Starting out as a "newbie" . . . aka "The Mistakes I First Made"
"My very first geo-cache. I had tried to find this last Monday after a meeting, but was unable to as the sun was going down. Found at 3:12 p.m. on Sunday (July 17th). Took the skunk. Left a raccoon, pencil and eraser top and special item. I think this geo-caching thing might turn into an interesting hobby."
That was my very first geocaching entry that I made on-line back on July 17, 2005 when I went searching for and found (on the second attempt) a "The Corn Field Cache" (GCPJPZ) hidden in Albion by the Murray Musketeers. Little did I know how prophetic my last line of the log would be . . . "interesting" . . . I had no idea of the places I would go, the people I would meet, the fuel I would spend or the adventures I would have with this "interesting hobby."
So flashforward now to present day. It's July 14, 2008 . . . three years short of my third year anniversary of my first cache find (which has since been archived incidentally). I figured on the eve of this anniversary I would try to pass on some advice that I wish someone had told me when I first started caching.
What this article is designed to be . . . a fun and informative guide as to some tips and tricks to finding a cache and hiding your first cache. What this article is not designed to be . . . an end-all, be-all guide to geocaching and/or using your individual GPS receiver.
First things first . . . I'm assuming you've signed up to be a geocaching.com member. If you haven't done so . . . that's your next step. This is free and easy . . . at least it's free if you sign up for the regular, ol' membership -- something I would highly recommend. While you may eventually want to pay the modest annual fee to become a premium member which will allow you to search for some exclusive premium members only caches (there's not as many of them as you might think) and there are a few other perks, I say save your money for now since you may well need to use the money for the extra fuel, buying swag for trades and batteries for your GPSr if you find geocaching as addicting as others have found this hobby to be. Sometimes folks get involved in geocaching for a few weeks or months and then they find that they just don't like it as much as they thought they would or don't have the time for this hobby . . . one of the main reasons I advise people to wait before signing up as a premium member.
So you're now signed up as a member and ready to go searching for a cache. I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you know how to use your GPSr. Hopefully you know how to manually plug in coordinates and use the "go to" feature found on all GPS receivers . . . and hopefully you're not like me and realize that the electronic compass is really a geocacher's best friend.
When I first started geocaching I would plug in the cache coordinates and then try to match up the coordinates shown on my "Information" screen. In other words if the cache was N 44.56.678 W 069.34.457 I would walk forwards, backwards and sidewards in an attempt to get the numbers to match up . . . it took me a while before I realized that I could use the "go to" feature and compass and it would be much, much, much easier than doing an impression of the Texas Two-Step while out on the hiking trails. Plugging in the coords, using the "go to" feature and compass and then following the compass pointer to get to the cache is so, so much more enjoyable.
Now there are ways that you can download the coords directly to your GPSr . . . both Magellan and Garmin. However, for now we're going to start off slow and input the coords manually.
Of course at this point I should back up since I'm assuming you also know what I'm talking about when I talk about coords and GPSr and other stuff. For example, at first I had no idea what waypoints were . . . and it wasn't until later that I learned that the GC1234 number/letter combination at the top of each cache page description on-line was the waypoint. For more info on the lingo check out the geocaching lingo page.
I'm also assuming you have checked out the geocaching.com site, presumably plugged in your local zip code and found that there is a plethora of caches around you (sorry, I just love to use the word "plethora" and in this case it is appropriate unless you happen to be living in the Maine North Woods in which case the more appropriate word might be "dearth" of caches.) In most cases you will find lots and lots of caches are within a few miles of where you live.
Before you just arbitrarily pick one of these caches, plug in the coords and strike out for the cache you really need to read the full cache description since some folks may post the actual cache location in the cache description with the parking coords being the posted coords at the top of the page . . . or if this is a puzzle cache the coords may be bogus and by following them you could end up in Timbuktu or worse . . . in Hiram357's living room. Cache descriptions also provide useful information like whether this cache is a multi-cache (i.e. you will be going to at least two locations -- sometimes very close and sometimes miles apart), some information about the area (i.e. historical, scenic, concerns/possible dangers, etc.) The cache page also shows a map of the location, a hint (which I would recommend that novice cachers use since it makes the first few hunts a lot more enjoyable if you can actually find the cache and every hint helps), past logs (also useful for determining if the cache is hard to find, gleaning additional hints and also finding out if it may be MIA -- sometimes a lot of recent Did Not Find (DNFs) entries mean the cache is gone.)
Finally, and this is important for the novice cacher, check out the terrain and difficulty ratings. To start out I would recommend that a new cacher attempt a cache terrain/difficulty rating of 1-2. While you may be physically fit and be able to hike to the top of Mt. Katahdin and back in three hours it is a lot more fun when you're first learning how to use your GPSr and how to geocache when you don't have to do a major hike. Later, when you are more familiar with cache hiding techniques and tricks and in using your GPSr then most definitely head away from the Mall parking lots and guardrails and take the time to get out and do some real hiking. As for the difficulty rating . . . the lower the number in general the easier the hide. Of course this is a subjective rating based on the hider. A hide that I might think is easy could prove quite challenging for a newbie . . . and a hide in which I've transposed coord numbers can prove quite challenging even for veteran cachers (sorry TRF . . . the cache was in Troy -- not Dixmont . . . amazing what a few transposed numbers will do.) In any case, let's start out easy and pick a hide that is rated 1-2.
OK, so you've got the coords entered of a cache that is rated relatively easy in terms of terrain and difficulty. You're now all set to head out and grab that cache, right? Wrong! Do you have any swag? How about extra batteries for the GPSr? First aid kit? First aid kit, you ask . . . well it's not a bad idea. While you may not need one for every cache you encounter, all it takes is one bad bee sting, encounter with poison ivy or stinging nettle or a tumble down a gravel pit in Nevada to leave you bruised, bleeding and well . . . being a little beat up.
Extra batteries in case the GPSr batteries die . . . check. Incidentally, later on you may want to invest some money in some good, rechargeable batteries . . . in the long run you'll save some money. In general, these batteries don't seem to hold a charge quite as long as conventional alkalines . . . but you will save a lot of money and will help the environment at the same time . . . and that will make you feel very, very good about yourself, right?
Swag? Swag is what you will leave if you decide to take something from the cache that you have found. Not every cache has swag . . . micro caches for example typically have nothing in them except for a log. Other caches may have swag, but it's dirty, broken and in general nothing anyone wants. This is a case where we cachers make or break a cache when it comes to whether or not there is anything half decent in a cache. While I often do not take anything from a cache (there is no rule you have to take anything) I will often put something into a cache -- especially if I liked the cache. Acceptable swag includes small toys, books, money (usually dollar bills), stuffed animals, etc. I suggest using plastic Ziplock-style baggies for placing your swag in . . . it tends to keep things cleaner and dry. Unacceptable swag in my opinion includes broken items, dirty items, food (it can attract animals), scented items (once again it can attract animals) and my own pet peeve -- rocks. I'm sorry, but unless this is a diamond or maybe a geode, arrow head, turquoise, etc. then that black rock you spotted three feet from the cache just isn't that good of a trade for a $1 bill. This is a case of let your conscience be your guide . . . put things that you or your children might like to take from a cache and avoid things that you or your children would not want to find in a cache (i.e. I once found a granola bar in a cache that had been there for who knows how long . . . trust me . . . no one would take a chance in eating this unless they were starving and on a deserted island and even then they might just eat the sand before taking a chance on that granola bar.)
Before you get out of the car . . . or well maybe right afterwards . . . you may want to establish a waypoint at your car. I know WhereRWe does this so he knows exactly how far it will be to walk back . . . and if he is deep in the woods then he can find his way back with no issues. As for myself and others (I think Dave1976 does this as well) I have my "breadcrumbs" enabled on my GPSr so it automatically provides a track that I can follow back to my car if needed. In many cases honestly a trail with no or few side trails will not require a waypoint or backtracking with a "breadcrumb" trail.
And now we're walking . . . and walking . . . and walking . . . assuming your first choice of a cache wasn't located in middle of the Sam's Club parking lot or a guardrail along Route 1 (incidentally while these types of caches aren't my favorite types of caches some folks love them . . . which is why there are caches for all types of cachers . . . and to tell the truth I have been brought to some pretty cool views with some guardrail caches.) One thing you should bear in mind is that your GPSr compass might be pointing to the cache and it looks like it is only about a third of a mile to your front/right and the trail appears to be turning to the left . . . don't sweat it . . . and don't bushwhack. While you might have taken the wrong trail (it's easy enough to do) in many cases the trail will double back on itself and in the end after bushwhacking a third of a mile through a swamp, thick alder clumps and almost losing the sneaker on your left foot due to a patch of smelly, black, oozing mud you will typically find that the cache is actually located only a few feet from the established trail and that you didn't have to bushwhack.
As a new geocacher you will soon learn that there are some common, tell-tale signs that you will spot which can identify a hidden cache. The always popular pile of geosticks lying end to end in a neat heap is one of those tell-tale signs . . . most of the time when dead wood falls in the wood it doesn't land all together in neatly-piled stacks. A pile of rocks . . . especially rocks that look cleaner than their nearby moss or lichen-covered brethren may also be indicative of a cache hide (or it may simply be that an over-zealous cacher has just torn apart an entire stone wall looking for a cache . . . remember to try to leave things as you found them.) Hollow stumps, trees with root systems sticking up above ground or trees with a good-sized crotch are also popular places to hide a cache . . . and then there are caches like those hidden by Laughing Terry and Brdad or Mapachi . . . let's just say those caches are in a league of their own.
Now if you've actually taken the time to read up on geocaching at geocaching.com you know that geocaching only has a few hard and fast rules when it comes to finding a cache.
1. Leave the cache in the same place and manner that you found it. Don't move the cache to make it more of a challenge for the next cache seeker. If the cache appears as though it should have some bark lying on top or some sticks piled on top based on the pile of bark or sticks lying near by then go ahead and do so . . . but you might want to contact the cache hider and let them know what you did. If in doubt leave the cache the way it was and contact the cache owner.
2. If you take something from a cache you should replace it with something of equal or greater value. This is just a game . . . but if folks always place junk in a cache and don't do equal trades eventually the cache will be full of junk. Incidentally, you don't have to go hog wild on the cache trades. One of my favorite finds ever was a new set of inexpensive corn cob holders in the original package . . . conversely one of the most disgusting finds ever was a set of corn cob holders that were just sitting in the cache -- covered in rust and looking as though they had been used a few months before.
3. Finally, log your cache find in the log found in the cache. Every cache should have one. You may opt to just place the date and your name or you may feel free to pen a novel . . . later most folks will also log this find on-line as geocaching.com will keep track of your finds and it sends an automatic message to the cache owner letting them know that you found their cache and as a cache owner I can tell you that reading of folks that have found my caches, their little misadventures (i.e. Upsalquitch's dog Sal being covered in cow manure while looking for one of my caches), the views, the wildlife they encountered, etc. is one of the main reasons why people enjoy hiding caches.
You may also find a few other special items in the cache. Signature items and Travel Bugs or geocoins. Signature items are for you to keep. These are items crafted or designed by cachers that they leave in a cache as a "geocaching business card" so to speak . . . kind of like a "I was here" type of thing. Signature items can be magnets, actual business cards or even more exotic creations. My own signature item by the way is one of several different ladders -- they come in silver, black, white (rare), orange (rare), natural wood (rare).
Travel Bugs and Geocoins are different. Usually these are not meant to be kept by a cacher, but instead they have a tracking number on them. If you grab one of these you should log the tracking number at geocaching.com (some TBs and Geocoins may also have tracking at other locations -- for example one of the first geocoins put together by geocachingmaine.org was only tracked at geocachingmaine.org.) Some of these TBs and coins have specific missions or goals (i.e. travel to Kansas, be placed in caches near mountains, etc.) while others simply want to be dropped into another cache. As a new cacher I might suggest you wait a bit before trying to pick up and move a TB . . . especially if you're not sure if this is something you want to do since a TB owner would really not like it if you took a TB and then never went geocaching again.
Well, that's some of my thoughts on searching for a geocache . . . other geocachers please feel free to share some opinions on the do's and don'ts and "don't do what I did when I first started out" pointers for the novice geocacher.