Geocaching in the Desert

Treasure Hunting for the 21st Century

by Joe Zentner

A hike through the desert to find a container, or “cache,” holding a pocketknife, a flag, trinkets and some change may not sound like a fun outing, but the activity is, nonetheless, becoming increasingly popular.  Geocaching (pronounced “geocashing”) is an activity that resembles a modern day treasure hunt.

The word “geocaching,” broken down, is “geo” for geography and “caching” for the process of hiding a cache.  A cache in computer terms is information stored in memory to make it easy to retrieve; the term is also used in camping lore as a hiding place for provisions.lable geocaching

Geocaching is an outdoor treasure-hunting game in which participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to hide and seek containers (called “geocaches” or simply “caches”) anywhere in the world.  The idea is to have individuals set up caches and then share their location on the Internet.  GPS users use location coordinates to find the caches.

A geocacher will place a container, containing a logbook and some sort of treasure, and note the cache’s coordinates.  Those coordinates, along with other details of the location, are then posted on a website.  Other geocachers obtain the coordinates from the Internet and look for the cache using a GPS handheld receiver.  Those geocachers finding the object record their exploits in the logbook and online.  Geocachers are free to take objects from the cache in exchange for leaving something, so there is some sort of goodie for the next person to find.

Hiding geocache
Find a good hiding place

Serious hunters sign the logbook using a nickname.  Some have stickers or stamps made with their geocaching name.  It is advisable to get an official geocaching sticker for the container in case a member of the nongeocaching community, a Muggie as they are called, stumbles across the cache.




Geocaching resembles a much older activity called “letterboxing,” which relies upon references to landmarks and/or clues that are embedded in stories.  The major difference between the two is that geocaching relies upon the Global Positioning System.  Geocaching via GPS was made possible by the removal of selective availability of the Global Positioning System on May 1, 2000.

The first documented placement of a cache using GPS assistance occurred on May 3, 2000, by Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon, near Portland.  The cache’s location was posted on the Usenet newsgroup (sci.geo.satellite-nav).  Today, some 380,000 geocaches have been placed in 225 countries around the world and registered on websites that are devoted to the activity.

GPS Receivers

The only thing you need to begin geocaching is a GPS unit.  GPS involves a series of satellites in low earth orbit that continuously broadcast their position.  GPS receivers can triangulate on these satellite signals and by doing so, determine your precise location.  Once you select a hidden cache and enter its coordinates into a GPS unit, the receiver can tell you how far away the cache is, and in what direction it lies.

Coordinates are given in longitude and latitude.  You can use the unit to navigate from your current location to another.  A person doesn’t need to know all the technical jargon about GPS receivers to start geocaching.  All you need do is enter what is called a “waypoint,” which shows where a geocache is hidden.  Your GPS unit comes with instructions on how to enter a waypoint.

Features to look for when purchasing a GPS unit include:

  1. Lightweight and compact. 
  2. Waterproof—caches can be hidden under or near water. 
  3. Long battery life—necessary for hard-to-find caches. 
  4. Screen readability—the unit should be easy to read in daylight and at night. 

Desirable advanced features include:

  1. A built-in compass, which is handy when you get within 100 feet of a cache;
  2. An altimeter, which shows how high up you are for vertically hidden caches; and
  3. An external antenna, for use under heavy tree cover. 

You can find GPS receivers at boat supply and camping stores.  You can also purchase them online through A smart phone can also be used as GPS receiver, but you will need to preload a Topo map of the area that you are searching. Many places in the desert do not have cell phone reception; without a map preloaded you will only see a dot on a blank screen.

A cache consists of a waterproof container discreetly placed within local terrain.  Once you have a GPS unit, go online to find cache locations, or to report a cache that you have hidden.  To find a cache near you, or to plant one, start with, which is a comprehensive site for this kind of activity.  After you have obtained the coordinates online and entered them into your GPS receiver, you can begin your search.

The precise location of a cache can be baffling.  The location demonstrates a founder’s skill at hiding.  A cache located on the side of a cliff that is accessible only by rock climbing may be difficult to find.  Only a diver could access an underwater cache.  Other caches require special equipment to access.  Caches may be located in cities both above and below ground, or inside and outside buildings.

Inside a Cache

The first item placed inside a cache should be a logbook, which contains information from the cache founder and notes from the cache’s visitors.  Also included may be items that turn the cache into a veritable treasure hunt.  Items might include books, CDs, videos, pictures, money, jewelry, antiques and games.  If you take something, be sure to leave something.


Who Goes Geocaching?

Anyone who enjoys the outdoors and is interested in buried treasure can go geocaching, including families with children, people wanting something extra to do while walking their dog, horseback riders, skiers, boating enthusiasts and solo geocachers of all ages who are, possibly, looking for that special someone.

Most cache listings do have some sort of difficulty rating associated with them, so if you’re bringing along small children or a frail grandmother with you, it might be best to look for a cache that involves no more than a quarter-mile hike.  On the other hand, if that supposedly frail grandmother is an expert diver, you and she might want to grab your Scuba gear and try your luck seeking the cache that, legend has it, resides in Caribbean waters off the British Virgin Islands.


Due to the hide-and-seek nature of the activity, without some rules, geocachers could endanger themselves, other cachers, or society. provides guidelines for hiding your first cache (  Other websites, including Terracaching (, have their own sets of guidelines.

When geocaching in busy locations, searching for a cache requires some tact to avoid attracting the attention of the public.  The person hiding a geocache sometimes takes this into account so that he/she and those looking for caches will not cause undue alarm.  When care is not taken in hiding or finding a cache, cache participants may be approached by the police and questioned when they seem to be acting in what could be interpreted as a suspicious manner.

The cache hider should live fairly close to where a cache is hidden, or find another enthusiast to look after it for him.  Solicitous caches are discouraged, as are caches that contain political, religious, charitable or other agenda-related materials.  Most importantly, everyone involved in geocaching should respect the surrounding area.  Also, since geocaching is oftentimes a family-oriented activity, nothing obscene should be stashed.

Take the same precautions you’d use if you were going on a hike.  Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return.  Bring maps, sunscreen and a cell phone.  In wilderness areas, keep an eye out for poisonous plants, ticks, snakes and large predatory animals.

Always seek permission before geocaching on private and public lands.  The activity can have an adverse impact on natural resources and result in trampled vegetation, damaged wildlife habitats and destruction of historical and cultural resources.  Placing a cache on lands administered by the National Park Service is illegal without first seeking permission.  Contact park headquarters to obtain a special use permit and inquire about sites specifically designated for geocaching on park property.

“There is something intrinsically enjoyable about wandering around on some hillside, or in a forest or ghost town, looking for an object.  I think it’s the thrill of the hunt.”  So said novelist, humorist and Missouri-born adventurer Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

High Tech Treasure Hunting

Geocaching is a high-tech version of treasure hunting.  Geocachers seek out hidden treasures utilizing GPS coordinates posted on the Internet by someone who has hidden a cache.  Using a GPS receiver, they then trek out into the backwoods, over hillsides, ravines, arroyos and along rivers, inside caves or urban jungles to locate the hiding spot.  Once found, a cache may provide the seeker with a variety of rewards.  For many of us, the biggest reward to be found in geocaching is the thrill of the search and the discovery of a place you have never before investigated.

Geocaching has grown by leaps and bounds since the U. S. government turned off GPS selective availability in 2000, and civilian receivers, formerly accurate to 300 feet, now read signals to within 20 feet.  There are 2,164,970 caches worldwide, according  The point of geocaching is not the prize, but the thrill of the hunt.  The activity is fun for all ages and provides good exercise. 

Enjoy, but, please, be prudent.

DesertUSA Links

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