a main trail.
Walk past the cache to see if there’s not a better way to it. The person who placed the cache didn’t want to bushwhack their way in anymore than you do.
On a larger scale, when arriving near the location drive around for 10-15 minutes looking for closest place to park for the easiest, or shortest way to begin.
When searching for the cache look for something unnatural – piles of rocks, bark, sticks, leaves or other debris. Also check out tree stumps, logs, and hollow tree trunks. Small caches are often off the ground and Micros almost always are. The crotch or V in trees where major members fork is a popular place for micros – or maybe a knothole.
Small caches are sometimes attached to the underside of things. They’re often attached to metal objects with magnets. If you look at the bottom of parking lot light poles, they normally have a rectangular box-like cover/skirt at the base. This cover will lift. Today, most micros are attached to the inside of the skirt of this cover with magnets – often magnetic key holders you get at the dollar store.
If you find yourself driving around on a paved parking lot looking for a micro, it’s probably a light pole cache. One of the secrets to successful geocaching is to become a tracker. People who’ve been to the cache often leave evidence of the path they took and where they found the cache — footprints, broken limbs, crushed weeds, deformed shrubs, etc.
Look for the route that has the least brush, thorns, vines and other fun stuff to plow through because a cacher before you has already thinned it out. Don’t beat your head against a wall trying to find a cache.
Pass it by and come back to it later after you’ve gained more experience. Also, it may be missing. In the upper right of the cache page you can click this icon to watch a cache listing to see if someone else finds it. You’ll be sent an email if somebody logs it.
Don’t go back to a cache you failed to find until somebody finds it or the owner assures you it’s still there.
Do’s & Don’ts
Some trading don’ts: Don’t leave food or items that smell (like scented candles or soap). Animals have keen smellers. They’re known to destroy caches looking for food.
Finally, nothing dangerous or inappropriate for children.
In selecting swag (trade items) keep in mind many caches aren’t watertight.
If you still want to leave things that’ll ruin if they get damp, it’s a good idea to seal them in ziplock freezer (heavy weight) bags.
Put the cache back the way you found it, and where you found it, unless you have very good reason to believe it wasn’t in it’s intended hiding place.
In this case, send an email to the owner explaining what you did.
Don’t help the owner by moving the cache or hiding it in a better place – they may want it to be very easy (or hard) to find.
Don’t move the cache to where your GPSr says the coordinates are.
And, don’t forget to log your hunt on the geocaching.com website after you find (or don’t find) the cache.
Go back to the cache page. In the upper right click this icon to log your find. .
On the page that comes up select Found It, Didn’t find it, or Post a note.
Change the date to whatever day you found the cache, then type in some comments about your experience.
Read some other people’s logs for examples of what to say, and submit your log.
Travel bugs are a side aspect of the game. You can do them or not.
They are (usually) smallish objects with an identifying “dog tag” attached, that are moved from cache to cache.
The dog tags are used to track/log their movements.
To be technically correct the dog tags are the travel bug, and the attached object is the hitchhiker.
Travel bugs usually have a goal/mission/objective.
Travel bugs are not trade items – you aren’t expected to leave something in exchange when you take a travel bug, and conversely, you shouldn’t take a trade item if you leave a bug.
If you pick up a bug you’re expected to move it to another cache somewhere that (hopefully) will help it towards it’s goal – at least not detract from the goal.
For example, if it’s goal is to go from Sydney to Perth don’t move it from Adelaide to Melbourne.
On the other hand moving it around in a local area is okay even if it moves a few miles the wrong way.
Logging travel bugs can be quite confusing the first few times.
They have their own independent tracking system and thus are logged in addition to and different than caches.
FTF – First To Find
Some people compete to be the first-to-find (FTF) a new cache.
This can be a little difficult to do in urban areas with many cacher rushing to get this honor (and sometimes a special FTF prize).
If you decide to try this, and you are a premium member you can go here to and sign up to be notified of newly approved caches.