Original Article published 8/26/19
So back in February, I accidentally started Geocaching (why are there so many accidents on this blog?).
Our buddy Skunk stumbled onto a Geocache at South Cape May Meadows and asked what it was. I replied, “Hey, I think that’s a Geocache.”
He asked what that was, and I said it was like a treasure hunt, which was just about as much as I knew. So we downloaded the app (Geocaching.com) and attempted to sign up for a free account on the geocaching.com website, only to discover that I’d actually signed up for one back 2011 and had never figured out how to make it work with my GPS.
But oh what a difference eight years and the proliferation of smart phones made. We not only figured out how to make the app work (this is a big deal. Despite this super fancy website [Thanks Chris of chriscountey.com!!!!], I’m generally pretty terrible with technology) we found two caches on that hike! The kids found out some of these things contained toys (more on that later) and were quickly hooked. The Pres, Tree Rider, Kite Flyer, Skunk, and I, with help from Alix and Abby, spent the rest of our weekend down the shore taking breaks between pizza and pinball to clumsily look for these containers. We had some decent luck, and a new hobby was born.
Well, once you start looking, you realize that these things are EVERYWHERE. Much like a certain prestigious South Jersey hiking blog (some other blog, definitely not this one), they take you to some interesting places you’ve never known were there.
“All right Mike,” you don’t actually say but I’ll pretend that you did, “so if I want to try this, what do I need to do? Please make sure to tell me in a series of numbered lists.” I’m glad that you asked!
How to Get Started with Geocaching:
- Go to Geocaching.com and create a free account. There is an option for a membership that you can pay for, but give it a go for free before you commit. You’ll only see a fraction of the available Geocaches with the free membership, but its more than enough to get started (we went more than two months with the free account before we sprung for a membership).
- Download a geocaching app to your phone. I use the one called “Geocaching” put out by Geocaching.com, although there are other options out there (which I know nothing about).
- Log into your account on the app.
You’re almost ready to look!
How Do I Know Where to Go?
Okay, now for the fun part, actually looking! I promise that this is not NEARLY as complicated as all of these steps look, I’ve just learned over the years to write VERY specific directions (comes with being an elementary teacher). Much of this will be common sense, or will very quickly become habit once you look for a few geocaches.
Our example here is combination of a cache I hid in a nearby town combined with my kids faking like we hid one in our backyard (because we’d hate to spoil the fun of a real one).
- Fire up your app, which will open a map of where you are and load the geocaches in your area (for the moment, these will be little green icons, although as you find some you’ll get happy faces and if you eventually pay for an account, there are other special kinds of geocaches that I am NOT going into yet). The blue dot is you at your current location!
Pick a geocache in your area that you want to look for by tapping the appropriate little green icon on your phone.
A little box will pop up at the bottom telling you how far it is, how hard the hide is (ranked 1-5, with 1 being easiest and 5 being the hardest), how hard the terrain is to cross (again, 1-5), and the size of the cache (micro, small, regular, or large). This is one of my caches, because I don’t want to ruin the fun of one that someone else has hidden, so the icon is a little orangy star instead of the usual green box.
With the free app, it will only let you see caches that are ranked 2 or less for both categories. Click on the box to bring up the full write up, which includes difficulty (see arrow, it’s how hard the hide is), terrain (see arrow, it’s how tough the area is to get around in). and the size (forgot to put an arrow, but it’s next to the other two – micro, small, regular, large).
- Now you are on the full information for the cache. You’ll want to check two things. First, touch the description so that it pops up. This usually tells you some information about what you are looking for, and might also tell you a little history of the area [this is all of mine… can’t keep a good teacher down] or a sometimes a story behind the cache name or just a story the author made up. This will help let you know if it’s along a hiking trail deep in the woods or whether its hiding in a tree in a parking lot at a local supermarket. If you go out adventuring in South Jersey (and you probably do if you put up with reading this terrible blog), you’ve been walking past geocaches for years without having any idea.
Second, touch the little back arrow and then choose “activity”. This lists how people have done looking for this cache. Lots of happy faces (people are finding it!) and a fairly recent date that it was last found means this is probably a good one to look for. Lots of sad faces (meaning people didn’t find it) or a date over a month old since it was found means this might not be the best one when you are starting out, because its either really hard to find or it is not there anymore because something happened.
- So the description sounds good to you and there are lots of smilies under “activity”, time to go for it! Go back to the big info screen for the cache and touch on the “navigate” button on your phone. A straight line will appear between you and the cache, and a distance will appear at the top of the screen. Follow that line to find the cache! You can also click on the little compass up top (next to the little car) and use a compass feature to get there. NOTE: It’s REALLY important to remember that when I say “follow the line” or “follow the compass”, you are still required to use common sense! If driving, you still need to do that SAFELY (if I’m far from the cache, I’ll often zoom in close to it on the map, note the cross streets, and then put that into Google Maps and use that until I park my car). You can also click on the little car in the menu bar, which will then talk to your Maps app and give you driving directions to get close.If walking, stick to paths and don’t go through swamps or over fences or across people’s lawns.
I’m Close, Now What!?
- When the Geocaching app tell you that you’re getting close (usually within 15 or 20 feet), start looking up, it’s time to look for the actual Geocache! This is usually a metal or plastic waterproof container containing, at a minimum, a piece of paper (more on that later), almost always in a ziplock bag. Some of the most common kinds you will see are ammo cans (usually the “large”), tupperware or plastic “lock top” containers (listed as “regular” or sometimes “small”), pill bottles (usually a “small”, but sometimes listed as a “micro”), and those little tubes that folks use to hold a pill or two when they go out (“micro”). These can also be magnetic (key hiders are common) or, the most frustrating for me, “nanos” which are teeny tiny holders that sometimes aren’t much bigger than the eraser of a pencil. If you pay for a subscription later on, there are even caches that aren’t actually physically there! But for now, keep it simple. It might look something like this.
Now, these aren’t going to be THAT easy, they are usually hidden… that’s what makes it fun! You’ll need to hunt around for it. Good luck! YET ANOTHER NOTE: This is NEW JERSEY. If it’s warm weather, be on alert for the usual things that can ruin a good day out – tall grass that might have ticks or chiggers and poison ivy. The “Activity” section usually is a good place to browse real fast to see if anyone mentions poison ivy if you get to a place where you just aren’t sure.
Now, when you are looking for a Geocache, BE SNEAKY if there are or might be other people around (referred to as “muggles” in Geocaching circles). Most people who would see you looking around vaguely lost will promptly ignore you and pretend that you don’t exist. If they are not in that category, you find the next most likely reaction is they will either a) ask you if you need help with something or are lost or b) will assume that you are a little weird (this is a normal reaction toward me and my brood even when we AREN’T looking for Geocaches) and move on with their lives. But occasionally folks will pay attention to you, see you find a cache, and then either move or take the cache, which ruins it for the next person. So be sneaky.
- I CAN’T FIND IT! No worries, the hider might help you out. Go back to that main info screen. If you are lucky, you can touch the “Hint” button and the person who hid it will give you a hint. This can be anything from telling you exactly where it is to some cutesy hint, to something that makes no sense what-so-ever.
- I STILL CAN’T FIND IT! No worries, you have one more chance at help. Go back to the “Activity” section on the cache information page. If you read back through what people have written, they’ll often pose with the container (it becomes SO much easier when you know what you are looking for) or drop little hints or come out and tell you that it isn’t quite where it’s supposed to be (“it’s 10 feet from the coordinates”).
- YOU FOUND IT! (Or usually in my case, ONE OF THE KIDS FOUND IT! Because they are much better at this than I am).
I FOUND IT!!! Now What!?
- Congrats! Retrieve the cache and open it up. Inside, nearly always in a plastic bag, will be a log. You should take a pen or pencil (Best to keep one on you, although the larger caches often have a writing tool) and add the date and your user name/geocaching name or initials to the log. This is how you get credit for the find. Yay!
Back on your phone, you can now also log this as “found” (click on “Log” then “Found it”). It’ll pop up with a chance to write something or to add a picture. It’s customary to thank the person for hiding it (“TFTC” or “TFTH” – thanks for the cache or thanks for the hide are in pretty much every entry), and you can also add some comments, a story, a poem, or whatever else you’d like within decent taste and manners. It’s bad form to spoil the cache (“I found it inside the elephant’s trunk!”) for the next person, especially if it’s a particularly awesome hide. You can also add a picture, although it’s bad form to take a picture of where the cache is hidden (a nice view you saw nearby, or a victory pose, or something else is just fine).
- If you are lucky (or if your kids are lucky), the bigger caches have TREASURE. TREASURE could be little toys, foreign coins, a pack of band aids… almost anything except food or liquids! My kids keep an array of small toys in their hiking backpack, because the rule is that you should trade an item that you have for something in the cache. This should generally be of equal or greater value, but “value” is pretty subjective, just do your best with it.The one thing that you are NOT allowed to take to keep are what are called “Trackables” or more commonly “Travel Bugs”. These are items or items, usually attached to tags, that have a special code on them from Geocaching.com and clearly say “Do not keep me”. They are supposed to be moved from cache to cache to travel around, and there is a special way to log that you are taking one or dropping one off somewhere. I wouldn’t worry about these when you are starting out, just know that they aren’t for taking unless you’ll move them or for keeping.
- Put the log back into the bag and make sure that it’s sealed well. Put the log back into the geocache, then hide the geocache exactly as you found it. If there was something covering part of it, make sure that it’s returned. High five anyone you are with, or air high five if by yourself.
At it’s most basic, that’s Geocaching!
Is That It?
Of course not, it gets MUCH crazier and more complicated. If you eventually decide that you like it and spring for the annual membership, there’s lots more you can do (although, again, we had fun with this for several months just fine before deciding to do a paid membership):
- What you’ve found are “traditional caches”. There are other types – Virtual Caches at cool spots where you can’t hide a Geocache (normally you answer questions or take a selfie to get credit), Unknown caches where you might have solve puzzles to find out where a cache is hidden, Earthcaches which are actually just Science class except no one making you do them (I really like those), multicaches which I haven’t actually managed to do yet so I don’t quite know how they work, and even webcam caches where you have to get a screen shot of you on the webcam to get credit. These take you to some really awesome places.
- Harder caches get harder to find, but people also get REALLY creative with them. In the big scheme of things, we haven’t found that many caches since we started in February (about 150), but there are some REALLY creative containers and hiding spots that were a TON of fun to figure out. I’d love to tell you about them, but that would ruin the fun of discovering them for yourself (you can also feel free to ruin some of it yourself via Google). You can also go for ridiculously hard ones that you have to paddle to or climb a tree to get or go mucking through a swamp to find (we’ve only tried the first one so far).
- Travel bugs! I mentioned these above. If you find one, there is a code on each of them that you can search for on the Geocaching site. Once you put that code in, you can “discover” the travel bug (just means you found it, you don’t have to do anything with it) or pick it up to move it somewhere else. Once you have done either of those, you can go to its page on geocaching.com and see where in the world it has gone. We’ve found a handful of them so far, with some of them starting out in places as far away as Germany, Australia, and New Zealand! If you stick with Geocaching, you can also buy travel bugs of your own and send them out into the world, although from what I understand it’s pretty hit or miss with how they do.
- After you find about 100 of them, you can also think about hiding them if you want. My kids are, at the moment, much more into hiding them than finding them, although we have just begun to dip our toes into that one.
- Once you get into it, there are also meetups and activities and such that you can go to, by way of the coordinates, of course. We haven’t done any of these (update – we’ve now done a ton of these, they are fun! Even went to big one in Ohio with a few thousand people, which was pretty crazy), but there is a very active South Jersey Geocachers group. They also have a Facebook page, where they are REALLY nice to people who don’t know what they are doing, like certain writers on a certain South Jersey hiking blog.
I Finally Stop Writing a Book on This
So, that’s about it for what you need to get started! I’ve learned over the last six months that this is a GREAT way to keep my kids interested during hikes (“Oh look, there’s a geocache up ahead somewhere.”). It’s also great for killing a little bit of time (“Brother isn’t done for another ten minutes, but there’s a geocache nearby!”) or for a break to stretch (it seems that EVERY rest stop in America has at least one of these hidden). It’s also started building some map skills among my kids, which is a definite bonus. I’ve even discovered a few new trails thanks to our new hobby.
But most of all, it’s been a lot of fun! We’ll never be one of the geocachers that finds 10,000 of these, but life is just a little more interesting when sporadic, short treasure hunts are mixed in.
Happy hunting! And if you see a log signed “SouthJerseyTrails”, you’ll know that we’ve been there (and also that we are really unoriginal with our username)!