Hi Karl and Jackie. Yes, I have been geocaching since 2004. The game has really grown since then. I got into as a way for my daughter and I to spend some quality time together. The game will take you to places you may have never known existed and you may see some very interesting sites along the way.
We started a local geocaching group, and I have made life-long friends from this. We gather every Saturday for lunch, and many of us camp together. I would say 90% of my core camping group, I met thru geocaching.
For those just starting out, I would suggest a few basics:
1. You can use a smartphone with a geocaching app, but I prefer a true dedicated handheld gps like Prothos said.....that is not dependent on cellphone service. I have geocached in many places with no cell tower signal.
2. Peruse the website, Geocaching - The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site
Here you can register for a free account if you want to be able to keep track of your searches/finds. They also have a $30 per year option (premium membership) that allows bulk downloads of geocache pages and to search for geocaches that are limited to premium members, but just use the free membership to start with. They have some good advice there on getting started under the 'learn' tab.
When you see geocaches limited to premium members, it's usually because there has been trouble in that area due to a high number of caches that came up missing. By limiting it to premium members, it takes away the chance that a troublemaker just perusing the site, and wanting to cause mischief could get the coordinates freely. These types usually never spend $30 to mess with geocaches.
The game has really become, IMHO, littered with a lot of what we call numbers caches. These geocaches are placed out just to allow people to run their 'find' numbers up. I never understood the numbers aspect of it, because you are not in a competition, nor win anything. It's all about personal preferences.
3. I like to find geocaches that have historical, or creative aspects to them (yes that bolt could be hollowed out and have a small logsheet inside it). Geocaching.com has a self-rating system. Once you go to the websites main page, just enter a zip code in the search box to see what is all around you. There will be plenty around most likely. You will notice a "blue ribbon" icon on the second column. This is where other cachers have voted for a geocache to be a favorite of theirs. As you are just starting in the game, I recommend to search for geocaches that have a lot of favorite points. These are most likely going to be the better geocaches in the area, and will also be some of the funner ones to find.
If you have kids with you, it might be a good idea to also stick to the containers that are big enough to have trade items in them. Kids love pilfering thru them and trading stuff. Your trade items don't need to be anything costly or special. The guideline is to try to trade even or up. If you take something, try to leave something of equal importance. If you take a balloon, leave a pencil. You don't have to take/swap anything if you don't want. Never leave food items that attract ants/animals, nor liquid items that may leak and ruin the contents...especially soap bubbles. These may seem like a good idea for kids, but they almost always leak and ruin all the other stuff in the container.
Just click on the name of the geocache and it will take you to that caches webpage, to tell you more about the cache and/or area where it is placed. You will also notice a column that has the self-rated difficulty level (1-5) and the terrain level (1-5). 1's are the easiest and 5's are the hardest.
4. There will also be the geographic coordinates for the geocache on the page. These are what you enter into your gps to aid you in finding the hidden container. These containers can be anything from the size of a pencil eraser to a five gallon bucket or larger. Many containers are of the tupperware bowl size or ammo can variety. Here again, the size of the container you are searching for is listed on the list of geocaches, as well as it's own page. Micro size containers are small and usually just have some kind of paper to sign your name too. You will need bigger than a micro size in order to have trade items, for the kids.
I recommend searching for a few easy caches (difficulty and terrain under a 3), to begin with as you get your geocaching legs under you. Also as stated above, search for some with high favorite ratings. It's a good idea to take a walking stick or similar when searching for caches in a more rural setting. You can use the stick to poke in stumps, trees holes, etc. It's also good for knocking down spider webs.
Always carry a pen/pencil with you to sign the logsheets. Some caches have writing utensils, some don't. Always carry your own just in case.
5. This is a search game, not an X marks the spot game
. That's the biggest thing that all newcomers need to remember. Your GPS unit will get you close but not always on the spot. We consider getting within 25-35 feet accurate. Use the GPS to get you close, then put it down and start searching. Use your common sense and think where a geocache could be hidden, using the size of the container and difficulty levels as clues.
Many of the geocache pages have a spoiler clue on the page, that you can use to actually find the geocache if your search fails. We call them spoilers, because they do spoil the search aspect, and tell you exactly where it is. You should use this only after searching for awhile.
6. We call anybody that is not a geocacher, a muggler. Always be aware of mugglers watching you. They may see you pull out a container, then go steal or damage it after you leave. It happens a lot. Many containers are in public places where many mugglers may be. It can part of the fun, in trying to be stealthy in your searches/finds. However, in order for the container to survive for the next participant, you may have to forgo finding it if there are mugglers nearby who may see what you are doing. You do have a responsibility as a game participant to rehide the geocache where mugglers won't happen upon it, or steal it if they see you with it. Don't become so focused on the gps unit or the search, that you lose sight of your surroundings. Watch for mugglers, as well as bugs, critters, and holes you are about to step in.
It seems like just about all newcomers get tunnel-vision in their enthusiasm for the find, and don't see anything around them.
Hopefully, you will enjoy the game. You would be surprised how many geocaches are already in the parks you camp in....and this is something you can add to your activities while there.
You will also see all types of geocaches. Some you will need to solve puzzles to find, and some are virtual (no container) where you have to get to a spot and answer questions to claim the find. You may have to scuba dive or mountain climb to access some too. The game is as fun as you want it to be, and there are all kinds or varieties and options to fit just about everyone.
If you really like the game, contact some of the geocache hiders in your area. You can send them an email thru geocaching.com. You may be surprised how friendly geocachers are, and you can meet up to get first-hand guidance. Geocachers also are always holding geocaching events and these are a type of geocache, where people meet up. These can be at a restaurant or a park cookout or other. I recommend attending events as a way to make friends and learn more. Back on geocaching.com, look under the "community" tab for more information on local clubs and events.