This is the fifth of five installments on Intro to Geocaching.
Here are the other four.
If you use a smart phone for your geocaching, then most of what follows doesn’t apply. With Internet connectivity and a geocaching app, you’re all set.
However, if you start to use a handheld GPS device for geocaching, you will need a software package on the computer which will find, sort , organize and download geocaches from geocaching (dot) com to your GPS device. That’s the subject of this page.
Geocache files have a file extension of (dot) GPX and are usually referred to as “GPX files”. They are text files which contain all the information about a geocache. They are quite small – only a couple of kilobytes each. If you are dealing with a few single geocaches, you can work with them individually. But if you are looking at a couple of dozen or more, that can get to be overwhelming. Enter the software. These programs can take any number of GPX files, combine them into one big GPX file which can then be downloaded on to your GPS device, which is connected to the computer by a USB cable.
The software also has various sorting tools and other menu items to combine multiple GPX files into a big GPX file according to difficulty, location, cache size and other parameters.
Remember, these programs are loaded on your computer – not the GPS device. Your GPS device will be connected to the computer with its own USB cable and will show up in My Computer (or whatever it’s called) as a removable disk. Once you have your geocaching files sorted, filtered and downloaded, you simply drag and drop them on to the appropriate folder according to the directions that come with your device. When everything is loaded on the device, you safely disconnect it (Right Click > Eject in Windows) and you’re ready. If the last couple of paragraphs make absolutely no sense to you, it’s time to discover your inner geek. That’s part of the game.
IMHO, there are only two Windows geocaching programs worth considering – ExpertGPS and GSAK (Geocaching Swiss Army Knife) – and yes, that’s its real name. Both run on Windows platforms only – no Mac or Linux, although you can run it on a Mac if you’re running Boot Camp or Parallels. You could also run it in Linux on a virtual windows machine.
All these programs will very capably store, filter and manipulate your geocaching data. For what it’s worth, I use ExpertGPS. I think the interface is more informative and user friendly. That said, GSAK has been around a long time and has a very strong following. It has all kinds of macros you can run which enable it to do things that ExpertGPS will not – but after eight years and 3,000 caches, I haven’t found the need for them yet. If you’re just starting out, I think you’ll be happier with ExpertGPS. The only way to know is to try them out. You’ll want to decide on one or the other because they both cost money after the trial period. During the trial period, you’ll get nag screens and believe me, they are well named.
The other geeky thing you’ll have to master are pocket queries on geocaching (dot) com. To use these, you have to be a premium member. A pocket query allows you to go into an area and create a custom search for geocaches that fit a specific set of parameters. For instance, if Natasha and I are going to power cache, we’ll select an area to go to, then build a search for traditional caches with a two star max difficulty and no micros. That way, we minimize our time on the hunt and maximize our finds. (When power caching, we usually set a five minute time limit. If we don’t find it, we move on.)
Pocket queries can also be done along a route. The limit is 500 miles or 500 geocaches per route query. You select the start and end point, how far off the road you want to go, size, difficulty and other parameters, then create the query.
Completed pocket queries are downloaded to the computer in ZIP file format and have to be “unzipped” to get the files. In Windows, simply right click on the ZIP file and select “extract all” from the menu. Your Super GPX file will show up. Then drag and drop it on to your connected device. The GPS device will take that single file and break it up into individual caches, which will show up in your cache listings and searches.
Here’s a link that explains in detail how to create a pocket query. You can also just Google it and lots of help will show up, which is why I’m not covering it here in any detail. However, I can offer some tips to make your searches and queries more effective.
When you start your query, uncheck the block to run it. Then go through the settings and start tweaking your parameters. When you’re done, click on the SUBMIT button. The query will come back as a sample which you can view on a map or in a list but it hasn’t actually run yet. That’s important because the web site only allows five queries a day. However, these practice ones don’t count. Check out the results. Need more? Less? Closer? Farther? Go in and adjust accordingly. All you have to do is check or uncheck boxes or type in a couple of numbers. When you have it just the way you want it, then go to the top, check the run box and you’re in business.
Another possible hiccup is the name of the file that is downloaded. By default, the search engine gives it a random alpha-numeric filename. You can check a block to add the query name to it and you should always do that. Remember to give your query a name that you’ll recognize, like BlackHills2013.
Of course, you don’t have to create a pocket query. You can also go into geocaching (dot) com, open a map of your target area and start looking. Just mouse over the cache symbols for information. If you like the looks of it, download it. Once you’ve got enough on the computer, you can compact them with your program or send them directly to your connected GPS device. As you get into the game, you’ll find there are lots of options and ways to do things.
There are lots of other software programs out there that will allow you to manipulate your caches, data and finds in more ways than you can imagine. There’s one in particular called CacheStats. If you’re one of those geofanatics that revels in the numbers, this will give you what you want.
There are also lots of online sites that can enhance your searches and provide all kinds of help and ideas. Just start Googling it and you’ll see what I mean. I really like Google Earth. There is geocaching KML file that runs on Google Earth and shows you the geocaches in the current view. It’s not super-accurate but if you’re just scouting out an area, it’s a great tool. If you see something you like, you can connect to geocaching (dot) com directly from Earth. You can even run a split screen if you want. Download the KML here.
As I said earlier, if you are geocaching with a smart phone and an app, you don’t need to do deal with software or do pocket queries – as long as you have Internet connectivity. For instance, when we roll into an Interstate rest area or a gas station or restaurant, we get out the Droids, fire up CacheSense and see if there’s any caches about that we can pick up real quick. The Interstate corridors have all got Internet/cell phone connectivity and we haven’t found a rest area yet that doesn’t have at least one geocache. It’s a great way to stretch the legs.
On the other hand, we use pocket queries for areas that we’re traveling to that don’t have Internet capability. The Black Hills of South Dakota are a great example. We try to get to the Black Hills once a year for geocaching. IMHO, it’s got the best geocaching in the country. It’s also a dead zone for cell phones and wireless – handheld GPS territory all the way. So we have ours loaded up and ready to go before we leave. Yellowstone is the same way.
So that’s it. Hope you learned something and that you’ll get out there and try it. Feel free to post any questions or feedback, including suggestions for future pages.
Cheers …. Boris and Natasha