Geocaching is a hobby / sport in which people from around the world hide what are called "caches" (pronounced "cashes") and announce it on a website like Geocaching.com. Others then can download the coordinates of the hidden cache into their GPS and try to find it. Sometimes this is an easy thing to do as the coordinates might take you right to it, and sometimes it's hard because they may only take you to a starting position where you'll have to follow clues to actually locate the cache. I want to stress that "easy" is a relative term. There are caches that require specilized equipment like rock climbing gear, SCUBA gear, a boat, etc... But these are relatively few and the majority of caches you'll be able to walk right up to. You may have to do some searching, but you won't have to do much else.
Without even realizing it, you've probably walked past a few caches, and driven past dozens of them. They're everywhere... You just need to know where to look. Last time I checked, there were 185,266 caches in 216 countries. Your first start to locating Geocaches in your area is to go to Geocaching.com
In the beginning....
Of course, every story has a beginning, and Geocaching is no different. On May 1st, 2000, President Clinton ordered that Selective Availability (SA), which was the ability to scramble the GPS signal and thereby reduce its accuracy for the civilian population, be turned off. Just two days later, on May 3rd, Dave Ulmer hid a five-gallon bucket in Portland, Oregon and posted the coordinates on the sci.geo.satellite-nav newsgroup. On May 6th (best guess based on posts I read in the group), Mike Teague found Dave's cache. Mike put together a website (long since gone Oct, 2004, but can be found via the Wayback Machine) to list caches at and it exploded from there.
The original cache site still exists and a plaque has been placed there to commemorate the start of Geocaching. When the plaque was put in place, a can of beans was discovered which became the first trade item (travel bug) and is now referred to as the O.C.B. (Original Can of Beans). This travel bug holds special significance for the Geocaching community and is carried by person to various Geocaching events for people to log.
The Geocachers' Creed
As a Geocacher, there are certain tenents we try to live by. Below is a list borrowed from Geocreed.info
WHEN PLACING OR SEEKING GEOCACHES, I WILL:
- Not endanger myself or others
- Observe all laws and rules of the area
- Respect property rights and seek permission where appropriate
- Avoid causing disruptions or public alarm
- Minimize my and others' impact on the environment
- Be considerate of others
- Protect the integrity of the game pieces
What will you find in a cache?
Theoretically.... Anything not prohibited by law that can fit inside the cache container. Generally though, you'll find things of relatively little monetary value. This doesn't mean that you won't find anything that you might find valauable. For instance, my SageBrush Inn cache contained a $100 USD gift certificate for a free nights stay there. The idea behind geocaching isn't so much the treasure you'll find, but the memories of the hunt. One thing that you'll almost always find is the logbook. It could be a spiral notebook, or just scraps of paper on which you'll scribble the fact that you were there and maybe some insightful thought you want to share with those geocachers that follow. Usually you'll also find the "treasures" to consist of non-consequential items like a maybe a marble, a G.I. Joe, a patch, a coin from another country, a free carwash ticket or just about anything you can imagine. However, there are some special items you might find in a cache which I'll describe below.
is a particularly exciting find. This item is usually a dog-tag shaped
piece of metal with a serial number etched into it, and some item
attached to it. The purpose of a travel-bug is to log its movements
throughout its journey from cache to cache as each geocacher helps to
fulfill the purpose it was put in place for. For example, you might
find a travel-bug whose purpose is to visit all the zoos in the U.S.,
or maybe even the whole world! Sticking with this example, let's say
you find a zoo travel bug in a cache and decide to take it. You would
log the fact that you took it from the cache and it would get marked as
being in your posession. You then need to do something to enable the
travel bug to continue on its quest. You might take it to the zoo and
snap a picture of it, or if it had already been to the zoo in your
location, you might take it to another zoo in another area it hasn't
been to yet, and then leave it in a cache near there. If it's been to
all the zoos in your area, then you might pass the travel bug on to a
fellow geocacher who you know is going on a trip to an area where there
is a zoo that it hasn't been to. Worst case, you might just place it
into a cache that's closer to the direction of a zoo it hasn't been to
One thing with travel-bugs that you'll want to remember, is that each one has a purpose, and if you take it from a cache, you're expected to help it fulfill that purpose. Sometimes this isn't easy. You may pick up a travel-bug without knowing what its purpose is, and then when you log your visit to the cache you discover that you are either unable or unwilling to do this. While unfortunate, it does happen. At this point, you should just put the travel-bug into another cache and log that fact. You should never keep a travel-bug. You wouldn't like that to happen to one of yours. See my travel bugs here. You can buy travel-bugs at the Groundspeak Store. My daughter, on the right, is holding the first travel bug I found and took.
geo-coin is a pretty cool
item to find. They are usually brass or bronze coins specially minted
with a serial number. Geo-coins can have a number of purposes. They can
be used similar to a travel-bug, or they could be a memento you're
meant to keep. Sometimes they're traded among geocachers and are
considered a great find. If you find a geo-coin, you need to see if it
has a purpose before keeping it. You can buy a geo-coin at places like USA Geocoins or
To the right is the first minted Geocoin for New Mexico. These are some of the nicest coins I have seen with a good hefty weight. I bought ten of them and have given them out to various people. My daughter of course wanted one right away! :-) You can click on the pics to the right for a bigger image.
If you just have no luck getting your hands on one, I've discovered there's a pretty good market for them on e-Bay.
What kinds of caches are there?
Wow... It's almost easier to say what types of caches there aren't! But here's a list of the most common ones.
- Traditional: These caches can range from anything the size of a thimble to .50cal ammo cans, and are placed just about anywhere. You'll often find these in parks, along walking / biking paths, and in the woods. This is by far the most normal cache type.
- Virtual: A virtual cache is one in which the person creating the cache is wanting you to visit a location they think is worth your time to come see. Usually these caches would consist of a great camping spot or a particularly nice view, or even a historical landmark of interest. With this type of cache, you normally would take a picture or provide an answer to a question posed by the cache creator that can be found at the cache location to prove that you've actually found it.
- Multi-cache: Multi-caches are generally like a traditional cache except that they are usually meant to be found in some logical order by either getting the coordinates to the next one in the series as you find each one, or by solving some puzzle at each cache in order to learn the location of the next. These are my favorite! If done well by the cache creator, this type of cache can keep you thoroughly entertained during the entire hunt.
- Offset: An offset cache is sort of a combination of virtual and traditional. Generally, you'll get the coordinates to a location which has some sort of plaque or sign on which you'll find some numbers. You'll have to use these numbers in the cache coordinates you were given in order to find the actual cache location. These are a bit more challenging than most traditional caches, but don't generally present too much of an obstacle.
- Locationless: This may sound odd at first. I mean, a cache should have coordinates for you to find it right? Well, it will. That is once you find it and provide them. An example of this type of cache is where you are supposed to find a rock that looks like a dog. When you find one (there's no particular one), you take a picture of yourself and your GPSr next to it. Then you post the coordinates.
- Moving: A moving cache is one where a cacher finds it, logs the visit, and then moves the cache to a new location for the next geocacher to find.
- Event: This is basically a get-together for cachers. Armed with the date / time and coordinates, you set off to find the party. This is not only a great way to meet fellow cachers, but depending on the event there might be raffles, special caches created just for the event, or a way to pick up travel bugs and geocoins. The last one I went to here in Albuquerque there were all of those things. My daughter even won a fully stocked .50 cal ammo can in the raffle which she called AshesCache and hid.
- Letterbox: This a cache which contains some sort of stamp to stamp a logbook you carry with you. I've not found one of these yet.
How big are caches?
There are basically four categories of cache sizes.
- Micro: Typically these are about the size of a 35mm film canister, and normally contain not much more than a log and a pencil. The smallest micro-cache I've seen so far was just a bit smaller than a thimble. The log was about three strips of paper rolled up kind of like the Bubble Tape bubble gum you can buy in stores. You obviously needed your own pencil for this cache and have to write really small!
- Small: These are generally bigger than a 35mm film canister, but not much bigger than a tupperware container that a sandwich could fit in. The normal size for these is something like an Altoids tin.
- Regular: A container of tupperware sandwich size, but not much bigger than a .50cal ammo can.
- Large: Bigger than a .50cal ammo can. I've never found one of these, but I've heard they're usually five gallon buckets.
Other Geocache listing sites
Geocaching.com is not the only geocaching related site out there. Here are a few others
- http://www.navicache.com - General geocaching activities
- http://gpsgames.org - General geocaching activities (more towards different games you can do)
- http://www.opencaching.com - Kind of defunct as they never seemed to really get on the ball with it
- http://www.Freecaching.nl - Looks like they're getting somewhere, but still more or less beta. They are shooting for anything related to waypoints. Not just geocaching
- http://www.keenpeople.com/index.php - General Geocaching activities
- http://www.PCWize.com/geocaching/gpx_generator.php - Build a .GPX file to give to anyone you want
- http://www.brillig.com/geocaching - Buxley's Geocaching Waypoint. Maps geocaches, but is apparently having problems with GC.com in terms of being able to get the data from them to plot it
- http://www.geocoins.ca - Canadian Geocoins
- http://www.confluence.org - Visiting the intersections of lat / long and take pictures
- http://www.clayjar.com/gcrs - Terrain and Difficulty rating helper
- http://www.geommunity.net - Geocaching community builder
- http://www.geosnapper.com - Take pictures and share them
- http://www.earthcache.org - Visiting places with unique geoscience features
- http://www.todayscacher.com - Geocaching print magazine
- http://geo.meetup.com - Meet up with geocachers in your area
- http://www.waymarking.com - In beta but building a database of all kind of waypoints (Owned by GC.com)
How can I organize my caches (desktop software)?
This one is really going to depend on you. I've tried a few different Windows software options, but haven't found one I really like. I mainly use Garmin's MapSource software with CitySelect North America v6 and U.S. Topo. It's great for being able to see your map with waypoints. However, for actually managing Geocaches, it's not the best. For managing those, I've used EasyGPS and GSAK. Both are good products, but I finally decided on purchasing GSAK. GSAK is a more robust application, but it's also a bit less user friendly. However, I tend to use it more now that I am a paying member to Geocaching.com because it is more robust. One thing I've discovered is that there really isn't an all-in-one solution for this. I'll explain below how I have things set up:
- GSAK - only contains geocaches.
- EasyGPS - only contains my other waypoints (friend's houses, hiking points etc.)
- Garmin Mapsource - contains all my maps, waypoints, geocaches, tracks and routes.
- GPX Sonar (for the Pocket PC, paperless caching) - contains just geocaches.
To get all this set up I have to do the following:
- Create a Pocket Query on Geocaching.com
- Take the .GPX file they e-mailed of my Pocket Query and copy it to my SD card on my Pocket PC.
- Load the new .GPX file into the GSAK database. It updates the existing ones automatically.
- Send all geocaches from GSAK to my GPSr.
- Send all waypoints from my GPSr to EasyGPS in case I added more or updated something on it.
- Send all maps, geocaches, waypoints, routes, and tracks from my GPSr to Mapsource.
- Save all databases in all programs with the current date.
Well, that's it. Pretty convoluted huh? You might be asking why I'm using both GSAK and EasyGPS instead of two separate databases in GSAK. Mainly, because I haven't set up GSAK completely yet, and it converts all my waypoint symbols to geocache symbols when I send it from GSAK to my GPSr. It's frustrating when you're trying to find a particular waypoint on the GPSr and they all look like geocaches. GSAK has kind of a messy way to do the setup for associating symbols, so I just haven't gotten around to it yet.
Where it further gets hairy is when you've updated something and trying to sync all these things. i.e. Let's say I put some user notes in GPX Sonar for a cache I found because there was something that happened on that hunt, or I put some notes in my GPSr for a similar reason. Now, how do I get all those to sync? Got me.... That's why I usually don't put in notes except in GPX Sonar where I list out exactly where the cache is for future reference.
For those of you who love automation, I've written a few things to automatically take all the .ZIP files of my Pocket Queries that I receive via e-mail, process them, combine them, and export a single file into my handheld's My Documents folder which gets copied up each sync. What I've written I'll share here and you can modify them to suit your taste. These were written using the software I use, which is: The Bat! (e-mail), 7-ZIP (compression), GSAK (Geocache manager).
In the Bat!, I created a filter which copies the .ZIP attachments found in e-mails coming from Geocaching.com that contain my pocket queries into the C:\temp folder. Since the filename is always the same (for both the .ZIP file and the contained .GPX file) I didn't have to worry about trying to figure out what they were each time. I hardcoded the filenames into my scripts, which you'll need to change to match the filenames of your Pocket Queries. The Bat! then calls a batch file I created called Copy2Handheld.bat which is below. You'll need to change the information contained in the SET lines to match your configuration as well as the paths to your ZIP program and GSAK.
@SET PathToOutfile="C:\Documents and Settings\USERNAME\My Documents\HANDHELD My Documents\GPS\"
IF EXIST %PathToOutfile%%OutFile% (
@Echo GPX %OutFile% was found and deleted
IF EXIST %GPX1% (
@"C:\Program Files\7-Zip\7z.exe" e %PathToInFile%%GPX1%
@Echo GPX %GPX1% found and unpacked
IF EXIST %GPX2% (
@"C:\Program Files\7-Zip\7z.exe" e %PathToInFile%%GPX2%
@Echo GPX %GPX2% found and unpacked
@"C:\Program Files\GSAK\GSAK.exe" /run "C:\Program Files\GSAK\Macros\Copy2Handheld.txt"
All the above batch file is doing is deleting the old all.gpx file from my handheld's My Documents\GPS folder, unzipping the two pocket queries I received, and then running GSAK with the macro I wrote.
The GSAK macro is as follows:
#Select the DB called "Default"
DATABASE Name="Default" Action=Select
#Do 1st file
#Do 2nd file
#Export the GPX file into the My Documents Folder of the Handheld
EXPORT Type=GPX File="C:\Documents and Settings\USERNAME\My Documents\Handheld My Documents\GPS\all.gpx"
Basically it tests if the .gpx file exists, imports it into GSAK, then deletes both the .gpx and the .zip files. Next, it exports a .gpx file called all.gpx into my handheld's My Documents\GPS folder, then exits the GSAK program.
That's it. On my next sync with my handheld, the all.gpx gets copied over and I'm ready to roll with my updated .gpx file. The only thing it doesn't automatically do is update my GPSr. I could do it in the macro for GSAK, but I don't normally keep my GPSr hooked up to my machine so it would fail. One day I'll have a GPSr that can sync over bluetooth or wi-fi and then I'll write that into my GSAK macro.
Paperless Caching??? What the heck is that you might ask. This is how the "real geeks" do geocaching. The Geocaching.com Pocket Query allows you to set up a search query (very granular I might add) to build a .GPX file which gets e-mailed to you. You take this .GPX file and load it in to your handheld (Pocket PC or Palm) which you can then use to read up on all the cache details as well as the log entries of previous finders. It's called "paperless" because you don't need to print anything out when you go hunting.
Paperless Caching is a perfect solution for the opportunistic cacher (that's me) who sees a cache pop up on the GPS while out and about and decides to go find it.
- WAP Geocaching.com website
If you're truly connected (open wi-fi or an EV-DO capable smartphone), you don't even have to wait to get home to log your find. Just go to this site while you're standing over your latest find and log your visit. This allows you to take paperless caching to a whole new level as you can even do cache lookups from here. This means you don't have to worry about having the latest and greatest .GPX file loaded on your handheld. Even cooler still, is that you can look up travel bugs. This means you know it's mission before you decide to take it.
This is one piece of software I highly recommend for the Pocket PC in order to paperless cache. In addition to being able to read the .GPX files you can add notes to your finds, like putting in the exact hiding spot so you can easily find it again in the future.
Geocaches I've placed
Here are caches I've placed and built the .GPX file with my .GPX Generator. You can download the .GPX for free and use it any way you want.
My Travel Bugs
What is paperless caching?
This refers to loading cache data onto your PDA so that you don't have to print out the cache information page on paper. The only real way to do this is is to be a paying member of Geocaching.com so that you can download .GPX files which contain all the information you can see when you bring up a cache on their site (to include the encrypted hints). See See here for more detail.
What is a waypoint?
A waypoint is a marked location in your GPSr or computer software which could be a starting point, your destination, or a place you'll hit in between them. Geocaching is all about waypoints.
What are GPX / LOC files?
.LOC files are the old standard for sharing waypoints. They're still viable, but don't present near the amount of information you can find in a .GPX file. .GPX stands for GPS Exchange Format and is an XML solution which allows you to share a ton of information. .LOC files are the default download for Geocaching.com and .GPX downloads of Geocaches are only available to paying subscribers.
If you'd like more information on the .GPX format, see the Topografix GPX format
Added the Coordinate Manipulator tool for converting between various coordinate systems and calculating distance between points.