(Note – I originally wrote this article for another blog, which I no longer maintain. The article had so much traffic, however, that I thought I would repost it here.)
Geocaching is a great way to spice up your homeschool studies. It is a sport/hobby that entails finding modern day “treasure”, hidden all around the world, sometimes in the very public places that you go to every day (we’ve found caches in the library, the rock in front of REI, public parks, etc). Skills involved in geocaching include map reading, coordinate locating, puzzle solving, researching various subjects, learning about local history, wilderness survival, etc. It also involves fresh air and exercise.
If you would like to try geocaching, you will need a GPS handheld unit. The GPS units that you put in your car for driving directions may not work because they may not get reception in the woods. Of course, you can stick to urban caches, which can be quite fun also. There are several brands of units, but Magellan, Tom Tom, and Garmin are three popular brands.
When I geocache, I also like to bring a compass because GPS unit compasses only work while you are moving. I usually also bring some basic survival equipment if I am going to be in the woods. I was very glad I did one day when we got lost on a mountain in 100 degree weather! In addition, I bring gloves because some caches require putting hands in some icky and/or prickly places.
To find out where some caches near you are, go to www.geocaching.com. They have a basic membership, which is free. If you really enjoy geocaching, you might consider their premium membership, which is very reasonably priced. On the home page, you can enter your zipcode and search for caches near your home. You will get a page of caches listed that looks like this:
On this page, the things you need to concern yourself with are:
- Distance from the location you searched from (once you learn to enter your home coordinates, the caches can be centered around your actual house)
- Icons – There are two sets of icons to concern yourself with
- Cache type:
- Green ammo can = Traditional caches are the type of cache where you just head out to the location and find the cache
- Orangish file cabinet looking symbol = Multi-caches have multiple stops, with each being called a waypoint (WP for short), the cache page will give directions to the first waypoint and each waypoint will give you directions to the next waypoint, until you get to the last waypoint, which is called the “final”
- Question mark = Puzzle caches require that you solve a puzzle to get the cache coordinates, some of the puzzles are insanely difficult, but you can learn lots of neat things in the process of solving them
- Travel bugs or geocoins in the cache (more on these later)
- Cache type:
- D=Difficulty rating: 1-5 stars (stick with a 1 or 2 for your first cache)
- T=Terrain rating: 1-5 stars, with 1 being completely handicap accessible and 5 requiring special equipment, such as diving gear (one cache that I read about was in a volcano, in a dessert!)
- Date last found – if the date is a long time ago, it is possible that the cache is missing and people have not logged that, at the very least, it’s location has not been recently confirmed
Once you select a cache, click on it and you will be taken to the cache page, which will look like this…
Things you need to look at on this page are:
- Cache name and owner
- Cache size:
- Large will often be in Tupperware or an ammo can
- Medium will be in things like 12 oz Gatorade bottles
- Small will be in something like an Altoid’s container
- Micros are often in things called bison tubes, which are about the size of a lipstick tube.
- Cache coordinates
- Attributes let you know if dogs are allowed, the cache is wheelchair accessible, etc.
- Map of area
- Cache description
Once you have your cache notes and equipment, you’re ready to head out. I try to look up any areas that a cache is in, if I am unfamiliar with the general area. It’s best to have a good idea where to park. Trying to reach a cache from a bad starting location can add hours to the find. Sometimes you can’t even get to a cache from certain directions. Some caches will give you parking coordinates, which is very helpful.
Be sure to note the coordinates to where your car is parked! Else, you may have trouble getting back to it. You’d be surprised how turned around you can get. Laugh all you want, but please do it anyway.
You then start heading towards the cache, using your GPS unit to help you get to “ground zero”, which means the general area of the cache. You’d think it’d be easy once you get there, but that is where the real challenge and fun begins. Caches need to be well hidden so that they aren’t muggled (“muggles” are non-cachers and when muggles remove or destroy a cache, it is said to have been “muggled”). The cache may be right in front of your face, but you won’t see it because it is camouflaged so well. Or it can be in a place you wouldn’t think to look. One cache we found was in a container with a reflector on a “No Parking” sign at the end of a dead-end street. The reflector looked like it was supposed to be there. I would never have found it, but fortunately my daughter figured it out right away. Also, if the cache is a micro, it can be hidden in all sorts of nooks and crannies.
While you are looking for the cache, you need to be discreet and not disclose the cache’s location to any muggles. If you are alone in the woods, this is easy. If you’re doing an urban cache, this can be the hardest part of the whole thing. One of my favorite caches is in a fake book in a library!
You also need to be careful not to damage the terrain. Caches should not be hidden such that seekers end up creating new trails, thereby ruining the landscape and giving away the location of the cache. An ideal cacher will leave the environment cleaner than when he arrived. In fact, there are many CITO (Cache In, Trash Out) events arranged by various cachers.
Sometimes you will not find the cache. Sometimes the cache is missing; sometimes you just can’t find it; sometimes it has geotraveled (“geotraveled” is a term for what happens when cachers don’t replace the cache exactly where they found it). I can’t tell you how many times I have returned to ground zero to look for cache for a second time and found it right away in a place that I was sure I looked in the first time.
If you do find the cache and it is a large one, there may be swag in the cache. Geocaching swag is small items that can fit in a cache. Examples of swag are small toys, pens, small calculators, key chains, etc. Geocaching etiquette dictates that if you take something from the cache, you put something else in to replace it. Never put in food as that will attract animals. In addition, explosive items, animals, etc. are inappropriate for obvious reasons. Also, somewhere along the line, used golf balls became a bit of a joke amongst geocachers as being the tackiest item one can leave.
There are a special type of swag called travel bugs and geocoins. These items are meant to travel from cache to cache. Sometimes they have a particular mission, such as to make it to Fiji. Sometimes they just travel. If you take one of these, you need to make sure you move it along to a new cache in a reasonable amount of time.
In addition to swag, all caches should have a log book. With micro caches, the log book may just be a strip of paper. You should sign the log with your name or geocaching name, date, and anything you want to say about the cache. With micros, you can usually only sign and date the log. There are some acronyms that geocachers use for logs.
- TNLNSTL = Took Nothing Left Nothing, Signed the Log
- TFTC = Thanks for the Cache
- TFTH = Thanks for the Hide
Sometimes a cache will be in a state of disrepair. It may have been muggled or the cache owner, who is the person who hid the cache, may not have been taking care of the cache like he should. Sometimes cache owners go AWOL and a cache will become badly neglected. In cases like that, it is nice to clean up the cache some if you can. Sometimes if the log book is full, I will put a new log in the cache. If you ever feel the need to do that, take the old log with you and e-mail the owner to see if he wants it. Some people do, even when the logs are moldy!
Once you are home, you should go back to geocaching.com to log what you did. You really should note if you did not find the cache as if there are several DNF’s (Did Not Find’s) in a row, the owner will probably want to check on the cache to make sure that it is there. When you record your find or DNF, you might mention a little bit about what your geocaching experience was like, the state the cache was in, and so forth. You also should always thank the cache owner for placing the cache. There are a couple of other options for logging for caches, “Needs Maintenance” and “Needs Archived”. Those should not really be used by newbie (new) cachers. If you log those and are wrong about the cache, people may get mad and nasty with you (for instance, it may not really be missing or you may feel the log book is too full, but the owner doesn’t). If the cache is in obvious disrepair, the top is missing for instance, then it is okay to use the “Needs Maintenance” option.
After you have logged the find, you are done. You can go celebrate your good work.
Here are some geocaching related links:
- Geocaching.com has a beginner caching page
- Geocacher University has lots of helpful information
- The “I’d Rather Be Caching” blog has several excellent posts about solving puzzle caches, such as here, here and here
- Here is a page with cipher tools
- Secret Code Breaker Online can also help you with code solving
- An article about treading lightly while geocaching is here
- The Caching Place is a good place to buy geocaching supplies and geocoins
- Geocachingsupplies.net has swag and geocaching containers
- Geocoin Club sells different geocoins every month, collecting geocoins can be a hobby unto itself
- Letterboxing is somewhat like geocaching, except that you use clues and a compass rather than a GPS unit, also there is no swag, instead you collect stamps in a stamp book