How to Start Geocaching: The Ongoing Outdoor Treasure Hunt
Geocaching is a fun and family-friendly activity that exercises your brain and your mind. Learn how to play with this guide to getting started.
What is geocaching?
Geocaching (pronounced jee-oh-cash-ing) is a GPS-driven treasure hunt played by millions of people around the world. It’s an adventurous game with a low startup cost that’ll get your family outside and exploring.
In a nutshell, people hide waterproof containers filled with trinkets and a logbook in outdoor locations and record the geocaches’ coordinates on Geocaching.com for other players to find. The geocaches vary in size and levels of difficulty.
“I just found my most northern cache a couple hours ago under a gray, windy sky alongside a rushing clear blue river and mountains carved by glaciers,” said Kristen Foht, a geocacher from St. Louis, Missouri, during a trip to Norway. Foht has found nearly 1,500 geocaches since 2013 and often incorporates geocaching adventures into her travels.
Anybody of any age can participate in geocaching, in almost every country. Whether you want to hike, bike, check out a park, or explore an urban area, there is a geocache out there waiting for you. Read on for tips for how to get started.
Common geocaching terms
This game has something of its own language. (Fun fact: the word “geocaching” was officially added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2012.) Here are a few common terms:
Geocache: A waterproof container that encloses trinkets or, at minimum, a logbook. Participants hide geocaches in specific locations and then list them on Geocaching.com. Once their GPS coordinates and clues are published online, geocaches are available for other participants to find. Geocaches can be found anywhere from parks to hiking trails to urban locations. People often hide geocaches in locations that are meaningful to them or in places that will provide interest to others.
Cache: Short for “geocache”.
Logbook: A piece of paper inside a geocache for participants to sign. Players can see a physical copy of all the people who have found the geocache.
Geocacher: A person who plays geocaching.
Muggle: A term you’ll see often on Geocaching.com (or the Harry Potter series), used to describe non-geocachers (or non-magical people). One must use stealth around muggles when searching for a geocache, so as not to expose its location and risk theft or vandalism of the geocache.
Trackable: An item tagged with a unique identification code. These items can be moved from geocache to geocache and their travels can be tracked online. Some trackable items are known as Travel Bugs, which are metal dog tags. Many trackables come with a travel goal (e.g., the owner of the trackable hides it in a geocache on the west coast of the U.S. and wants it to reach the east coast).
There are many more geocaching terms out there, but some are easier to learn after you dive into the game and get acquainted with the geocaching world.
How to start geocaching
To play, all you really need is a GPS-enabled device or phone, the coordinates of a geocache you want to find, and the desire to explore. Here are basic steps to start your geocaching adventure:
- Create a free account on Geocaching.com, a popular site that offers an expansive database of geocache listings.
- Search for geocaches near you or in a location you plan to visit.
- Enter the coordinates on a handheld GPS receiver or GPS-enabled phone. You can also use the site’s smartphone app or the Cachly app (both free) to locate caches and navigate to their coordinates.
- Follow the coordinates. Make sure to stay aware of your surroundings while doing so.
- Once you’re at the coordinates, put the GPS away and start looking. GPS devices are only accurate up to around 16-30 feet at best, so you’ll have to rely on yourself to find the geocache’s exact location.
- Voila! You’ve found the geocache. Make sure to sign the logbook. If there are any goodies inside the container, feel free to take something, but leave something of your own.
- Replace the geocache exactly where you found it.
- When you get home, log your experience on Geocaching.com.
Where to go geocaching
Nearly 3 million geocaches are hidden in more than 180 countries. Chances are, there’s a geocache near you right now. In fact, there are two geocaches within 500 feet of me as I write this.
“Geocaching pushes you just a few hundred feet further all the time, but it also takes you to the most beautiful spots you would have never found, like the Sunken City Earth Cache in San Pedro or the perfect spot to take a picture of the Queen Mary in Long Beach,” said Foht. “It got us out exploring for nearly free.”
Another avid geocacher who lives in the U.K., Matthew Bamfield, enjoys geocaching so much that he’s found nearly 3,000 caches. “The geocaches are hidden by local people in their local area so they tend to take you to scenic or interesting places,” said Bamfield.
Whether you want to go treasure hunting close to home or across the world, there is likely a geocache nearby. So if you’re wondering where to go geocaching, the answer is: wherever you are.
Different types of geocaches
There are several types of geocaches. The most common and straightforward are traditional geocaches: containers with a logbook and possibly treasures for trade. These containers vary in size from micro to large, so make sure to take note of that quality before you set out.
Some traditional geocaches contain trackable items that can be moved from cache to cache. Others include disposable cameras that the owner leaves for each successful geocacher to snap a photo. You never know what you’ll find!
Mystery/puzzle geocaches require players to decode a set of clues or solve a puzzle in order to figure out the coordinates. These types of geocaches require problem-solving skills and imagination — perfect for kids who want to feel like detectives.
Multi-Cache geocaches involve multiple steps. Players receive coordinates for a first location, and at that location, there is typically a clue to the next destination, and so on. At the final location, there is a geocache with a logbook. This type of geocache is great if you’re interested in a longer adventure.
“If you want to see lots of interesting features and hunt for visible clues to the final [cache], try doing a multi-cache,” Matthew Bamfield suggested. One of his favorite multi-caches is Frome Bridge in Bristol, England.
No matter what kind of geocache you’re looking for, they should never contain the following items, according to Geocaching.com: “Food, sharp objects, ammunition, illicit or illegal items, and alcohol.” This is a family-friendly game, and players are expected to keep the game safe and fun for all participants.
Level of difficulty
Geocaches are rated in difficulty from 1 to 5 stars (using half stars as well) so you have an idea beforehand of how hard they will be to find, both physically and mentally. As a newcomer, you’ll probably want to begin with geocaches rated between 1 and 2.
A geocache with a difficulty rating of 1 means that it’s easy to find within a few minutes and its location is wheelchair-accessible.
A rating of 5 indicates that the geocache is extremely challenging to find, physically and mentally, and requires special tools or skills to locate (e.g., scuba gear or rock climbing gear).
Some geocaches require strenuous hikes while others are in simple urban locations. Make sure to evaluate your physical health and pack appropriately before heading out on a hunt.
When it comes to geocaching, the only gear you really need is probably already lying around your house. Of course, you can invest in a high-tech GPS receiver if you’d like — it’s up to you.
What to bring when geocaching:
- Choose a GPS device, such as a cellphone with GPS capabilities or a handheld GPS receiver. While GPS units with all the bells and whistles can be helpful if you plan to go geocaching often and have a few hundred dollars to spare, many geocachers get by with a cellphone or an inexpensive device that costs less than $150. If you’re geocaching with kids, choose a device that’s easy to use so they can help with navigation.
- Stock extra batteries for your GPS unit.
- Carry a pen to sign the logbook.
- Collect small items for trade to add to the geocache if you remove something—think small toys, patches, marbles, or souvenir pennies. Ask the kids to pick out a few inexpensive, non-degradable treasures to share.
- A flashlight will be useful if the lighting is dim around the geocache, or in case darkness falls while you’re searching.
- Bring food and water to stay energized and hydrated along the way, especially if the journey requires hiking.
- Pack warm layers and a waterproof jacket for cool, rainy or windy weather. GORE-TEX brand jackets guard against wind and rain while being lightweight and packable — the perfect “just in case” jackets. (They’re available in kids’ sizes, too!)
If you’re hiking to a geocache location, check out my beginner’s guide to hiking for a more extensive packing list and tips to keep you and your family safe outdoors.
Tips for finding a geocache
Put your sleuthing skills to use so you aren’t left scratching your head at the geocache’s location. These tips will help you get into a good geocaching mindset:
- Look high and low, over and under.
- Don’t simply look for a box. Look for something a box (or small container) could easily be disguised inside — a hollowed-out loose brick, perhaps?
- Keep an eye out for things that look out of place.
- Geocaches are never buried.
- Check if the geocacher who hid the container left any hints on its online page. Some hints need to be decoded using a key.
- Scan through the latest user activity. Sometimes other players offer helpful hints or information when they log their experiences.
- Remember the size of the cache you’re looking for, found on Geocaching.com.
- Play with a team. Grab a friend or bring the kids along.
Geocaches are updated frequently online, but there is always a slight chance that the geocache was tampered with or removed. If you can’t find a geocache, make sure to note that in the cache’s online log. That way, others know that it may no longer be there, and the owner can check if it’s still there.
Just like any activity, there is a certain etiquette to follow when geocaching. Follow these tips to avoid committing any geocaching faux pas:
- Do not trespass onto personal property when geocaching.
- It is illegal to hide geocaches on National Park Service land. Avoid all wilderness areas, illegal or not.
- If you take a trinket from a geocache, leave something for the next person of equal/greater value or interest.
- Do not bury a geocache, move it from its original hiding place, or try to make it harder for others to find.
- When you go geocaching, practice CITO: “Cache In Trash Out.” Bring a small trash bag with you so you can leave the area better than you found it.
- When you find a geocache, move away from its hiding place to examine it. You don’t want to risk exposing its location to “muggles,” now do you?
- Log your experience on Geocaching.com, because it lets other users know the geocache is still active, and it’s also a good way to say “thank you” to the person who hid the geocache if you enjoyed the experience.
- If you hide a geocache, make sure it’s camouflaged but not suspicious looking if accidentally found by a non-player.
- Be respectful of your surroundings and sensitive habitats. Do not trample plants or damage property in your search.
As always, practice Leave No Trace principles when you participate in geocaching or any outdoor activities.
Geocaching is an exciting activity that can be implemented into your life in many ways. You can make geocaching a pit stop on road trips, participate in a hunt while hiking or camping, or use it as a method to keep the kids from being glued in front of a screen. Geocaching can introduce you to new places you might not have thought to go before. If you’re looking for a way to exercise your brain and your mind, geocaching is a fun solution, and no experience will be the same as the last.