As many of you know, I have a real passion for the game of geocaching, and in my world passion=obsession, which leads to over-achievement and eventual burnout. But I will have to say, my passion for this game has far outlasted most other things in my life, so who knows, maybe I will stick with it. Whether it lasts or not I have had a great time exploring all over the U.S. tracking down these hidden treasures and getting to see some really great locations that I would have otherwise missed and I have met a metric bunch of really great people. As it turns out, if you do something hard enough for long enough, people begin to think that you have some knowledge or wisdom to impart. I am happy to say that my tendency toward bombastic showmanship is occasionally tempered by my true desire to share and teach, and I have been been asked on several occasions to share the “secrets” to my geocaching success. So I am sharing here, a little piece that I wrote to answer some questions for a “soon to be released” guide to geocaching, and if you make it through that to the end, I promise to share the real secret to successful geocaching.
OK, I am not that “technical” when I cache, but this will give you a pretty good idea of how I approach the hunt. It is also important to bear in mind that once you get within 30-50 feet of “ground zero” your GPSr is more of a hindrance than a help. I almost never look at a GPS once I get with 50 feet or so of the coordinates. It is far more important to be “searching the area with your eyes”, then to be watching the screen on the GPS. When you approach “ground zero” make a detailed search with your eyes, before you dive in. A hiding location is in many ways, similar to a crime scene and if you rush in flipping over rocks and disturbing the area you are likely to destroy evidence left by the hider and previous finders of the cache. While searching with your eyes, make note of any signs of use. Not necessarily a trail to the cache, but broken branches or flattened undergrowth leading to an area. Also be on the lookout for rocks or sticks that are not disturbed, I have found that while searching many hunters will take the utmost care to place the cache back the way they found it, but they will often leave stones and sticks from fruitless searches overturned. So when you find an area, where all of the stones have been overturned, except one, the cache is probably behind that one perfect stone. Of course this technique works just as well in an urban setting, if you watch you will notice signs of wear on a pole from having a cover moved, or that a “sticker” is a little crooked or even that a bush seems to have an opening on one side, where the branches have been pushed back repeatedly, all of these indicators are clues that can narrow down your search area.
Learn to search with your eyes constantly. The techniques used by trackers are also useful to geocachers. Learn to keep your eyes open and find evidence of previous visitors to a cache site or just track them along the trail. There are numerous books, online educational resources and even schools that specialize in tracking training, and I have found that tracking is a great way to pass the time on the trail, while honing a skill that will not only help you find more caches, but can also prove invaluable in the woods. You will find that with practice, you will become more aware of your surroundings, which will make the trail, however faint, and man-made symmetry and order of many cache hiding spots very easy to spot. You will also find that you are surprised by fellow hikers and game less often, I often notice that we are following someone or something on the trail, so when we catch up with them it is less of a shock. In extreme cases you can also use your tracking skills to find your way back out of dense woods or a swamp. On one occasion I had to track myself back out of a strand in the everglades, when a massive equipment failure left us lost over a mile from our vehicle. It was terribly frightening to be lost in the everglades, but confidence in a long practiced skill made it possible for us to find our way out again.
Tracking skills are just a small part of the arsenal of knowledge you should have with you anytime you venture into the great outdoors. If you are going to go into the woods, it is imperative that you learn the skills that will make it possible for you to survive for a short time there. Anytime you enter the woods, you must be prepared not for the short 1 mile hike to the cache site, but for the things which might go wrong during that short hike. Even if you are close to town or in a large urban park, you must be prepared to deal with injuries or other unforeseen difficulties. Many emergencies can be avoided by proper planning and a thorough knowledge of the skills needed to survive in the woods, including first aid. Once again there are numerous educational resources to help you learn these skills, take advantage of them before you need them. Once you have acquired these skills they can save your life or the life of someone you find in danger on the trail.
Speaking of that, know when to say when. All of the knowledge and gear in the world will not help you if you don’t use them. During the thrill of the hunt, it is easy to push too far in order to find “just one more” cache. Even if it is just one more mile, take the time to make a proper assessment of yourself and your group to make sure that you have sufficient supplies, time and energy to go not only that mile but to come back again. The great outdoors is a wondrous place full of beauty, but it is also a cruel master that can and will punish the unprepared.
Learn hiders habits. Some hiders have a preference for large trees, some like to hide caches in the thickest brush possible and some prefer an easier location, but just like in poker all hiders have a “tell”. As you search for caches in your area make mental notes about hiding styles and preferences. You will find that you are able to develop a very good feel for where the cache is likely to be just from a thorough knowledge of the hider. I have used this technique to my advantage many times, particularly when dealing with a particularly difficult FTF. For example, there is a hider in my home area who hides very tough micro caches. He passes the time while averaging his coordinates, by snacking on sunflower seeds, and although he is usually careful to pack out the hulls, I have been able to find a sunflower seed or hull on more than one occasion, which let me know that I was very near to where he averaged the coordinates for the cache. I will have to admit, though, that once he found out how I was tracking him, he fooled me by hiding a very difficult cache and then scattering sunflower hulls near a likely hiding spot about twenty feet away from the cache.
This technique of looking for “tells” is also useful for entire geographical areas to some extent. I have found that there are regional preferences for hide styles and containers, etc. While using this technique for an entire area is less useful, it will still give you a good basis to begin your search, just keep your mind open and don’t develop tunnel vision. On the same note it is important to get a feel for regional differences in terrain and difficulty ratings, a 1.5 difficulty in Miami may be a three in your hometown, or vice versa, be aware of regional differences and take them in to account in your hunting and planning.
Speaking of tunnel vision, do everything in your power to avoid it. Becoming focused on a preconceived notion of where a cache should be hidden is the largest hindrance to finding a cache. While it is useful to develop a list of places to check when you first approach an area and “search with your eyes”, focusing on one location or hide style or container will cause you to overlook even the simplest of hides. I do not know how many times we have made a cache harder than it is because we decided that it simply must be a fake leaf in a tree, when it turned out to be a simple match container under rocks at the base of the tree.
Another huge advantage is to go caching often. I know that seems silly, but the fact is that the wider your range of caching experiences is, the better prepared you will be when you run into something new. Remember, even the much derided “lightpole cache” was a challenging hide, the first time you saw it. That is the nature of the game and life, the more you experience the better prepared you are for new things and even the most exciting things can become old hat with time. I remember being amazed by the first “fake bolt” that we found, now it is one of the places I look when I run through my mental checklist of possible hiding spots.
OK, so there you go, all of my great monkey lore and wisdom, when it comes to the “technique” of hunting caches, but since you hung around to the end, I will be true to my word and let you in on the “secret”. The real secret to being a successful geocacher is to enjoy it. It is as simple as that, just have fun with it. If that means finding a group of like-minded friends and traveling all over the country with them hunting, then do that. If it means going on crazy 24-hour runs to find as many as possible, then do that. If that means hitting the trail and hiking all weekend for one cache, then do that. Sit at your desk and solve puzzles for weeks or focus on 1/1 parking lot caches, it really does not matter how you play, as long as you are enjoying yourself. I have approached the game from many directions and have hunted for pleasure and competition, for a while it was even like a second job for me, so I speak from experience when I say, do what feels right to you. Play your own game and when it quits being fun, find something else to do. That is the real secret to successful geocaching, it is what I do and you all know how happy I am. In fact, you may find that this secret will work in other aspects of your life as well, if that is the case then I am glad to have shared. Ya’ll stay sane, I’ll look forward to seeing you out on the trail…