Please introduce a n00b to geocaching!
December 5, 2008 3:44 PM   Subscribe

I've just learned about geocaching and it sounds incredible. Please help me get started, especially with choosing a receiver!

I'm a poor student, so the cheaper the better, but I'm willing to spend a bit more if it's really worth it.

I've looked around a bit for recommendations, but I'm still having trouble deciding, and so I have turned to the hive mind for help. I've read this, but since it's more than two years old I was wondering if there have been improved models since then.

Any advice for beginners would also be greatly appreciated!

Minor details/questions:
- I normally live in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and I don't have a car, so I figure I'll mostly be geocaching around the UBC endowment lands or around Coquitlam to start off.
- Right now I'm in Japan for some time, so if there are models with cool features that I can only get here or that I can get for much cheaper I'd love to know.
- I have some friends I think might be interested - how enjoyable is geocaching with, say, 3-4 people? 4 times the fun, or just more frustrating because you only have one receiver between you?

Thanks very much in advance, everyone!
posted by Arasithil to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Well to answer the last question, it's a lot more fun with 3-4 people. Generally you'll get to about the place and have to do a bit of searching for it. I haven't actually used my GPS in a while or seen the newer ones so I can't really help you there.
posted by Deflagro at 3:51 PM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: I got one of these for about $100, and it works just fine.

You can spend a whole lot on GPS units, so you really need to figure out what options you can't live without. is a terrific site for locating caches, and it also seems to have some pages devoted to helping people shop for gear. Maybe you could check them out, or go on the forums for more advice.
posted by jasper411 at 4:03 PM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: Any relatively inexpensive Garmin (just run a search - producer, Ebay, whatever) is just fine for what you need - under $100 USD easily. All you really need is the receiver and be able to choose the coordinate system - the more expensive ones just have more bells and whistles. I cant speak to Japanese bargains, but basic E-Trex Garmins are cheap.
posted by elendil71 at 4:04 PM on December 5, 2008

Geocaching is indeed very fun. Once you get your receiver, you should also look into Geohashing: algorithm, implementation, wiki, MeFi.
posted by pheideaux at 4:14 PM on December 5, 2008

If by chance you've got an iPhone (or Touch) the Geocaching App is incredible. I highly recommend it!
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:20 PM on December 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've gone geocaching with a variety of receivers and they've all been just fine; I've never found the geocaching-specific features some have to be any real use. Theoretically a higher-accuracy unit is better, but in practice, you're tracking down coordinates specified by people who have any number of different GPSes, many of which are less accurate than any fancy one you would buy.

One consideration, though: when you're geocaching, you will sometimes be deep in the bush, outside the range of cell phone towers. A working GPS is the difference between "I'm geocaching" and "I'm lost in the forest without food or water". For that reason, you want a sturdy, waterproof unit, with replaceable batteries (or a long-lived rechargeable you always keep charged.) Most GPSes these days are waterproof and float. It's probably wise to leave a list of the caches you're going after at home, too.

As far as tips for beginners:
Be prepared to give up on caches. I'm very green (done probably 20-30 caches) and I usually find 50-60% or so of the ones I set out after. I don't know if that's representative, but don't get discouraged if you don't find the first few you look for, and don't spend 3 hours getting frustrated at one site - just move on. Definitely start out with the lowest-difficulty caches you can find.

Yes, take lots of people. If you're like me, you'll spend 10 minutes with your GPS finding the site, then half an hour or an hour actually searching for the cache, since the GPS will only get you within 10-20 feet. Once you know where you're looking you don't really need the GPS except to re-orient yourself occasionally, so everyone can get involved. I've always gone with at least one friend.
posted by pocams at 4:22 PM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: Get a cheaper GPS first.
The more expensive ones with downloadable maps, etc, are nice, but may be overwhelming when you are just getting started.

I prefer units that take straight batteries, rather than a proprietary battery. If you are in the woods, AA batteries are easier to come by (you can always raid other equipment or a friends unit).
You definitely want to be able to download waypoints, something that uses a straight USB cable is best.
Water resistant and floatable are big pluses.
I wouldn't get an older model(last 2 years would probably be fine) if you can help it. The new ones are much faster at acquiring satellite lock.
Don't buy any unit you couldn't afford to lose, since it's almost a given you're going to leave it behind at the cache at least once.

For groups, I find that one GPS minimum for every 2 people works well. If you have a large group with only one GPS, you end up with a leader and followers, which is no fun for anyone. Also, with more than one GPS, you get to play "Mine says it's over that ridge! Well, mine says it's down that gully!" Fun for the whole family!

If you do decide to participate, please at least lurk the forums at
While "everyone plays their own game" and "we only have guidelines, not rules" are mantras in the geocaching world, most people use a certain etiquette which is mostly picked up by osmosis. It's not required (and like every community, there are rule nazis and scofflaws) but it will probably help you have a lot more fun.
posted by madajb at 4:29 PM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: I've been pretty happy with the cheap GPS I got a few years ago. I go with my kids, and look for family friendly caches. Even when the co-ordinates don't get us closer than 50 feet, the people who've hid them WANT them to be found, so I usually get them. When I have tried for the micro-caches with higher difficulty, I often leave empty-handed.

That's why I find so easy, it ranks both the difficulty needed to get to find the cache, and the difficulty of the terrain on the way there. So a micro hidden in a parking lot may be a 1/5, but a large cache with a neon sign pointing to it on top of a mountain would be a 5/1. Makes it easy to choose our attempts and not get too frustrated.

If I was getting a new GPS, I would want something that would work with their site better. You can download info directly from the site into a GPS or phone. Right now I have about 12 printouts in a backpack, and it's hard to remember which ones are nearby, or which ones are along the same route.

And as Pocams said, be careful. I struck out onto the wrong trail once, and trusted that since I'd marked the car's location on the GPS it didn't matter if I got a bit twisted around. Except the GPS fell out of my pocket. I hadn't gone far before realizing it was gone, but I knew I'd come close to getting me and my kids badly lost in a place that no one would be looking for us in. I'm much more vigilant now.
posted by saffry at 6:02 PM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: Geocaching is tremendous fun. Almost any old GPS receiver will do the job. You just need to be able to enter the coordinates, then have the unit point you in the right direction and tell how far you are away from the target. Any GPS will do that. You don't need bunch of maps or a big color display. I used the Garmin eTrex Legend for several years. It's $99 on Amazon at the moment. You could probably find a cheaper used GPS on the geocaching garage sale forum.
posted by paulg at 7:43 PM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: Second the "any GPS will do" sentiment. I have a fancy Garmin colour screen mapping whatever GPS, which doubles as a navigation aide when I'm sailing... It's great. I love it. But I've learned that it's a little big and awkward for urban geocaching.

If you're out in BC, I'm sure most of the caches you'll be after will be in nice forested wilderness areas... but here in Toronto, and especially traveling through the US, I've learned that if you have a small unit that looks kind of like an old Nokia phone, non-geocaching people ("muggles") won't get as suspicious, lessening the chance that they'll call homeland security on you. =P
posted by kaudio at 8:07 PM on December 5, 2008

I haven't looked at gps units for quiet some time, so this comment may now be irrelevant... I suggest that you only be sure to purchase a unit with the capability to connect to a computer. If you get into geocaching and pay for their premium service the pocket queries are great and nothing beats NOT having to key in the coordinates.

happy caching.
posted by busboy789 at 5:54 AM on December 6, 2008

If you like the sound of geocaching, but don't want to spend money on a GPS, do you also know about letterboxing? Clues instead of coordinates, and handmade stamps in books instead of toys. These two sites are the main ones.
posted by daisyace at 6:10 AM on December 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Geocaching is definitely more fun with a friend, or group of friends, than alone. By yourself it can get a little frustrating, because it can take a while to search the target area for the actual cache once the GPS says you're on top of it. This goes a lot faster with more people, meaning you spend more time hiking and less time looking under rocks and stuff.

As for the actual GPS, I would not obsess about this. I've found geocaches with a GPS receiver that is, by today's standards, laughable. (Magellan GPS 300 in case anyone is curious.) That thing had no moving map or trail feature, it just spat out your position periodically.

It is somewhat easier if you have a slightly more modern unit, like the cheap yellow Garmins (they were at one point $99 at Walmart) which record your previous track, and let you easily see your position relative to a stored waypoint. It runs on AA batteries and has an optional serial cable so you can connect it to your computer, both to upload waypoints and download tracks afterwards. (I'm a big fan of doing the latter; you can download them, convert them to .gpx files, and then superimpose them on Google Earth so you can answer the inevitable "where the hell were we?")

Either way I would bring a decent compass with you; most GPS units don't give you a heading unless you're moving, which is not nearly as helpful as a compass. And even the ones that have built-in electronic compasses are not, IMO, nearly as good as a <$10 orienteering model from any outdoor store.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:56 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: Just one side comment about the cheaper units... Those yellow Garmin Venture HC units [I really like that vendor, by the way] are great; the blue Garmin Legends are... not. They have very similar hardware and software, but I have had continual problems with the blue units... I've used the yellow versions in all types of terrain and cover, with stellar results. Were you to invest in something nicer down the road, the SiRFstar III antenna does work great [e.g. Garmin 60CSx], but a map software upgrade would probably be my next choice.
posted by zachxman at 2:03 PM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the suggestions and advice! I'm leaning towards the eTrex Legend Cx because I found a pretty good deal on a refurbished one on eBay and it has a USB connection (my laptop has no serial port). Good to hear that it'll be pretty fun with others, as well!
posted by Arasithil at 6:32 PM on December 6, 2008

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