Geocaching tutorial: how to have fun with your GPS

Posted by matt on July 23, 2008

01-introduction-to-geocaching.jpgIf you follow me on Twitter, you’ll occasionally get a message from me saying that I’m geocaching. So what the heck is geocaching?  Quite simply, it is an organized way that folks hide boxes or ‘caches’ around the world with specific GPS coordinates.  The coordinates are then posted to a website to allow others to find them and record their visit.  This global treasure hunt is quite fun, and after you get yourself a GPS, it’s also pretty much free.   Here’s my geocaching how-to:

What you need for Geocaching

For starters, a GPS:

I recommend a hand-held unit because you’ll ultimately be on foot (or crawling on the ground) for the last part of finding the geocache. I just purchased the excellent Garmin eTrex Venture HC for around $110.  It works well, and even has a geocaching mode built in which makes the last few hundred feet easy. All 3 I recommend use the same core technology, so your accuracy should be just as good with the Venture as with the Colorado.  My quick hand-held buyer’s guide, in order of price:garminventurehc.gif

  • Garmin eTrex Venture HC – The one I own and the best bang for the buck, this works great for me at just around $100.
  • Garmin eTrex Vista HCx – It has a microSD slot (very handy for loading lots of maps), 2x the battery life and a compass and altimiter, but it’s almost 2x the price of the Venture.  Worth it if you plan on doing this a lot.
  • Garmin Colorado 400T – Check the link–this one is a madman.  But at > $500, it’s also a bank breaker.

While initially going to the geocache site (by either bike or by car) I actually use a second GPS that I already owned, a Garmin Nuvi 360.  This works well because this GPS is excellent for driving directions and after I park my car/bike, I’ll then get out the Garmin eTrex Venture HC to finish the job.

Next step: where are the caches?

You may have a lot of experience with GPS’s but what about finding where the caches are?  Geocaching.com is all you need here.  Making an account is free, and after you do that, you can search for caches right near your home!  I’m willing to bet that most anyone reading this right now has at least one geocache within 5 miles of their house!  There are tons in Madison, WI, but I was quite surprised to see that the small town were my parents live, Wild Rose, WI also had more than a dozen caches.  There’s a lot of information on the geocaching website, but don’t let it overwhelm you.  You’ll use more of it later when you start to understand how it works.

Loading the cache coordinates to your GPS:

I’m all about ease of use.  One advantage of owning Garmin products is that Geocaching.com supports Garmin units for a simple 1-click download. If I am interested in finding a cache, all I have to do is hook my computer to my 2 GPS’s (via USB), click a couple of buttons, and load the waypoints to my GPS’s:

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Finding your first Geocache

Let’s recap, are you ready?

  1. You have your GPS (or multiple GPS’s)
  2. You’ve gone to geocaching.com and located a geocache that you want to find.  Hopefully you’ve loaded the coordinates to your GPS, or you can usually manually type them into your GPS too.
  3. Finally, I’d recommend printing out the page about the specific geocache you are going to visit.  It usually has tips and hints if you get stuck and can’t find it.  Also bring a pen–you may need it.

Geocaching example: finding GCKATE (Leopold Legacy: September)

Okay, so I followed the above 3 steps, and used my Garmin Nuvi to drive to a parking lot near the geocache site.  I’ve gotten out of my car and I’m traveling with both Garmins, but I’ll switch to just the Venture HC shortly.  Note that after loading the coordinates above, I just find it in the waypoints or geocache menu, click it, and away we go.

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It’s a nice walk, and so far so good.  The direction on the GPS is showing me which direction to go, but I’m following a trail that doesn’t follow it exactly.  No need to walk off a trail…I’m not following this this blindly, as I’m assuming the trail will lead close by the cache.

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Getting closer now… only about 30 feet away. Time to go off the trail and find the cache…

AHHHHHHHH.  I now have no less than 25 mosquito bites.  Must….leave…now.

Successful find?  Not this time. So as was sorely missed above, more things I recommend:

4.  PANTS.
5. And SHOES.  I was wearing shorts and sandals.  What was I thinking?
6.  Mosquito repellent.  I live in WI.  It’s summer.  These are woods.  I’m smarter than this.

Casual geocaching can be done, but you should be aware that walking on a sidewalk isn’t the same as rooting around in the woods.  In a similar incident, I was with family geocaching for the first time, and we ran into HUGE ANTHILL.  Ants are a little harder to combat than mosquitoes, but be wary that there is a variety of things you can run into.  Since you are following your GPS, it is taking you to places you’d probably avoid by foot otherwise.

Okay, so back after the bug spray… Success!  This one wasn’t too hard to find if you see the below picture.  Note that once you get under some trees, your GPS usually loses some accuracy (I’m standing over the cache, and it says it’s 21 feet away).  After all, it wouldn’t be fun if you didn’t have to search at least a little.

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So now that I found it, what do I do?  Well, this is an old ammunition box, which is what many of the geocaches are made out of since they can hold up to the elements.  Upon opening, you’ll usually find the following:

  1. Log book to record your visit (this should always be in there) – Some geocaches are the size of a 35mm canister and all they have are paper to log your visit, so be sure to bring a pen with you.  There is a lot of geocache lingo too like “TFTC” means “Thanks for the cache” which will save you time, especially if getting eaten by bugs. Check out the other entries–it’s usually quite interesting.
  2. Possibly a Travel Bug – some items are trackable on geocaching.com.  This is cool as you can see where certain items have traveled.  Some all over the world!  Check out this trackable geocoin I picked up a few weeks ago–it started in Germany and has been to Mt. Everest Basecamp, and now I have it.  I plan on moving this to Seattle in a few weeks to add to it’s journey.  I also just placed my first travel bug.
  3. A bunch of crap – “geojunk” may be more appropriate, but a lot of this stuff is just worthless plastic stuff.  I just leave this and stick to signing the log and moving around travel bugs which is a little more interesting.  The geojunk is good for kids though.

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So we covered the gear, how to do it and what you can expect.  If you already have a GPS, give it a shot and let me know how it goes!  If you get into it, you may start hiding your own caches and see who visits (or start doing the travel bug thing).  It can be addicting, especially if you travel a lot you can use this to ‘mark’ where you’ve been.  I wish I would have started a few years ago when I was doing more globetrotting.  Good luck!

Posted under how to, reviews, tech gadgets
  1. Ziggy Said,

    Cool! Do you have a place in Seattle in mind yet?

  2. matt Said,

    Hey Ziggy! Not yet… looks like i have a lot of options though! I still remember you using your GPS with your palm back in like 2003!

  3. Vieth Said,

    Cool! Another fun thing to do with GPS, if you’re a genealogy buff, is to document the precise locations of grave markers for folks on your family tree and record the details in your family tree software’s notes. I’ve found a couple markers that required some research and random walking through cemeteries, so it’s nice to document those. …okay, it’s not “fun” but it’s worthwhile.

  4. matt Said,

    Who will be the first to find? http://www.geocaching.com/seek/cache_details.aspx?guid=db5b1512-de44-4ba6-b36b-cba95eaf9b9c

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