Geocaching: Everything you wanted to know

You've probably heard the name geocaching but what is it? Why do it? And what do you need to know?

6 mins

There’s a hi-tech global treasure hunt happening – right now. It’s called geocaching: an activity that sees people scour nooks and crannies across the globe for containers of various shapes and sizes. There could be one hiding only a stone’s throw away from you, this very moment. Or at the destination of your next trip. So, how can you join the hunt? Read on…

Why do it?

Anyone can take up geocaching for a multitude of reasons. Some use it as a tool to get outdoors once they retire; others fancy a new challenge on their travels. Geocaching can be an excuse to exercise or a family challenge that parents and children can do together. But ultimately, geocaching taps into our inherently inquisitive natures.

“Geocaching gives people a reason to explore the world around them,” explains Christy Weckner, from community website “There’s something in our DNA that drives us to see what’s around the next corner or over the next hill.”

What is a geocache?

Traditionally, geocaches usually come as different sizes of tupperware boxes or metal army boxes. But as the game has developed, geocaches can come in any size, material or shape – a tiny thimble-sized magnetic container or larger ones the size of suitcases.

They may not even look like a regular container. People have become more creative with their hides, with some disguised as fir cones, dummy birds or contraptions that require special tools or a mental test. "There’s always a new challenge,” says Kate Horne, from the National Trust.

Once you reach a geocache, sign and date its logbook. There will be a number of quirky items there for you to swap for something of your own. The items are often worthless – like bouncy balls, pens or loose change – and it’s not essential to swap something every time.

But whether you’re doing it on your own or as part of a group, don’t get caught. You shouldn’t be spotted by ‘muggles’ (nongeocachers) as players want to keep the activity a secret, so be as discreet as you can.

How do you do it?

You can start straight away. The popular way is to download the Geocaching app onto your smartphone; this lists all the containers close to you and includes a built-in compass and map, and some handy hints too. You will likely discover that there’s a geocache close by, providing an ideal, immediate opportunity to develop your scavenging skills.

No smartphone? A GPS device will help you track down those containers. However, if you haven’t used a GPS before, it might take you a bit longer to use it confidently – you’ll have to plug in the co-ordinates yourself.

Where do they hide?

There are more than 2.6 million Geocaches spread across 180 countries; there are even a handful in Antarctica and one on the International Space Station! In the early stages of the concept, 15 years ago, geocaches were tucked in relatively simple places. Over time, though, this has changed drastically.

“The game has evolved to include caches placed in busy parts of large cities, in neighbourhood parks, or in waterways only accessible by kayak or canoe,” explains Brian Hayes, an experienced geocacher who has found over 10,000 caches.

“Geocaches often take people to beautiful, fascinating places that they would not have found otherwise,” adds Christy.

Can I do one while abroad?

Yes. “If people catch the geocaching bug, they can continue their adventures while on their travels,” says Kate.

Brian Hayes took this idea one stage further: “For my honeymoon with my wife, we embarked on a 6-state, 12-day geocaching adventure that included unforgettable outdoor experiences in the Rocky Mountains, Arches National Park and the Black Canyon.”

It’s becoming easier to geocache abroad, adds Christy, as translations of the container descriptions or instructions are now available in 23 languages. But before you head off to a foreign site, look at the online logs (notes left by previous finders) to confirm the geocache is still there. If you’re thinking of searching for several on one trip, plot a route between them, incorporating local sights along the way.

Take extra care when hunting in busy areas, especially in places where you don’t speak the language – your innocent pastime could turn into a sticky situation if you look like you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, and can’t explain your way out of it.

Can I hide one myself?

Once you feel you’ve found enough caches to know how the game works (it is recommended to find at least 20), you can start thinking about placing your own.

“Being a geocache owner is a commitment, but a fun one,” says Christy. “Geocache owners are responsible for the ongoing maintenance of their geocache container but get to have the pleasure of seeing how many people come to visit it and share their stories in its logbook or online.”

Before deciding on a location for your cache, think about its suitability. Is it protected from the natural elements? If it’s on private land, you’ll need to get the landowner’s permission first. Organisations like the National Trust actively encourage geocaching, but still need to be told when one is placed on their land.

Remember, owning a geocache is not just about hiding it – you’re in charge of fixing or replacing it if damaged and for supplying a fresh logbook if the one in the cache is full.

Whether you decide to set up a geocache or simply search for them, the hunt can add an extra dimension to your travels. So next time you’re trekking the national parks of the United States, roaming Japan or visiting the Taj Mahal, look around – there could be a geocache close by.

Case study – Rhodri Andrews

Keen geocacher and Wanderlust’s editorial assistant talks woodland hunts and ’caching across the planet

How did you get into geocaching?

One of my friends invited me along after trying out a couple himself; I had no idea what to expect. After finding a couple just a few hundred metres from my house I was hooked. I think I went out every day for the next fortnight, hunting for geocaches.

Why do you do it?

I do it mainly because I love walking and this adds an extra dimension. When I have a whole day free I try to plan a series of geocaches as part of a long walk. It’s even better when I do it with a group of friends – the social aspect of a forest walk combined with hunting for secret containers is great. Even when it’s bitterly cold or we’ve been caught in heavy rain, I’ve always come away having enjoyed myself.

How hard is it to do?

It’s not hard at all. I just downloaded the app to my smartphone and away I went. With the first couple you find, you’re always going to be a bit tentative and hypersensitive to those around you and what they’re thinking. Obviously, the more caches you find, the quicker you’ll become at sussing out the different ways they can be hidden, but there’s always a few that present you with a challenge to keep you entertained!

What about geocaching overseas?

I’ve found geocaches in Belgium, Germany and Canada and they’ve all been great. Definitely plan ahead and be prepared to return to busier, more-crowded spots when they’re a little quieter. You probably have to be a little wiser when picking your moments to grab the cache too – you’ll get strange looks if people spot you rustling in the bushes wherever you go, but if you can’t overcome the language barrier abroad and you’re carrying a mysterious box then it could take a while to dig yourself out of that one!

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