How to Geocache - A step-by-step guide for beginners

What exactly is a cache?

What you're looking for - the cache - is usually a small box, anywhere from the size of an Altoids container to a small shoebox. They are hidden out of view so a casual passerby will not see or notice them. They usually have a magnet inside to affix it to the bottom/back of a sign, rail, or fence, or they are wrapped with dark or camouflage tape to keep it dry in the case of rain and also keep it hidden. Inside you'll typically find:

  • a pad of paper with a log of previous visits
  • a small pen or pencil, but not always there so bring your own
  • a collection of trinkets or geocoins left by previous visitors

Geocaching - A modern-day scavenger hunt

Geocaching (GEE-oh-cash-ing) is a great outdoors recreational activity that's similar to a scavenger hunt. There is a hidden object, and you're given clues and GPS (global positioning) coordinates to help you find it. It's incredibly fun, and becoming more and more popular every day.

I began geocaching about 2 years ago and have since found well over a dozen geocaches all over California (including San Francisco, Oakland, Napa/Sonoma, and Southern California). It's a great way to explore an area, even places you're convinced you know very well. People leaving geocaches almost always leave them in intriguing places that they'd like to share with inquisitive, curious people like other geocachers.

Best of all, it's very easy to do for a beginning novice. You only need a few things to get you started.

iPhone app - Geocaching
iPhone app - Geocaching
Android app - Geocaching
Android app - Geocaching

What you'll need

  • a GPS receiver or GPS-enabled smartphone. GPS receivers can be bought for about $100 these days (probably even less used). Garmin and TomTom are the most popular brand of GPS receivers. Low-end ones are monochrome with limited functionality; high-end ones are in full-color with added features such as 3-D maps and the ability to store your entire trip.
    If you have an iPhone or Android smartphone, you can just download Groundspeak's (the company behind geocaching.com) app. It's $10 via either the iPhone App Store or the Android Market, and actually does away with several of the Web-based steps below, in addition to providing GPS receiving functionality. (The QR codes for the two are to the right)
  • a pen or pencil. So you can leave a note in the cache to the cache owner.
  • a small trinket. There's a tradition among some geocaches to take a trinket out, and put a new one in. That way, the geocache has some "life" and changes continually over time. You also get something from a stranger, and give something to another stranger.

That's it! Yes, for a beginning geocacher, that's really all you need. And the 2nd & 3rd items above are often optional (many geocaches have their own pen, and others are too small for trinkets)

Full listing of nearby caches, closest ones first.
Full listing of nearby caches, closest ones first.

Step 1 - Find nearby caches

This part is easy. Go to Geocaching.com and in the upper-right corner, put in your ZIP code (if you're in the US), or select your country.

You will see a list of available geocaches nearby with:

  • how close it is to you (by ZIP code)
  • the type of cache - traditional, multiple (one cache gives you a clue to another), virtual or mystery caches (no actual cache - just a destination with something interesting about it)
  • a rating of the difficulty and terrain (go for 1/1 for the easiest!)
  • the date placed
  • a short description plus a link for more information
  • when it was last found by someone. This is always cool because some were just found and logged a few hours or days ago; others have been dormant for months.

Pick a cache and click on the link to get some more information you'll need.

This page will give you all the information you'll need to have to find your cache.
This page will give you all the information you'll need to have to find your cache.

Step 2 - Select a cache

Find a cache that's as close as you'd like (or willing to walk, bike or drive to), with the level of difficulty you're looking for, and click on the link for more information. You'll find several things on this page (register for Geocaching for free first - trust me, they don't spam you and don't make you pay for these basic services).

  • the cache's coordinates (you'll need this string of numbers to enter into your GPS receiver)
  • a description of the area and cache made by the person who left it there; some people are proud of the area and give plenty of rich information, others leave just the basics
  • (usually) an encrypted clue, that you can easily decipher near the cache location if you're really stuck and can't find it
  • even a map if you'd like a street corner to home in on; I usually try to ignore this, because part of the fun is following the GPS receiver's directions and seeing yourself approach the target
  • a log of previous geocachers' notes after finding the cache. It is usually full of spoilers, so don't look at this section until you've found the cache and want to report something to the community.

You can either print out the entire page, or scribble down what you need to know on a piece of paper and take that with you.

Enter the coordinates carefully!
Enter the coordinates carefully!

3. Enter the coordinates into your GPS receiver

Follow the instructions of your GPS receiver to enter a new waypoint (a specific location with coordinates) with the cache's coordinates. Believe it or not, those coordinates are specific enough to typically get you within 10 feet of the cache! Double check the numbers to be 100% sure they're right--you don't want to be searching for a cache miles away from where you should!

Note that the default coordinate type, both for the Geocaching site and most GPS receivers, is WGS84 Datum degrees & minutes (MinDec). The format will look like:

N 37° 45.800

W 122° 10.500

Speed is 0.0 because I stopped to take this picture. But you can see I need to head SE, and walk another 4 m or so.
Speed is 0.0 because I stopped to take this picture. But you can see I need to head SE, and walk another 4 m or so.

4. Start moving towards the destination

In your GPS receiver, choose this new waypoint you've entered, and GOTO. Then, go outside, away from tall buildings, and wait for your receiver to get strong signals from the GPS satellites circling the earth. This can take anywhere from a minute to five minutes. You will typically not be able to get a signal inside buildings or between skyscrapers.

Once you've gotten strong signals and hit GOTO, the GPS receiver will tell you which direction to start heading and how far away your target is. Start walking! (or driving, depending on how far you are) The GPS receiver is remarkably good at telling you where you're supposed to go, and even how fast you're going.

A cache surreptitiously hidden behind a metal sign, using a magnet.
A cache surreptitiously hidden behind a metal sign, using a magnet.

5. Use clues & your eyes to find the cache

When you get within 10-20 feet of the cache, the GPS's resolution will not be good enough to help you any further. It just puts you in a 20 foot circle of where you need to look. Now you need to use the clues and your intuition to find the cache.

Look for clues:

  • in the name of the cache
  • in the description that's on the page
  • (if you're really, really stuck) decypher the encrypted clue, but keep in mind this often explicitly tells you where to look, eliminating the fun out of the search

Places to look:

  • the underside or back of metal fixtures and signs; often, the cache is magnetically stuck out of view from casual passersby
  • in the brush or plant cover, often behind or under a retaining wall
  • sometimes covered with rocks or bark

Keep in mind that the cache might be above you or below you. We found on cache in Union Square in San Francisco and after looking around the Christmas tree there for a good 20 minutes, we realized it could be under us, and took the elevator down to the parking garage below us!

This little stapled log has room for thousands of short entries. Be sure to leave yours!
This little stapled log has room for thousands of short entries. Be sure to leave yours!

6. Open up the cache!

Open up the cache carefully, and take a look inside!

There should be a list or pad of paper, which has some general instructions to people unfamiliar with geocaching, or for people who might have found it by accident. There will be a list of people who found them before you. You can leave a short entry in the (paper) log, along the lines of:

8/27/07 {username} TFTC! (Thanks for the Cache)

There might some other small trinkets. If you've brought one of your own, you can leave it inside, and take another one as a memento of your cache.

You should go back to the Geocaching site later, and leave feedback to the cache owner in the (Web) cache log, who typically checks it often.

Not designed to be kept, geocoins should hop from geocache to geocache.
Not designed to be kept, geocoins should hop from geocache to geocache.

Geocoins - Track your own coin's movement

Geocoins are custom-made coins that you can leave in caches that you find. The idea is that your coin will travel from cache to cache over time, as people who find the cache take it out and put it in their next cache. Then they log where the coin has been left, allowing you to track where your coin has gone.

Say you left your own geocoin, with its own serial number, in a cache in Tempe, Arizona. Then, someone finds that same cache a week later, and takes it out. He then puts it in the next cache he finds in El Paso, Texas. If he plays by the "geocoin rules", then he'll go to the geocoin Website, look up the coin by its serial number, and register that it is now in a cache in El Paso. You, then, could do a search on your serial number, and see that the coin you left in Tempe has now transported itself across a couple of state lines to the east, in Texas!

There are several companies that sell geocoins. The concept is very similar to Where's George, which tracks dollar bills as they change hands through normal cash transactions.

News story on geocaching (2m 50s)

Team Tiki gives a brief intro (4m 8sec)

Good explanation of GPS & geocaching (8m 24sec)

More by this Author


Comments 22 comments

jimmythejock profile image

jimmythejock 9 years ago from Scotland

looks like great fun Livelonger I can see it catching on big style.....jimmy


livelonger profile image

livelonger 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

It's gotten more and more popular, especially as GPS receivers get cheaper (more & more mobile phones have them) and as more caches get hidden. There are about a dozen within a 20-minute walk of our apartment.


wajay_47 9 years ago

Livelonger, great hub. I just did some research on geocaching and hope to be trying it soon. Sounds like great fun. This is catching on all over. Great hub.


livelonger profile image

livelonger 9 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thank you wajay_47. It is a lot of fun, but be prepared for people staring at you quizzically as you dig through brush, look behind signs, etc. Last week, a woman asked us we had lost our keys.


Terri Paajanen profile image

Terri Paajanen 9 years ago from someplace in Canada

The hot weather has kept my household of Geocachers inside this summer, but with the autumn weather arriving, I have dozens of caches lined up for our weekend getaways. It's an awesome hobby, and keeps us all outside. :)


Johnnygeo 8 years ago

Great post for people starting off.

Johnnygeo


Peter Drew 7 years ago

Great Hub, some friends are into this, and i found this hub in google, with all the answers I was looking for. thanks for taking the time to put it up :)

Pete


brawnydt profile image

brawnydt 7 years ago

Thanks for the guide, I just put up my own intro to Geocaching too. Love the sport!


Camping Dan profile image

Camping Dan 7 years ago

I have been geocaching for seveal years now with my family. It is a fun activity we can do together and a fun treasure hunt of sorts. I recommend it to lots of families and we even incorporate it into our summer vacations when we travel to other states.


Robert 7 years ago

Wanted to find out if anyone was aware service to set up a Geocache birthday party. Daughter 10 years old loves geocaching ... feel that this would be a lot of fun for her and girlfriends. Thanks for any info.

Robert, SF Bay Area


wmd profile image

wmd 7 years ago from South Jersey

Great hub. I have just discovered geocaching this week and already have found 4 caches. I am enjoying this new hobby very much and started writing about it too.

I want to get a handheld gps like the one you have pictured, but for now I amusing my Garmin Forerunner 305, which is a running watch equipped with gps.... it works great.


JOYSAM 7 years ago

ARE WE REGISTERED NOW AS I WAS OF THE UNDERSTANDING WE HAD TO REGISTER OUR OWN LAND GUARDNETS


JKMommy 6 years ago

I've been wanting to take my family Geocaching but thought it was more complicated than it actually is! I read many geocache sites throughout the past year, but it still wasn't clear to me. I just found your site on Yahoo! Thank you for taking the time to put it up. It helped me tremendously. I think we are ready to give it a go! What a great way to bring families together in a healthy, fun, way! I will be sure to keep you posted on our geocache experience! Thanks Again!!


Three-Legged Dog profile image

Three-Legged Dog 6 years ago from USA

I just started doing this today! While out and about on a shopping trip with some girlfriends. It was SO MUCH FUN. We're hooked. Here's a blog post that I wrote about our experience finding our first ever cache!

http://thelittleblondegirl.blogspot.com/2010/07/ge...


madcyd 6 years ago

i love going geocaching ! [:)]


jennyjenny profile image

jennyjenny 6 years ago from Somewhere in Michigan

This sounds like so much fun! I'm going to try it with my scout troop! Thanks for sharing!


Dardia profile image

Dardia 6 years ago from Michigan

A lot of people are doing this around here. One of the places that Jennyjenny and I wrote about, McCourtie Park is a geocache site. It is also known for being haunted. I know a group of women who do Letter-Boxing and that is where one of their geocache sites are. They went looking for the cache in the evening and took some interesting pictures that night. They got orbs, spirit lights, and ectoplasm pictures.


Assassin Fred 5 years ago

I have only heard of this hobby in recent months, and I am truly intrigued. I am looking forward to spring so I can get started. Sounds like fun for children as well.


smcopywrite profile image

smcopywrite 5 years ago from all over the web

terrific hub. i have heard of this activity but didn't know a lot about it. great information


mbruun profile image

mbruun 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Great hub! I'm sure that its gotten many people started in geoacaching.


Cre8tor profile image

Cre8tor 4 years ago from Ohio

I'm ready to start! Thank you!


Matthew Hotaling profile image

Matthew Hotaling 4 months ago from Upstate New York

I love geocaching! I have 3 hides and 175 finds so far.

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