Monday, February 25, 2008

A Geocaching Tutorial, Scooter Style

Sank and my Uncle-in-Law both left me comments/sent me emails asking about geocaching details today. So rather than answer people individually, I'm creating a geocaching tutorial, with the highlights as I see them - aka Scooter style.

1.) It's pronounced "cash", not "caysh". However, my wife and daughter both say caysh in an attempt to change the preference.

2.) You need a GPS. I can't speak to all of them - as a matter of fact, I can only speak to two. The one I own is the Garmin eTrex Handheld GPS. Bright yellow, no color screen - just black and gray - waterproof, hardy. Mine cost about $80 with a credit card discount on Amazon. It supports a wire to the computer, but I don't own one. My friend The Boss got a Garmin eTrex Legend. It's a step up from mine, with maps and a cable. In the end, the difference is that he can check out some maps on his as necessary, and rather than hand entering coordinates into his GPS, he can just download them from the computer. The functional difference is that I tend to be picky about my caches - picking about as many as I think I can do in a day and only entering those coordinates. The Boss, on the other GPS, downloads hundreds of points and tries to find one close to where he is when he's ready to GPS. Then again, he geocaches over lunch, and I don't for fear of muddy pants, so we have different styles. Depending on your needs and income level, you can opt for color and maps and all sorts of extras. But if you question your commitment to geocaching, you're better off buying something inexpensive and upgrading later. I would suggest that the one feature you make sure you get is a backlight, so you can go night caching, but I think almost every one of them supports a backlight, so you should be safe on that account.

2.) Get an account on It's free, but you can opt for $2/month if you want a premium account which gives you a few extras like a fancier coordinate download option. You can track geocaching friends and see where they've been finding their caches. You can log your own finds and keep track of where you been and, more importantly, where you haven't been. You can see the character of caches: puzzle, multi, basic, photo (some are just a pretty place to take a picture), in the middle of a library in a hollowed out book, etc. And, thanks to Google Maps, you can zoom in on an address and find all the nearby caches. You'll find them pretty much everywhere, although if you're in the West part of the Twin Cities you can almost forego the GPS unit and just look under rocks and in stumps until you find one, they're so plentiful. You can do all of this before step one if you like, just to get an idea of what's out there.

3.) Look for the caches close to your house. That's always the best place to start because you might be able to walk to some of them the first day. If you've got kids (young ones), keep these things in mind:
a.) Look for those that aren't deep in a woods, particularly in early spring or winter, as it can be slippery and a lot of work to hike in the snow and mud.
b.) Look for a basic cache, not puzzles or multi caches. Go for the feel good feeling of finding a few right away, not the agony of trying to figure out why you can't decode the octal coordinates handed to you for something called "Pieces of Eight".
c.) Check the size and the difficulty of the cache. Micro/difficult are going to be almost impossible to find, particularly in the winter when a little cannister the size of a film can might be buried below the snow line. Average size and easy to medium are best.
d.) Check when the cache was last found. If it hasn't been found in months, it might not be a good candidate, particularly in the winter.
e.) Be careful of cloudy days and lots of overhead branches, they can throw off the GPS unit and rather than following the arrow to within 16 feet, you'll find the compass-like director swinging back and forth when you're close, like you're standing on a magnet. You can try to triangulate in, but it's not always easy.
f.) Don't be discouraged if you can't find a cache. It's frustrating, but that's why you put several in the area into your GPS, so you can move on to one that makes you feel like you had a productive day.
g.) Each cache has some paper in it where you can sign your name or alias (NodToNothing and Eryn, in my case, sometimes + Pooteewheet) and the date you stopped by. If you notice things are running low, make note of it when you record your visit on

4.) I print the first two pages of the cache listing on I like to have the paper with me as I can translate the optional, encoded hint if I'm stuck, or check the last few entries for details. And it's handy to have when you're all done and trying to find the listing on again, as well as a good place to write a few notes in the field if you want to blog about a cache later.

5.) Remember, if you're going far afield, not every state is as poisonous critter free as Minnesota. I sometimes find myself in places like Chicago tromping around in the woods intent on a cache before I realize the snake that just bounced off my boot isn't your typical garden variety. I'm not trying to scare you away from caching - just remember safety.

6.) Things I tend to carry (although I'm a bit of a pack rat):
a.) Handheld GPS with good batteries.
b.) Pen or two.
c.) A few pieces of small notebook paper in case a cache needs an infusion.
d.) You can carry a spare pencil and or sharpener if you're generous.
e.) A few pieces of junk to drop in a cache. If you don't have anything, don't worry - just take one thing from each of the first few caches you find, although it's more fun to leave behind those extraneous buttons lying around your house
f.) Camera - a good way to capture your history, and a good place to score two replacement batteries for your GPS if it runs out of juice while in the field.
g.) If your camera isn't your phone, a phone, particularly if you're going out alone. You don't want to get stuck with your arm up a tree and no way to call for help.
g.) In the winter, spare socks and or shoes, depending on your footwear preference.
h.) Whatever else you like. I've been known to carry a flashlight and a pocketknife. Eryn is always looking for the next best walking stick.

7.) Geo Bugs and coins - these are small items tagged with a guid/barcode that can be tracked from site to site. You can order your own online, or move around those that you find. It's good etiquette to move them within a week or so of finding them, but I often see them sitting for a month while someone waits to take them further afield, on vacation, so they can get them closer to their professed destination (i.e. all 50 states, as many rivers as possible, etc). The geocaching site will allow you to indicate when you picked up a bug or coin and will prompt you with a drop down at each cache listing after that as to whether you dropped it off. You can upload pictures of the bugs (or caches - although you should upload pictures of things near the cache, not the cache itself) at to make the owners happy.

8.) Google Earth - you can track geobugs and geocoins on if you download Google Earth. It will draw a nice line from place to place so you can see where an object has gone, visually. You can also sign up for alerts when someone moves a bug, or when a cache is discovered (useful if you couldn't find one and you intend to go back). I tend to use Google Earth less to track bugs, and more to get a nice top down picture of where I found a cache if I want to blog about it.

9.) Hide your own cache. I haven't done this yet, so I can only attest to what others have done. Generally you'll hide a peanut butter jar wrapped in camo tape, but caches come in all sizes and flavors, and manner of wit. Disguised as branches. Decorated as skulls and toilets. Bird houses. Remember to make the name of your cache clever to match the location and character of the cache. Just don't use glass - it breaks. And don't put it on private property, unless it's your own, and even then you better put in big letters on the cache listing, "THIS IS ON MY PRIVATE PROPERTY, IT'S OK" because nothing frightens cachers away faster than worries that they're trespassing. Remember to leave a pencil and some paper in a sealed plastic bag so there's something to sign, and seed it with a few fun items. This is the perfect place to drop your first geobug.


klund said...

Do you use any GPS management software? Like EasyGPS, or some such nonsense? Or is that not necessary?

Scooter said...

I don't use anything - my coworker who geocaches uses GeoBuddy.

klund said...

Nothing seems like the appropriate software. Koleman is getting a GPS for his birthday this weekend. I opened it up and loaded in two geocaches near Grandma's house - one is a kid's cache right off the Luce Line, about a half mile walk from where we'll be.

Scooter said...

That's my problem with software - I'm generally fine with the online site, and if I really wanted all the bells and whistles I'd pay the $2 a month instead of buying software (although my coworker does both).

The Luce has tons of caches on it. I think the Northwoods Geocachers add a lot of caches to that trail.

klund said...

Where do you buy travel bugs and other stuff? Is there any place online that is better than any other?

Anonymous said...


Buy TBs from Groundspeak. Anyone else is just a Groundspeak reseller.

I use Easy/ExpertGPS or GPSBabel (for my Mac).