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

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #1

Well this is it.  After 3,000 geocaches in 40 states over the last six years, we have winnowed it down to the Top 10 – and this is Numero Uno.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook geocache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain geocache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands geocache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls geocache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments geocache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Springs geocache, Guttenberg, IA

#2 – Rays Hill Tunnel geocache, Breezewood, PA

#1

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #1 cache had them all- and then some. From September 2008 – the OTO Ranch cache near Gardiner, Montana.

In the fall of 2008, we were newly married and newly retired. For our fall road trip, we went back to Yellowstone. A year earlier, I had proposed to Natasha at Old Faithful. So back we went, staying at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge near the northern entrance to the park. Just outside the gate is the town of Gardiner, Montana. A search of geocaching(dot)com led us to this cache. It hadn’t been found for almost a year. Usually that’s a red flag, but we went for it. It turned out to be our crown jewel.

OTO Ranch corral

First view of the ranch – the old corral area. If it looks familiar, it should. It’s the background photo for our blog. The restored part is down in the trees on the upper right. The geocache is down by the barn. The ranch sits at about 6,000 feet elevation in the Gallatin National Forest. The round trip hike is around five miles. The mountains in the background are the Absaroka Range, one of the wildest areas in America.

The 3,200 acre OTO ranch was founded in 1898 by Dick and Nora Randall. Dick had been a stagecoach driver in Yellowstone Park for 10 years but realized the potential of outfitting back country trips for wealthy city folk and foreign aristocrats, all of whom were coming to Yellowstone anyway. It soon became a full-fledged “dude” ranch, the first one in Montana. Wealthy city folk began to send their children to work on the ranch for the summer. It wasn’t long before the Randalls had more business than they could accommodate and they began expanding.

The construction was solid and rustic. From 1912 to 1934, guests including Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed hiking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, wrangling, great food and cowboy music in the beauty of the surrounding Absaroka Range. The Randalls retired in 1934. The operation was taken over by a former client who had no idea how to run a ranch. That, combined with the Great Depression and gathering war clouds, forced it to close in 1939, never to re-open.

The OTO Ranch lodge

The main lodge building. Built in 1921 and abandoned for 50 years, it is as sturdy as ever.

The ranch lay in disrepair for over 50 years. The Forest Service bought the land in 1991 and volunteers began restoring it, an effort which continues to this day. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

The entire ranch is open to all who make their way there. No cars – walk, horseback, mountain bikes only. There is some serious exploring to be done once you get here. We could have spent all day poking around but we started late and had to get back. Still, we spent over an hour looking around. We found, among other things, a concrete bunker with heavy wooden blast doors built into a hillside near the lodge. We figured it was a bear-proof ice house for food storage in the days before refrigerators.

If you do go exploring, keep in mind that this is real back country. There are bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and big rattlesnakes. If you are tromping through the tall grass (and you’ll have to if you want the cache) make sure you have your stick to check the area around you. If you stay overnight or just go have lunch there, be Bear Aware.

Natasha at OTO Ranch

The always lovely Natasha exploring the ranch.

This was the ultimate geocache. Grizzly bear and rattlesnake warning signs at the trailhead, a moderate hike at high altitude, a killer climb for the first half mile, picture post card mountain scenery, a unique history, lots of buildings to explore and a geocache waiting patiently to be found. So even though we found it over five years ago, it remains our #1.

The GPS coordinates for the center of the ranch are N45.147426, W110.784125. You can click on the coordinates for a Google map. BTW, the cache is still there and still active. It’s had less than 30 visits since we logged it.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha