What the Heck is Geocaching?  A Beginner's Guide
Many thanks to members of the Getting Started forum for their generous and patient advice -- Thot

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 picture on the right is an example of a classic Traditional Regular geocache, a dying breed.

This guide was originally written 15 years ago so it's a little long in the tooth, but the principles are still the same, and I try to update it with significant changes occasionally.  For example, the larger containers hidden in parks and the woods are the exception today.  Most are microcaches -- read on, all is explained.

In Mid. '03 few people had heard of geocaching -- it was almost a secret game.  I stumbled onto the game about a year later and have been playing since.  It's grown a lot since then.  Today there are more than 3 million active geocaches and 361,000 geocache owners in 191 different countries on all seven continents including Antarctica. If you live in a city there is probably one within a couple of blocks.

The minimum you have to have to play is a smartphone or a handheld GPSr (Global Positioning Satellite receiver).  Global Positioning Satellites are used in all forms of navigation today.  They send signals that these devices use to figure out where on the surface of the earth they are. Serious cachers usually still use handheld units like the one on the left but many cachers use smartphones today.

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. A more recent addition is Wherigo caches.  Here's a list of cache types but don't be overwhelmed, you should stay with Traditional, Virtual & Event caches to begin.  Virtual caches have no container, instead they are an interesting or novel   place to visit and you email the owner with answers to some questions to assure you've really been there.  Event caches are parties or get-togethers of cachers to visit & trade stories, usually held at restaurants and sometimes parks. 

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 have to join to play but it's free.  You get a lot more features if you become a premium member for $30/year.  You get cache locations there and then return there to record your adventure and success or failure to find them.  On the main geocaching.com page you can enter your zipcode or address and get a list of the caches near you.  You get a lot more features if you become a premium member for $30/year but that can come later.  Another geocaching site is Terracaching.com.  They support a wider variety of cache types, but are quite small. 

When I explain geocaching to friends the inevitable question is, "Well if the GPS gadget takes you right to where it is, what's the game?"  First, the gadget only gets you close -- typically about 10-12 feet away.  And, the cache is hidden -- either from geocachers to increase the challenge/fun, or to conceal it from muggles.  Muggles are the uninitiated -- people who don't know about geocaching, and may stumble on the cache and take it, ruin it, or throw it away.

But, the real fun is discovering 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 competition for number you have found and just have fun and enjoy the places it takes you, it will be a more rewarding activity.  Most smaller kids love it, so it provides a setting for outdoor family fun.   Note:  In recent years geocaching has moved more and more toward microcaches.  When I started caching 80-90% of all caches were similar to the one shown in the picture above and hidden in interesting places to visit. Today 80-90% are microcaches. They're cheap and easy to hide.  People who play the game to compete for number of finds can go from parking lot to parking lot quickly.  This saddens me, I don't find it fun to visit Walmart, Target, etc. parking lots.  Sigh . . .  So I urge you to stay closer to the original intent of the game and hunt regular size caches in the great outdoors and I hope you will enjoy the game more.

Click here to visit my photo journal of the places I've gone and caches I've found. (It takes a long time to load and hasn't been updated in a long time).  In some cases it will give you an idea for how the kind of caches I like are hidden. 

When I began a weakness of the geocaching website was the FAQ's.  That's why I decided to create this page -- to help beginners learn geocaching.  So, here's help with some of the fundamentals:

Which App?

I use a popular app named Cachly. It only works on an iPhone.  I've used no other application so I can't give advice on apps. Many people favor the app by the Geocaching website people.  It has a version for both the Android & the iPhone. The favorite app for Android only is C:Geo.  Since I use a handleld GPSr I mainly use Cachly to look at pictures and logs for spoilers. 

How Do I Obtain Cache Locations?

Go to this geocaching.com web page. Enter your zipcode or address in the blank and click the magnifying glass. This will give you a list of caches moving out from your address or the center of your zipcode.

You have to register to see or download specific cache locations, but it's free.  Geocachers use handles/pseudonyms like Renegade Knight, OpinioNate, moonpup, despot&smitten, guttergrrl, tirediron. When you register on the website your username becomes your geocaching name, the name you will be known by in the caching community. Also, you will have to write it over and over and over in all the cache logs, so you may want a short easy to write one like mine, Thot :-) Spend a little time thinking about what you want to be called before registering. For ideas Click here to see a list of geocacher's names. Think about signing a name like "headed_west_and_never_looking_back_0671" hundreds of times, often on tiny pieces of paper. In 2010 they made it easier to change your name -- you do it where you edit your profile. But, you want to do it quickly, else everybody who's come to know you as BuxomBetty won't recognize you as 34Thelma.

Then go to this geocaching.com web page. Enter your zipcode or address in the blank and click the magnifying glass. This will give you a list of caches moving out from your address or the center of your zipcode.

What Should I Carry When I Go Geocaching?

As you might expect, opinions vary on this question.

My list is from the perspective of an old guy.

I use a denim carry bag to keep things together/collected, to carry to the car when I start out. Here's the contents of my bag (batteries and voice recorder don't apply if you use a smartphone).  If I'm going distance from the car I don't want to have to return for something I carry the bag.  But, for an urban micro I don't. I leave some items from it in the car. My stick is always in the back seat or trunk, except when I'm on a hunt.  Hereís my list:  (This used to be true.  I'm too decrepit to do hikes and caches in the woods anymore <sad face>.

  1. A pen/pencil for signing logs.
  2. Printed copies of the cache page including at least the last 5 logs, & a print of a zoomed map linked to from the cache description page. During my first couple of years of caching I carried these pages for the cache I'm hunting folded in my pocket, the rest are left in the car until needed.   If I expect to hunt more than one cache on a single hike I put the pages for all these caches in my bag. If you are smartphone proficient you may not need the printouts but give them a try.
  3. OFF/Deet - in Houston this is essential -- jillions of mosquitoes and West Nile Virus and now some new dread disease carried by mosquitoes.
  4. A stick for walking on irregular ground, moving stuff aside, beating back brush/weeds, knocking down spider webs, tapping tall grass or areas ahead of you you can't see to find holes, warn snakes you're coming and poking around in worrisome places you'd rather not put your hand.  I now use this stick I got on Amazon. It's heavier and somewhat clumsier than aluminum ones that say not to put your weight on it and I now have to sometimes.]  It's hard to decide whether the stick should be listed fourth or fifth.  For me it's essential.  I'm 80+ and no longer have good balance, so I never go to a cache hidden in the woods or where I have to walk on uneven terrain or tall grass without it.  Urban micro caches are less likely for me to require it.
  5. One chopstick in my bag for pushing tiny caches out of tight places.  Amazing how many times this comes in handy.
  6. A cap/hat if I'll be in the sun or winter cold.
  7. Right hand (I'm right handed) pigskin glove - mostly for moving aside thorns but occasionally putting it into/under worrisome places.  (NOTE:  A brief Google search indicated pigskin resists puncture better than other materials.)
  8. A Digital Camera with extra batteries is optional, but it's how I record my adventures.  Of course you can also use your smartphone.  You can upload pictures to your log on geocaching.com.  A few caches require you take pictures.  (Don't post spoiler pictures showing how to find the cache in your internet log. In my photo journal I scrambled the photos and made the names anonymous to avoid giving anything away.  None of the spoiler photos in this collection were posted to my web logs.)
  9. A snack size ziplock bag (3" x 6") with 4 wet wipes, 4 alcohol wipes, 4 betadine wipes and 6 band-aids. 
  10. Now-a-days I also carry replacement logs and occasionally Path Tags, but obviously these aren't necessary. 
  11. I carry a medium sized hand mirror in my bag. It has helped me find many urban microcaches I was unable to find without it.  I found one at the Dollar store

The stick and the following item are more important to us old codgers who can't climb, stoop, bend, squat and kneel like younger folks. And, irregular ground is more of a problem - it threatens a fall and things break easier.

In wet areas, like we have a lot of here in Houston, caches occasionally require sloshing through mud and/or standing water. I bought a pair of super cheap (~$12) knee high rubber boots at Academy (I just clicked this link and see they've gone up smartly).  They stay in the trunk/cargo area until needed.  I also carry a large plastic trash bag in one of the boots.  If I muddy-up the boots I put them in the plastic bag to protect the trunk.  When I get home I clean the boots and replace with a new plastic bag. 

I leave a couple of bottles of water in the car.  If I expect to be out in the heat for over an hour I carry a bottle in my hip pocket.  Note: I've gotten too decrepit to do this anymore.

I carry very little swag (stuff to trade) because I donít trade. I go for the fun of the hunt and to see the places (that's why this proliferation of pointless micros is distressing for me). I've only taken things from the cache when they were required to complete the cache instructions, or an occasional First to Find prize.  The only rule is you must sign the log.  In the old days those who traded listed what they took and what they left in their web log, but as the game has evolved few people list trade items in their web logs anymore.)  If you don't plan to trade you may still want to keep at least one nice trade item in your bag in case you discover something you really want.  I carry two mint condition Sacagawea dollars for such situations.  [I know, I know, you're not supposed to put money in caches.]

Iíve had a Leatherman type tool and a first aid kit in the trunk of the car for years before I began caching.  I carry a small Spyderco pocket knife and a cell phone at all times, so I didnít put these on the list.  I think a cell phone is essential if you cache in the woods or remote areas -- particularly if you cache alone.

That's my list.  Some caches require long hikes (5-10 miles).  I've never done one of those, but people who do use backpacks and of course carry plenty of water.

If you're interested in more extensive lists read this very old discussion and this one.

Tips For New Cache Hunters?

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.  Please don't trade a broken McDonalds toy for a pocket watch.

Near the top of the cache description page you'll find the "Size."  Try to stay with regular caches in the beginning if you can. Micros can be hard to find for everyone, especially beginners.  Once the most common micro was a 35mm film container, but today they they can be a little larger or much smaller.  The official micro container is about twice as big around and half as long as your little finger.   Micros can be as small as a marble.  It's becoming more common to use these evil nano caches.  (TIP:  These tiny caches have rolled up pieces of paper for logs, when you put the log back, put it in the lid -- don't try to put it in the body and then replace the lid -- you'll just crush the log and become frustrated.)  Even when micros say one star they're can be difficult and discouraging to a beginner -- every kind of person decides how hard their caches are.  Micros are often attached by magnets to metal objects. 

"Small" caches I've found are typically about the size of a tennis ball or a stack of 7 Hershey bars, but small caches can be almost any size from somewhat larger than a 35mm film container to a quart/liter.  As you probably guessed, smalls are easier to find than micros, but harder than regular caches -- surprise!

Sidebar

Cache Sizes

Micro -- Smaller than a tennis ball
Small -- Up to a quart/liter
Regular -- A quart to 2 gallons/8 liters
Large -- Larger than a Regular

 Groundspeak Definitions

Try to stay with the easier 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, the difficulty, is how hard it is to find.  The second is the terrain -- how hard it is to get to it.  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: 1/2, 1/3 (1/4 if youíre athletic), then 2/1, 2/2, etc.  [NOTE: All sorts of ordinary people assign those numbers, so there are difficulty 1's I've never been able to find and 3's I found immediately.  Typically, the terrain ratings are more accurate than the difficulty ratings.]

If you're carrying a printout, be sure to decrypt the hints when you print the cache description page and include as many logs as you can for at least the first 5-10 caches you try.  Finding them gets easier with experience, but it can be challenging at first.  While at home, study all the logs and pictures left by others for clues to the cache location (They may contain spoilers).  They may also alert you to problems like -- "Watch out for the hornets nest in that tree north of 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 those until someone else finds them -- they're probably harder and may be missing.  Tip: 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 to see how many purple faces -- DNFs.  These often signal the real difficulty level..  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, unless the DNFs are because it was missing for a while.

Believe your device, but donít be slaved to it. When you get within about 20 feet (7 meters) start looking around for where it might be hidden.  Many beginners either depend too much on the device, or donít trust it enough. Either is a mistake.  The satellites that the devices use are constantly moving, so some days, times and places it gives better answers, and sometimes you get bad answers.   Also, in heavy tree cover you often get bad results (the device has to see the sky) and so did the person who placed the cache and measured the coordinates they posted.  Typically you should be able to get within 15 feet (5 meters) of the cache.  But, there are several variables and smartphones don't do as well as handheld GPSrs.  Just remember, it's a combination of your unit's error and the error of the person who provided the coordinates.  Some (particularly new) cachers aren't careful in determining the coordinates for their caches and smartphones don't do as well. Older GPSrs have greater error.  I've run into a few caches where the coordinates were off as much as 60 feet (20 meters), and a couple or three rare cases where they were off about 175 feet (55 meters).  I would have never found these except for wandering around and thinking about where they must be hidden.  (I almost never run into errors this large anymore.)  If you cache in the same area, over time you will learn which cache owners usually post good coordinates and which will frustrate you.  There's a long-time cacher in my area that I sigh when I see it's their hide because the coordinates are often going to be off as much as 30 feet. 

I suggest you go to a nearby park and "waypoint" an object you can remember such as a stump, water fountain, etc.  Then walk a hundred or so feet away and follow the device to return to the location.  Do this a few times then choose another object and do it again. Save these coordinates and try to find the locations again another day.  Repeat this until you get a feel for how the gadget responds.

Sidebar

Latitude/longitude coordinates are often called waypoints.  Your device will let you record a waypoint for your present location.  When I say "waypoint a location" I mean use this procedure to capture the location.

If you're interested in how I setup my GPSr, and my technique for homing in on cache coordinates, I describe it  Here.

If youíre 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 stories of cachers who spent unpleasant nights in some godforsaken place because they got lost. 

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. I've had to give up on a few caches that would have required a mild form of acrobatics to reach it and get back.  NOTE:  Now that I'm 80+ with health issues I have to pass up many more and can no longer go on longish walks.

When you can't find a cache you're tempted to try more and more unusual things/locations.  Don't take risks. Almost certainly the cache isn't in that risky location anyway unless the cache description says it is.  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. You'll be temped to take risks DON'T DO IT.

If the terrain is a 1.5, 2 or even 3 you can usually assume it can be found without doing anything unusual.  In my experience they're rarely more than 60-80 feet off a trail and usually not that far.  If it's farther, or it looks like you'll need a machete to get through the undergrowth look for another way to it.  One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is to want to go straight toward where their gadget points.  ALWAYS look around for easy paths before taking difficult ones.  The trail may curve ahead, so you may fight a new path through a terrible jungle just to come out back on the same trail you were on.  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.  Usually the person who placed the cache didn't want to bushwhack their way to it anymore than you do.  On a larger scale, when I first arrive near the general area I may drive around for a few minutes looking for the closest place to park for the easiest, or shortest way to begin (this applies to caches in wooded and hard to get to areas).  Nowadays you can scout them out on Google Maps or Google Earth.

When searching for the cache look for something unnatural or out of place -- piles of sticks, bark, rocks, leaves or other debris.   Here's an example.  Out of place Spanish moss it often a dead giveaway  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.  Micro caches are sometimes attached to the underside of things.  They're often attached to metal objects with magnets.

Then there are light pole caches that have come to cover the Earth in our area.  I'm not sure there's a parking lot without one & maybe two.  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, many micros are under or attached to the inside of the cover with magnets -- often using 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 almost surely a light pole cache (LPC) -- also called a "skirt lifter." 

One of the secrets to successful geocaching outside urban areas 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.  Well worn ones are called geotrails.  This opening was a dead giveaway to what would have otherwise been a bear of a route in.  Look for the route that has the least brush, thorns, vines and other fun stuff to plow through because cachers before you have already thinned it out with their bodies.  I forgot and left my GPSr in the car one day on a FTF (First to Find) hunt, but it was in an area of high weeds.  I simply followed the trail of crushed weeds the owner made when he placed the cache -- took me straight to it. 

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.  My second cache was a very hard micro I couldn't find.  When I finally went back I found it based largely on tricks I'd learned in the meantime.  Also, it may be missing.  In the upper right of the cache page you can click link to watch a cache listing to see if someone else finds it.  You'll be sent an email if somebody logs it.  I usually don't go back to a cache I failed to find until somebody finds it or the owner assures me it's still there.

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 and even that may not keep them dry.

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 device says the coordinates are. If you think the coordinates are off, post that in your log.

Did I mention waypointing your car and taking water if it's a long hike?

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 there's a link 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 hunted for the cache, then type in some comments about your experience.  In the beginning, read some other people's logs for examples of what to say, and submit your log. After you have your own, you'll realize why after you've gone to the trouble and expense locating a hiding place, building a cache and hiding it and maintaining it, when finders say nothing or "Found it" or some such, it's disappointing. Here's a discussion on why you should record your DNFs -- caches you Did Not Find. 

Travel Bugs

Travel bugs (and coins) are a side aspect of the game.  You can do them or not.  Travel bugs are (usually) smallish objects with an identifying "dog tag" attached, that are moved from cache to cache.  The dog tags are purchased from geocaching.com at an upscale price.  The dog tags are used to track/log their movements.  To be technically correct the dog tag is the travel bug, and the attached object is the hitchhiker.  But most people, refer to the combination of the two as a travel bug.  The picture is my Blow & Go travel bug (NOTE:  It appears to have died in the hands of a cacher named Water Bear in May '08).  Travel bugs usually have a goal/mission/objective.  Blow & Go's mission was to travel to every state in the U.S. following some simple rules.  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.  [Note:  Some "travel bug hotels" require you leave a bug if  you take a bug.  Personally, I boycott this kind of arrangement because bugs can get trapped in them.]  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 California to New York don't move it from Texas to Arizona.  On the other hand moving it around in a local area is okay even if it moves a few miles the wrong way.  Don't hold a travel bug for a long time.  If you can't put in in another cache within couple of weeks, don't take it. 

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.  You can discover travel bugs.  Just copy down the tracking number and leave the bug where you found it, then log it on geocaching.com.  I do this occasionally now but I object to geocaching.com fostering this practice.  By their very nature "travel" bugs are intended to travel.  Now they should be called discover bugs. Because now that you can now get trackables credit for discovering bugs they aren't moved as much -- moving is my reason for releasing one.

There are also geocoins.  Coins work much like travel bugs but there's no hitchhiker, the coin is the entire thing, tracking number and all, that travels.  Some people collect geocoins. 

A while ago pathtags became popular. Each cacher has his or her own unique pathtag (maybe several designs)  These are traded between geocachers at events, some people trade them by mail and sometimes they're left in caches for other cachers to take.  This is my pathtag    The popularity of these is waning. 

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 cachers rushing to get this honor (and sometimes a special FTF prize).  If you decide to try this, and you are a premium (paying) member you can go here to and sign up to be notified of newly approved caches.  I, of course, don't participate in this plebian practice.

Hiding Your Own Cache
What container?  What do I put in it?  Other considerations.

I'll add this section later if I get requests--in 15 years I've gotten no requests

But, choose the size in this order -- if the location permits hide a regular if
practical, if not then a small, if still not practical then an ordinary micro, if not a nano

Tip:  Most people agree it's better to find several caches
of the type you plan to hide before hiding one yourself.

A few tips

Caches have to be 520' apart

Containers if they can see rain, in this order:
Ammo Box
LocknLock
Preform Tube
Waterproof Match Container
Bison Tube

Nano if you have to
Containers that can rust or leak are a no-no

 

Here's geocaching.com's article on hiding caches.

 

More Questions?

If you have more questions there are forums at geocaching.com.  On the main page, click the "Forums" link in the list on the upper left.  I found the Getting Started forum very helpful.   When I started out, I asked lots of questions and generous members of the Getting Started group patiently answered them.  Back then they were a friendly group and may still be.  I haven't visited in a long time.  If you move on to the regular Geocaching Topics forum, I found them not so friendly, for this reason I rarely visit them.

Links

My Poll of Geocachers' Ages
How to Extract Coordinates From Google Maps and Google Earth
How Geocache Sizes Have Changed Over the Years Since Geocaching Began
My Study of Travel Bug Lifespans
My Geocaches (this list is a little old)
My article explaining EPE (Estimated Position Error)
My article explaining why it's important to log your failures to find -- your DNFs

Planning a geocaching road trip
FizzyCalc (originally named GeoCalc) -- very useful utility for working with coordinates
How a GPS receiver works
Wikipedia's Description of Geocaching
The Kinds of Caches I Like & the Kinds I Don't
Geocaching.com's FAQ
A Video With Dave Ulmer (creator of geocaching) About the First "Stash"

Some Nano Cache Logs
My Geocaching Photo Journal
(It's large and takes a while to load)
Here's a Documentary on Geocaching
If You're Fit and Enjoy Geocaching In the Outdoors You May Also Enjoy Orienteering

 if you found this guide helpful drop me a line

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