Tuesday, February 08, 2005

An Introduction to Geocaching

Geocaching is a sport where people hide containers, called caches, and then post the location to a website so that others can find them. The containers vary from five gallon buckets (and larger) to tiny capsules just big enough to hold a small piece of paper. Sometimes, there is no container at all, and what you find is a clue that is available at the location. One thing that distinctly marks geocaching is that all locations are given in terms of global coordinates (usually latitude and longitude, although other methods of determining location exist). Handheld GPS units are typically (read: always) used to guide the seekers to the treasure.

While there are many organizations and websites dedicated to geocaching, the main (and official) organization is Groundspeak, and their site at www.geocaching.com. In fact, they have a number of good tutorials on how to create and find caches, travel bugs, and anything else that is related to the world of geocaching. It is there that one’s journey must begin.

From here on out, I will assume that the reader has (or has access to) a handheld GPS receiver. At times, I may address issues or methods that are only relevant on units that share some particular functionality with my GPS, which is a Garmin Etrex Legend C. Unit specific material should not be required for geocaching, but can be helpful at some stages of the hunt.

Learning about the Community

Geocaching draws an interesting group of people. It requires a high-tech gadget, and so it has drawn many of the techno-geeks and early adopter types in the past. It still does draw this type of person, but with prices falling to within more reasonable levels, it is easier for other people to get into the game. Most geocaching is done outdoors, and often in undeveloped areas (forests, mountains, and the likes), so it has drawn many avid hikers, campers, and outdoor recreation aficionados. One effect of these participants is that geocaching tends to be an environmentally conscious sport. A great deal of attention is paid to the impact of people trudging all over vegetation looking for caches.

As a cooperative community, geocachers require each other to help maintain the quality of the experience. Some people put a great deal of effort into creating and maintaining caches, and it is expected that everybody who comes to the cache will do their part to make it worthwhile for the next person who finds it. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and so sometimes caches will turn up vandalized or missing. Travel bugs in particular are popular targets of thievery. Don’t do that sort of thing. Play nice, and everybody will have a good time.

In any case, visit the geocaching website and try to get a feel for what is involved. Do a search for your zip code and see what kind of caches are in your area. Read through the cache descriptions and some of the logs. When you’ve got a feel for it, then it’s time to begin. Create a profile for yourself. You’ll want to decide whether or not to give each player a different username. Using team names are fairly standard practice. Please, make it something interesting and creative.
Types of Caches

There are many kinds of caches out there. In some way or another, they are all either a container or a location (arguably a container is at a location, but the difference is in terms of what you’re looking for). Container caches generally contain a log and usually have some goodies that can be traded for. In addition to the actual cache container/location, caches can be classified in terms of how they are related to the waypoint.

Containers are classified by size. A large cache is one that is roughly the size of a five gallon bucket or larger. Not a lot of large caches are out there, but they are generally worth finding. One of the first caches I found was a large cache that was buried in the sand on a beach.

Regular caches are the canonical type of cache. These are containers that are generally at least a quart, and range up to the size of a large cache. Ammo cans, Tupperware-style containers, and bottles are typical examples of regular sized caches. Anything smaller than a regular cache is generally too small to hold travel bugs (more on them later).

Small caches are roughly between the size of a film canister and a quart. While regular and large caches always have items for trade, small caches sometimes will not, depending on their size. They will also sometimes have specific types of items that should be traded there, since larger items will not fit. Small caches can typically be hidden in more difficult spots than regular caches, such as being attached to the underside of something.

Micro (and nano) caches are the smallest of the small. They are the size of a 35 mm film can or smaller, and can be hidden just about anywhere. I have found micro caches inside fenceposts, sprinkler heads, and sign poles, stuck to utility boxes and drinking fountains, and hidden in the rafters of a gazebo. They typically contain a small sheet of paper to use as a log, but they generally don’t have items for trading, and they often do not have anything to write with, so bring your own pencil or pen.

Some places do not allow for the placing of containers of any size (like federal parks and installations or historical sites, for example). In these locations, a virtual cache may be created. A virtual cache is a location that typically has something interesting about it, especially if it is the kind of location that most people wouldn’t ever go to without the cache being there. Most virtual caches list a few questions on their pages that ask for people to log a “find” by giving some information that cannot be obtained except by going to the site and obtaining it. Often, some information must be read off of a sign, but sometimes things from the area (like the number of bulbs in a given light) might be used.

Most caches are listed with their coordinates so that you can go right to them, but there are other types of caches. Multicaches require the hunter to visit several locations in order to find the final cache. Sometimes the intermediate steps are virtual caches with numbers or letters that are used to form the final coordinates, and sometimes each step requires finding a separate container that contains the coordinates to the next cache location. The last stage of a multicache can be any type of cache container (including virtual), and sometimes the final location will contain extra good items for trade.

Mystery caches are whatever the owner wants them to be. Usually, they are some sort of puzzle that must be solved in order to obtain the final cache coordinates, but they could be anything. Read up carefully on the cache page to find out what is required for mystery caches.

Webcam caches are a special kind of virtual cache. The coordinates lead to a location, and in order to get credit for the find, you must go there and have someone spot you on the webcam online and save the picture.

Locationless caches are a different sort of animal altogether. I have never tried to find one, and so I recommend looking for them on the geocaching web site to learn more.

Travel bugs are an interesting addition to the basic geocaching game. While caches always stay in the same spot, travel bugs move around from place to place. They are distinguished by some sort of an identifying marker (typically a dog tag, although a few other markers are recognized by and tracked through the geocaching web site). The tag is attached to some object, and the bug is given a mission to accomplish. I’ll talk more about travel bug etiquette later.

Getting Waypoints

Waypoints are what your unit uses to navigate to a specific location. In the geocaching world, a waypoint is the location of a cache (or at least a reference location for it)

Once you’re logged in to the website, you can download waypoint information. Before this, you could enter it manually into your unit, or else enter it into the interface software (MapSource, in the Garmin world). In fact, the first time, it may be easier to use the software to type in waypoints manually. It was for me.

To download waypoints, either go to the cache page and click where it says “Click on icon to download:”, or bring up a page of search results, check off several, and click on the “Download waypoints” button. The file that the page offers for download (assuming that you don’t have a premium membership to the geocaching site) is in the .loc format. This is okay, but it can’t be read by the software that came with your GPS.

If your GPS uses a serial interface, then you’re set. Download EasyGPS and use it to upload the waypoints to your unit. My GPS has a USB interface, so I’ve never been able to do this. Good luck.

If you have a USB interface, then you’re in for a challenge. G7toWin is able to interface via USB, and to read .loc files, but converts every non-alphanumeric character to a hyphen, including spaces and punctuation. If this is okay with you, then go ahead and use it (actually, try it anyway to see if it works for you, because maybe it’s just my unit being quirky).

The solution I finally got working was to use GPSBabel to translate the .loc files to the MapSource .mps format, which I could then upload to the unit. GPSBabel is quite versatile about converting between different formats, but I have had a bit of trouble getting it working. The best approach I have found is to use a batch file to run the command line version. The command line input I use is essentially

gpsbabel -i geo -f geocaching.loc -o mapsource -F geocaching.mps

You can add extra input files to string together into one output file by putting in more than one –f file.name block.

If your unit is not a Garmin, then you may have to find a different approach. Maybe one of the other programs will work. The geocaching website has a page that lists several geocaching or GPS interface programs.
Using your Unit

(Note: This section, while containing some general stuff, is probably very Garmin-centric.)

Before you go on the trail, or perhaps during your first few hunts, you should get the feel for your unit. Practice making and editing waypoints and waypoint data. Learn what different kind of data your unit can display. If your unit has maps, learn to use them. Otherwise, try to get a feel for how the unit displays your position.

Also, get a sense of how well it picks up satellites. Reception is often poor in the areas where geocaches are hidden, so knowing how accurate your unit is in bad conditions can be useful. Also, it can help to understand how your unit behaves when it loses signal. My unit assumes that I keep moving at the original speed and heading for a minute or so.

My unit has a tracking mode that provides a compass rose and an arrow that indicates the heading to the waypoint. Some units contain an internal compass that they can use to know which way they’re pointed, but most units only show heading relative to the direction in which they’re moving. That means that if you’re not holding the unit pointed up/forward ahead of you, and you’re not facing the direction that you’re moving (or in which you last moved), then it won’t be pointing in the direction of the waypoint. Many people make the mistake of stopping and turning and trying to trust the heading. Don’t do that. Also, be careful about backing up, because it doesn’t know that you’re not facing the direction in which you’re moving.

Preparing for the Hunt

Before you go in search of a cache, read the cache description page carefully. Pay special attention to remarks about where the cache is hidden, what kind of container it is, how difficult the find and terrain is (these are indicated by stars just above the cache description), and special instructions about how to get there (like where to park and places to avoid). You may want to read some of the logs to see if other people have had trouble finding it. If the cache has an encrypted hint, then don’t leave home without it. You may want to write it down encrypted, or decrypt it and then write it down. The exact wording can be very important with some clues, which tend to be both helpful and cryptic (also, sometimes just pointless and cryptic, such as one that said “things are not always what they seem”). The key for the encrypted information is a rot13 cipher so that a=n, b=o, c=p, …, n=a, o=b, p=c, … It’s surprisingly easy to decode in the field.

Have something ready to trade at the cache. If there is a special theme to the cache, you may want to be ready to bring something appropriate to trade (for example, I saw a cache that consisted of novels for people to trade). Whatever you do, make sure that it’s something that is worth something. It’s okay to go shopping at a dollar store for goodies, as long as you make sure that you only get things that you wouldn’t mind finding in a cache. It’s okay to leave coins (and even paper money), but please don’t leave pennies or nickels (unless they’re somehow special). Whatever you do, don’t leave garbage in a cache. Nobody wants your candy wrapper.

Don’t forget to take any needed equipment with you. Things that could be handy or necessary include a pen or pencil (to write in the log and decode the clue), a flashlight, water (for if it’s a long, hot hike, and don’t forget a hat and sunscreen too), a walking stick (for poking around in brush and scaring off animals), a map, something to trade, and of course, your GPS.

Finding a Cache

Stage 1: Infinity to 1 mile

Try to know where you’re going before you go. If you have a map program or map software, look up the cache and get driving directions (watch out for alternate routes though). If you have a topographic map, look up the location there too. It always stinks to think that you’ve found the cache, only to realize that it’s on the other side of a river or canyon from where you are.

If your GPS has roadmaps, use them while driving to the cache. They can make a huge difference in terms of avoiding misleading detours. If at all possible, have a designated navigator (not the driver) follow along and give directions based on the GPS data. As always, obey local traffic laws and be sure to park legally!
Stage 2: 1 mile to 50 feet

If you’re lucky, this is the most time consuming part of the hunt. While you’re still a ways away from the cache, you should be able to walk along quickly with only occasional checks to the GPS to see if you’re on track. Generally at this stage, the GPS does not have maps with sufficient detail to help you navigate, so you’re left to rely on the heading arrow. If there are paths around, try to follow them. Most caches are on or very near to a path, if there is one in the area.

At this stage, you may need to use a bit of maze theory. If the cache is not on the path you’re on, you may have to try to follow all left (or right) branching paths for a while to see if it brings you any closer to the cache. Remember that .1 miles is still 528 feet, which is almost twice the length of a football field. Try not to start bushwhacking until you get under .05 miles at least, and preferably down to about 50 feet.
Stage 3: 50 feet to the cache

As you get closer to the cache, you’ll quickly notice that the unit does not let you keep going until, at last, you’re standing on top of the cache. There are errors that are designed into the GPS network, and so at any time, your unit can be off by at least 10-15 feet. When you compound that with the fact that the guy who hid the cache had a similar unit, the combined error can be rather large. This can make the last 50 feet the most difficult of the entire hunt.

When doing the final search for the cache, there are several techniques to use, and several pitfalls to avoid.

One of the most effective techniques for finding a cache is the triangulation method. When doing this, go a short distance from where you think the cache is, and then walk in a straight line past the cache. You need to start in such a place that the cache is about 45° from the direction you walk, and you don’t get any closer than about 10 feet from the cache. Move slowly, and note where you are when the arrow points directly to the side. Repeat going in the other direction, and average your results (this is because there is some lag between when you are at a position and when the GPS updates your position). Repeat the whole process while walking along another line. Once you have two directions pointing toward the cache, go to where they intersect and start looking.

Another useful technique is psychoanalysis. Try to figure out where you would hide a cache in that area. This is the kind of time when it’s useful to know just what kind of cache they’re hiding. Large caches are generally in, behind, or under something, while micro caches can be hidden in any nook or cranny of about anything.

If you’ve checked somewhere, don’t be afraid to check again. While looking for one micro cache, we looked at a sign that we had immediately identified as the only obvious place for the cache, but didn’t find it there. We searched all around within a hundred feet of that sign before I decided to go back and check the sign again. The second time around, we spotted something inside the sign post. While looking for a traditional cache, I eventually found it somewhere so obvious I thought I must have stepped on it a dozen times before finding it. Only when I went to put it back did I realize that there were two areas in the shrubs that both looked alike, and I had spent most of my time poking around in the other one without realizing that there was a difference.

Don’t rely too much on your GPS at this stage. No matter how careful you or the person who placed the cache are, there will be errors. As a rule of thumb, the cache can lie anywhere within about 50 feet of where your unit tells you it should be, and sometimes even more. If there are buildings, canyon walls, trees (especially wet ones) or other obstacles in the way, then you should consider the accuracy of your unit even more suspect. Also, don’t get fixed on one area. Look around, and be sure to look up and down. Some caches are high up in buildings or trees. If a human can reach it with what is at hand, then it is a possible cache location.

Remember that caches are often camouflaged, sometimes by painting the container or covering it with tape, and often by covering up the hiding place with rocks, leaves or grass. At least one cache I found was buried under an inch or two of sand. Occasionally, you have to be in just the right spot to see the cache.

So, you’ve found a Cache

Once you’ve spotted the cache (and sometimes even before that), you have to be discrete. If someone sees you pulling out a container, then they’ll be likely to come back and try to find it themselves. This can lead to the cache being stolen or vandalized. Be careful to either grab the cache while no one is looking, or to grab it in such a way that people won’t see where it is.

One of the greatest hazards for caches is water. People put a great deal of effort into keeping the contents of a cache container (especially the log book) dry. I think that most of them have sufficient measures in place, yet invariably their cache gets wet. The problem could be that people get to the cache on a damp, rainy day and just open it up out in the elements. While the log may not be soggy when they put it back in, the cache has more water in it, and now the container seals that moisture in, giving it plenty of time to destroy any paper in the cache. My point is that if it’s not dry outside when you open the cache, then go somewhere out of the elements to do so. Covered picnic tables work, and I’ve gone back to my car to open a cache on a particularly rainy day.

Now that you’ve been suitably warned, it’s time to open the cache. If it’s a micro cache, you’ll find some paper and sometimes a pencil or pen. For larger caches, there will be a notebook and writing implement typically inside a plastic bag near the top of the cache. This is the log. Sign your name (your geocaching user name will usually do) and include the date. If there’s space, write down whatever you want to about your experience. If you brought something to trade, put it in, and if anything inside (not the log or pencil) strikes your fancy, take it with you (remember to trade fairly).

When you put the cache away, be careful to pack the log back in the bag (if there was one), and to put the cache back the way you found it. If it was covered with something, put the covering back on. If you don’t put it back right, it could make the hunt much too easy or too difficult for the next person who comes along. Plus, easy to find caches are prone to vandalism by non-geocachers (muggles), and if the cache is too hard to find, it’s possible that even the cache owner wouldn’t be able to find it. Remember to be discrete when replacing a cache. Then walk away casually.

Logging your Find

The last step in visiting a geocache is to log your find. Go back to the geocaching web site and return to the cache page. Click on the blue “log your visit” box in the top right corner of the screen. Under “Type of log” select “Found it” and then type what you want in the available space.

When logging a find, be careful to avoid giving away too much information about the cache location. You don’t want to spoil it for the next person to come along. If you feel that you must say something that would compromise the cache location, you can click the box that says “Encrypt this log entry”, which will perform the rot13 encryption on your entry. It’s really self-explanatory, so just follow the instructions.

The log page has options for several kinds of logs. You can log a failed attempt to find a cache. This can be very helpful to the cache owner if it is truly indicative of a lost or misplaced cache. I generally don’t log a Did Not Find unless it has been a while since the last log, or if other logs indicate a possible problem with the cache. You can also log a note, which is typically used for placing travel bugs, or for cache owners and other previous visitors to make comments about the condition of the cache. Needs archived is a more urgent sort of note, suggesting that the cache is gone and should be removed from the listings. I don’t think I’d use it.

Travel Bugs

While most items in a cache are random knickknacks for trading, sometimes you find a special kind of item known as a travel bug. Most travel bugs are slightly higher quality knickknacks, but they have attached to them a dog tag or other unique identifier. These identifiers are obtained from the Groundspeak site or some other official source (they don’t track home made tags). Actually, the tag is the travel bug, but they always come with some object. The object is what makes the travel bug unique. The dog tag, coin, or whatever else that is with them is just a way of tracking the item.

The great thing about travel bugs is that they are tracked from place to place. When you find one, you log that you pick it up, and when you put it in a new site, you log that, and the mileage is added to the total mileage for the bug. You can look through the history of bugs that have been in dozens of caches and that have traveled thousands of miles.

There are some basic rules of etiquette when working with travel bugs. If you pick one up, you should place it quickly, preferably within a week or two. If you are holding onto it for longer than that, you should contact the owner and explain the situation. It’s fuzzier as to whether or not it’s kosher to log a bug into a cache and then pull it out of the same cache (some bugs encourage it, and some explicitly forbid it, while most are silent on the matter). You should take good care of bugs, and do what you can to protect them. Also, most owners appreciate it when you take a picture of their bug and send them a copy.

Travel bugs are very vulnerable. A lot of them turn up missing. If you see a bug that’s spent more than one month in a single cache, chances are that it’s gone AWOL. I think that there may be some areas where this is more likely to happen, but it can happen anywhere.

I have some ideas for ways to create a great travel bug that won’t be stolen so quickly. When the bug is something desirable, then there is a greater chance that it will be snatched away by some unknowing or grabbed by some sticky-handed bug collector. If your travel bug is something that has less inherent value, then it will be more likely to be left behind by naïve geocachers, and less likely to attract the interest of a hoarder. Simple small stuffed animals (smaller than beanie babies) or plastic figurines make good bugs. If the bug was worth more than $5, then it’s probably a bad idea.

With your non-memorable object, you’re ready to create a memorable travel bug. A travel bug has a description and a mission. If you can give your bug a back story, then it will be more interesting. For a mission, most bugs want to go from place to place, or see how far they can go. That’s very boring. If you must say that, then find a better way to say it. A good mission is specific enough to be interesting, but vague enough to be possible. Bugs that want to go to specific caches have a really hard time making it there, and so people don’t even bother trying.

The most fun I ever had with a travel bug was a large spider that was in a competition with another spider to see which one could get into the most caches. Sadly, the second spider disappeared in New Mexico [note: after 4 months incommunicado, Elvira is back on the map!]. The point is that it was a simple mission that I could jump into wholeheartedly.

That reminds me of a second thing that makes for good bugs: competition. If you can get several bugs and have some common goal for them and a way to compare their performance, then that makes having one of those bugs more exciting, and helping it on its way more rewarding.

So, go find some caches, and enjoy the hunt.

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