The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Geocaching

Geocaching is the nexus of physical activity, adventure, puzzle solving, and online computer gaming. You might have heard of geocaching before but don't know much about it. If your curiosity is piqued, this is a handy guide to getting started.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, once famously penned: 

"All who wander are not lost."

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This quote inspired generations to adventure into the unknown, explore their surroundings, leave behind the mundane and go forth into the unknown to become doers, dreamers, seekers, and adventurers.

Perhaps you are looking for a hobby that speaks to that wanderlust, that primal need.


​What is Geocaching?

In brief, geocaching is an activity that combines an online interface with a real live treasure hunt using GPS coordinates.

It is a nexus of physical activity, puzzle solving, and online computer gaming--think Pokemon Go without the VR and commercial tie-ins.

Worldwide there are about four million active geocachers, almost one million of which are based in the United States.

The first geocache was planted in Seattle in May 2000, shortly after the U.S. Government released a version of GPS technology by a computer consultant who wanted to test the accuracy of this new satellite technology.

The game quickly gained popularity on an internet mailing list and then on to various internet forums until it was formalized as a website.

From those humble beginnings, it has grown exponentially.

Here's a fantastic one minute overview video from the folks at geocaching.com:

​Why Go Geocaching?

Many things make geocaching awesome.

First, there is so much versatility, you can cache literally anywhere. (Seriously, there are even geocaches in Antarctica!)

The chances are good that no matter where you live, your daily commute passes by many geocaches that unless you are specifically looking, you don't even know they exist.

Geocaching is like being let in on a special secret.

You don't have to go far to find one, but you can. You don't have to devote a lot of time, but you can.

You can include your children, your friends, and your family--or not. You can cache deep in the woods or in the city. It can be as extreme or as limited as you are.

Another plus is that it takes you places you may not otherwise explore. You might walk or drive past a particular spot daily, but caching makes you take the time to look deeper.

Often the cache description explains the history so it can be educational too.

​How to Hide a Geocache

While any registered user can hide a geocache, cache listings must be submitted and approved by an admin who makes sure the cache listing adheres to the rules.

The intent is to ensure the cache can be adequately maintained in the event of a problem by someone who is locally taking responsibility for it.

There are specific locations where geocaches are not permitted: schools, national parks, many state parks, airports and other government property may not be allowed for safety or security reasons.

Here is a great video that goes into more detail about hiding a geocache:​

What to Put in a Geocache​

Typically there should be a small, (hopefully) watertight container with a log book for other geocachers to find, but the larger caches may contain other items like "trackables" or "swag."

There is not a typical cache; however, there are particular types of caches that are very popular.

They range in size from Nano (about the size of the eraser on a pencil) to huge (5-gallon bucket or bigger), and they are usually are hidden discretely by camouflage or some other method to prevent easy detection.

Some of them have even been designed to look like items like bolts, bricks, rocks, and magnets when they are secretly a really sneaky geocache.

Traditional storage containers are bison tubes, ammo containers, old 35 mm film containers, lock-n-lid plastic containers, or other watertight containers.

​What You Need to Hide a Geocache

For those hiding geocaches, having a good understanding of what makes a good geocache is the first step.

Choosing the right location, using an original container, building a good cache listing and being ingenious and sneaky adds to the fun.

Planting a huge piece of ammo might make sense off a wooded trail but might not make as much sense in the middle of downtown.

You can purchase ready-to-hide kits from many e-tailers. These kits contain everything from containers, stickers, logbooks, and items to personalize your cache, but really, you are only limited by your own creativity.

What You Need to Find a Geocache

For finding geocaches, there are many free or very inexpensive smartphone apps available on IOS or Android.

There are also many handheld GPS units to purchase, some of which were made specifically for geocaching.

What equipment you use will depend on entirely how often and where you plan on geocaching.

The casual geocacher who primarily seeks urban or semi-rural caches will probably do fine with an app, but more extreme cachers may prefer GPS units because they aren't limited to cell service and are more rugged.

For either a phone app or a GPS unit, you want one that displays coordinates and a map that gives an approximate location, distance and can handle weather and terrain considerations.

Many cachers keep a bag with all their gear with them containing everything from pens for logbook signing, spare batteries, weather gear, a flashlight, knife or other tools, and swag for trading out.

This bag should be waterproof and carryable without being burdensome.

There are many e-tailers online that specialize in geocaching supplies. A quick search on Amazon reveals everything from bison tubes to very sneaky containers, and of course, any GPS unit you might wish to purchase.

​What is Swag?

"Swag" are items left behind in caches for other geocachers; trinkets, small coins, or useful items like sewing kits, rain ponchos, hand sanitizer, etc.

While these things usually don't cost much, they are fun to find and lend themselves to all sorts of quirky randomness.

There are some ground rules to trading swag.

First, you should never take an item without leaving an item of equal or greater value.

Second, you should never put food items into a cache because this will draw insects and other animals.

Third, remember that caching is enjoyed by a wide variety of people, so keep your swag at a G rating! Sometimes the cache listing is theme-related, so if you bring swag to trade out, keep that in mind.

Travel Bugs and Geocoins​

Travel Bugs and Geocoins are always really awesome to find. These items are specially designed with a unique tracking number and are meant to travel from cache to cache.

Travel bugs are attached to a "hitchhiker", a small object attached to the travel bug that helps distinguish it from other travel bugs or getting lost.

The travel bug looks like a dog tag with a tracking number. You can tell if the cache you are visiting has a trackable in it by the cache listing, which will give a detailed list.

You can click the link to learn more about each item, it's name, the goal the owner has set for them, and how far the trackable has traveled.

There are detailed instructions online about moving trackables from cache to cache.

Geocoins work similarly, but instead, these look like medals or larger coins. There are wide-variety of these geocoins, and they can be very unique and quite attractive.

Trackables are relatively common and add extra fun to geocaching.

Their owners have the pleasure of watching them make their way across the terrain, knowing that other cachers are having fun transporting them.

Both the goals and the hitchhikers can be quite amusing.

This video explains trackables perfectly:

​How to Start Geocaching

Geocaching is safe for all to enjoy, but as with every hobby, there are a few precautions to consider.

1

Get Permission!

First, you should make sure you have permission. Geocachers are supposed to obtain permission from the landowner before planting any cache; however, you should use your discretion.

2

Dress Right and Be Prepared

Second, you should dress appropriately, keeping weather conditions, terrain, insects, and other animals in mind. Bug spray, suntan lotion, and water are handy items to keep on hand.

3

Watch Your Surroundings

Third, situational awareness is crucial to safety and fun. Note your surroundings, so you don't get lost and be aware of others. Make sure someone knows your approximate whereabouts especially if you cache alone.

After those safety tips are taken into consideration, visit the official Geocaching website.

There are many things here to explore, but the absolute first step is to register as a user. Registration is free.

Each cache listing will be uniquely titled. There is a general description of the cache location and maybe some small clues. There may be pictures of the area.

In addition to coordinates, the cache listing will give you an idea of size, difficulty, type of container, and what if anything is inside the cache besides the logbook.

Once you have an idea of what you are looking for, set off to find the cache!

Here is a great intro video to finding a geocache:​

Some factors play into how accurate GPS technology is.

Cloud cover, skyscrapers, and forested areas can impact GPS accuracy, and of course, if using a cell phone, battery life, and phone service can significantly affect your success.

Here's where patience, stealth, puzzle-solving, critical thinking and physical persistence pay off.

Once you reach the coordinates, you are looking for an open secret, something is hidden in plain sight.

There may be "tells" that help you. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty, dig around, poke around, lift things up, yank sticks, pull on rocks, or break out a flashlight and peer inside.

You will want to be as stealthy as you can be. You may not be successful the first time you geocache, but don't get discouraged.

You will eventually find a geocache, and that is always exciting! Once you locate the cache, open it up and sign the logbook with the username you created on the website.

Additionally, you will want to sign the online visitor log. After you are done signing, put the cache back exactly as you found it.

If there is something amiss about the geocache, it is common courtesy to notify the cache owner so they can correct it.

For example, if the logbook is wet, missing, or full or if the cache is damaged or just not there, you should notify the cache owner.

​What is a Muggle in Geocaching?

People who don't geocache don't know what you are doing. If they see you, they might get suspicious. Non-geocachers are called "Muggles", a term made famous in Harry Potter, used to describe non-wizards.

One of the coolest things about geocaching is meeting other geocachers! Geocaching.com has a list of official events that local cachers host, and of course, it isn't uncommon to meet them on the trail.

Common Terms to Know

Geocachers have some specialized terminology, like "Muggle", "Swag", "Travel Bug" and "Geocoin". Here are some other definitions and acronyms that may help you.

  • FTF = First to Find. The first one to discover a newly placed geocached gets the bragging rights associated with it.
  • DNF = Did not find. You couldn't locate the cache. If there are many DNFs, especially in a row, it might mean the cache is missing or has been "muggled".
  • TFTC = Thanks for the Cache. These initials are often used in the logbooks to express thanks to the person who placed the geocache.
  • CITO = Cache In, Trash Out. This is an environmentally-friendly way of geocaching where the cacher picks up tracks and cleans up the route they are caching.
  • TNLN = Took nothing, left nothing. This designates that the cacher took nothing from the cache and did not leave anything behind.

Wrapping Up​

This article primarily focused on regular geocaches, but there are other types.

Virtual Caches, Earth Caches, Mystery Caches, and multi-step caches are also cache types that you might encounter. Each of these is designated by unique icons on geocaching.com.

Geocaching is not quite a sport, not quite activity, and yet it is more than both of these things.

Any hobby that combines physical activity with emotional involvement with mental puzzle-solving skills with spiritual connection in the form of visiting beautiful places and connecting with loved ones is certainly a hobby worth exploring.

Life is a grand adventure, and geocaching captures all of it. For this reason and so much more, it is definitely a terrific hobby like no other.

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