How to Choose the Right GPS for Geocaching

Geocaching is a high tech treasure hunt using GPS to locate caches that were hidden by other people that geocache. A handheld GPS unit or smart phone with GPS, directs you to the area of the geocache. A quality GPS unit can get you within a couple feet of where the geocache is, but ultimately you will have to look around a little to figure out where it is actually hidden.

A geocache can be hidden in an area that you can park next to, or could be several miles into a national forest, requiring a hike, rock climbing, SCUBA diving or other technical gear. They also could be hidden under a couple rocks, or disguised as a tree branch or electrical conduit. See an example of one hidden in an electrical pipe here. Fortunately the descriptions of the geocaches give you an idea of how hard or easy they are to find. For more information about what geocaching is, read my blog post: What is geocaching?

Deciding What To Use

While difficult, you can sometimes find geocaches without a GPS. I have found geocaches by looking at Google Maps, going to the location where the geocache is supposed to be and looking around, but it isn't the easiest way. If you want to consistently find geocaches, you will need a GPS unit, or a smartphone that can use GPS.

I use both regularly and they each have advantages and disadvantages. Below I will take a look at what I like about both and what to look for when you make a decision on what you will use.

Garmin GPS Map60CSX
Garmin GPS Map60CSX

Choosing A Handheld GPS Unit

First, let's take a look at a GPS receiver. This is a hand held receiver that displays your location and can guide you to different locations, saved as waypoints. You can enter the coordinates of a geocache individually, or sync the GPS to your computer to download multiple geocaches. Let's take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of a handheld GPS unit over a smartphone:

Advantages

  • GPS receivers require a clear view of the sky to receive GPS signals, but they do not require a cellular signal.
  • WAAS enabled GPS receivers can be more accurate than cell phone based GPS.
  • Many GPS receivers will run longer on a set of batteries than a smartphone can while running mapping or GPS programs.
  • All waypoints and maps saved to a GPS receiver can be accessed at anytime, no need to have cellular service to view maps. (You can download maps to some smartphones to view later, in those cases they operate just like the GPS)

Disadvantages

  • GPS units can be expensive to buy.
  • All waypoints must be identified before you leave home, you can't look up new geocaches from the device once you are away from your computer. (Unless you look it up on a smartphone and manually enter the numbers)
  • A separate GPS unit becomes another device to keep track of.
  • You have to keep track of what caches you have found until you get back to a computer to log them.

Geocaching App on an iPhone
Geocaching App on an iPhone

Geocaching With A Smartphone

Next, let's take a look at using a smartphone for geocaching. Many people already own a smartphone that can be used with the right app, so it can be a great starting place for those that are wanting to try it out without spending a lot of money. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages that I have found using an iPhone for geocaching:

Advantages

  • Many people already have a smartphone, which means there is no equipment to buy to get started.
  • You can use free navigation apps to take guide you to waypoints, one at a time.
  • Geocaching.com offers a free app to get started using caches from their website. If you want to pay about $10.00 you can buy an app that lets you access most of the features of the website from within the app. (geocaching.com is my favorite site for
  • If you have your smartphone with you, you can find a geocache. There is no need to pre-load waypoints and remember to bring a separate GPS unit.
  • You can view descriptions and difficulty ratings on your phone, potentially giving you hints to help find the geocache.
  • You can log your find right away, you won't have to worry about remembering to log them at home on your computer.

Disadvantages

  • The GPS in smartphones are typically not as accurate as WAAS enabled receivers. That means you may not get quite as close with a smartphone.
  • Running GPS on your smartphone will probably drain the battery much faster than normal, leaving you without a phone, or making you charge your phone more frequently.
  • Unless you save your geocaches to your phone ahead of time, you will not be able to access geocaches or maps without a cellular network.

GPS Features To Look For

If you decide to buy a GPS unit, here are my suggestions: Make sure you pick a WAAS enabled unit. These are more accurate and will help you get closer to the right location. I prefer to have a built in topographical map in my GPS units. These give you an idea of your surroundings and make it easier to read the terrain. Another personal preference for me is a colored screen. This makes it easier for me to read the screen and make out the different features on the topographical map.

How To Choose

Now that you know some of the advantages and disadvantages, I'll explain what I use and why. First off, I bought a GPS for hiking and backpacking long before I started geocaching. So for me, I didn't have to worry about the added cost of a new GPS unit. I had thought about geocaching for awhile before finally giving it a go. It started when I decided to download the free app for my iPhone and found my first few geocaches using that method.

As I decided to look for more, I switched to using my Garmin MAP60csx. I found it much more accurate, but it can be a pain to remember to download geocaches ahead of time. I still use the handheld unit, and I have upgraded to the paid app for my iPhone. The paid app allows me to search for more geocaches at a time, plus log the finds, and log any trackable items that I find, such as travel bugs.

Typically, if I am looking for geocaches around town, or at the spur of the moment, I use my iPhone. It lets me look up new caches on the fly. If I have some free time in a new area I like to see what caches are around. I don't always think of that ahead of time.

I still take my GPS unit on hiking trips or backpacking trips. In the back country I appreciate having the added accuracy of my GPS unit. I also like the fact that I can run the GPS all day and still have battery life left in my phone for emergency calls.

If you are just starting out and own a smartphone, I would suggest trying the free version of the geocaching app to start with. From there you can decide if you want to add a GPS unit, or just upgrade to the paid version of the app.


Go Out And Have Some Fun!

Now that you know what to look for in a GPS, go out and have some fun! In the end it doesn't really matter which device you choose, you'll be able to find geocaches with whatever you choose. What is your preferred GPS device? Let me know in the comment section below.

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