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

NPS Passport Stamps – More Things to Hunt

In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some benchmark hunting, track down some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches and at least as many benchmarks that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. Boris and Natasha

Fall colors in the Teton Pass

Hi again,

One of the great things about geocaching and its kin is that it gets you out into places that you would never go to otherwise. We often come across great scenery in our travels. Particularly out west, there’s a Kodak moment around every bend. Every once in a while though, we happen upon a vista which is there and gone in a moment. Clouds, sky, animals, fall colors, mountains, mist, shadows, snow and sunlight often combine to offer a breathtaking view which is gone in a matter of seconds. Our camera has caught a number of them. This is one of our favorites.

Teton Pass, WY in the fall.

This is the Teton Pass overlooking Jackson Hole, WY in mid-September. Altitude 8,631 feet. We were up here making our way along the spine of the ridge and looking for geocaches (of course). For the most part, it was a dreary day, cold and windy. As we returned to the trail head, the clouds parted and out came the sun. The fall colors exploded and the far mountains came into view. We have gone to places a number of times to catch the leaves at their peak and always seem to be a bit early or too late. On this day, we blundered right into the height of the fall colors. Ten minutes later, we were chased down the mountain by snow flurries and an abundance of caution. The restrictive photo size in the blog doesn’t do justice to the view. Click this link for a full sized version.

Just off to the left of the photo is Highway 22. Called the Teton Pass Highway, it runs from Jackson Hole to Victor, ID through the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The road is steep and winding. Unlike most American mountain ranges, the Tetons do not have foothills or some sort of transition region. They jut straight up from the flat lands of the Snake River Valley.

Every July, Hungry Jack’s General Store in Wilson, WY sponsors the Teton Pass Hill Climb from the store to the pass. Each rider throws in 20 bucks and winner takes all. Although only 5 1/2 miles long, it gains a half mile in elevation with an average grade of 6.7% and a max of 14%. We’ll stick to Rails-to-Trails.

The photo was taken near coordinates N43.4973° W110.956°. Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google Map.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

The Palms aka Hoberg’s, Borrego Springs, CA

Movie stars, gangsters and us have something in common.

When Natasha and I retired and hit the road five years ago, we made it a point to seek out unique or interesting places away from tourist venues. Earlier this year, we struck gold in Borrego Springs, CA and a place called The Palms.

The main entrance

Opened in 1946, it was originally called Hoberg’s Desert Resort. In fact, the locals still call it Hoberg’s. Its location well off the beaten path in the Mojave Desert made it a perfect getaway for famous and notorious people in the 40’s and 50’s. Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Cohen all frequented here. Many of the guests flew in to the resort’s private air strip. Those heady days are long gone. Now its patrons are regular folks with nearby hiking, biking, motocross, golf, RV parks and geocaches galore along with a fair supply of munzees and letterboxes.

The resort is very laid back and unpretentious, with eight rooms and two pool-side casitas. It doesn’t even have phones. Cell phone coverage is pretty good and the resort has WiFi and DirecTV.

The front desk at The Palms

The original lodge building was destroyed by fire in 1958 and re-built in classic mid-50’s California modern style. Memorabilia covers the lobby walls and “rat pack” music plays in the background. They could have filmed scenes from The Godfather here. Along with the main lodge were 56 air conditioned bungalows scattered over the 17 acre compound. Those are all gone now except for a couple of ruins. The resort was abandoned in the 1970’s and fell into extreme disrepair. It was scheduled for demolition in 1993 when the current owners stepped in at the last minute and saved it. They restored everything and renamed it The Palms.

It sits on the edge of Anza-Borrego State Park and has unobstructed desert vistas in almost every direction. You can be as active as you want or not at all. The nearby mountains are full of desert bighorn sheep, which can often be seen on drives or hikes. In fact, the word “borrego” is Spanish for those bighorn sheep.

The Pool

The focal point of the resort is its magnificent Olympic-sized pool. For many years after it opened, this was one of the largest swimming pools in southern California. It also has a large hot tub/spa on the deck. At the far end of the pool, there are windows below the water line. There used to be an underground bar here where you could get a drink and watch the mermaids. It is now used for storage although you can still see through the windows. Also notice the desert skyline in the background. The pool is literally just steps from the lodge, which is just to the left of the pool.

The skies here are pitch black at night, so star gazing is a popular activity.

The Red Ocotillo

Another very popular activity – and the one that brought us here – is the food. There are two restaurants here. Inside is the more formal (and more expensive) Crazy Coyote. Outside, shown in this photo, is the Red Ocotillo. This is laid back, informal poolside dining at its best. People come for miles to eat here. After a hard day in the desert, it’s the perfect place to unwind and recover.

This was one of our best off the beaten path finds. It has it all – remoteness, history, uniqueness, geohides, a “coolness factor” and food. If you’d like to check it out, you’ll find them at 2220 Hoberg Rd, Borrego Springs, CA. Here’s a link to their web site. The GPS coordinates are N33.2692° W116.4008°. Click on the hyper-linked coordinates for a Google map.

NOTE TO READERS: Anza-Borrego State Park used to be a hot bed of geocaching. No more. In 2010, the state contacted geocaching (dot)com and directed them to deactivate/remove all physical geocaches in the park. Although they may show up in a search, they are no longer active. There are virtual caches and earth caches that are still available. This restriction was only placed on Anza Borrego Park. Do not despair, however. There are hundreds of geocaches in the 40 mile stretch between Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea, including several long strings of off-road/4×4 geocaches.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

One of My Best Days as a Dad

My first wife and I had kids late.  I was 40 when our son was born, so we were raising teenagers in our 50’s.  By then, we were divorced but I lived right around the corner and spent a lot of time with the kids.  Every summer from 2004 to 2010, Ben (call sign Bravo Lima) and I would take an extended trip somewhere adventurous.  Our playgrounds were South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, California and my native Pennsylvania. We hiked, biked, rafted and four-wheeled  in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, San Diego, the Black Hills and the Little Bighorn.   We also geocached.  On many days, we simply picked out some historical or back country caches and went for them.

Our equipment was primitive by today’s standards. For the first couple of years, we used Magellan Sportrak Map GPS devices, with their serial cables that loaded one geocache at a time.  Many times, we stuck our arms out the car window while we were moving to get a decent signal.  Ben became a good geocacher with a sharp eye.  The find in this picture was one of his better ones during a very successful day of Montana geocachingyears ago.

A geocache in Montana

Bravo Lima bags the “Sow Your Wild Oats” geocache.

This is Bravo Lima at the “Sow Your Wild Oats” cache northwest of West Yellowstone, MT.  It wasn’t a particularly difficult cache but the scenery was spectacular.  So here’s this piece of rusty John Deere equipment sitting in the middle of nowhere.  There must have been a farm here.  Located  on the shores of Hebgen Lake, the ground was flat and there were old barbed wire fences weaving through the thick, new-growth woods.  Ben took the lead on the way in and nailed it like a pro while this proud Dad just followed along.   After a day of this, we went back to our room at the Old Faithful Lodge for dinner and a geyser show.   It was a good day.  Next morning, we were back at it.

Cheers … Boris and Ben

Our Greatest Father/Son Conquest

In celebration of Father’s Day, I bring you this story out of the geocaching archives of June 2006.

Old Faithful

Ben at Old Faithful. We did Yellowstone right.

After the smoke cleared from my divorce in 2002, I lived about 1/2 mile down the road from my former spouse and two kids, who were then 9 (Ben) and 13 (Kari).  Despite the fact that The Ex and I didn’t agree on a whole lot, we buried the hatchet when it came to the kids.   I spent a lot of time with them.  Every summer from 2003 to 2010, Ben and I went on a road trip somewhere for a couple of weeks.  Then in 2005, we discovered geocaching and we were hooked.

In June of 2006, we headed off to Yellowstone. We did it right, staying at the Old Faithful Lodge.  Afterwards we went up to Bozeman, Montana to do some back country geocaching.  It was all day trips.  We both love to go out and get dirty and nasty – as long as we can clean up in our air conditioned hotel room when we’re done.  After 20 years in the Marines, I’ll never spend another night in the field.  But anyway, on with the story…

In one of our searches, we came up with a geocache called the Trolls Cache.  It was halfway between Bozeman and Livingston way back in the Gallatin National Forest.  On the day we went after it, it hadn’t been found in two years.

We headed for it in early afternoon.  It seemed like we drove forever on a series of dirt roads that got progressively worse and worse.  Our Magellan SporTrak Map GPS finally got us to a point that had ground zero about 300 yards to our right  – across a stream and up a steep mountain. Off we went.  We walked and walked and walked. Most of it was uphill.  The area had been lumbered out years before, so there was thick new growth and lots of ankle-breaking flotsam and jetsam on the ground.  It was hot, slow going.  Like idiots, we didn’t take any water because we figured it would be a short jaunt.  We also found out later that this is prime grizzly habitat and we had nothing for bear defense.

Making the Find

I was still surveying the top of the hill on our second attempt when Ben made a beeline for this geo-beacon. I hustled over with the camera and recorded the find.

At some point I turned around and realized that I couldn’t see the car anymore and the sun was below the ridgeline.  Shadows were getting deep and dark fast.  We were about 50 yards away from Ground Zero when I told him we had to back off.  It wasn’t safe.  So we made our way back down the mountain thinking now we know why no one has found it in two years.  We drove out of the forest after dark.

Back at the hotel, we were bummed out.  We decided to take another shot at it.  We fired up Google Earth and got out the Delorme Montana Gazetteer.  We found what looked like an old road, maybe a lumber trail, that led up to the cache.  It would be a walk along the ridgeline instead of going up the mountain.  The next day, we were off in early morning with a map, GatorAde, lunch and bear spray.

The rental car company would have had a cow if they had seen the roads, rocks and stream crossings we negotiated with their AWD Murano.  But we found the trail and parked about 1/2 mile from the cache.  Twenty minutes later, we were on top of the mountain and Ben made the find in short order.  It was an ammo box in great condition.

After high fives and some trash talking, we celebrated by sitting on a stump, drinking GatorAde, eating lunch and soaking up the gorgeous and rugged panorama that was present at Ground Zero.

GZ at Trolls Cache

Ben opens the prize at Ground Zero.

This was the toughest geocache he and I have ever gotten. We learned some hard lessons on this one.  For me, the biggest one was I’m not a Marine anymore.  I don’t have to get hurt or killed to find a cache.  Ben, who was 13 at the time, was tough and had his game face on the whole time.  I asked him how many of his buddies had found an ammo box in the Montana wilderness lately.  He got a confidence builder and a crash course in real world decision making which he never forgot.

He’s all grown up now, married and in graduate school while working. We talk often and still enjoy re-living the quest for the Trolls Cache.

Happy Father’s Day to me … Boris

How to Speak Geocache

All activities have a jargon that goes with them and geocaching is no exception.  Here is a list of common acronyms and abbreviations that will help you decipher log entries and make your own easier to write in the cold and rain.  ( :-D)

Geocache ledge

This shows GZ for the only geocache I’ve ever backed down from – the Hole in the Wall cache in Wyoming. This ledge was the only way out to it. A slip meant a 60 foot fall onto a field of broken up boulders. I almost went for it but there was no room for error. I gave it up. Probably a good idea. I look at this picture now and hear Dr. Phil – “What were you thinkin’?”

#10. TNLN – Took Nothing Left Nothing.  Used to sign a log.

#9.  DNF – Did Not Find.  Used to sign a log.

#8.  TFTC – Thanks For The Cache.  Used to sign a log.

#7.  SL – Signed Log.  Used to (all together now)…….???

#6.  TOTT – Tools of the trade. For getting caches out of tight places. Tweezers, light, pocketknife, etc.

#5.  PNG – Park And Grab.  A quick, easy cache or so they say.

#4.  GZ – Ground Zero.  The actual location of the cache.

#3.  GPSr – Global Positioning System receiver.

#2.  FTF – First To Find. The Holy Grail of geocaching. Get to a new cache first.

#1.  FUBAR – Fouled Up Beyond All Repair.  Or you can use your own f word.

Write on…Boris and Natasha