Geocaching is a fun activity that can be done anywhere in the world and it appeals to all ages – from preschoolers to retirees. You can do it alone, with the family, in a group. It can get you outside and it can get you to visit places you wouldn’t ordinarily explore.
What is geocaching? Basically, it’s a treasure hunt that you do with the help of a smart phone or a GPS unit. Someone hid a package of some sort and it’s your job to hunt it down!
The process is pretty straightforward. Using an app on your phone (or, alternately, Geocaching.com from a computer) you find where someone has hidden a geocaching treasure for you to find. Using the app (or the website), you choose a “cache” and then obtain the coordinates. Your smart phone (with a geocaching app) or your GPS unit can then guide you on your search.
We used to use a GPS unit (years ago) but now I use my smart phone (an iPhone). I will say that I greatly prefer geocaching with my smart phone and our GPS unit has long since been retired. I always have my phone with me and I don’t have to plan my geocaching activities in advance when I use my phone.
If you want to use your phone to geocache, you will need an app or you will need to sign into the Geocaching.com site from a browser on your phone.
I use the Groundspeak app for geocaching with my smart phone. You can find it by searching the App Store or Google Play for “Groundspeak”. There is a free “intro to geocaching” version but I would highly recommend buying the $9.99 regular version of the Groundspeak app if you can afford it. It is the best $10 I’ve spent in a long time. There are other geocaching apps but I have only used the Groundspeak app and I love it so there’s no reason for me to experiment at this point. You can explore the apps and choose the one that you like best. This tutorial is all about the Groundspeak app.
The best part about this hobby? That’s all you’ll ever have to spend – just enough to get the app. Essentially, after you buy the app, geocaching is a FREE activity.
I recently went on a geocache hunt and documented my process so I could show you how fun (and easy) it is.
Signing up for the Geocaching Experience
First off – if you want to log your finds, leave notes for others, and keep track of your geocaching activities – sign up for a free account at Geocaching.com. They’ll ask you for some very basic info and you’ll create your own user name for geocaching. If you want to enter my user name as a referral, I am BRaffenberg (pretty clever thinking on my part, eh?). And this is one place where I am really glad I signed up for their newsletter so leave that checked if you want to get some helpful geocaching news. Don’t bother with “upgrade to premium” – just go for the free stuff and choose “create my account”. If you get really serious about this and want to have the full shebang later, they’ll be happy to allow you to upgrade later.
Getting the App for Your Smart Phone
After you create a free account at Geocaching.com, go ahead and get the Groundspeak app. You can find it with your phone at the App Store (iPhone) or via Google Play (Droid). If you have another variety of smart phone, check out the Geocaching app page for more options. I would recommend the paid version of the app. Download/install the app to your phone.
After you have installed the app, open it and sign in (using the Geocaching.com account you created earlier). You will then see a screen like the one below. This is the iPhone version, by the way. On your screen, you should see something very similar but with your own user name of course.
Finding a Geocache Near You
Get started by finding a geocache hunt that is near you. Click on the “Find Nearby Geocaches” button to get started.
Please note: To have the app find a location near you, you may have to give the app permission to use your location. If the app can’t find you due to restricitons with your phone settings, you should get a pop-up notice from your phone asking if you’d like to turn on your GPS location. You will have to do that for this to work.
Using your location, your app will present you with a list of geocaches that are currently close to you. In the example below I was standing at Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati. You will see that the first item in the list was just 234 feet west of where I was standing – VERY close to me!
What you see on the screen (pictured above):
At the top of the screen, you have the option to see nearby caches as a List (as seen above) or by Map (which will show your your location surrounded by dots for caches that are close by).
The Name of the Cache itself is at the top of the screen
Difficulty and Terrain: The person who creates and hides the geocache will grade it for difficulty (as in how tough of a puzzle) and terrain (is it an easy walk or a steep climb) so you can decide if this is a hunt you want to pursue. You can see that the “AFK to Greater Cincinnati, Fountain Sq.” hunt is easy in difficulty and easy in terrain.
The distance and direction from your current location to the cache is listed to the right.
Blue Ribbon: The blue ribbon is a marking that a Premium Member can leave for a favorite cache.
Size: The person who created this cache can give you an indication of the size of the piece you’re looking for here. Caches can be micro and tiny (the size of your finger tip) or large (a big box).
The Bug Icon: The gray box that looks like a bug denotes a “tracking bug” in this cache. A tracking bug is a physical item that is in the cache itself. The tracking bug has an identifying number on it. If you find a tracking bug in your cache, you can enter the tracking bug’s number into the Groundspeak app (see the “Trackables” button the bottom right of the screen) to see where this “bug” has been. You can take the bug with you when you leave and deposit it in another cache somewhere else – just be sure to log your trackable “find” when you take it (so no one else hunts for it) and then list the bug’s new location after you place it in another cache (all done within your app or online at the Geocaching site). You might want to wait until you have done a few caches before you get into the “tracking bug” game.
Cache Identifier: “GC4ZOGF” is the unique code for this particular geocache.
You might notice a few menu options across the bottom of your app. Here you can go back to search for a new cache, look for caches you saved for later, look at the logs you still need to send, and research Trackables. If any of these buttons seem confusing, just keep reading this tutorial for more info.
Choosing Your Geocache:
For this example, I chose the first geocache on the screen so I pushed on that section of my screen to select it.
The hunt I just chose now appears on the screen with details specific to that cache.
On this screen you can see: the date the geocache was downloaded to your phone (by you), the date it was originally hidden (by the person who started this cache), and the date it was last found (by someone else who was hunting for this cache).
Before you get started on your geocache hunt, you’ll want to click on “Description” to read what this particular cache is all about. It will give you a nice summary of the geocache, sometimes including what kind of cache you’re looking for (big, small, locked, etc.) and it may even give you some interesting info on the park or location where you’re hunting. After reading the Description, go back by hitting the “back” button in the top left section of the screen.
Finding Your Geocache:
After you pull up your chosen cache and read the description, you’re ready to hit “Navigate to Geocache” to get started.
After you hit the navigate button you’ll see a map of the location. The blue dot is your current location and the green dot is the approximate location of the geocache.
As you navigate your way towards the green dot, the blue dot will approach the green dot (all in real time). If you’re going the wrong way you’ll notice that your blue dot is getting farther away (or perhaps going to the side of the green dot).
When you do finally get right up to the green dot per your phone, put your phone away and start looking for the cache. Keep in mind that your coordinates are approximate and your phone will get you close to the real location but may not be completely accurate. You will have to hunt in the general vicinity for your cache and may have to come back to your phone for a re-check.
Caches will not be buried but may be on the ground, in trees, attached to metal items with magnets, be attached with cords, etc. Keep your eyes open and look all around, up and down.
If you are completely stumped and can’t seem to find your cache, come back to your phone and click on “Hint”. Keep in mind that the hint section does contain some pretty detailed info so don’t use this until you need it.
You can also look at “Photos” to see what other people have left you as a clue but, again, these might contain spoilers so be aware.
Recent Logs will tell you when the cache was last found OR if people are having trouble finding it. Caches are often in the woods and can be carried off by animals, blown out of place, accidentally discarded, etc. I don’t usually look at the logs unless I’m having trouble finding the cache.
When You Find the Geocache:
Did you find a geocache? Awesome! Open it up to see what’s inside! You’ll often find a log in the form of a notebook or a long slip of paper (sometimes inside a zippered bag to keep it dry). Sign your name to the log and replace it in the cache container. If the cache contains trinkets, you can take one as long as you also leave something behind for the next geocacher. And, if you’re lucky, you might come across a Trackable (see description above).
After you discover your cache, be sure to log it in the app. On the cache’s main screen you’ll see a big “Found It” button. Click on that. If you want to do so you can leave a message for others that are hunting for this cache (I found it! or Needs Maintenance or Never Found It 🙁 ). You can also attach a picture you take at the cache. And if you found a Trackable or are leaving a new Trackable, there’s a button for that too. Be sure to hit “Send Now” or “Save for Later” to send your info (or save for later allows you to send it at a later date).
Awesome! I’ll bet you’ll be hooked after your first one. You can find geocaches in cities all over the WORLD.
The first screen that appears when you open your app has “Find Nearby Caches” and it also has a “Search by Location” section. If you’re planning for a vacation or you’re at home and want to plan out a geocache hunt for later, search by a location other than where you’re currently located by putting a city or zip code in that box.
Bring a pen with you on your hike. Many (perhaps most?) geocaches have a log book inside and most of the geocaches I’ve found do not have a pencil or pen.
Bring a small trinket to leave behind and/or swap. Many geocaches are full of little trinkets to swap. This is especially fun for kids. Things I’ve seen? Small “Dollar Store” items, coins, laminated cards about other geocachers and their favorite events, costume jewelry, etc.
I am going to put together a little bag full of items for geocaching and will keep it in my car. I plan to include a few small pens or pencils and some “Cincinnati” themed goodies to leave behind. I’d love to find some plastic Cincinnati pins or something. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for those!
When you’re looking at the difficulty for a particular geocache, keep in mind that one person’s level of difficulty in “difficulty” and “terrain” may not be in agreement with your standards. I have been on “easy” ones that were tough and “tough” ones that I found easy. It’s just a guide. It is up to you to be safe and to take the necessary precautions on any hunt you pursue. Use YOUR best judgment and don’t rely on what others think.