I’ve gotten some questions and feedback on how to get started in geocaching, so I’m putting together a short series of four posts to point you in the right direction. This is the first one. The second one will be on hardware. The third one will be on software. The fourth one will be on other equipment recommendations. I can always add to the series so if you’ve got questions, comments or ideas, send them along.
Geocaching originated in Beavercreek, OR and has been around since May 3, 2000. On that day, a computer engineer named Dave Ulmer hid a bucket in the woods and posted the latitude and longitude online in a GPS users’ group. He called his new activity “The Great American Stashing Hunt.” He did it to give his fellow GPS users a target to test the accuracy of their devices and had no idea what it would turn into.
A day later, fellow GPS enthusiast Mike Teague found it and posted his story on the group page. Geocaching was born, although it didn’t get called that until several weeks later.
Today there are an estimated 5 million geocachers hunting 1.8 million geocaches in every country in the world, including Afghanistan and Antarctica.
Here’s a link to a good explanation and summary of geocaching on Wikipedia, including all the different kinds of caches and different organizations that list them.
Mainstream geocaching is the province of geocaching dot com, by far the biggest and most expansive geocaching site. Starting out as a hobby site in 2000, it grew by leaps and bounds and is now run by a corporate entity called Groundspeak. If you want to geocache, this is where you start.
To access full cache details, you have to register for a membership. There are free memberships and premium (paid) memberships. They cost $30 a year per account. Here’s a link to a summary of the differences between them. You can also register at that link. If you just want to grab a few caches when you’re out doing something else or just try it out, a free membership should work just fine. If you eventually migrate into caching at different places and need to to do searches remotely or along a route, you’ll want to go with the premium. You can also mix and match. When I was geocaching with my kids, I had a premium account and they had free ones.
A geocaching membership also gives you access to waymarking dot com. This useful tool has all kinds of destinations along with geocaches and benchmarks that are nearby. It’s great for traveling and caching on the fly.
There are other sites that list geocaches, such as Navicaching, Terracaching and Opencaching. They require separate memberships but they’re free. I’m signed on to them and a couple more but they simply don’t have the extensive cache lists and features that Groundspeak does.
Now you need something to geocache with. If you have a smart phone, that may be all you need.
Geocaching technology has changed a lot in the last several years and smart phones have led the way. Gone are the days of printing out cache sheets and sticking the serial GPS device out the window to get a signal. Paperless caching is now the norm and smart phones enable geocaching on the fly, which was unheard of five years ago.
Smart phone geocaching apps can search, locate, map, list and log geocaches anywhere you have Internet connectivity. They continue to proliferate and improve but they are only as good as the phone they are installed on – and not all phones are created equal. Smart phone manufacturers have to make compromises in design, components and function to fit everything together. Sometimes, the GPS function is a low priority. The GPS chip and/or the firmware may be slow and inaccurate. It may be good on the Interstate highway but lousy on a back road. The only way to know is to try it out and/or do some research.
The best way to get some background on geocaching phones is to do a Google search on “geocaching with (your phone model).” There’s lots out there.
We’ve been through the wringer with phones. Our Blackberry Storms were excellent. Their GPS was fast and accurate. We geocached all over the country with them and used them until they literally wore out. Next we got the Samsung Galaxy. It was horrible. We took them back and got the HTC Thunderbolt, which was the state of the art phone then. It was horrible too.
That’s when I went on Google and ran down some information about phones. Motorola phones use high grade GPS chips. We traded in the HTC for the DroidX2 and have been very happy with them.
I understand the i-phone is also quite good.
If you’ve got your phone, then it’s time to load a killer geocaching app. If you have a Droid, the three best apps are CacheSense, Neongeo and c:geo. The features of all three are pretty much the same – touch screens with color, searching, navigating, logging. I give the edge to Cachesense for two reasons. 1) It loads much faster than the other two 2) It has a feature that lets you create template messages for your logs. All you have to do is click on found and the templated message is called up. If you like it, send it. No more typing on a tiny keyboard. A lifetime license for CacheSense is $10.
Neongeo is very similar but without the message templates. It is Android only and costs five bucks. It’s developer is very active and responsive to the community. He turns out new features on a regular basis, often in response to geocacher input. Over the last year, Neongeo has taken the Droid geocaching world by storm. It’s an excellent app.
C:geo is also very good and has been around the longest. It was the first app to deliver live, real-time geocaching on the fly. It’s an open source app that works on Android only. Its interfaces and features aren’t quite as rich as the other two but only hard core cachers would notice the difference. The fully functional version is free. C:geo has two potential downsides. It doesn’t work on iphones and they don’t get along with Groundspeak. Rather than use Groundspeak’s programming API, they “web scrape” the data they need. Groundspeak considers them a rogue element, but that’s a developer problem and doesn’t seem to affect the end user experience. Before CacheSense and Neongeo came out, we used c:geo all the time. It was way better than Groundspeak’s own app. But there’s always the possibility that Groundspeak will run them out of town. C:geo has a cult following of sorts. The continuing conflict between the two is kind of a geocaching soap opera. Here’s a C:geo FAQ link with some good information about the whole thing.
You really can’t go wrong with any of these three. There are lots of others out there. App stores have dozens listed and I’ve tried several of them. These are the only ones I would recommend.
The iphone has its own apps and there’s quite a list. You’ll have to do some homework and testing but from a hardware standpoint, the iphone itself is a solid platform for geocaching.
One final note – if you have a free Groundspeak membership, they limit your smart phone downloads to three geocaches a day. Premium membership is unlimited.
If you don’t have a smart phone or if the one you have is useless or if you plan to geocache in the wild, then you’ll need a dedicated handheld GPS device. We’ll discuss those in our next post.
Good hunting …. The Cachemanian Devils