What Is Geocaching?: All You Need to Know

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If you’re looking for a family-friendly, fun way to enjoy the outdoors, you might want to consider geocaching, a recreational activity that's kind of like going on the world’s largest treasure hunt. Instead of referencing a paper map where X marks the spot, geocachers use a smartphone app or a GPS device to navigate to an area where a symbolic treasure (called a geocache or “cache”) is hidden. Once geocachers are in the vicinity of a treasure, they must rely on careful observation and puzzle-solving skills to find the often-camouflaged cache container. Sound exciting? Here’s how geocaching works and how to get started.

Caches Explained

Close-up of a geocache hanging on a tree.
Credit: photocrazed_jls/ Shutterstock

Geocachers create and stash caches in small containers around the globe, and each of the roughly 3 million caches has unique GPS (latitude and longitude) coordinates. Caches come in all shapes and sizes and are hidden across varying terrain in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Each cache container holds a logbook (or paper scroll) for other geocachers to sign, proving they found it.

Many cache owners also place “swag” inside — small, inexpensive items such as foreign coins, keychains, toys, trinkets, lapel pins, golf balls, matchbox cars, small compasses, stickers, dice, marbles, etc. Geocaching operates on a TOGO (take-one-get-one) model, where it’s OK to take an item as long as you replace it with an item of similar or higher monetary or sentimental value. Most geocachers carry a collection of swag items to trade, but some prefer just to sign logbooks.

How to Get Started

A geocaching box hanging on a tree, hidden from the path of walking.
Credit: norwegianwoods/ Shutterstock

One of the best things about geocaching is that you don’t need a lot of equipment. The first step is to create a free account on Geocaching.com, where you’ll create a unique username. Next, download the mobile app or use your GPS unit if it has geocaching features. Now all you need is a pen or pencil and trinkets if you plan to swap caches! A small flashlight can also come in handy if you’re worried about depleting your phone battery. Finally, prepare for geocaching as you would for an outdoor hike by dressing appropriately for the weather and carrying items such as water, snacks, bug repellent, sunscreen, and a hat. The international geocaching community expects participants to follow a Leave No Trace or CITO (Cache In Trash Out) policy.

Pay Attention to Cache Ratings

A woman standing in a forest looking closely at her phone next to a locked box.
Credit: Mitch Shark/ Shutterstock

The app will list some details, such as the cache’s approximate size, but more importantly, each geocache is assigned a difficulty and terrain (D/T) rating between one and five stars. Fewer stars mean the caches are easier to find and require less rugged trekking and sleuthing. Tip: It’s best to choose one and two-star rated caches when you’re new to geocaching. Otherwise, you might discover you need a boat, diving gear, climbing gear, or some specialized talent.

How to Find Geocaches

Close-up of a hidden geocache box found in a forest.
Credit: ra-photos/ iStock

The app will show you caches in your area, so select the one you want to find. Then, follow the app’s navigation tool to the cache’s general location, which is typically within 30 feet of the hidden treasure. Some caches have waypoints, which are coordinates that identify parking areas, trailheads, reference points, or noteworthy sights associated with the cache.

Once you’re near a cache, set aside your technology — it can no longer help. Observe your surroundings and look for anything that appears slightly unnatural or would make a good hiding place. Don’t forget to look up for items hanging from tree branches or underneath structures. DIY geocache containers can be reusable plastic Tupperware containers, tin mint boxes, pill bottles, military surplus ammunition boxes, film canisters, jars, coffee cans, or just about anything weatherproof, durable, and easily disguised.

Serious geocachers purchase specialized, labeled polypropylene boxes, hangable microcapsules, magnetic metal containers that stick to metal surfaces, and all sorts of creative things like birdhouses, submersible packs, and shapes such as animals, insects, rocks, and pinecones. The creativity doesn’t end there — geocachers can be an extremely innovative bunch and will create fake tree stumps, cactuses, cow patties, fence parts, and so on. Many go to elaborate lengths to disguise, paint, or glue things such as rocks and fake leaves to hide containers. Geocaches can be placed in existing underground spots but are not typically buried in holes, since digging holes is against the international geocaching “rules.”

What to Do When You Find a Geocache

The findings of a geocache logbook in the forest.
Credit: F.Weiss/ Shutterstock

First, pat yourself on the back, especially if the cache was particularly challenging to find. Take the cache a little distance away from where you found it, so you don’t give away its location to any nearby geocachers. Open it and sign the logbook using your username. Carefully reseal the container and return it to its original hiding spot. Don’t try to make it easier or harder to find. Then update the app or website log so the cache owner knows you found it. Document any issues such as water damage, cracks, a missing logbook, etc. You can also leave tips or interesting anecdotes for others, but avoid giving away too much so others can enjoy the challenge.

“Trackables”

A geocache trackable chain on top of a geocache box.
Credit: plamice/ Shutterstock

Another item you might find inside a geocache is a “trackable,” a unique game piece that’s meant to be moved from cache to cache. Sometimes the cache owner will include a goal for the trackable, such as “cross the Atlantic” or “visit waterfalls.” You can buy a variety of trackable items such as “travel bugs,” geocoins, travel tags, patches, T-shirts, and other novelty items. Each trackable contains a unique tracking code that the owner logs on Geocaching.com.

If you decide to move a trackable, check to see if it has any goals — and only take it if you can help it reach its goal. Owners love to see that others have found their trackable and intend to move it, so be sure to log it. Geocaching etiquette dictates that you move it to a new cache within two weeks. If the trackable has a goal of travel that you can fulfill but not right away, you can contact the owner to see if they are willing to wait.

How to Create Your Own Geocache

A homemade geocache jar found in a park.
Credit: Howie MCLAUGHLIN/ Shutterstock

Once you’ve gotten the hang of finding caches, join in the fun and begin creating and hiding your own. Review the geocaching guidelines first, which include information about minimum distance requirements between caches, avoiding sensitive cultural or environmental areas, and not harming plants or animals. You should also get permission from whoever owns the land (whether it’s private or public property). The guidelines include additional advice about containers, contents, registering your cache on Geocaching.com, and geocaching etiquette. (Note: There are other types of geocaches, such as multi-caches, mystery, letterbox, Wherigo, EarthCaches, virtual, and more, but we’re focusing on traditional physical ones.)

Some of the Best Places to Geocache

A compass being used in nature for geocaching.
Credit: Andrey_Popov/ Shutterstock

The appeal of geocaching is that you can enjoy the hunt anywhere — even in Antarctica! First, decide if you want to simply find the most caches in one outing or prefer a specific setting such as a city, park, historical site, scenic location, or remote wilderness area. Some areas offer a high number of caches but not particularly interesting ones, whereas others may have fewer but more challenging, creatively camouflaged caches. If you’re heading out on vacation, you can review tips on Geocaching.com to learn about geocaches at your destination.

GeoTours

A view of Ruby Beach from Washington State's Highway 101.
Credit: Sara Cross/ Alamy Stock Photo

Another option is to check out the 90 or so free GeoTours. GeoTours include options such as a U.S. National Parks Tour, Olympic Peninsula Highway 101 Scenic Byway GeoTour, Geocaching Capital of Canada Tour (Ontario), Northern Lights Tour (Finland), Garden of Amsterdam GeoTour, Schatzhüterin GeoTour (Germany), GeoTours Azores (Portugal), and Tuia Mātauranga GeoTour (New Zealand). The tours include maps and highlight the area’s top-rated caches and sights, allowing you to make the best use of your time and receive “rewards” upon completion.

The front doors of the Geocaching Headquarts in Seattle, Washington.
Credit: Travis Wise/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

See where it all started at Seattle’s Geocaching HQ, where you can tour the visitor center chronicling how the app got started and head out on the company’s GeoTour, which takes you to several nearby caches, plus restaurants, landmarks, and shops in the Fremont neighborhood. Other U.S. cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and San Francisco are popular geocaching locations, but even smaller cities and towns offer plenty of options.

National, state, and local parks, historical monuments, and publicly owned properties are typically loaded with caches. Geocaching is popular in Europe as well, particularly in Germany, Denmark, the U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Czechia, and Austria. Geocaching is a highly customizable hobby, so your best bet is to choose where to go based on your interests. There’s hidden treasure around every corner!

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