Geocaching 101: How to geocache with your smart phone

by - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Geocaching is a great way to get kids excited to hike. A friend introduced us to geocaching this summer and my kids are now hooked on it! I had known about this pastime for quite some time, but thought it would be hard, that we would have to read a compass and do proper orienteering, and that it would ultimately be a frustrating exercise the kids would give up after one try. I was happily surprised to find you that don't need to refresh your compass skills (though I would like to teach my kids when they are older, geography geek that I am), and you don't even need a handheld GPS unit; you can use your cell phone! 

What Is Geocaching?

Geocaching is a treasure hunt that can be done in many places around the world with GPS-enabled devices (smart phone or GPS unit). The goal is to find geocaches (containers) that are hidden at certain GPS coordinates. 

Insectophobia-The Arachnids, a geocache in Nose Hill Park

Why Should You Geocache?

Besides being a cool treasure hunt, geocaching has encouraged the kids to hike further and faster. They are starting to understand distance (they know how far it is to the school, grocery store, playground), so they have a rough idea of how far it is to the geocache when I tell them there are 500 metres to go, 400 metres to go and so on. I look for a geocache that is less than 1 kilometre from the car, we find it, have a snack, then look for more if more are close by. My girls love seeing what is in each cache and trading treasures. Lately they even race each other to be the one to find the cache, so our hikes are getting faster and faster! Since geocaches are in the 'burbs and rural areas, it is an excellent, inexpensive hobby!

Hiking to a geocache in Edworthy Park

Getting Started

Allow at least half an hour to prepare for your first geocaching trip.

You will need:
  • A smart phone. If you do not have a data plan, you can still use your phone; you will just need to save geocache data in your phone before heading out. You can use a portable GPS unit, but my instructions are for a smart phone.
  • To register for a free basic membership at Create a user name and password. Pick a good username; you will enter it in each logbook you find. 
  • To download a geocaching app on your smart phone to help you find geocaches. There are a plethora of free and fee geocaching apps, but I like c:geo for Android. It is user friendly, free, and shows more geocaches than some other free apps. If you have an iPhone, look at Geosphere ($8.99) or Groundspeak's Geocaching Intro.
  • A pen or pencil for recording your finds in the log books.
  • A phone charger that plugs into your cigarette lighter. The geocaching apps drain your battery. 
  • Trinkets for trading: small items in new condition such as McDonald's toys, plastic figurines, tokens, stickers, golf balls, postcards. No food, liquids, or dangerous items please. *Leave something of the same or greater value as what you took.*
Geocaching Trinkets

What we discover along the way is as good or better than the geocache!

Finding a Geocache with c:geo

Once you're all set up, you can search for geocaches Nearby (caches will be listed by distance from you), in a certain area (Search by postal code or coordinates), or by geo code (each geocache has a unique code starting with GC, use the Search function). You can view the geocaches on a map or list, and sort by distance from you (or other criteria). Select the geocache's name for more information to help you determine which geocaches you would like to find.

c:geo home screen
Search screen - enter parameters
You can also search with the Live map function that shows all nearby geocaches on a map. Let's say we would like to find a geocache near 10th St SW, Calgary. We select Live map, and see lots of icons. What do they mean? How do we choose?

Live map showing geocache locations

Geocache Information: What to Look For

  • Type: For beginners, start with Traditional Caches (icon: green box). The majority of these will contain a log book and "treasures" your kids can trade. The other types of geocaches are described in detail here
  • Size: There are nano, micro, small, medium, and large geocaches. Start with regular and large caches as they are easier to find and contain more tradeables. 
  • Difficulty Ratings: From 0-5; the higher the number, the harder the geocache will be to find. We usually search for caches in the 1-3 range.
  • Terrain ratings: From 0-5; the higher the number, the more challenging the terrain will be (steep, or requiring lots of bushwhacking). With children, stick to terrain ratings up to 3. 
  • Teddy Bear icon: indicates the cache is suitable for children. 
Tip from "You should also check to see that other geocachers have recently logged finds on the cache page (also called the cache listing). This indicates that the geocache is most likely still in place and findable. Find logs are indicated on the cache page with a smiley face. Smiley Face Icon"

Selecting a Geocache to Search For (and how to save data)

After looking at the geocaches in the area, we decide on Anna's Birthday (GCZNFC) because it is a Traditional, regular cache, has low difficulty and terrain ratings, and the teddy bear icon indicates the cache suitable for kids (contains "treasures" and is not too difficult to find). Tap the other icons to learn what they mean.

Select Description to learn more (hints, description of caches)
If you do not have a data plan or will be out of cell phone range, tap the Store button to store this cache's data on your phone. 

Finding the Geocache

To find the geocache you've selected, tap the compass rose next to the geocache's name (circled in red below).

Tap the compass rose to get started
A compass will appear on screen. Do you see the red line? The line pointing to 0 is pointing towards the geocache. Keep going towards the 0. The distance indicator is on the right. Since GPS accuracy can vary, start searching for the cache when you are about 5 metres away (some of them have been up to 9 metres off according to my phone).

Go towards the 0 to find your geocache
Geocaches are usually lock n lock containers covered in camouflage tape, but plastic toolboxes and metal containers are also popular. They are commonly hidden in bushes, tall grass, or under logs or stones. Our favorite geocache was in a small cave in the mountains!

Here are a few we have found:

Large geocache
Small geocache
Regular geocache

A unique micro geocache

What To Do When You Find a Geocache

  1. Do a happy dance. 
  2. Open the geocache.
  3. Enter the date and your username in the log book plus a message if you wish.
  4. Trade treasures if there are any in the cache. Be sure to only take a treasure if you leave one and to leave something of equal or greater value than what you took.
  5. Close up the cache securely and place it back where you found it, taking care to cover it up again (leave it as you found it in the same place).
  6. Log your visit in c:geo. Tap the 3 vertical dots on the top right of the screen, then tap Log Visit, and Found It and enter a message if you wish. The common acronym used is TFTC (Thank for the cache). If necessary, let the cache owner know the cache needs maintenance (new container or log book). Tap the airplane to send the log to or click the 3 vertical dots and Save if you are offline (remember to send the log when you have wifi).
Click Log Visit
I hope you found this helpful and that your family enjoys geocaching as much as mine does!

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