Updated on 11.26.14

An Introduction to Geocaching, My Family’s Favorite Frugal Activity

Trent Hamm

On a hot August afternoon, the five of us found ourselves in the shade of an old wooden bridge. There was a wonderful cool breeze blowing through the bridge’s underpinnings, so we sat down for a bit and took a few gulps out of our respective water bottles. When we checked our GPS, we found that we were surprisingly close to the cache. In fact, it looked like we were right on top of it.

Given that we were under a bridge, our eyes trained upward. We started looking through all of the nooks and crannies supporting the bridge, with our oldest son even climbing up there for a better look. Yet, we found no cache.

After a long time spent looking, we all agreed to give up, but just as we were about to walk away from the bridge, our youngest child shouted “Look!” On the ground, wedged in right next to a supporting pole, was the cache we were looking for.

We had walked right by it countless times as we stared up at the bridge. Sometimes, the solution is right there in front of us.

* * *

Almost every weekend, particularly during the warmer months but also sometimes when the weather is cooler, my family spends some time wandering around in parks, fields, woods, and even stranger places looking for geocaches. It’s an activity that costs us virtually nothing, gets us outside exploring on nice days, and gives us a very fun game-like structure to participate in. Even better, we’ve found opportunities to go geocaching with other families, too.

Geocaching is simply a great way to spend some free time in the great outdoors, exploring new places, interacting with new people, and doing it all for virtually no expense.

So, what is geocaching?

Geocaching 101

Most of you are familiar with the technological marvel that is GPS. It’s the satellite system that enables anyone with a GPS device to accurately know their location. Paired with a database, GPS can basically function as a portable map, showing where you are on the surface of the planet compared to many other geographical locations.

I’m going to assume that even more of you are familiar with the concept of a treasure hunt. You have a map with a big X on it and you have to follow the path in order to find the treasure.

Geocaching is simply a combination of these two things. A geocache is a “treasure” that someone has put out there in the real world. It’s usually some type of waterproof container or box. Some are as small as a pill bottle, while others are almost the size of chests.

When someone – typically an active geocacher – places a geocache out in the world, they register it with a geocaching site, such as Geocaching.com. When they register that cache, they give the site the exact GPS coordinates of the geocache so that the site knows precisely where in the world the cache is hidden (well, usually within twenty feet or so, to make it more fun).

When a person wants to go geocaching, they simply go to Geocaching.com – or another geocaching website – and downloads the coordinates for several geocaches. Usually, you’ll just type in your address – or the address where you intend to be when you start geocaching – and it will show you a list of geocaches that are near that address. You can add those locations to your geocaching program and head into the great outdoors. There are tens of thousands of geocaches spread across the United States and tens of thousands more in other countries. It’s likely that you’ve been near a geocache without even realizing it!

What you essentially do is set the GPS coordinates of the geocache you’re heading toward as your destination and the GPS device you’re using, depending on the type, will show you some sort of map showing where you are, where the cache is, and relevant nearby landmarks. This is your “treasure map.” You then just follow the map to the destination and look around until you find the geocache!

Inside the geocache, you’ll usually find a log of some kind and a pencil to sign the log. People usually sign with some sort of nickname and the date of discovery. Some larger caches will also include “treasures,” which are small trinkets of some kind. When you find a “treasure,” the general policy is to replace it with a different treasure should you choose to take it, so it’s not a bad idea to bring along a few small trinkets from around the house. I like leaving small sparkly pieces of geodes, buffalo nickels, and similar items.

What You Need to Get Started

Obviously, the key thing you need is a GPS device of some kind. Almost any GPS device or app will work, provided it allows you to directly enter GPS coordinates into the device or app. Most devices and apps allow this – I know there are some models of Garmin nuvi which do not, for some reason, but almost everything else I’ve encountered allows direct entry of GPS coordinates. Many people already have some kind of GPS device, whether on their phones or as a standalone device, so this likely isn’t an extra expense.

You need internet access, at least for long enough to visit a geocaching website and retrieve GPS coordinates. This can be done at the library, of course, or at home if you have home internet access, or anywhere if you have a data plan on your mobile device.

Many people maintain a personal log or journal of the geocaches they’ve found, which include the GPS coordinates of the log, the date they found the geocache, and interesting things about it. At first, I used an old notebook as a geocaching log, but I eventually moved to an electronic log.

If you have a smartphone – iOS or Android or Windows Phone – there are actually apps that do almost all of this for you. They grab your current GPS location, identify nearby caches, highlight them automatically on a map for you, and create a log of the caches you’ve found (when you mark them as “found” on the app). The app we prefer is the Geocaching.com app, which has a free version with most features and a low cost version with a few extra bells and whistles.

It’s usually a good idea to have some trinkets on hand in case you discover interesting items already inside of the geocaches – treasures that other people have left. It’s good form to leave something interesting for the next person if you take something interesting out of the cache, so find some interesting things. As I mentioned above, I like to leave old coins or particularly interesting rocks for this, and my older children really like leaving Mardi Gras-style bead necklaces.

If you’re going to be walking to a lot of geocaches, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself for mild hiking. Make sure that you have good walking shoes, appropriate clothes for walking in the outdoors, a water bottle, and some bug spray. Geocaching can be a lot of fun, but that fun diminishes if you’re completely miserable in the outdoors. Don’t let that happen – be prepared.

The nice part is that if you have a GPS device or a smart phone already, you essentially don’t need to buy any additional items, making geocaching a free or nearly free activity.

Getting Started

The easiest way to get started is to just visit Geocaching.com and type in your home address. Odds are favorable that there is a geocache within a mile of your home. Once you’ve identified the closest one, add the coordinates to your GPS (or just use the app on your smart phone) and head out the door, letting your device serve as a treasure map.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find an interesting cache at the end of your walk. If not… well, at least you got a chance to do some interesting exploring and had an enjoyable walk near your home.

If you’re anything like us, the first find will make you want to find another one… and then another one. Before you know it, you’ll be visiting parks to look for geocaches. You’ll be pulling up lists of geocaches when you go back to your hometown or you have an afternoon to explore a new area. You may even find yourself looking for geocaches on your way home from work each night.

I know people who have discovered literally thousands of geocaches over the past several years. It’s their primary hobby – they “collect” interesting caches and organize geocaching parties to make it a more social activity. They’ll take appropriate waterproof containers and put out their own caches, checking on them regularly to make sure they’re in good shape and that the log is still intact. They get lots of exercise, get to explore lots of places, and meet lots of people. Pretty good for a free hobby, wouldn’t you say?

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