What Is Geocaching?

How this modern take on the treasure hunt works

Geocaching is an outdoor activity that combines global positioning system (GPS) technology with treasure hunting. The basic idea is that someone hides a cache of small items, notes the coordinates, and then uploads those coordinates to a website. Other people are then able to use those coordinates to find the cache, sign a log book, leave a small item of their own, and then put it back for the next person to find.

What is a Geocache?

A geocache is a small weather-proof container that has been hidden for geocachers to find. The contents will vary from one instance to the next, but every geocache contains a log book for geocachers to sign after a successful find, and most include an assortment of small items that are referred to as swag. Geocachers are free to remove one item upon a successful find, but only if they replace it with something of equal or greater value.

A man fills out a geocache logbook.
  Jürgen Wiesler / Getty

Basic Instructions for Geocaching

Geocaching can be easy or difficult depending on where a particular cache is hidden, and how much care was taken in stashing it away. Some caches are a challenge to reach due to difficult or remote terrain, and some are tough to find due to a particularly clever hiding spot.

Here's what the general process of searching for a geocache looks like:

  1. Obtain the coordinates for a local geocache.

  2. Locate the cache using a handheld GPS device, an app on your phone, or other navigational techniques.

  3. Discern the hidden location of the cache.

    Geocachers are clever, and the cache may be difficult to find even if you're in the exact right location. Look on top and underneath things and try to think of where you might hide a cache in this terrain.

  4. Upon successfully locating the geocache: sign the logbook, remove one item if you like, place an item of equal or greater value in the cache if you removed one, and carefully return the cache to its hiding place.

  5. Carefully examine the site, and remove any signs of your presence. Don't make it easier for the next geocacher, but don't make it more difficult either.

What Are Geocaching Trackables?

Most of the items, or swag, found in geocaches are just small little trinkets that you can take or leave as you please. Trackables are a little different, in that they are specifically meant to be moved from one geocache to another. If you find a trackable, only take it if you plan on actually moving it to the next cache in the near future.

There are a few different types of trackables:

  • Travel bugs: This is the original trackable, and it takes the form of metal dog tags attached to another item. The dog tags contain a tracking number and some instructions. If you find one, you can visit the geocaching.com website to find out what to do.
  • Geocoins: These are small coins with unique designs and tracking numbers. If the coin has been activated, you'll be able to find out what to do with it on a site like geocaching.com. If it hasn't been activated, you can activate it yourself and place it in your own geocache if you like.
  • Other trackables: You may find stickers, legos, and other small items with tracking codes. The item may point you toward a tracking site, in which case you can input the code there to discover the goal of the item.

If you find a trackable, you have a few choices. You can leave it for the next person, or you can take it. If you decide to take it, geocaching etiquette requires you to enter the tracking code into the appropriate website, typically geocaching.com, and find out the goal of the item.

The owner of a trackable may want you to move it to another nearby cache, or it may have a specific destination. If you aren't willing to help the trackable reach its goal, then leave it in the cache for the next person.

Required Equipment for Geocaching

Before you strike out on your first geocache hunt, it's important to make sure that you have the right gear to get the job done. The exact equipment you'll need will depend on the location of your query. For example, a geocache hidden in a local park will be more accessible than one secreted away, with permission, in the backwoods of some private forestland.

Geocaching is pretty easy to get into, but you need these basics at a bare minimum:

  • GPS device: A Handheld GPS unit or a rugged smartphone with built-in GPS will suffice to locate the coordinates of a geocache.
  • Backup power: Extra batteries or a portable charger to keep your GPS tracker or phone going if the batteries run down.
  • A way to sign the logbook: Some caches include a pen, but bring one yourself just in case.
  • Fresh logbooks: If the existing logbook is full, you'll be able to leave a brand new one so that people can keep using the geocache.
  • Swag: If you want to take anything from the cache, make sure to have a small item or equal or greater value to leave behind.

Depending on circumstances like the weather and the difficulty of reaching your chosen geocache, you may also want to pack items like:

  • UV light if you're going after a night cache with UV reflectors.
  • Tools like a flashlight, small mirror, extendable magnet, and flexible mechanical pickup tool to help you locate and reach the cache.
  • Water and snacks to keep you hydrated and fueled.
  • A log roller if you're going after a microcache.
  • Camera to take some shots of your journey.
  • Rain gear if there's a chance the weather may turn.
  • First aid kid including bandages and antiseptic.
  • Bug spray if you're going to be in an area with biting or stinging insects.
  • Sunblock if there's a chance you'll be out in the sun for a while.
  • Permission to be on the land where the cache is hidden, if necessary.

Where Can You Find Geocache Coordinates?

There are a number of sources for geocache coordinates. The hobby got started on a mailing list for GPS enthusiasts, but you can find coordinates on websites and in apps today.

Here are some of the best places to find geocache coordinates in your area:

  • Geocaching.com: This is the oldest and most popular source for geocache coordinates. Membership is required, but they provide a lot if information about the difficulty of reaching each cache and even have an app to help in your search.
  • OpenCaching.us: This site has fewer geocaches, but all user-submitted caches are verified and approved by staff. In addition to traditional geocaches, they also have variants like webcam and podcast caches.
  • Terracaching.com: This site is more exclusive, as membership is not open. New members have to be sponsored by existing members, which requires you to meet up with existing members if you don't already know any.
  • EarthCache: This site is run by the Geological Society of America, and it has partnered with Geocaching.com for some functionality. Instead of finding caches that other people have hidden, it directs you to unique and interesting geological features.