Top 10 Geocaching Safety Tips

The Find

Here’s a find deep in the woods of western Pennsylvania with stick and gloves displayed. We find our caching sticks, which are five foot lengths of 1 1/4 inch dowel rod, to be indispensable. In any terrain, they give you a third leg. Here, it also helps to avoid copperheads, which are numerous in these parts.

Geocaching and related outdoor activities all carry an element of risk.There are a number of factors that come into play such as activity level, location andphysical conditioning. But we feel the most important part of keeping safe is to know your limits and be prepared if something happens.Natasha and I like to push the limits. We’ve been lucky. Early in our geocaching career, we blundered into a couple of situations that worked out OK but could have been serious. We learned our lessons. Now when we saddle up for a long range cache, we are seriously geared up. Of course, if you’re doing drive by caching in parking lots and the like, you don’t have to be as intense. But if you’re headed into the boonies or even just out of sight of your car for a while, you need to be prepared. You don’t want to be out there, separated from your geopartner, no communication, no water plus it’s starting to rain, get dark and you’re not sure how to get back. We speak from some experience on that. It happened to us near Farmington, New Mexico about 10 years ago. Keep the following 10 things in mind and apply as needed for safer and more effective caching.


#10. Be bear aware…. If you’re in bear country, especially griz, your outlook changes because you’re not at the top of the food chain anymore. Bears can’t see very well but their hearing and smell are sensational and they can outrun a horse over a short distance. Talk to people about recent local bear activity. Make some noise as you walk – people type noise. Bells and whistles just make bears curious. I like to use binoculars to check the area around us as we move. Be careful with food. Stick together. Keep an eye down wind. Carry bear spray. We’ve spent a lot of time in grizzly country and have never had a problem. But some unfortunate people do.

#9. Do what the cops tell you…. Geocaching often looks suspicious, especially these days. Hanging around, looking, climbing, crawling can all get you noticed. We’ve been confronted by the police four times, once by the Ski Patrol and once by a construction foreman. Be nice and tell them about geocaching. The vast majority are cool with it. One cop even helped us look. Recently, we ran into Officer Friendly of the Illinois State Police. We were geocaching at a rest area and he threatened to arrest us for trespassing. About that moment, Natasha made the find and waved it. He waited there until we had signed the log and moved on. Be ready for just about anything when a lawman shows up.

#8. Take extra batteries….The energizer bunny’s name is Murphy. It’s downright gut wrenching to have a GPSr die on you when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Same with flashlights, phones, etc. If you’re depending on battery powered equipment to complete your quest, make sure you’ve got enough juice for the job – especially if you need to find your way back. Lithium batteries are the way to go. Regular alkaline batteries don’t last very long.

#7. Carry a big stick, small flashlight, leather gloves, Swiss Army knife….These items have a multitude of uses, from poking inside a dark cache to probing the trail in front of you to protection from animals (both four legged and two legged). We find the sticks to be almost indispensable. They’re effective, innocuous and legal. Natasha and I use a five foot length of 1 1/4 inch dowel rod which you can buy at any hardware store.

#6. Bring a first aid kit….Scratches and bug bites are part of the charm of geocaching. It can also be dirty, so take care of any open wound. The kit doesn’t need to be massive. Outdoor stores all sell small kits that will fit in a pocket. It can’t hurt to throw in an ACE wrap. Combined with your stout stick, you can limp back to the car if you have to. If you’re allergic to bee stings, take your epi-pen. Keep your tetanus shot up to date for that rusty old barbed wire at Ground Zero. Remember – if something happens out there, you’re on your own, at least for a while. Plan accordingly.

A SPOT GPS locater and messenger. We always have one with us out in the boondocks. We’ve never needed it, but we know we’re ready if something happens. See the link in this paragraph for more information

#5. Take your cell phone or walkie-talkies or both…. Becoming separated from a geopartner is mildly annoying at best and can be downright dangerous. It’s happened to us a couple of times. So now we use handheld radios in the FRS/GMRS range with cell phone backup. The handheld radios are inexpensive and don’t require any ham licensing. Get a radio check before you launch. Have a reconnect plan if all comm fails. Go to a pre-arranged meeting place after a certain amount of time passes. Whatever that place is, enter it into your GPSr as a waypoint so you can find it. Also enter the trailhead or parking areas as waypoints. If all that fails, call 911, assuming you have cell phone coverage. A good alternative for the back country is a GPS locater beacon. We use a SPOT Locater. It sends and receives signals via GPS satellites. You can send check-in messages, call roadside assistance or send an emergency signal. That 911 signal goes to an operations center, which will notify, dispatch and coordinate rescue help. My brother used to race in the Baja. He and his buddies all had one. They had to summon help a couple of times and it arrived in less than an hour. They are a little pricey, but we don’t head for the hills without them.

#4. Don’t forget the hat and sunscreen…. This is one can really sneak up on you. I’ve screwed up in the past. I’m out getting multiple caches, in and out of the car and the trees and figure I don’t need to worry about the sun. But it all adds up and at the end of the day, I look like a lobster. If you’re going to be out in the sun, make sure you protect yourself. Lather on the sunscreen and keep it fresh. Then top it off with a wide brimmed hat and cool UV sunglasses.

#3.Be tick aware …Ticks are a clear and present danger in the outdoors – much more so than bears and snakes. They carry Lyme disease and other assorted diseases and they’re everywhere. Wear long pants and long sleeve shirts. Douse your shoes and pant legs with DEET. Check yourself and each other thoroughly and often and keep checking. The critters seem to come out of nowhere and are almost indestructible. The good news is that they have to attach themselves to a human host for 24 hours to pass on the virus. If you find one latched on, pull it straight out with tweezers. Lyme disease is treatable but no fun.  If you geocache, you’re going to get ticks. Stay vigilant and stay healthy. One additional note – don’t go inside the house with your geocaching clothes on. You’ll have ticks in the house. Basement, garage, laundry room but not in living spaces.

Alien geocachers

Expect the unexpected and you’ll be prepared to deal with whatever (or whoever) comes along, as Natasha demonstrates here in Roswell, New Mexico.

#2. Bring lots of water…. This one that can sneak up on you too, usually in the form of a “quick cache” which turns into a marathon. Next thing you know, you’ve been out there for two hours with nothing to drink. Unless you’re doing PNGs, throw a bottle of water in your kit. For longer ventures, you can’t beat a CamelBak. Fill it with ice and top it off with water. You’ll have ice water the whole day.

#1. Know when to back off….Geocachers are a pretty tenacious bunch and we’re probably at the top end of that scale. Part of this activity is recognizing limits. We’ve stopped literally yards away from GZ because we didn’t think we could complete it and/or get back safely. Things can go south in a real hurry out there. Don’t compromise your safety for a cache. It’ll be there tomorrow. Go back and re-group. Next time, you’ll probably walk right to it.

Learn from our mistakes … Boris and Natasha

Tuzigoot National Monument, Clarkdale, AZ

Hi again,

If you like to explore off the beaten path, it’s hard to beat Arizona.  We recently checked out a place we’d never heard of before – Tuzigoot National Monument.

Tuzigoot (which is Apache for “crooked water”) is a puebloan ruin on the banks of the Verde River that was built and occupied between about 1100 and 1400. People lived here for longer than the United States has been a country. Then 100 years before the first Europeans arrived, the occupants moved on, leaving few traces or clues as to where they went or why.

Tuzigoot National Monument

The builders of Tuzigoot picked their terrain well. The pueblo was built on a strategic ridge that provided easy access to the river and was highly defensible. Construction was continuous for its entire 300 year existence.

The Verde River in northwest Arizona is one of the few in the state that runs all year. It has a watershed of almost 6,000 square miles along its 170 mile length. The Verde River Valley was a natural draw for the hunter-gatherers that migrated there. At its peak of pre-European settlement, there were at least 40 separate pueblos in the valley.

Defense of a pueblo.

This painting by Paul Coze appeared in the August 1951 edition of Arizona Highways. Pueblos were built for security, not comfort or convenience. There were few doors and none on the first floor. Ditto for windows. Access to rooms was by a hole in the ceiling and a ladder. That was also the only ventilation for smoky cooking fires and summer heat. Pueblos were at constant risk of raids, especially once the Apache showed up. That is thought to be one of the main reasons the entire area emptied out in the space of a generation.

After its abandonment, Tuzigoot spent the next 500 years wide open to the depredations of both nature and man. The National Park Service excavated and restored it in the 1930’s. It was designated a National Monument by President Roosevelt in 1939. The name Tuzigoot came from a member of the excavation crew who was an Apache Indian. It has nothing to do with the original structure or people.

Here’s a before and after picture comparison of Tuzigoot.

Tuzigoot in 1934.

A 1934 National Park Service picture of Tuzigoot before the excavation began. It’s taken at the southern end of the pueblo looking up the hill to what was known as the Citadel. Many more historical photos can be found in the National Park Service gallery.

The Citadel.

The same view taken in 2014. The re-construction you see dates to the original work in the 1930’s, although there is considerable maintenance.

The people who built and lived in Tuzigoot and the other pueblos in the valley are called the Sinagua by anthropologists. “Sin agua” is Spanish for without water. Dominating the skyline of Northern Arizona are the San Francisco Peaks, which can be clearly seen from the Verde Valley. Those 12,000 foot mountains have no rivers flowing out of them. The Spanish called them “sierra sin agua” – mountains without water. The name was applied as a generic name for pre-European native people in central Arizona. They were hunters, gatherers, farmers and traders. The Hopi, Zuni and Navajo all trace their lineage back to the Sinagua.

Rooms at Tuzigoot

There were around 110 rooms at Tuzigoot, built over the course of three centuries. They ran north-south along the spine and spread down the hill to the east and west. It was a sizable community. Excavations revealed that all the rooms had evidence of food preparation, unlike many pueblos where some rooms were used only for storage

Inside construction at Tuzigoot

Inside construction was solid, with wooden beams as uprights and also cross-members. Thatched mats covered the beams which were in turn covered with adobe to make a ceiling. The beams were cut from Arizona sycamore trees that grew prolifically along the river. Everything was done with stone tools and manual labor. The Sinagua had no horses and the wheel was unknown to the them.

Central Arizona has many pueblo ruins that are now under state or federal protection. Montezuma’s Castle, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki national monuments are within easy driving distance. So is Sunset Crater National Monument, site of a volcanic eruption that affected the surrounding area around 1000 A.D. For a different type of exploring, check out Jerome, AZ and Prescott, AZ. There’s also historic Route 66 weaving its way through the entire area. Like we said earlier, if you like to explore, you’ve come to the right place.

The Tuzigoot Visitors Center (click the link for a map) is located at 25 Tuzigoot Road, Clarkdale, AZ. Just follow the signs. The GPS coordinates are N34.7723230, W112.0278880. The visitor center is small and was built in the 1930’s as part of the re-construction. There is a 1/3 mile (500 m) trail that takes you in and around the pueblo. You can see the whole thing in about an hour.

There are geocaches everywhere in the area. Cell phone coverage is spotty, so caching on the fly can be challenging and there are few munzees. There is a healthy supply of letterboxes.

BTW, if you go to Jerome, try lunch at the Haunted Hamburger. Fantastic burgers with a view of the San Francisco Peaks. On weekends, be prepared to wait for a table.

One last note: Remember, this is the desert. Heat, sun, dehydration and things that bite, stick or sting are constant companions here. Pace yourself. Be alert. Be aware. Use caution.

Happy trails… Boris and Natasha

Balanced Rock Geocache – Big Bend NP

Another adventure in Big Bend. In the northwest quadrant of the park, not far from the Panther Junction Visitor Center, lie the Grapevine Hills. Here you will see rock formations unlike any others in the park. This is igneous rock formed by cooling lava. The word igneous comes from the Latin word for fire – ignis. When solid material cools it shrinks, tearing itself apart. The result is a valley full of huge boulders that have been exposed to erosion and weathering for millions of years. Now it is a barren landscape with fantastic rock formations that look almost impossible to create.

The Grapevine Trail

This is the view looking back down the Grapevine Hills Trail from Balanced Rock.

The most famous of these is “Balanced Rock”. Located in a saddle about a mile and a half from the trailhead, it is exactly what it says – a huge boulder precariously perched between two others. In addition to a hike through the valley, some basic bouldering is required at the end. This area got its name from grapevines that used to grow here on the valley floor. The entire Big Bend area was once much more livable than it is now, with good grass, clean water, trees and crops. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle killed the grasslands and all the trees were cut down for firewood and construction. I guess they call that progress.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock and Ground Zero for the cache. Now all we have to do is get a picture with one of us in the window.

This is a back country desert hike, not recommended in the summer. Take water, sun screen and a hat. We hiked out in the early morning and, once again, had the place to ourselves. In the picture, Natasha is getting us credit for the virtual cache located here.

Balanced Rock Geocache

Natasha at Ground Zero getting us credit for the cache.

Photography is a challenge at Big Bend. It’s all bright light and dark shadows. I’m not much with filters and all that but I’m pretty good with Picasa and Photoshop. Both came in handy on this trip.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha