Geocaching 101: What it is and how to get started

A woman in the woods finding a geocache container near a tree. Photo by Aigars Reinholds/Shutterstock

Walking along the trail at Hunter’s Bay in Huntsville, Ont. last year, my partner and I came across a lady scaling a small tree at the water’s edge. “What are you doing,” we asked quizzically. “I’m looking for a geocache,” she responded. Ok, cool! We had a quick chat about her fondness for geocaching and some of the locales she’d visited to search for geocaches, and resumed our walk.

A geocache is something that has been hidden in a secret location. The hider will record the coordinates. This game of “coordination” started on May 3, 2000. A computer consultant named Dave Ulmer hid a bucket somewhere in the state of Oregon and posted the GPS coordinates online. Two people found it, and it caught on from there. According to Geocaching.com, there are millions of caches around the world—even on the International Space Station. Unless you’re an astronaut, this one will remain a mystery for the ages.

How to get started

With your phone or GPS in hand and a keen sense of “direction” (which can literally at times mean solving riddles or puzzles to find a stash), it’s easy to start playing after you follow three simple steps. 

1. Create an account on Geocaching.com or download the app. The main screen will even give you a rough number of geocaches that are nearby.

2. Find a stashed cache. Navigate your way through whatever terrain your quest takes you through. Always remember to bring a pen or pencil.

3. Sharing is caring. After finding the cache and high-fiving fellow searchers (or in the event you have to wave the “Did not Find” flag), sign your name in the log, record the experience online and keep on playing. Don’t spoil the game by giving away a cache’s location. You might find more than a logbook or sheet of paper; some cachers like to include a small memento or fun item. If you choose to take it, you have to replace it with something else that’s at least of the same value.

Cache In Trash Out

Many geocachers follow the Cache In Trash Out methodology, which means they’ll pick up litter along the way to the cache and properly dispose of it later. It’s a perfectly philanthropic way of eliminating those carbon footprints from cities, parks, and forests.

Each cache comes with a difficulty rating and terrain rating from one to five (five being the hardest), plus a cache size rating from micro to large. Be prepared to go anywhere: wade through water, hike, scuba dive, rock climb, sing a song, solve a riddle, or piece together a puzzle for clues. Sounds like a lot of fun, right? If you need more convincing, check out these 15 reasons to go geocaching.

Terms to know

LPC: Lamp Post Cache, Lamp Post Cover
Muggles: Non-Geocachers
PnG: Park and Grab; these ones shouldn’t take too long to find
TOTT:  Tools of the Trade (such as a pen or pencil)
GPSr: Global Positioning Satellite receiver
CO: Cache Owner
DNF: Did Not Find
SL: Signed Log; tells the CO that you signed it
FTF: First to find; you get the honour of being first to find the cache and first to sign the log
TFTC: Thanks for the cache
TFTH: Thanks for the hide

There’s a full list of terminology here.

What to bring on a geocache hunt

Your packing list isn’t that different from a day’s hiking—or even camping—trip, according to suppliers such as carhartt.com and REI.com.

1. Batteries: If you’re using a GPS or a flashlight.
2. Cache repair kit: If you find one that needs items replaced (log book, mementos to add, pencils).
3. First aid kit: Be prepared—for yourself or someone else.
4. Garbage bag: Collect trash on your walk (cache in, trash out).
5. Hiking boots: Nobody wants tender tootsies by day’s end.
6. Knife/multi-tool: Caches can become overgrown and entangled with plant life.
7. Mirror: Useful for peeking into tight corners or awkward angles.
8. Notebook: Use for a diary or logging your outings and caches. You can also tear out pages to put into empty caches.
9. Phone: You may be already using one to locate the caches, though it’s suggested that it can’t substitute a GPS when you’re in the wilderness or find yourself without service.
10. ROT-13 decoder: Geocaching.com uses this to encode hints.
11. Socks: Soaker…easily solved. Dry feet = happy.
12. Snacks: Don’t get hangry while you’re on the hunt.
13. Sunscreen: Protect your delicate dermis.
14. Tweezers: For plucking things out of those crazy tiny microcaches.
15. Water: Any outdoor activity requires regular hydration.
16. Whistle: In case of emergency to signal for help.
17. Waterproof backpack: Keep gear nice and dry.

Did you know Canada has its own geocaching capital?

Caches are hidden in the hamlets of Irondale, Gooderham, Troy Hill, Wilberforce, Harcort, Highland Grove, and Cardiff. The area is home to the GeoTour and Highlands East Howler GeoArt Series. The GeoTour has 150 fun caches to find, and the GeoArt Series has a collection of 99 puzzle caches. You might want to pack your bike, canoe, or kayak and explore all the more while you’re hunting here.

Don’t worry about how you appear to mere muggles, they don’t know what they’re missing: climbing trees or crawling on your hands and knees while you search. It’s part of the fun!

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