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A beginners guide to geocaching

“We’re going what?” Mr B looked at me in complete confusion. “Come on, just load the car; I’ll explain on the way,” I said, giving him a GPS, a map and an emergency supply of chocolate biscuits just in case we got lost for a week, which, judging by my previous attempts at navigation and map reading, was highly likely.

I had decided our weekend of camping over the Easter holidays was the perfect opportunity for a crash course in geocaching, the latest craze that is sweeping the country.

“So, you just go online to see where people have hidden things,” I explained to Mr B as he drove. “Then you pop the co-ordinates into the GPS, navigate to the spot and find it. Simple,” I nod encouragingly. If his rolling eyes and quizzical expression were anything to go by, Mr B did not agree. Time for a spot more explaining.

Geo-caching is, in a nutshell, a sophisticated version of treasure hunting for today’s technology savvy world. Geocachers are a virtual community of treasure hunters that share details of caches (the treasure) on various websites across the world. All a geocacher needs to do is choose a cache, navigate there, find it and then log it.

Geocaching has its origins in the good old-fashioned treasure hunt and the game of letterboxing – where small boxes were hidden in the wild, and their locations only shared by word of mouth. People who discovered them placed letters or postcards inside, and the next person to find the box would take the letters and post them. The tricky locations of some of the boxes meant that letters would turn up weeks, months, or even years later, and this was all part of the game.

When the satellites used for military GPS devices became open to the public a decade ago, it meant that hand-held GPS devices suddenly became very accurate and affordable. It was easier than ever before to pinpoint exact locations, and the worldwide web meant there were plenty of platforms to share them.

The first cache was hidden in America in May 2003 and the co-ordinates logged online. It was not long before it took off in a big way. By 2010, there were thought to be caches in over 200 countries as far flung as Antarctica, and there are over five million geocachers.

geocachingWhat’s the cache?
A cache can take on a variety of different forms, but the most common is a small, plastic box. At the very least it will contain a logbook and some contain goodies that you can keep as treasure. (The geocaching rule states that if you take something, then you must leave something of equal value.)

There are also multi-caches, which are a series of caches and clues where one leads to the next. Usually the last location is a container or box. For geocachers with analytical minds, there are puzzle caches where you will need to solve a puzzle to first work out the coordinates.

Once you have got the hang of regular caches, there are also trackable caches – small items that are taken from cache to cache on a ‘mission’ (to visit mountains or capital cities, for example). The journey from cache to cache, and often country to country, can then be tracked online as people log their finds and moves.

Also popular are earth-caches, which are not actual hidden boxes, but the coordinates will lead you to a site of special or historical importance. The notes will also include a lot more details about the earth-cache, making it a great educational day out for children and inquisitive adults. 

Cache Crazy
A quick search online will come back with hundreds of geocaching websites: regional, national and international. However, the most popular and comprehensive is geocaching.com. All you need to do is sign up, log on and enter a place name or postcode to start a search.

The basic membership is free and is adequate to begin with, although you may find that as you progress the premium membership is more useful; this is currently $30 a year. It lets you access more caches, organise your favourite ones, create customised searches, and you can download more details to your GPS other than just the cache coordinates.

Once you have searched for caches in your chosen area, clicking on one will bring up the coordinates, the difficulty, the size of the cache and any hints and tips, some of which are written in code, in case you want the challenge of finding the cache without help.

Some caches are harder than others to find, and most are hidden out of view of non-geocachers (or ‘muggles’ as they are known, to borrow a phrase from Potter and co); under rocks, up trees, under bridges, or in small holes, for example. Many are in the countryside, in beauty spots or popular hiking locations, but equally there are loads in urban areas and even some in city centres. In fact, you will be surprised at where they are hidden!

You can then either print out the page, write down the details, or transfer them directly to your GPS, and then off you go.

Let’s get goinggeocaching
So, armed with a GPS, armloads of printouts (we cheated slightly for our first outing and decided to print out ALL the clues and tips) and the chocolate supply, Mr B and I set off into the wilds of the Peak District.

Despite reaching the first co-ordinates quickly, our first attempt did not go brilliantly, and a heated argument soon ensued about the exact meaning of the word ‘undergrowth’; about whether or not a cache would be hidden at the top of a tree; and about the proximity of ‘muggles’. We returned to the campsite disappointed, disheartened and barely talking.

Not being ones to give up easily, we tried again the next day, refining our search to include only ‘easy’ grade caches. Imagine our joy when, not long after the little ‘beep’ of the GPS signalled our arrival at the destination, Mr B spotted the corner of something peeking out from under a large log. We had found it… success!

There was just enough time for a quick biscuit-shaped celebration before, propelled by our jubilation, we were on to the next… and the next. The more we found, the more adept we became at locating the caches quickly, although there were still some that left us scratching our heads. That, we learnt, was all part of the fun!

Cache together
There are loads of reasons to start geocaching. It is relatively cheap (no outlay once the initial investment of the GPS has been made), it is fun, and it is a brilliant way to explore parts of the countryside that you may not otherwise have wandered into; or to explore familiar areas close to home with renewed interest.

It is something that children will love to do. It can teach them about navigation and maps, as well as getting them into the great outdoors. Also, it is good to work the old grey matter by choosing puzzles and multi-caches.

It is easy to combine geocaching with camping, and adds another fun dimension and family activity to holidays – simply search for the campsite’s postcode or nearby town on any of the geocaching sites, pop the co-ordinates of any caches close by into the GPS, and away you go.

There are over one million geocaches hidden across the world. So what are you waiting for? The best way to get started is to throw yourself in and give it a go. I am definitely hooked. Look out for my GPS and I (and a depleted biscuit supply…) at a campsite near you soon!
Quick Start Guide
  • Log on to a geocaching website and either download a geocache to your GPS or write down the co-ordinates and clues
  • Set up your GPS and off you go
  • Find the location and use the clues to find the exact spot where the geocache is hidden
  • Open the geocache and see what is inside. Fill in the logbook if there is one
  • Put it back exactly where you find it, but do not let anyone who is not with you see what you are doing
  • Log the details of your find online when you get home if you want to, and then do it all again!
Geo-caching Rules
  • Do not let non-geocachers see you remove, or put back, a cache
  • If you take a ‘treasure’, replace it with something of equal value (but not food, perishables, alcohol or anything illicit – caches are found by all ages)
  • Always put the cache back exactly where you found it
  • Report a missing or damaged cache as soon as you can
  • Do not spoil the cache for others, and do not give away too many clues to other geocachers to ruin the hunt
  • Always observe the countryside code and respect your surroundings, and do not cause any damage or alarm the general public
The KitGPS geocaching
Geocaching is a free activity that is accessible to anyone who has an Internet connection and a GPS unit. Any type will do, especially to begin with, but there are GPS units available that are specially designed for geocaching.

The author used the Garmin GPSMAP62st, and found this to be a fantastic geocaching tool. Its main features are:
  • Big colour screen - easy to read even in bright sunlight
  • Quite tough and waterproof, with a battery life of 20 hours
  • USB connection, so it can be plugged directly to a computer. Geocaching locations (along with clues, maps and further information in some cases) can then be downloaded directly to the GPS so you do not have to take along scraps of paper and scribbled notes
  • Sensitive satellite receivers, so it is quick at locating your position.
  • Accurate compass; even when the unit is moved about quickly, it keeps its cool
  • Can store 2,000 waypoints and 200 routes
  • Loads of other features such as a barometric altimeter, distance calculator, plus option to download different map options (as well as custom maps), photo navigation (download a geo-tagged photo and then navigate to the exact location the photo was taken), and a micro SD slot so you can add more memory (and additional mapping, such as OS or city maps) easily
  • For more information see garmin.com and you can find more GPS reviews on geocaching.com
  • You will also need a map and compass (to navigate across rivers or around fields), some comfy walking gear, and do not forget your pencil to complete the logbooks inside the caches.
**If you have good map reading skills, then you may not even need a GPS, although there may be limits to exactly how close you can get to the cache, as traditional maps are not as accurate to the degree as GPS satellites. Also, many smart phones have inbuilt GPS and can run geocaching software, so check yours before splashing out on a GPS.
Top Tips
  • Have a practice run close to home so you can get a feel for it somewhere you know well
  • Carry a pen to sign the log book – some caches are not big enough to store one, or they may not work
  • Do not forget to log your find (or not) online when you get back
  • If you are struggling to find a cache (even with the clues), step back and try to look at the area objectively. Where are good places to hide a cache? Where would you hide it?
  • Some caches are very small, so a pair of tweezers could be useful to extract the log book with
Useful Websites
geocaching.com – most popular and comprehensive site for geocachers all over the world
opencaching.com – Garmin’s own dedicated geo-caching website
earthcache.org  – lists different earth-caches
gagb.co.uk – Geocaching Association of Great Britain

Have you been geocaching? Share your experiences on our friendly forum, or read more useful beginners guides here.

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