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Geocaching 101: Finding Your First Geocache

by Carolyn K. director, Hoagies' Gifted Education Page

Click for topics...
What is Geocaching? Geocoins and Travel Bugs
How do I get started? Geocaching Events!
Which cache should I pick first? Which GPS should I buy?
      Community Recommendations
I can't find the cache... Can I use my Smart Phone instead?
I found it!  Now what? Geocaching Acronyms

After Geocaching 101, review the Geocaching Acronyms and continue with...
bulletGeocaching 102: More fun with Geocaching!
bulletGeocaching 103: Puzzle Caches
bulletGeocaching 104: Placing Your Own Geocaches
bulletGeocaching 105: Premium membership features

What is Geocaching?

According to the Geocaching.com website, Geocaching is "a worldwide game of hiding and seeking treasure."  For a great video and other introductory material, visit their Getting Started page, watch What is Geocaching? video, and read on...

Our definition is slightly different.  While geocaching truly is a worldwide game, there is little treasure involved, unless you call fast-food toys, stickers, or small coins treasure.  And though they're sometimes frustrating, the most common sized geocache in our part of the U.S. is the infamous "micro," which is too small to contain treasure in at all.  But you will quickly find that geocaching is just the kind of fun that gifted minds of all ages enjoy.

We call geocaching a global hide-and-seek game.  First someone hides a cache -- a small, medium or large container hidden for others to find -- or defines a geological location that folks will visit and take a photo of or provide other information about to prove they were at the right spot.  That person or team makes up a set of clues that include the latitude and longitude of the location... which sounds like a giveaway clue, but that location is often just the starting place for the hunt.  Then the cache information is posted on the Geocaching.com website, and it becomes available to everyone who wants to try and find the cache. So far, over 5 million players have placed over 2 million (yes, Million!) caches worldwide... there are sure to be caches wherever you look. 

Geocaching has a lot going for it.  First, it gets the computer-addict kids (and even parents!) off the computer and out of doors. Yes, that includes me - the ultimate computer-addicted mom - as well as our kids.  It doesn't matter if you live in the city, the suburbs or out in the boonies, in the U.S. or any other country, there are likely geocaches near you.  Second, geocaching is free. While it's best to have some kind of GPS device, you can get started Geocaching with just a computer at home and Google Maps.  Membership to Geocaching.com is also free.  Later on you might choose upgrade to an inexpensive Premium Membership to the Geocaching website... you'll have access to special "premium member" caches, learn about new caches in your area immediately upon publication so you can be "first to find," be able to get travel routes full of caches for your road trips, and more.

Geocaching is also a game you can play when you travel.  We've hunted caches in Dallas, Seattle, Denver and Inner Harbor Baltimore, among other places.  With 1.1 million caches placed around the world in the first ten years, Geocaching is a great way to find new and interesting places in cities and towns you think you know, and to enjoy places that are brand new to you, at home and abroad.  Though we haven't personally had a chance, we have friends caching in Australia and China, and our geocoins traveling to Hawaii, Canada, Scotland and Germany... and they're still on the move!

Which brings up another new term: trackables.  Geocoins and Travel Bugs (TB) are trackable items that are sometimes hidden in a cache.  Each trackable item has a unique ID number so you can track it on Geocaching.com.  Once reported, you then move the trackable to another cache, perhaps taking a picture to post or perhaps moving it closer to its goal, whatever it says on Geocaching.com.  We've started trackable items here that have wandered to Hawaii, Canada, Ireland, Germany and more.  And we've moved other people's trackable items, that have traveled all over the world!  It's fun, and a great lesson in geography, to follow the path of geocoins and travel bugs around the world.

You will need to learn a few new acronyms for Geocaching.  When you are FTF a cache that's just another MKH, you can TNLN, but be sure to SL and tell the CO TFTC. (Translation: You're First To Find a cache that's just another Magnetic Key Holder, you Took Nothing, Left Nothing and Signed the Log to tell the Cache Owner "Thanks For The Cache!" See Geocaching Acronyms and Terms (below) for more translations of terms and acronyms you encounter. 

How do I get started?

The first thing you need to do is create a free account at Geocaching.com.  Pick a caching name and a password, and create your account.  You'll need to give a valid e-mail address, but fear not.  Geocaching.com does not spam, and you can turn off any newsletters or announcements whenever you would like.  Validate your account by clicking on the e-mail you receive, and you're ready to go. 

Once you're logged in on the Geocaching.com website, you'll want to Hide & Seek a Cache. You can seek a cache by address, zip code, state or country, or by keyword, GC code, or the username of the geocacher who hid or found the cache.  I like using the address feature if I know where I'm going, either using the exact street address, or just the city and state I'm searching.  When you click "Go" you'll receive a list of caches in the vicinity, with the closest caches listed first.  The compass shows the direction from the location you entered to the cache.  There's a check mark if you've already found the cache.  Icons show what kind of cache it is, as well as any trackables currently reported in the cache.

I am a visual/spatial person, and I much prefer maps over lists of words, so the first thing I do on any cache list is click on with Google Maps.  If you click the Google Maps link here, you'll get a map of north Seattle, the original home of Geocaching.  But when you click on those words on your cache list, you will see all the caches on the list overlaid on a Google map of your area. 

Which cache should I pick first?

When you're looking at the map, you can click on a cache icon to learn a few details about it.  Look for a cache with low difficulty and terrain ratings; 1 or 1.5 are good ratings for a first cache.  At the same time, look at the cache size.  Caches come in size micro, small, medium, large, or unidentified.  Unidentified can mean it is a any size from nano to large, or the cache may be small but the container (camo) may be large, or for some reason the Cache Owner (CO) doesn't want you to know the size; unidentified regular caches tend to be tricky.  Micro-sized caches can be tricky to find, too, especially if they're actually "nano" size; you might want to start with a small or medium cache.

When you're looking at the detail, you can click on the Name of the cache to bring up a page of details. There you'll get all the clues the CO provided, plus a list of all the logs already recorded for that cache.  Make sure the most recent logs are not frowning faces or Did Not Find (DNF), or you may be looking for a missing or extremely hard-to-find cache.  If you find yourself struggling in your search, click on the link to read ALL the logs for hints.  Even though each geocacher may think they haven't given anything away, the combination of comments often gives extra hints beyond what the CO originally posted.

In that detailed description, you will find the latitude and longitude of the location of the cache.  You'll need to enter these into your GPS, or paste them into Google Maps to find the location of the cache.  Google Maps is a great way to get started and to find caches located in the city, near the edges of parks, and other locations that are open to the sky.  But you won't be able to find a cache in the woods without a GPS device.  Don't give up if you don't have a handheld GPS; many portable automobile GPS devices have a way to enter coordinates, and a battery so you can take the GPS with you into the woods.

When you get to Ground Zero (GZ), the coordinates of the cache location, you'll need to use the hints found in the name and description of the cache to locate the actual cache container.

For another perspective, check out the video from Geocaching.com... Selecting and Finding Your First Geocache!

I can't find the cache...

Sometimes caches are hard to find; sometimes they are missing.  The first thing to do when you can't find a cache is to go back and check the cache description page.  Have the last 5 loggers found the cache?  Was the last one recent?  If not, the cache may (or may not) be missing.  If the cache was last found, reread the description.  What hints are in the description? ...in the title? ...in the logs? 

Be aware that GPS devices tend to be a bit skittish in the woods, under power lines, or in between tall city buildings. The best thing to do is find a vaguely clear spot and put the device down for a few minutes - literally. Then check your location again. Once your GPS settles down, we find we weren't where we thought we were, and it's much easier to find the cache when we go where we thought we were before...  older iPhones are notorious for their "soft" GPS locations; use a stand-alone GPS or Android phone for back-up if possible.

Sometimes the GPS doesn't want to settle down and give a solid reading.  In these cases, a good old-fashioned compass and triangulation are your best tools.  Walk away from the place you suspect, and get about 50-100 feet away.  Then take a reading on your GPS, and use your compass to locate the line that goes in the direction specified. You'll need to make a note of where that line goes; we often do this by having our caching partner stand in a line with several obvious trees or landmarks.  Walk around a ways, and take a second reading, and see where those two lines cross. That's the most likely place for the cache to be located.

In this age of Google and Google Maps, we sometimes opt for a Google Maps sighting rather than compass triangulation.  Go back to your computer and type the latitude and longitude of the cache into Google Maps.  Then zoom in as far as you can, to get an idea where the cache is located from the map.  This sometimes tells us that, in spite of triangulation, the readings our GPS is getting here under the wooded canopy are just too erratic and the cache is really... over there.

Hints to remember: looking for a geocache in a parking lot?  Those things lift up!  Yes, the "skirt" around the base of the light pole lifts up.  Magnetic Key Holders (MKH) or film canisters or camo'ed prescription bottles hide well in these tight quarters.  Looking for a Nano?  These are tiny, usually black, metal cylinders about the size of the tip of a child's pinkie.  The log is screwed tightly inside, occasionally requiring a "removal tool."  The tiny tweezers on a Swiss Army knife are great tools for this and other caching occasions.  Note: whenever you put a log back into a cache, be sure to place the log in the small end of the nano, bison tube or other container (usually the lid) so that you won't tear up the paper while you screw the base back on.

Geo-piles are a popular way to hide a cache, whether they're piles of sticks or stones. Caches are also likely to be hidden inside tree stumps or other tree hollows. And "regular" sized caches aren't always ammo cans - sometimes they're peanut butter or mayo or fluff jars, or various sizes of Tupperware or Lock-n-Lock containers. Often these containers are well-camouflaged.  We've found peanut butter jars coated in decoupage to look like thick sticks, and Lock-n-Lock containers covered in camo-patterned duct tape or spray-painted to match the ground or tree or bush they're hidden in. One of our favorites is in a container with a rubber sheet glued to the top, and then mulch or other natural material glued to that... that's tricky to find, even when you're looking right at it!

If all else fails and you have spent far too long on a 1/1 or 1.5/1.5 cache, the best thing we've found is to walk away.  Go home, and come back another day.  You might gain new insight by being away, or you might take that break to contact the Cache Owner (CO) for a clue.  Either way, a little sleep and fresh eyes (or fresh clues) sometimes makes finding the cache a whole lot easier.

I found it!  Now what?

With cache in hand, be sure to sign the log sheet or log book in the cache, and rehide it as well as you found it, or better if it seems to be out of place.  Then when you get back to your computer, visit the Geocaching.com page for that cache and click on "log your visit" to record that you've found the cache.  Then look around the site, and pick another cache to find!

Here are a few things I wish I knew when I was searching for those first few caches.  First, the "skirt" at the bottom of the light post in the parking lot lifts up, and this is a common location for a cache.  This hint will save you the hours we spent over several days looking for our first "micro" cache at a Burger King... before we knew those skirts lifted.  Second, look for "just another pile of sticks."  Cachers love to hide ammo cans and other large cache containers in the woods, under a pile of sticks. Third, know that caches may be hidden inside things, and drawn out with an attached fishing line.  Inside the knots in a tree or inside a metal fence post is a great place to hide a cache.  Visit Cacheboxstore to see some very unusual cache containers.

Another goal for geocachers is to be the First to Find (FTF) a newly placed geocache.  Premium Members get instant notification when a new geocache is published in their, but sometimes even free members can get lucky and be the FTF.  And the FTF gets recognition on the cache's page, and often receives a small token.  We received a ready-to-place bison tube with log for our FTF; we've seen other FTF prizes that include an unregistered geocoin or travel bug, a gold dollar, or a gift card to a local fast food restaurant.  You never know what you'll get as the FTF!

You can place your own geocache!  Read how to hide a geocache and the Cache Listing Requirements and Guidelines before you select your cache location.  Find a waterproof container; geocachers often use Lock & Lock brand containers or recycled ammo cans for medium size cache containers, recycled plastic medicine bottles for small containers, or 35mm film canisters or bison tubes for micro containers.  Be sure to use Google Maps to double check your GPS readings for your new cache, and then report a new cache.  Your cache will be reviewed and published (if approved) within 2 days, and folks will race to see who will be the FTF!

Geocoins and Travel Bugs

Now that you're caching, the next thing you might like to do is put some trackables into circulation.  What is a trackable? Visit Geocaching.com Presents What are Trackables? Trackables run $4-15, and each come with a unique ID number that is trackable on the Geocaching.com website under Trackables.  Geocoins tend to travel by themselves, while Travel Bugs tend to attach themselves to an object, known as a hitchhiker... a toy, keychain, dog, car, or even a person!  We've seen Travel Bugs on a wine bottle cork from Germany, a plush Zebra bookmark from England, and a turtle keychain from Washington state.  And our daughter attached a Travel Bug to a Koosh Turtle that she tracks as it travels around the world. 

We started a pair of Travel Bugs in Seattle to race home to Philadelphia; one got lost in Montana but one made it all the way home in just over 2 years, and has since been to Denver and back!  Some of our favorite trackables so far are our geocoins, which have found their way all over the world, including Hawaii, two Canadian provinces and nearly a dozen European countries.  Tracking them is an exercise in geography and fun!  For a list of online stores that sell geocoins, including some very inexpensive coins and travel bugs, visit Geocaching.com.

Some things I wish I knew about Travel Bugs and Geocoins when we started geocaching.  First, make a photocopy of your coins and bugs, back and front, before you send them out into the world.  That way, should they get lost, you can make another copy, laminate it, and put out a "replacement" of the original traveler.

Sometimes you'll be at an event, and discover dozens of travel bugs and geocoins in collections.  To log each traveler individually would take forever.  There's a better way!  LogThemAll allows you to type in (or cut-and-paste) the codes from multiple geocoins and travel bugs, and log them as "discovered" all at once.  Voila!

And for a bit of geocaching humor, enjoy "To Whom It May Concern" by The Travel Bugs.

Geocaching Events!

It's great fun to get together at geocaching events in your area.  Nationally in the U.S. there's the annual mega-event, GeoWoodstock, for geocachers of all ages to share and celebrate their caching, coins, and more.  2013 GeoWoodstock will be held in Lakeland, Florida. 

There are plenty of smaller local events, nearly always family gatherings at restaurants or parks.  Come join your fellow geocachers... you may (or may not) be surprised at how many gifted children and adults you'll find there!  At events, you can make new friends and trade caching stories, swap trackables, arrange caching runs together, and learn about great places for your favorite kind of caches, whether you're looking for more 1/1 (easy) caches or a place to accomplish your first century, finding 100 caches in a single day. 

Also at events you'll often find drawings and geocaching coins and supplies for sale, ideas for creating your own camouflaged caches, and lots more fun. 

To find Geocaching Events, click on "Hide and Seek a Geocaching," and then scroll down to the bottom of the page for seeking geocachers and click on "Advanced Search."  On the new page presented, select "All Event Type Caches" and put in your zip code, and you'll find all local Events.  Check them out - many are worth driving quite a distance to attend.  Just this summer, we've been to a couple picnics and zip-lining with geocaching families!

I want to buy a GPS. Which one should I get?

Everyone has an opinion on GPS devices, but the reviews tell the tale.  And so does a T-shirt I saw recently, which proclaimed "Get Garmin or Get Lost."  It's true, Garmin GPS devices are overall the most popular for geocaching, and if the reviews are to be believed, for automobile and other GPS uses, too.  Features you might be interested in for your GPS include...

bulletrechargeable Lithium Ion (LI) battery - keeping with the Cache In, Trash Out (CITO) theme of geocaching, rechargeable batteries create less landfill than disposable batteries.  Some units offer rechargeable LI battery that can be replaced temporarily with AA batteries - the best of both worlds.
bulletcar charging cord - along with the rechargeable batteries, this cord can extend your caching trips
bulletbacklit, TFT sunlight readable and/or color screen - not required, but if you can afford them these features make caching a lot easier.  Backlit means you can use your GPS in the dusk and night hours - night caching is more fun than it sounds!  TFT sunlight readable is easy to read, even in direct sunlight.  And a color screen often makes it easier to differentiate between a dark patch in the woods and a wet patch of lake.
bulletwaterproof - if you're caching near lakes and streams and you're klutzy like me... enough said.
bulletscreen size, GPS size - big screen, small GPS are the best combination.  Watch out for something too heavy or as big as an iPad - it'll be hard to lug around to caches in the woods.  Beware of units with tiny screens - 2.1"x1.1" is about the smallest readable size, 1.7"x1.3" is a squarer, more legible screen.
bulletdownloads - accepts Pocket Query (PQ) downloads of caches and cache routes, map updates and more via (optional) cable
bullethigh-sensitivity GPS receiver - the latest in GPS, this type of receiver may be a little more expensive, but gives better results in tall buildings and under tree canopy.

While we're discussing features, here's one feature you do NOT want to find in a GPS... a "Geocaching ready" GPS.  While this type of unit sounds ideal, with the names and locations of all the geocaches in the U.S. today already installed, the problem is that it's just those geocaches that existed in the U.S. on a specific day: the day it was programmed.  To add caches, you may need to buy an extra-cost cable and extra-cost subscription to the data.  Caches are added daily... remember, there are already 2 million active caches worldwide in under 13 years!  Within a mile of our home in the last two months, there have been more than 2 dozen new caches posted.  And at the same time, caches have been muggled, washed away by hurricane, or removed for other reasons.  Don't limit yourself by purchasing a GPS that only has a fixed set of geocaches installed.

Buying a GPSr: Geocaching Community recommendations

My friends in the geocaching community love to  recommend GPSr units for their new and old geocaching friends. Here are a few favorites.  For the beginner, the Garmin eTrex is an all-around good basic GPSr, available for under $100.  Now including water-resistant body and world-wide maps, it's a great starter GPSr. Once you're more involved in geocaching, you'll want a GPSr that interacts easily with your PC, and offers more advanced features including a full-color touch screen and rechargeable batteries.  The Garmin Oregon 450T is a well-rounded device that has been recommended for several years.  And for those who can afford it, the newest Garmin Monterra wifi-enabled GPSr is lighter than the rest, and has all the features you can imagine, including a built-in camera and dual battery system (rechargeable or AA batteries, for when you run out of juice in the middle of the woods), holds millions of caches.  I covet this GPS!

Why all Garmin devices, you might ask?  Reliability and time in the marketplace.  There are other GPSr units, but none that are recommended as often, at least not in the geocaching groups in our state and several nearby.  The advertising t-shirt oft seen at geocaching events says "Get Garmin or get lost."  I agree.

Can I use my Smart Phone instead of a GPS?

Are you considering a smart phone?  Already have one?  Then you might not need a GPS at all, at least not until you get more serious about geocaching.  The iPhone and Android phones are the most commonly used smart phones for geocaching.

Have an iPhone?  You guessed it... there's an app for that!  Groundspeak's Geocaching iPhone Application ($9.99 for the full version, or free for limited version with only simple caches of regular or multi-cache types) lets you geocache using only your iPhone.  The how-to pages warn, however, that the iPhone's location ability is not as sharp as many GPS devices and even other smart phones.  If you have an older iPhone, the phone uses it's network towers rather than a GPS chip to triangulate your location.  You may have to look a little harder, or you can use the Geocaching.com Google Map feature to zoom in and get a bird's-eye view of the location of the cache you seek.  Here's a great tutorial for Geocaching with an iPhone: Free Family Fun.

Good  news... there's another app for the iPhone.  Check out iGeoKnife.  It allows you to geocache without connecting to Geocaching.com, particularly useful when it's down or there's little cell coverage. Just point it to your cache database on your phone, and you're ready to geocache!

Have an Android phone?  You can buy the official Groundspeak app ($9.99 for the full version, or free for limited version with only simple caches of regular or multi-cache types), or try the best-rated (free!) Android geocaching app... c:geo!  With c:geo you can search for nearby caches, read the details, locate on the map or by compass, and even log the cache once you've found it. And as the Geocaching.com website adds features, the open-source c:geo keeps up with the latest and greatest.  C:geo works seamlessly with the GPS Status app (also free); download both c:geo and GPS Status apps from the Android Marketplace and go geocaching!

Because the GPS chips in most Android devices access both U.S. and Russian GPS satellites, Android geocaching apps are as accurate as a handheld GPS... and depending on the age of your handheld GPS, maybe a little better.  Enjoy the geocaching fun wherever you find yourself, without taking along any extra gear.  When we're stuck somewhere with a few minutes or hours to spare, we pull out the phone, and find a geocache or three!  Yes, there are cons to SmartPhone geocaching, too: battery life is an issue, and areas with limited cell coverage limit your geocaching options... unless you plan in advance and store the cache information for the caches you're planning to find  on your phone.  The "Store" feature on c:geo is your friend!  Visit Geocaching 101a: Using c:geo on your Android Device for a proper primer.

If you have a Blackberry or Windows smart phone, you might be able to use Geocache Navigator.  Visit Geocache Navigator to see if your phone is supported, and to find instructions.

The biggest downfall with smart phone geocaching is losing signal.  Some parks don't have good cell coverage once you start hiking.  In that case you either need a handheld GPS, or you can use The Guide to Caching Completely Offline with Android.

The second biggest downfall of smart phone caching is ... battery.  Using the GPS chip in a smart phone uses up battery power.  If you're going to use your smart phone for geocaching, get a backup battery... or you will be disappointed (and maybe lost!) when your phone shuts down in the middle of seeking a geocache.

Welcome to Geocaching!

Welcome to the sport of geocaching.  But be careful... it's addictive!  Soon you'll find yourself night-caching or rushing to be FTF (First To Find) on a newly placed cache, hiding your own caches or going for a caching streak - at least one cache a day for as many days as you can! Don't forget, Premium Membership to the Geocaching website can help with these goals and lots more.

Or you might find yourself on a caching power trail, a series of caches placed in close proximity (but no less than one-tenth of a mile apart, per Geocaching rules), for geocachers to follow and log dozens or hundreds of caches in a day or week. I keep a list of my favorite Power Trails near and far, including Schuylkill River Trail outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Blackwood Canyon Power Trail near Lake Tahoe, California, and the famous E.T. Trail and it's related Alien Head night-caching trail in Nevada. Visit ETGeocaching.com for more on these and other nearby Nevada trails. And there are other Power Trails around the world!

Maybe we will all meet at GeoWoodstock... 2014 in St. Charles, Missouri!

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Updated December 01, 2020

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