Basic Geocaching Equipment

Basic Geocaching Equipment

Ask 100 different geocachers what equipment you need to hunt a cache and you’ll get 100 different answers. That’s because the equipment you use will vary depending on the kind of cache you’re seeking, the kind of terrain you’re on, the season of the year, the amount of caching you plan on doing and several other factors.

It can be a bit overwhelming to know where to begin with this game, but there’s no need to make it too complicated. It’s best to begin simple with what works for you and add items as you progress. Much of what you find on these pages is a matter of what I have tried and what works for me. The list begins with the basics?a simple GPS unit?and works up from there. There are items listed that you might never need and others that aren’t here but you find to be essential. Be prepared to adapt in this game. In many ways your caching equipment will be a unique part of your style.


The GPS receiver you choose is going to be a personal decision based on what you think you need and what you can afford. I recommend doing some reading on the Geocaching message boards first and looking over some of the major manufacturers’ webpages (Garmin and Magellan). Ultimately, it’s up to you to pick a unit you can understand and live with.

Garmin eTrex VentureI’ve owned several GPS receivers over the years. Not all of them were made by the same manufacturer and they didn’t all have the same features. For my first unit I chose the Garmin eTrex Venture, mainly because of the price, durability and design. The eTrex series seemed pretty straight forward to me?easy to understand and use.

Knowing that all this technology would be new to me for a while I chose a unit that I could grasp the functions of quickly. Garmin has designed the eTrex series software to be similar to a Microsoft Windows interface. The “Clickstick” works like a mouse, menus drop down from the top and you “x out” of screens through a button on the upper right corner. All these were elements I was used to due to years of computer use and made the transition to using a GPS very smooth.

Similarly, Magellan’s eXplorist series has borrowed heavily from the Windows experience (or is that eXperience?). With its own version of the clickstick, simple icons and a font that looks a lot like Comic Sans MS, the eXplorist series is designed for everyone from new GPS users to veteran power users. Magellan took a lot of criticism with their initial release of the eXplorist 100, 200 and 300, which lacked a data port, forcing users to enter coordinates by hand. However, they made up for that with later models that not only included the port, but also color screens and expandable memory through an SDRam chip slot.

Garmin and Magellan seem to occupy the “Coke and Pepsi” seats in the GPS war but there are several other manufacturers to consider. Lowrance has several consumer receivers. Cobra, who made their name in the CB radio market, has entered the GPS arena. Other companies like TomTom and Holux have entered the market and come out swinging with some great models. Take some time and consider what you’re willing to spend, what kind of “technology learning curve” you have and what models have proven themselves to other cachers. The forums can be a great source of information and experience from other cachers.

So what should you look for in your first GPS? Here are some things to consider before you buy:

Durability: It’s not a question of whether or not you’ll drop your GPS, but of how often you’ll drop it and what you’ll drop it on. It’s important that you choose a durable handheld model instead of something designed more for navigation inside a vehicle. Most handheld models come with rubber grips that will help you hold the unit and cushion it slightly in a fall.

Ease of Use: There are a lot of GPS’s out there that do a lot of complicated things that you simply won’t use while geocaching. Most handheld models have clearly identified buttons and can be operated with one hand. Keep it simple.

Budget: There’s no need to go nuts and buy the most expensive GPS you can afford. I’ve known cachers who have found hundreds of geocaches using a simple yellow eTrex. If you can work with something simple then, by all means, save your money for something else.

Data Cable: I can’t stress this enough. Do not buy a unit that doesn’t come with a data cable or at least has a data port built in. Without a data port you’re left to enter coordinates by hand. This is a tedious and often sloppy process that will eventually lead you to the wrong spot. A data cable can download hundreds of geocache waypoints to your GPS in a matter of seconds. It also allows you to upgrade the software for your GPS, when the occasional new release is offered.

Mapping: This is a matter of preference. I cached for a year and a half with no mapping software and occasionally I still use a GPS that has no maps. However, the benefits of maps cannot be denied. You’ll find your way to the cache easier and they come in handy for non-caching uses too, like finding your way through a city. Some mapping units come with an auto-routing feature, which shows you which roads to take and when to turn. Others simply provide the maps and you’re left to choose which road you want. Auto-routing is more expensive and may not be all that necessary if you know your home area well and plan on mainly caching there.

Antenna: GPS antennas come in two basic designs. A patch antenna is a small square antenna lays flat on the face of your GPS. These are usually covered by the case and out of view. Some of the eTrex units have translucent covers that allow you to see the antenna. Patch antennas are fine, but if you live in an area of heavy tree cover (like the Pacific North West) you will want to avoid these models. The tree cover renders them fairly useless.

Quadrahelix antennas are usually short and thick and protrude from the GPS unit. These antennas do a much better job of capturing satellite signals under tree cover. I’ve owned GPS’s with both antenna designs, but in the thin woods of Central Illinois I haven’t noticed that much difference. However, when I was caching in Washington State I saw a huge benefit in the quadrahelix design.


Remember learning how to use a compass in school? If you’re like me, you never actually planned on being in the woods anyway, so you probably didn’t pay attention. But believe it or not, they’re pretty handy when Geocaching.

One common misunderstanding that many people have is that a GPS is an electronic compass. Some higher end GPS’s do have electronic compasses built in, but the navigation screen on your GPS is rather deceptive in appearance. The direction indicator only works when you’re moving at about three miles an hour or faster and even then it can often give misleading readings. If you’re looking for accuracy and can’t afford a higher end GPS then a compass is a good purchase.

Diehard hikers will often remind you that while electronic compasses are nice, they do require batteries and therefore shouldn’t be viewed as entirely reliable. This is good advice and it keeps you from blowing a lot of money on an electronic compass when you can spend less on a reliable magnetic compass.

I’ve learned that you don’t want to skimp on your compass, but you also don’t necessarily need the most expensive model out there, either. I chose the Silva Landmark after having some experience with a cheaper compass and noticed a BIG difference. It was definitely worth the money.

For one, they’re very handy as you close in on the cache. The closer you get to the site, the more the needle on your GPS’s compass will jump around (due to walking slower, poor satellite reception, etc.). Carrying a compass will enable you to get a fix on the cache from a short distance away and then begin walking to it.

A compass is also helpful if you are geocaching with a team or a partner. With a compass and a GPS, you can come at the cache from different angles and zero in on it together.

Most of all, when you’re geocaching in the summer and the tree cover is blocking your signal from the satellites you can use the compass to re-align yourself with the cache. This little maneuver is enough reason to shell out big bucks for a dependable compass.

One thing to remember, though. If you want to be more accurate with your compass, be sure to set your GPS’s compass to “magnetic north” rather than “true north” before moving in on the prize.

Cache Bag

One of the first accessories you probably considered is something to put all your stuff in. You’ll need something to carry your GPS, spare batteries, trade items, and possibly a few other essentials like a first aid kit and some snacks.

You’re going to get a lot of opinions on this topic and just about all of them are going to be different. Let me give you two words of advice that I think are essential before choosing a cache bag/back pack/whatever:

  1. Pay attention to your surroundings. What is absolutely essential in the Great Northwest is probably not all that necessary in Middle America. Spend some time getting to know what hiking and caching is like in your area. When you’re on the trail and you realize that a certain object would be handy, make a note.
  2. Pay attention to your own needs. Do you cache with kids? You’re probably going to pack a few things that people who don’t have ever had to worry about. Do you have allergies? Do you want to be able to do some occasional cache maintenance? What are you able to physically carry? How prepared do you want to be in the event of an emergency? These are questions you really need to ask before you blow big money on an expensive pack that hangs on your back like a rock.

Cache BagThe bag I started out with was designed for turkey hunters to store their calls and other equipment in. It had 3 separate zippered compartments. The one in front, I use for my own supplies. I could keep some bug spray, my compass and a travel pack of kleenex in there (and a few allergy pills). I also could keep my cellphone in it when things start to get a little hairy (my GPS would also fit in it quite nicely). The second zippered compartment was very small, so I used it for extra AA batteries for my GPS. The third compartment was the largest and I used it to store all the items I might trade in a Geocache.

It was handy, fit on my belt, stayed out of the way, and frustrated me to no end. I finally had to admit it was just too small and I was going to need a backpack.

There’s only one thing I know for sure about backpacks?good ones are expensive. The last thing I needed to be doing was bringing home a big, expensive backpack that would be way more than I needed and end up being more of a burden than the cheap little pack I started off with. So I did a little research, posted a few questions on the forums and, well, pretty much came up with nothing.

In the end, I was walking through Wal-Mart one day, about a month or so after school had started in the fall, and found a ton of backpacks in their clearance section. The one I settled on was marked down to $3.00. “Great!” I thought, “A three-dollar lesson in backpacks is exactly what I need!”

The pack is slightly smaller than the average backpack (more like the size of a half-day pack), has 4 outer pockets, which are perfect for my signature items (I keep them out there so I don’t have to dig into my pack every time I stop at a cache), a first-aid kit, a multi-tool, spare batteries, and some garbage bags. Inside there’s the main area where I keep trade items. There is also a sleeve for a hydration bladder. I was able to find a Platypus Bladder fairly cheap and would recommend it to anyone who ever finds themselves needing to carry water on an excursion.

I definitely got my money’s worth on my three-dollar lesson in backpacking. After about a year with the cheap pack I was ready to use my experience to purchase a much more durable backpack from Gregory Mountain. Their Inertia pack turned out to be the perfect fit for my hiking style and my environment. I’ve also used it on hikes and hunts on both the East and West Coast and found it to be more than adequate. I was also able to buy it at a lower price as a store second, which is always a plus.

I love my backpack, but I don’t drag it out for every single cache. When it comes to a lot of them in small city parks, it’s just not worth the hassle or the “goofiness” factor of carrying the backpack. In those times I use a small GPS Case that I picked up off eBay. It has a large pocket in the back that was made for maps, but holds small trade items, a digital camera and even my multi-tool. There’s also a large pocket for the GPS, and two side pockets that hold batteries, a flashlight and a pen. I also added a front pocket that holds my compass and keeps it handy for whenever I need it. The whole thing hooks on my belt and stays more-or-less out of the way.

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PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)

When you first get started, geocaching can eat up a lot of printer paper. You print out page after page of caches and try to keep them organized. I’ve seen cachers with clipboards, some with three-ring bingers and others with cars full of papers scattered all over. I hadn’t been playing this game too long before I realized there had to be a better method.

Palm m515I’ve been a Palm user for so long it’s almost become a part of me. If I go somewhere without it, I start fidgeting. On more than one occasion when I have left it behind somewhere, I’ve found myself saying, “Oh no, I forgot my brain!” My Palm contains my address book, my datebook, my expense reports, memos that remind me of just about everything, and even some word processing programs. There are even a couple games on it. So, when I started geocaching, the Palm became a natural extension to use in the game.

If you’re planning on doing much caching at all, you should really consider going paperless?using a PDA to store cache page information. This is a very simple procedure that will help you stay organized. provides premium members with the files they need for paperless caching. How you use those files depends on the type of PDA you have and your own level of “techno know-how.”

Of course, you may have never considered the possibility of using a PDA until now. Maybe you’ve looked at prices and decided that you just can’t afford one of the Palms or Pocket PC’s on the market. Thankfully, geocaching doesn’t require a state-of-the-art PDA and many cachers get by with older models that can be found at very reasonable prices. It’s not uncommon to see models like the Palm IIIxe or Vx available on eBay for under $30.00.

Also, keep in mind that since you’ll be carrying your PDA into the woods it might not be a good idea to rush out and buy the most expensive model available. Make sure you’re willing to?and can afford to?replace it if necessary.

Palm or PPC?

If you’re new to PDA’s, one of the first things you’ll notice is that they come in two basic categories: Palms (using the Palm operating system) and Pocket PC (Or PPC, using a Windows-based operating system). These are two completely different systems that will require different procedures for receiving cache information. Both systems have rabidly devoted users who will tell you why their methods are the best. Here are a few factors to consider before purchasing either type of device:

Palms are generally cheaper. This applies to both new models and used ones found on online auctions and other places.

Palm batteries last longer. Pocket PC’s require a lot of energy to run their processors. Very often their batteries only last a matter of a few hours. Palm, on the other hand, can run continuously for much longer periods of time. If you’re going to be out geocaching all day and away from your charger this is a major plus.

PPC’s are Windows-based and may be easier for less savvy users. Palm OS is a completely different operating system than Windows and will require a bit of a learning curve. If technology is already a problem to you, you might be better off sticking with a Windows-based Pocket PC.

PPC’s will accept geocaching files directly, while Palms require the files be re-formatted before being loaded onto the machine. If you choose a Palm you’ll find yourself converting files from the formats you receive them from into formats that can be read by Palm programs. This isn’t a complicated process but it does take a little time to learn how to do it. On the other hand, Pocket PC’s can receive files as they are. Many times it’s just a matter of “dragging and dropping” them into the PDA.

One Other Caveat: if you have a Palm you might be tempted to buy one of those GPS’s that hook directly to the Palm and carry it in the woods with you. If you’re like me, your Palm has way too much valuable information on it to be carrying it around out in the woods. A handheld outdoor GPS is built much tougher and will do a much better job than a Palm with a GPS attachment.

PDA Software

Picking out the right PDA for you is only the first step. You’ll also need to carefully consider what software you’ll need for Geocaching. Here are a few of the basics:

Pocket PC
GPXSonar A free application that reads GPX files on Pocket PC 2003 and later. It also allows for some management of cache waypoints and even provides for jotting down notes about the caches you seek so you can log them online easier.

GPXView A simple GPX file viewer designed for Pocket PC 2002 or later. This is also freeware, though donations are encouraged.

GPX Spinner Converts (spins) GPX files into a Palm-readable format. Available for a small fee. I consider this to be essential for Palm users.

Plucker An offline web page viewer designed for Palm users. Once files are converted with GPX Spinner they can be converted and viewed with Plucker using these instructions.

Cachemate This is an extremely easy to use program. I would recommend this especially for people who have never used a Palm before and want the easiest method possible.

Hiking Staff

Field StaffI never would have bought one of these, but one day I was on a hunt and found myself on a very steep hill. Thankfully, I had found a nice stick on the ground, but trusting a half-rotten stick takes a lot more faith than trusting a sturdy metal one specifically made for hiking!

I did a little research on hiking staffs and had settled on one made by Tracks. My first choice was the Sherlock Travel Staff, but when I finally got to see them at a local store, I purchased the Field Staff instead.

Yeah, price was a factor.

I can’t say I take it along on every hunt, but there are a few places around here that I wouldn’t go without it. It’s great for getting a little extra hold on slanted ground. Also, the rubber foot screws off to reveal a pointed spike which is great for ice and snow. Also, with the spike revealed and the walnut knob removed from the top, it doubles as a handy monopod for photography. It’s also perfect for knocking down spider webs!

If you’re a little unsure as to the need for a hiking staff, here’s a great article that makes some good points on the use of them.

Travel Vest (VOMP: Vest Of Many Pockets)

VestThis was one of those great purchases that NEVER happen to me . . . well . . . except for this one time.

It’s a Columbia Sportswear Trekker Travel Vest. I had seen a vest similar to this one in a local store for $60.00 and said, “There’s no way I’m wearing something that costs that much out into the woods!” Then I found this one for auction on eBay and got it for $9.99. I couldn’t be happier!

The pockets on this vest are great. The one on the upper left side is perfect for my GPS. There’s a pocket that’s perfect for my phone, my compass, some stash items, my digital camera . . . well . . . you get the idea. Also, due to some kind of space-age fabric, it’s amazingly cool even in hot weather.

Stuff to Stash

You have to remember, Geocaching isn’t about the prizes you collect, it’s about the hunt. But having something kind of nice or just plain fun to remember the hunt by is always a plus. Also, if you’ve got children and you want them to be involved in geocaching with you, prizes are practically essential.

“Dollar stores” are a great source of cache swag. Other items you’ll commonly find are McDonald’s or other fast-food toys (not everyone likes these), small games, music cassettes or CD’s, software, first-aid kits (a GREAT idea) and on and on. The “no-no’s” are food items (no matter how well wrapped), knives, matches and lighters or anything that could harm a kid that might accidentally stumble across the cache. As always, use some common sense.

A lot of people end up with a “signature item,” something they almost always leave behind to let other people know that they were there. Some of these are quite involved?custom made Geo-coins, pins, patches and the like. Others are more common items which have come to take on special meaning for the cacher. Either way, it’s a great way to say, “Kilroy was here.” . . . or whatever your name is.

I sort of stumbled across my own signature item. One of the ministries I worked for helps people set up “Lighthouses of Prayer” in their churches and communities. One of the materials we sold were small lighthouse lapel pins. I bought several of them and attached them to my own “signature card” which I designed to look kind of like a trading card (complete with stats on the back). I try to leave one behind along with some other item.

As a general rule, try to trade evenly. Don’t swap a used Q-tip for a Hummel figurine or anything like that. As a matter of practice, a lot of Geocachers like to leave the cache a little richer than they found it by trading up.

As you play the game more you’ll take on your own style with the equipment that works best for you. The list could go on-and-on forever: headlamps, multi-tools, carabiners, GPS cases, battery chargers, insect repellant, energy bars and so forth. Much of what you come to use will be a matter of trial and error. Be ready to learn and pass on your experience to the other cachers around you.