Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Get out and enjoy! Go Geocaching!! A tutorial.

When explaining geocaching to a “muggle”, someone who doesn’t know about geocaching., a term taken from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books that means a person who doesn’t know magic, a cacher often describes it as a high tech treasure hunt. The high tech part is correct, but the treasure part, not so much. I’m not looking for buried treasure, I’m not looking for anything buried in the dirt at all. If I were to expect treasure while I’m geocaching, then I’m participating in the wrong hobby! What you’ll find is mostly McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, often dirty or broken, garbage and loose odds and ends. Now and then, if you’re the First to Find, or FTF, you might find a worthy prize like a CD, camera or money, but often just an empty log book page where you scrawl your geocaching username and the knowledge that you were the one that found it first. So, if you’re thinking you’re going to find all this cool stuff, you’re wrong. Geocaching is about getting off of your butt, getting outside and going places you didn’t know existed, sometimes even just a few miles from your house!

The first thing you need to get started is have access to a computer with an Internet connection. Using one at the library is fine, just make sure you log out when you’re done. The second is a GPS receiver. Now, it's shocking, I know, but you don’t have to actually own a GPS to geocache. I have chatted with some people who use just  a compass and map.  I love technology too much and although I have a compass in my geogear bag and a map under the seat in my van, I've never used them. Huge kudos to those of you who can find a box hidden in the woods with just a map and a compass, but I love living in the 21st century!

Once you’re sitting at a computer, go to and create a FREE account. You have access to a lot of info at no cost to you. After you participate for a bit, you can decide if you want to become a Premium Member (PM). Being a PM is $30 a year and not only supports the website, but it gives you access to special features like searching for caches along a route or finding hides with certain attributes like, are they kid friendly, allow dogs or have Travel Bugs (TB’s).  I’ll talk more of that later. I use the pocket query feature often as I travel up to Michigan, on vacation or just doing a marathon day trip with a couple geogal pals I’ve become friends with through geocaching. The picture above is what you'll see when you visit the link above.  I've actually logged in under my user name, The Cache Checkers (look me up and send me a friend request! ) so you can see what I see as a member.  The creators of have created a cute and quick video that introduces you to geocaching.  The top right you see my username and the picture I've chosen as my avatar.  I've been a member since 10/05/2008 and joined as a Premium Member 10/05/2009 with a renewal date of 10/05/2010.  So, I was a basic member for a year before I decided to sign up as a PM.  I currently have 309 finds and have hidden 3 of my own.  For more info about the sport, click on the Getting Started link on the left side of the page.  I'm going to take you to the Hide & Seek a Cache link first.  I didn't take a picture of that page, but what you would see is a variety of options to look for a cache in your area.  The first option is by entering your address, so, I typed in my address and this is what came up:

If you remember what my geocaching handle is, you'll see that the first geocache listed is mine.  You can tell because my username is posted after the name of the cache, which is "My Neck of the Woods", or maybe it's that nifty red arrow with the word "mine" underneath that give it away!  LOL  The ones with the red check marks are caches I've already found.  As a PM there are options to keep your own and the ones you found, as well as others, out of your search results so you can just get right to ones that you want to look for.  Starting all the way to the left, you can see the direction and distance that cache is from your search criteria, which was my physical address.  If you have a GPS, you can get your home coordinates from it and enter the numbers under your profile, that way every cache you look at will be calculated automatically and let you know how far it is from your home coords.  Remember, the distances here are by satellite, not by road, so unless you have wings or know it's a straight shot via a known road, add a few miles.  The next column is Icons and this tells you what kind of cache hide it is.  The green one is a traditional cache.  On this page you don't know what size it is yet, but a traditional hide is either a nano, think thumbnail, micro, usually a film canister or a pill bottle, small, sandwich size, regular, usually an ammo box or coffee can and large a bucket.  The next column, the (D/T), are for numbers 1-5 for the Difficulty of the cache and the Terrain rating.  Pay attention to those, especially when you first start out.  You're first attempts should not be micro's with a D/T rating higher than 2. I don't want you frustrated or injured before you have a chance to give geocaching a good try.

The next column is the date the geocache was published into the system.  New geocache hides are reviewed, NOT VISITED, by volunteer fellow geocachers.  There is a criteria you have to follow to get one put on the website.  Sometimes it take a few days and sometimes it's the same day, it all depends on the reviewer.  Also, you might find a log with a lot of names in the cache, but back on the site, not so much.  This annoys me greatly.  If you find it or don't find it, please log it online.  People learn about the hide not only from the cache information page, but also from the logs of other geocachers.  If you get stumped, reading past entries might help and as a cache owner myself, I love to hear how my hide went for another geocacher.  A cache owner (CO) won't know it needs maintenance or that the D/T rating should be changed unless you post a log, so do it! 

The next column is the Description.  It holds the name of the hide, which is what you click on to get more information, the person who hid the cache, the code it is saved under on the website and the state the hide is in.  These are all important for their own reasons.  The name is often times a hint to how to find the cache.  My second hide on the screen shot I took is called "A Nelson Red Spot".  Nelson is part of the name of the park it's hidden in, a Red Spot refers to the trail mark on the tree, which is right above the hiding spot.  As you geocache, you'll recognize other usernames in the game.  You might attend events and be able to put names to faces, but, in an example for me, there is a fellow cacher near me who hides nothing but micro's in the woods.  For that reason, I often just skip over his hides and go on to others. 

Whether you participate in paperless caching or not, it's important to include the GC (geocache) code with the information on the cache.  Let's say you come back from a hunt and want to log your find and comments on the website.  All you remember is the name; Bob's Fishing Hole.  You type that in the Keyword text box on the Hide & Seek a Cache page.  Nothing comes up.  Why?  You know that's what it was called!  You end up going a round about way to find it and when you finally do, you see it's called Bob's Fishin' Hole.  The apostrophe instead of a "g" is all it takes to get zero results!  Jot down the numbers after the GC to make finding that cache on the website easier.  You must include the GC in the search box.

The last worded column is called Last Found.  Those are the dates the most recent cacher found that hide.  If there are two dates, it's the date it was last found and the date YOU found it.  The last two are for GPS units.  If a cache on this page is one you want to find, you check that box and it will be downloaded to your GPSr (receiver).  Right now I believe that option is only available if you have a Garmin GPSr.  I have a Magellan and have to take an extra step to get the info from the website to my handheld, but I'm OK with that.  I've used both types of units and prefer the Magellan.  I'll get into that later.

Also in that screen shot above there are a couple other icons you might be curious about.  The one with two yellow cache icons is the symbol for a multi-cache hide.  The coordinates you get on the cache info page are for the first hidden box and inside that one are the next coordinates or a clue to get to the next one in the series.  I've done a two part multi-cache and I've done a five step one.  Some geocachers don't like multi's because you only get one smiley face, which is the symbol used when you log a find, when you actually made more than one find because it was a multi.  Most multi's have a goal in mind.  For example, I did one that was called 70's One Hit Wonders.  I found micro's in about eight cemeteries and inside these micro's was a lyric of a song that was a single hit for a band in the 1970's.  I had to find what year in the 70's and that number I put into a mystery coordinate.  Once I had all the finds I was led to the final, which was an ammo box cache.  Multi caches are their own category, so if people were to look at your stats, they don't just see how many finds you have, but how many of what kind.  There are also mystery caches identified with a question mark that are usually puzzles that involve some brain power with the cache coords in the solution.

Virtual caches, known for their ghost icon, aren't published anymore.  I don't remember the reason why, but the ones that are out there have been grandfathered in, but no more can be created.  These caches were created by users who had found something man made that they found interesting and wanted to share. I've only been to a few vitual's.  One was an old stone foundation with an Indian head embossed in it.  I had to send an email to the cache owner of what I saw for credit for the find.  Another was a time capsule in a flower garden at a place of business.  I sent the two dates to the CO and one other was a bench placed in remembrance of someone.  That virtual required the name of that person.  The other cache type, which you can see the icon for in the picture I shared, is for earth caches.  These are always interesting.  My fave earth cache is in the same park I hid A Nelson Red Spot in.  It's called the Devil's Ice Box and to get my smiley face I had to take the temperature in the parking lot, find this Ice Box place with my GPS (it was a cave below cliffs) and then take the temperature in there.  I was to send that info in an email.  It was over a ten degree difference! 

One more thing about that picture is in the Placed column there is the word New!.  That means that particular cache was recently published.  As a PM, I get email notifications of when a cache within a certain distance, I chose 20 miles, is published so I can get first dibs.  The next picture I want to show you is a cache information page and I chose the one published for this brand new geocache hide.  It's obvious from the title that this hide is in a cemetery, so right there you know some things you should and shouldn't do when going for it.  You can also see what size this is, a micro, and that might turn you of, but it might not.  Also on this page are the oh so important GPS coordinates.  I've made the mistake a few times of forgetting to put those numbers in!  You can also print from this page, send it to your GPS or phone, but only if they are compatible with  This info page is short and to the point.  Some cache pages will tell a fictional story.  I've look for a cache based on a pirate song or a hidden troll colony.  Some are factual and talk about the specific area and some are memorable and talk about loved ones lost.  This one talks about where to park for safety reasons, tells you to bring your own pen (BYOP) and says there's a small prize for the FTF.  You can see at the bottom of the picture is Additional Hints.  Sometimes there are helpful hints (and not so helpful) and sometimes that area is blank.  They are encrypted in an easy to solve code, think a=z, b=y, so the hunt isn't spoiled by those who don't want hints, but are easy to figure out when you're out in the woods and stumped (some form of stumped is almost always a hint!).  Below the hints are the found and did not find (DNF) logs of past hunters. 

On the top right is the code.  Write it down!  Below that is what you click on to log your visit.  You can choose that you found it, didn't find it, that it needs maintenance or just write a note.  Below that is the date in case you're logging your visit a few days after the fact.  Under that is where you put any comments you have.  Even if you just talk about how hot the day was, share your experience at the cache.  If you want to say something about the hide but don't want to ruin it for those who don't like to read spoilers, there's an option of putting your text into the same code the hints are in.

If you really like the cache and want to watch it, there is an option to do that and any changes to the cache info page are sent to you.  I don't know why you'd want to ignore the cache page, but you can and you can bookmark it as well.  I have quite a few bookmarked that I want to do in the future.  The map below the links brings up the immediate area of the cache so you can get a birds eye view of the hide area before putting it into your GPSr.  Those small black squares underneath the map are the attributes the CO chose to give as much info to potential seekers as possible.  This is a cemetery cache, so you should already know without being told that you can't do it at night without risking a ride in the back of a police car.  The CO also says this hide isn't wheelchair friendly, has poisonous plants, can be found in the snow, there's gas station near by, is less than a 1km hike and takes less than an hour.  Some people are very helpful and post as many attributes as they can, some people don't share anything at all. 

Just below that is the Inventory. This doesn't mean that every toy, souvenir or knick knack currently in the cache is listed. This is for trackable items. These items are TB's, or trackable bugs which are like dog tags attached to an item of some kind.  One of my TB's is dedicated to my mom.  Breast cancer took her back in April of 2003, so I attached a pink ribbon keychain to a TB I purchased at the store.  These are the most common of trackable items.  DO NOT KEEP THESE.  No matter how cute the item is attached to it, if you can't move the item into another cache, then leave it there for someone else who can!  These are meant to travel, so please keep them going!  Most TB's have a goal.  My goal ias to have this TB travel around to places my mom never had a chance to see.  I included a list of destination cities and asked for pictures to be posted.  Not everyone follows along, but some do and those are the ones that count.  There are also trackable coins and these can be just about anything.  The one below I got for Devin and it's goal is to be placed in caches that are near water and of course pictures are wanted (there's a place on the TB info page to upload pictures).  There are commemorative coins and coins that are designed by geocachers and printed at their own expense....  So many to choose from but you can't become too attached to them because they unfortunately tend to disappear.
One last thing to mention regarding the cache info page is that there's another map below the Attributes and the Inventory.  It looks just like the map above it of the cache area, but when you click on this one, it's an entirely new tool!  Let's say you hear about a cache you want to try out.  You don't know anything about other caches in that area and instead of going to the Hide & Seek a cache page, just click on that second map on that cache's info page and what you get is all the caches in the area of that one cache!  If you scroll out you get more coverage area, scroll in you get less.  The names will appear when you mouse over them and are listed on the right.  Click on them for more info and you can plan a day of geocaching around one cache! 

Now before you get off your butt and dust off that GPSr that's been shoved in some corner or has become an expensive paper weight, I'd like to suggest you do one more thing.  Doing this doesn't cost a dime and it's actually very cool.  If you don't have it already, download the free version of Google Earth.  Copy and paste the coordinates from the cache info page into the text box under the words "Fly to", and, literally, you're flying to the cache sight.  From this angle you can not only see the general hiding spot of the cache, but you can see where the road is compared to the spot, where you might park, how long the walk might be.  It can answer a lot of questions for you that you don't have to wonder about as you're driving around the area.  Google Earth also comes with a cool feature called Street View.  If there is a camera icon near the cache site, click on it.  You'll get a 360 degree view of that area and it might come in handy, or, when you're addiced to the sport as I am, you spend your free time doing cache reconnaissance!

Everyone does geocaching differently.  I have met people who have thousands of finds and have been doing this since the sport was created ten years ago.  We all approach it differently in preparation, equipment and attitude.  The following is what I did on a recent cache hunt.

I use a Magellan Triton handheld GPSr.  I can't download the cache info straight from the website, which is called paperless caching.  What I do is copy the info I want in a separate program on my laptop called VantagePoint that came with my GPSr.  From there I sync it with my handheld and I'm ready to go! I have quite a few cache coords in my unit already.  If I have time to kill when I'm out and about, I turn on my handheld which I call Ferdie because the unit is named after Ferdinand Megellan.  Once I have the coords, I enter them into Richard, my TomTom One which is pictured to the right, and I'm on my way!  Tim surprised me with my car GPS about two years ago, right before the boys and I headed off to Southern Ohio to meet my family for a long weekend.  It was while researching my TomTom online that I came across geocaching.  This is the view of Richard, who gets his name from the factory installed voice I prefer to use, inside my van while still in my driveway.  The arrow is the direction he wants me to go and the .50 is the distance.  He's a little confused as I'm in my driveway and not on a road. The 4:02 is my estimated arrival time at my destination, the 4.3 is the miles to my destination.  Hobart Rd. is the name of the road I'm on.  The varying sized squares is the satellite signal strength and the 3:42 is the current time.  The name at the top of the screen is the next road I'll turn on, oh, and the little blue spot above the directional arrow on the left is a compass.

Based on the cache information page and it being only a few miles away from my house, I know the general area so I don't bother looking at the location via Google Earth.  I follow Richard's directions and park.  From past experience, I don't leave the house without doing the following:

  • wear long pants and tennis shoes
  • if I'm unfamiliar with the area, am by myself or plan on being gone for some time, I turn the GPS locator on in my phone and give Tim either a list of coords that I'll be at or the GC numbers 
  • water to drink because a short hike often turns into a very long one!
  • don't forget the GPS.  It's easy to do! LOL
  • a trash bag  Be a sweetie and pick up garbage you see near the cache site.  It also keeps curious eyes off you
  • my dog. Kit is my geodog.  She goes with me almost every time.  Walking her and letting her investigate bushes, trees and under boardwalks with me while I'm holding a garbage can I be suspicious?  
  • a pen
  • tweezers for those tight logs
  • something to trade if you plan on taking anything out
  • don't lock your keys in the car and don't drop them in the woods, either
  • create a Waypoint in your GPS of where you parked your car
If the cache info page has parking coordinates, park there.  If not, make sure you park using common sense.  Once out of your vehicle, before you even look at your GPS, look around.  See how many muggles are nearby, especially teenagers.  If there are too many, especially in the area of the hide, don't risk it.  You were once a teenager.  You remember how curious, and admit it, how disrespectful you were at some point.  If you can't find the cache without somebody wondering what you're up to, then come back another time.  Don't try to be sneaky because that will attract attention.  Use some stealth, some confidence and if you are approached by someone, gage them before admitting what you're doing.  Some people are honestly curious, some aren't.  You can usually tell by talking to them.  If you're ever approached by a police officer, be honest.  If you're not, you could be getting yourself and the sport of geocaching in trouble.

Once I determine the general area of the cache and if it's a go or not, it's off the the hide I go!  Ferdie pictured to the left is much more user friendly, in my opinion, than the Garmin.  I used a friend's Garmin while my Magellan was sent in for some work and although Magellan customer service was next to non existent, their handheld are easier to follow on this screen than watching an arrow spin on the Garmin unit.  The arrow is me and all you need to do is get the point of that arrow heading toward the flag icon, which represents the cache.  I am zoomed out to 300 feet, so the cache is about 250 feet from where I parked my van.  As I get closer I zoom in more and when I have my arrow on top of the icon, I put it in my pocket and use my eyeballs and my geosense.  As you find some and miss some, you'll fine tune your own geosense.  This particular hide was about 100 feet off a trail.  If there is a trail, use it!  Don't go bushwacking to get to the cache.  Stay on the trail, even if it goes around and all over, until you're close to the cache, then step off the trail.  The cache info pages are usually pretty good about saying if there's a trail or not.

Always when in the woods, look out for little critters scurrying around, spider webs you might walk into, and those poisonous plants!  "Leaves of three?  Let them be!"  I don't know all the plants related to poison ivy, so I don't go into the woods anymore without pants and closed toe shoes on.  Glance at your GPSr now and then, but don't stare at it.  I don't want you walking into a tree or falling off a cliff.  Always keep an eye out for muggles and when you make the find, no whooping or hollering.  If there are muggles around, take the container away from it's hiding spot so if you are seen and someone is curious, they won't know exactly where to look.  If it's raining, try your best to keep the contents dry and if you take something out, put something back in!  It's no fun at all to go to a cache with kids who have things to trade and find an empty cache or it's full of movie ticket stubs, rusty screws or a comb.  This is a family friendly game, so please no matches, lighters, knives or anything of that nature.  Also, don't leave behind any food, candy or gum.  Raccoons have good noses and even better hands and they don't put the cache back together after they get the goodies out.

There are some interesting caches out there.  This is the one I found the day I took the picture of Ferdie above.  Geocaching rules say you can't bury a cache, but this one is acceptable and people bend the rules anyway.  The CO partially buried a PVC pipe in the ground and hollowed out a log and made that the top of his geocache.  What you see in the lid there is a notice saying that this is a geocache and inside the tube is a plastic bag that holds the log book, a pen and some tradeable items.  This isn't your typical cache find.  Most hides are just Tupperware or Lock n Lock containers covered in camo paint or spray painted and hidden under downed trees or in stumps.  Not too many are as creative as this and some are just annoying.  One I did while in N.C. on vacation last week was just a red Folger's coffee can.  It's location in a bush at the end of a dead end trail was the only way it wasn't being being mistaken for a piece of garbage.  Some hides are memorable, some not so much, but no matter what the container or the junk you find inside is, always the drive there, the walk to it and often times the location of the cache itself makes it all worth while. 

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial!  I enjoyed writing it and am already looking forward to my next search for Tupperware in the woods!

No comments: