What Is Geocaching?

Geocaches
A variety of sizes and shapes of geocaches. Groundspeak, Inc (Geocaching.com)

Geocaching (pronounced jee-oh-kash-ing), at its basic level, is a location-based treasure hunting game. Participants all over the world hide caches in public locations (and sometimes private property with permission) and leave clues for others to find them. In some cases, the cache will contain a trinket, and in other cases, it just contains a logbook to record who has visited the site. 

What Equipment Do You Need to Geocache?

At a minimum, you need a way to find geographic coordinates (latitude and longitude) and a pen to sign logbooks.

When geocaching first started, most players used a handheld GPS unit to find coordinates. These days, your smartphone already has a GPS sensor built in, and you can take advantage of specifically designed geocaching apps.

What does a Geocache look like?

Caches are generally waterproof containers of some sort. Ammunition boxes and plastic Tupperware-style containers are common. They can be large or they can be tiny, such as a mint box with a magnet. Caches should not be buried, but they are usually at least slightly hidden to avoid random encounters with non-players (muggles). That means they may not be on the ground or at eye level. They could be inside a fake rock, under some leaves, or otherwise encased.

In a few cases, caches are "virtual" caches without a physical box, but Geocaching.com no longer allows new virtual caches. 

Some, but not all, caches have trinkets inside them. These are usually cheap prizes that serve as collector's items for the cache finders.

It's customary to leave behind a trinket of your own if you take one.

The Origins of the Geocaching Game

Geocaching evolved as a game in May of 2000 to take advantage of more precise GPS data that had been newly made available to the public. David Ulmer began the game by hiding what he called the "Great American GPS Stash Hunt." He hid a container in the woods near Beavercreek, Oregon.

Ulmer gave the geographic coordinates, and set the simple rules for finders: take something, leave something. After the first "stash" was found, other players began hiding their own treasure, which became known as "caches."

In the early days of geocaching, players would communicate locations on Usenet internet forums and mailing lists, but within the year, the action moved to a central website, Geocaching.com, created by a software developer in Seattle, Washington and maintained by the company he founded, Groundspeak, Inc. Groundspeak's main source of revenue is premium memberships to Geocaching.com. (Basic membership is still free.)   

What Apps Should I use for Geocaching?

The official website for geocaching is Geocaching.com.  You can register for a free account and find a map of basic geocaches near you. If you wanted to get started using only a handheld GPS tracker instead of a smartphone, you could print off or write down the locations and clues from the website and go from there.  

Geocaching.com uses a free/premium model. It's free to register an account, but Premium subscribers are able to unlock more challenging caches and access more features in the official apps. As an alternative to the Geocaching.com website and app, OpenCaching is a free site and database with many of the same features.

Geocachers may register their caches in both locations. 

If you're using your phone, it's a lot easier to install apps. Geocaching.com has an official app for Android and iOS. Both apps offer basic features and unlock to offer more features for premium Geocaching.com users. Some iOS users prefer using the $4.99 Cachly app, which offers a better interface and offline map downloads (so you can still find caches when you lose your data connection.) GeoCaching Plus works on Windows phones.

If you decide to use OpenCaching, the c:geo Android app supports both Geocaching.com and Opencaching databases, and the GeoCaches app works for iOS.

You can also use GeoCaching Plus with both Geocaching.com and OpenCaching databases. 

Basic Gameplay

Before you start: Register for your account at Geocaching.com. This is the username you'll use to sign logs and provide feedback. You could use a single account as a family or register individually. Generally, you don't want to use your real name. 

  1. Find a cache near you. Using Geocaching.com or a geocaching app to view a map of nearby caches. 
  2. Each cache should have a description of where it can be found along with the location. Sometimes the description will include information about the size of the cache or clues about the location beyond the coordinates. On Geocaching.com, the caches are rated for difficulty, terrain, and size of the cache box, so find an easy cache for your first adventure. 
  3. Once you're within walking distance of the cache, Start navigation. You can use the Geocaching app to navigate to the site on a map. This isn't like driving directions, so you won't be told when to turn. You can just see where the cache is located on the map and your relative location. You'll get a ping when you're very near the cache. 
  4. Once you're at the coordinates, put down your phone and start looking. 
  5. When you find the cache, sign the logbook if they have one. Take and leave a trinket if they're available. 
  6. Log into Geocaching.com and record your find. If you don't find the cache, you can record that as well. 

Advanced Gameplay

Geocaching is very fluid, and players have added house rules and variations along the way. Each of these advanced games will be included in the description of the cache on Geocaching.com. 

Some geocaches are more difficult to find. Rather than posting the direct coordinates, the player creates a puzzle you must solve, such as a word scramble or riddle, in order to unlock them. 

Other players create a series of adventures. Find the first cache in order to find the clues to find the second cache, and so on. Sometimes these caches follow a theme, such as "James Bond" or "Old town trivia." 

Trackable Items

Another variation in gameplay is the "​trackable." Trackable items have a unique tracking code used to trace the location of the item as it travels, and they may be associated with a mission, such as moving the Travel Bug from one coast to another. This makes them a great way to create a game-within-a-game. 

Trackables are most often metal dog tag style items called Travel Bugs. They may be attached to another item. Travel Bugs are intended to move from one location to another within the bounds of the mission and are not souvenirs to keep. 

If you find a Travel Bug, you should log it. Do not post the tracking number as open feedback on a cache. It should be logged secretly in the tracking box portion of the app. 

If you don't want to accept the mission, you should still log the Travel Bug just to let the person who placed it know that the Travel Bug is still in place. 

Another, similar, trackable item is the Geocoin. Geocoins can be made or purchased. Some players leave un-activated Geocoins for other players to find and activate. You can activate your Geocoin through Geocaching.com. Most Geocoins will already be activated and associated with a mission. 

When you log a trackable, you can specify that you discovered it and write a note to the trackable's owner. The main actions you can do at a cache are: 

  • Retrieve: remove the trackable from the cache (usually with the intention of putting it in another cache)
  • Visit: You see the trackable but do not choose to take it (for example, you can't fulfill the mission attached to it). 
  • Drop: You leave the trackable at a new cache location. 

Muggles

Borrowed from Harry Potter, muggles are people who are not playing the geocaching game. They may get concerned about your suspicious behavior around an old ammunition box, or they may accidentally find and destroy a cache. When a cache disappears, it is said to have been "muggled." 

Cache discriptions will often tell you the chances of encountering muggles, in other words, how popular an area is. One nearby cache, for example, is on the side of a coffee shop, which makes it a heavy muggle area and means that you may need to wait until the area clears to retrieve the cache and sign the logbook. 

Souvenirs

Beyond trinkets, Bug Trackers, and Geocoins, you may discover areas with souvenirs. Souvenirs are not physical items. Instead, they're virtual items that you can associate with your Geocaching.com profile. In order to have a souvenir listed, you must register within the souvenir zone, generally as having found a cache, attended an event, or taking a photo (Found it, Attended, Webcam Photo Taken.) Here's a list of all souvenirs. Many countries have their own souvenir, so if you are headed abroad, be sure to go geocaching as you travel. 

Hiding Your Own Cache

If you'd like to extend the game, leave your own cache in a public space (or private with permission). You can leave a standard cache in a waterproof container with a logbook, or you can try advanced caches, such as mystery caches or challenge caches. All you need to do is register your cache on Geocaching.com and abide by their rules for containers and placement.