Geocaching: In a Nutshell

It is a question I have been asked on more than one occasion:  “What is this Geocaching thing you do?”  At first glance it would appear to be quite simple to explain, but Geocaching is much like an onion — many, many layers of depth. 

The good news is that caching doesn’t need to be complicated.  You can get involved in a variety of ways and the really good news is that there is something for everyone when it comes to caching.   Whether you want to seek out caches on mountain tops or the parking lot of your local Wal-mart, there is a place for you in this hobby.

My Background

I had heard of this hobby called Geocaching back in 2001 or so.  It sounded interesting to me, but buying a GPSr wasn’t high on our list of priorities at the time.  In 2003 a coworker had been given a GPSr for his birthday and he demonstrated to me how he could hook it up to his laptop and then see his position updated in realtime on a map using Microsoft Streets and Trips.  I thought this was the most amazing thing I had seen and decided I wanted a GPSr for doing this sort of tracking when we went on vacations.

I figured there was no way Shirley would like the idea of spending that sort of money just for vacation travel, so I needed to hatch some sort of plan.  I thought back to this “Internet game” that people could play with GPS units.  I did some searching on the web before I finally found  I signed up for a free account and did some research.  I approached Shirley with the idea as follows:  “Hey, you know how you always want to go for walks but I’m not interested in walking unless I have a reason?  Well, if we make a modest investment in a GPS unit we could try this game called Geocaching.” 

Surprisingly, she went for it.  On December 15, 2003 we went looking for a cache that was located relatively close to our house.  It was hidden along the Bow River near a pathway we didn’t even know existed.  We got close, we looked around for a few minutes and suddenly I moved a couple of rocks and — sure enough — here was a plastic toolbox hidden there.  We opened it, signed the logbook and then went home to log the find on the Internet.  The rest is history, and now after more than six years and nearly 3000 cache finds we continue to hunt them whenever we get a chance.

Since then I have had the chance to introduce caching to a fair number of people, I’ve attended Geocaching events all over North America, and I’ve volunteered to help teach Geocaching with the Calgary Outdoor Centre.  I’ve made some great friends, greatly improved my level of fitness, seen places I never knew existed and created memories to last a lifetime.

Hooked on the idea yet?  Let’s take a systematic approach at what is involved and try and answer some questions.


At it’s most basic level caching is simple.  A “geocache” needs to consist of nothing more than some sort of weather-proof container and a logbook.  People go out and hide these caches in all sorts of places and then, using their GPSr, they record the coordinates of the hiding place.  They go on the Internet to a caching website ( is the most popular, but there are others.) and list the coordinates and some details about the cache.  Other people come along, make a note of the coordinates and then use their own GPSr to navigate to the hiding spot and try to locate the cache.  If they find the cache, they sign the logbook to prove they were there and then they go back to the website to log their find online.  This typically consists of a short description of their experience in hunting the cache.

I say “try” to locate the cache, because it isn’t always simple.  Some caches are very easy to find and others are very tricky.  On caches have a Difficulty rating which ranges from 1 Star to 5 Stars which describes how hard it is to find the cache itself.  1 Star means the cache is in plain sight or is in a fairly obvious location.  A 5-Star cache may take several visits and/or many hours to locate. 

Caches also vary in size.  There are caches which are smaller than the tip of your little finger and there are other caches which are the sizes of cars.  The typical cache is usually around the size of a Tupperware container used for holding sandwiches.  On the site, one of the things that is normally listed is the cache size, from Micro (smaller than a 35mm film canister) to Large (5 gallon bucket or larger), with Small and Regular being the other choices.  Some cache hiders will not list the size because they want it to be a surprise.

There are also different “types” of caches.  A Traditional cache consists of a container hidden at the posted coordinates.  There are also Multi caches where you go to the coordinates, find a container that has the coordinates for the next container, and so on.  Multis can be very short with a couple of stages or they can cover locations miles and miles apart, sometimes even in different towns/cities.  There are also some caches that require you to solve a puzzle or crack a code before you can even get the coordinates!

All of these factors (size, camoflauge, type) play a factor in the Difficulty rating.  When you first start it is often a good idea to pick caches that are rated as 1 or 2 stars, especially if the kids are involved — you don’t want them to lose interest which can happen if you have trouble finding the caches.

Another frequently asked “What” question is “What do I find in a cache?”  Well, as mentioned, some caches are so small they don’t even have a pencil — you need to bring your own.  Other larger caches will have the logbook and (usually) something to write with.  They also may contain some trading items, which are typically small toys or trinkets.  Cachers refer to the cache contents as “swag”.  The rules with trading swag are simple:  If you want to take something you are supposed to leave something of equal or greater value in its place.  While some caches are stocked with more expensive items, you normally will find “dollar store” type items.  People may call it a “treasure hunt”, but you certainly won’t find gold and silver coins!


Just who does this caching thing?  The short answer is “Everyone!” 

Over the years I have met people of all age ranges, from small children caching with their parents to retirees.  Men, women, young, old.  People who are physically fit and people who are wheelchair bound.  As long as you can afford a GPSr (we cover that later) you can get in on the game.


Another simple question to answer:  Everywhere!

When we first started I thought “Oh, this probably only works in the States…there won’t be any caches in Canada.”  Well, after doing my first search on the site I was amazed to learn that not only are there caches in Canada, but there was a cache not far from our house.  That was in 2003 and the game has grown exponentially since then.  With more than 1,000,000 active caches around the world, you would be hard-pressed to find a place without a cache nearby.

On the website, caches are also rated on the Terrain.  Just like the Difficulty, the scale goes from 1 Star to 5 Stars.  The guidelines are basically as follows:

1 Star:  Accessible to everyone, including handicapped cachers in wheelchairs.

2 Star:  Good for cachers of all ages.  Children are OK.

3 Star:  You’re getting more serious now.  Could be steep sections or a longer walk.

4 Star:  Pretty serious hike.  You better be prepared for a strenuous undertaing.

5 Star:  You’re going to need specialized equipment to get there such as SCUBA gear.

Cache locations range from parking lots to mountain tops.  City parks to backwoods campsites.  However, there are some places where caches are not allowed, which is basically anywhere where they may attract unwanted attention.  It’s a sad state of affairs, but places which could be considered targets for terrorists are typically not allowed to have caches:  dams, bridges, airports, government buildings, schoolyards, railway tracks.

A website like have very detailed guidelines about hiding caches.  Before you can hide a cache of your own you really need to read and understand all the limits of caching.  For example, caches cannot be buried.  Caches cannot be hidden within 161m of another cache.  Lots of rules, but for now worry about finding some and only worry about hiding your own cache after you gain some experience.


Anytime you want!  As long as you can legally access the hiding area you can go find a cache.  Not only do some people prefer hunting for caches at night when there are less people around, but some caches are actually designed so they can only be found in the dark using a flashlight.

Caching is a year-round activity.  As long as you are dressed properly for the weather, there is no reason why you can’t cache in the dead of winter.  However, be warned, sometimes a cache which is really easy to find in the summer can get much harder to locate when it is under a layer of dead leaves in the Autumn or under three feet of snow in the Winter.


So, why do people participate in this crazy hobby?  I can’t answer why **you** will want to cache, but I can give you some examples of why other people do it. 

Some people are motivated by the numbers.  They want to find as many caches as they possibly can.  They are motivated by challenging themselves to find as many caches as quickly as they can.  Other people don’t care about how many caches they find.  They use it as an excuse to get out and be active.  And, active doesn’t have to mean climbing mountains either — it can be as simple as taking a bike ride to that park in your neighborhood you never felt the urge to visit before.  And, that’s another motivator for people — you can discover places and things right in your own neighborhood that you didn’t know existed.  Some people like caching in solitude and others use it as an activity the whole family can particiapate in.

My own motivations?  I’ve been to parks in Calgary that I never would have known about if not for caching.  We’ve gone on vacation with people who have been going to the same place for years and on our first trip we’re telling them about places they never heard of.  And, fitness is a big motivator for me.  The first cache we did was 600m from the parking lot and I remember thinking “There is no way I can walk that far.”  Now I can say I have hiked 16km for a single cache.  I’ve climbed to the top of mountain peaks and, most importantly, I can honestly say I’ve dropped 80 pounds thanks in large part to my caching activities. 


OK, so if you’ve read this far there must be something that has piqued your interest.  So, how do you get started?

Well, the simple part is to go to and sign up for an account.  Creating a basic account is free, all you need to do is think up a caching “handle” — the nickname you want to be known as on the site.  Mine is “DanOCan” (what a shock, eh?) and has become my de facto ID for most of my online activities.  There are some additional website features that you can only get if you become a paid member, but don’t worry about that right now.  Start simple and see if you think caching is something you want to stick with before you spend the money.  The good news is that even if you want to become a “Premium Member”, the cost is quite cheap — $30 US / year.


OK, so you have an account.  You’ve done some simple searches and determined where the caches around you are.  You may have even watched their “Getting Started” video and saved yourself all of this reading!

So, now you need a GPSr.  (The ‘r’ is for ‘receiver’.)  The next question is almost always “Which one?”

People cache with all sorts of devices.  From smartphones (like the iPhone) to handheld units to automotive units.  Each has pros and cons.

Smartphones?  If you already have one you can save yourself some up front money.  Apparently some of the new ones are good, but my experience with the iPhone 3G has been less than stellar.  The battery life is poor, the system is slow to update and under tree cover the reception fades quickly.  I use mine for getting the cache information and will hunt with it in a pinch, but it’s not my first choice.

Automotive units?  Again, if you already own one you can save some money up front, but they tend to have a lot of cons as well.  They typically don’t have a navigation mode that gives you a simple distance and an arrow to follow.  They aren’t rugged enough for outdoor use and they aren’t designed to fit comfortably in your hand.  There are people out there who use them (I have too when nothing else is around.) but again, not my first choice.

Handheld units are my personal choice.  The big issue here is which model?  Well, the answer to that depends on your budget.  Any GPSr can be used for caching.  But, do you want a color screen or is black and white OK?  Do you want a unit that can accept maps or are you happy caching with just a direction and a distance?  Do you want to be able to do “paperless caching” (storing all the cache details right in the GPSr) or are you happy with printing out the details before you leave the house?  Prices will range from $100 – $600 depending on features.

I usually suggest people try and borrow a unit from someone if they can.  This gives you a chance to see if caching is something that is going to be of interest to you and your family before you sink money into it. 

Secondhand units are often a good choice as well.  Many cachers are “techie types” and upgrade all the time.  Heck, I’m on my fourth unit in just over six years!  (I tend to be hard on my gear!) 

Before purchasing any unit I would go to a store that will let you hold the various models.  Some people prefer configurations with buttons on the top, others on the bottom, or even touchscreens.  Until you hold the unit in your hand it is hard to know what you are going to like.

And, if all else fails, look for a Geocaching event in your area.  In areas with an active caching community it isn’t unusal for cachers to get together on a regular basis.  These events are listed on the website as “Event” caches.  In general cachers are a very friendly bunch and love to discuss their hobby (heck, look at this post!).  You’ll meet all sorts of people, many of whom will have their GPSr units with them so you can see a lot of models all at one time and talk to people with experience in using them.  Many events take place in bars or restaurants (cachers love to eat!) so you can often find the event without a GPSr and, worst case scenario, have a drink or two while you learn.


Wow.  That’s a lot of words to talk about caching.  And, I’ve just barely scratched the surface of what the hobby can involve.  Feel free to ask me questions, I’ll try and post answers here so others can benefit too. 





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1 Response to Geocaching: In a Nutshell

  1. APRIL says:

    Thanks Dan .. that helped me out a lot. I went online and found a cache around the corner from our house. We’ll have to take the kids out GPS shopping and give it a whirl.


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