Looking for a fun way to exercise both mind and body? Try geocaching (JEE-oh-cash-ing), an outdoor activity that combines hiking with a tech-aided treasure hunt. The name derives from a mashup of “geography” and “cache,” and the game itself transcends territorial, political, gender and age boundaries.
Instead of a parchment map where X marks the spot, you use an app on a smartphone and your powers of observation. Instead of hunting for a buried chest, you're looking for a cache hidden in an eco-friendly site above ground.
- Go to geocaching.com to choose one of millions of geocaches hidden worldwide.
- Use your smartphone app or GPS to navigate to the cache.
- Keep an eye out so you can spy the cache’s camouflaged hiding place.
- Once you find the cache, sign the logbook, exchange one item and put everything back like you found it.
- Follow the most basic rule of geocaching: Leave No Trace during your hunt.
Consult geocaching.com to check out possible caches near you, and to get the free Geocaching® mobile app that you can use to find them. Many GPS units also have geocaching features, so you can use one of those if you prefer, though we won’t detail how to use a GPS in this article.
Geocaching.com is loaded with helpful information for newbies, including geocaching basics and a link to get the app. Note that creating a geocaching.com account and the basic app are both free, but you’ll also see an optional fee-based premium membership that offers additional features.
Caches use a 5-star rating for the level of difficulty and the terrain, so start out at the easy end of that range. It’s also best to seek traditional caches now, though cache types have evolved extensively over the years—one variation involves solving a puzzle as part of the hunt, for example.
Caches also come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, so you might want to begin by seeking “regular” size caches at the outset. Click on the listed size of a geocache in the app to get an idea of its dimensions. And, though most containers have a straightforward boxlike shape, there are no absolute rules, meaning caches might also be inside a container that’s a replica of an item like a birdhouse in a tree or a stone on the ground.
Seeking a Cache
After you’ve done some research on potential caches at home, you’ll use the app when you’re out looking for them. Check the app’s map page for nearby caches and then click on the one you want to find. The cache page offers details and hints to help you on your quest. The app’s features take some trial and error until you become proficient, but it’s intuitive to use. Geocaching.com also offers tips on how to navigate to a cache.
The map view shows how close you are (plus or minus abut 30 feet), but it won’t show you the best route to take to get to a cache. You decide that by paying attention to terrain details on the map, as well as your surrounding environment. Looking up from the screen as you search also helps you keep an eye out for nearby hazards. Switch to the compass view when you get close because that can point you in the direction where you should look when you’re in the immediate vicinity of the cache.
Now you must sleuth out likely hiding places for the cache. Take your time and be observant—locating the cache once you’re close can take time, especially at first. Keep in mind the size of the cache and be watchful for anything that looks subtly unnatural or unusual.
Once You Find a Cache
Now it’s time for you to examine your cache’s treasure.
Geocaching Etiquette for Cache Finders
- To avoid tipping off others to the location, carefully remove the cache and then move away to examine its contents.
- Check out the swag inside the cache and sign the logbook with your geocaching.com username.
- Take one item out (if you want to), but only if you replace it with a new item of equal or higher value.
- If the item you take is a “trackable” (see below), then you also have an obligation to move that item to a new cache.
- Carefully seal the cache and hide it exactly as you found it. Don't try to make it easier or harder for the next person to find.
Once back at home, go to geocaching.com and write a log to let the cache owner know you found it. Note the condition of the cache and provide future geocachers anything they might want to know—don’t provide any spoilers, though.
What to Do with Trackable Items
“Trackables” are special game pieces that are intended to move from cache to cache, according to the mission assigned by the trackable owner. One of the original trackables is the Travel Bug®, a dog tag that is attached to the item to be moved. Today, trackables come in an endless variety of shapes, colors and sizes.
All trackables have a unique tracking number etched on them. Look that up on the Geocaching trackables page to get full details about where the one you took is headed, as well as where it’s been along the way. Try to move the trackable along to the next cache on its journey within two weeks or so.
What to Bring
For starters, you’ll need your fully charged phone with the Geocaching app, or your GPS unit if that’s your chosen navigational tool.
Otherwise, prep for geocaching as you would for a hike (or an urban stroll) from the parking area to the geocache location. For a hike, that means considering the Ten Essentials as a starting point. Those essentials should definitely include a quality headlamp, too, in case a quest for an elusive geocache catches you out after dark.
You’ll also need a few geocaching-specific essentials, like a selection of swag items to swap out if you choose to take something from caches you find. Trekking poles, if you don’t normally take them, are worth considering to aid you in poking into dark cache-hiding places. Finally, because not all caches include a functioning pen or pencil, bring one along to be sure you can sign logbooks.
Finally, be a good geocacher and CITO (cache in, trash out), which means you need to bring along a trash bag so you can pick up any litter you find as you hunt.
Creating Your Own Cache
The best way to get a feel for what makes a good cache is to find a lot of them first. If you’ve found at least 20 caches, you can start thinking about hiding one of your own.
Before creating your own cache, read all the cache guidelines on geocaching.com. Below are a few basic cache-hiding tips:
- Make sure your cache isn’t too easy to reach. Avoid making it overly easy to find; you also want to prevent non-geocachers from inadvertently stumbling upon it.
- Always get permission to hide your cache. This applies to both public and private lands. Check with the owner or manager of the land where your cache will be placed.
- Place the cache where its impact will be negligible. Stay away from sensitive areas like archaeological sites and fragile habitats. Consider both the immediate vicinity of the cache and likely routes to reach it.
- Make sure you have a suitable container. Your cache container should be durable, so it won’t break or shatter and so it can withstand wear and tear over the years. It also has to be waterproof.
Regularly maintain your cache after you place it. You don’t just create it and forget about it. It’s your job to monitor it (online and in person) over the years.
The Geocaching Community
More than two decades old now, geocaching has evolved into a vast, diverse and passionate community of users. Like any social group, it’s evolved its own slang and social norms. You can do it on your own, with a few friends or with other geocaching devotees at events year round, around the world. However you choose to do it, the game of geocaching can be delightfully addicting.