By Katie Alvin
Explore Big Sky Contributor

Geocaching combines outdoor recreation and technology into a fun activity for people of all ages. All around the globe, players hide containers – or caches – and record their location using the Global Positioning System. Location coordinates are then posted on websites for others to download and seek out.

How does geocaching work?

Like a pirate navigating to the X-marked treasure on a map, a geocacher seeks the real world location of map coordinates. Pirates used the location of the sun and stars in order to navigate, but today we use GPS, a network of satellites that transmit signals to electronic devices on earth.

Coordinates are entered into a handheld GPS unit or GPS-enabled smartphone, allowing the user to navigate to a cache. Once nearby, the player must manually search the area to find a hidden container and then record the find in the logbook and online.

What do you need to get started?

Navigating to a geocache requires access to geocaching websites using a GPS unit or GPS-enabled smartphone with a geocaching app installed. While smartphones work great for short cache hunts, GPS units are better when phone battery life is a concern. If using a smartphone in rugged or wet areas, a protective case for the fragile device is recommended.

How do you get cache coordinates?

The most widely used website for the hobby is geocaching.com, which also has a smart phone app. Create an account and enter your zip code to access coordinates for hidden caches near you. Depending on the device, coordinates can be entered manually, downloaded by connecting to a computer with a cable, or wirelessly in the field. Once the coordinates are entered into the device as a “waypoint,” its navigation features direct you to the location.

What should you bring on your hunt?

You may be able to access a cache from a parking lot or you may have to hike to the top of a mountain. It’s important to read the cache information so you know how to prepare for your adventure. Of course you’ll need your device, with extra batteries if necessary, but it’s also smart to bring your usual hiking essentials like a map, water, sun protection, food and extra clothing. Many caches have trinkets to take away as your treasure, but etiquette suggests you leave something behind in exchange – packing a couple of trade items is a good idea.

How do you find a cache?

First and foremost, you must figure out how to access the general geocache location by studying online and hard-copy maps. Most likely, you won’t be able to get to a cache as the crow flies, so identifying trails or roads that will get you close is essential. A little research will ensure you’re prepared for obstacles like rivers or steep terrain.

Depending on the accuracy of your GPS signal you’ll only get within 25-100 feet of a cache, and then manual searching is required. Most geocache descriptions have hints that help you focus your search, but be prepared to investigate logs, rocks, tree branches, stumps, or any other feature in the area.

Rules of the game prohibit disturbing the environment so while you may have to move objects, you’ll never have to dig to find a cache. When you’re done at a cache site, replace everything exactly the way you found it for the next seeker.

It’s also important to protect the secrecy of the game. Non-geocachers in a cache area are affectionately called “muggles” (like non-wizards in the Harry Potter books) and part of the fun is finding a cache without other people noticing. Don’t spoil it for others by revealing cache locations, even to muggles, since they might someday pick up the hobby too.

What happens when you find a cache?

First, you need to know what to look for. Caches are typically a plastic lidded storage container or metal ammo box that is around one-half to two liters in size. The description for each site will include the size rating, so you should have a general idea what to look for. Be aware that micro-caches can be as small as a film canister or a pillbox and there are camouflaged caches that look like rocks, logs, and even birds.

All caches include a logbook for you to sign and date, and make comments about your adventure. Many caches also have collectable items like coins or pins. As mentioned before, if you take something, you should leave something. The more you geocache, the more creative ideas you’ll get for treasure to leave behind. If you plan to geocache while traveling, bring a souvenir from your home state to trade. If you want to keep it simple, leave only a log entry and take only a picture. Whatever you do, be sure to close the cache lid tightly to keep out the elements.

If you want to log your trip online, you can use the phone app to mark your find or log on to the website when you get home to record your success. It’s also important to let the cache owner know of any site-maintenance needs, especially broken containers.

What’s next?

Once you’ve experienced geocaching, you’ll probably want to hide your own. There are rules and limitations to hiding caches, but simply follow the instructions on the geocaching site you choose. It’s also challenging to create a well-hidden but fun-to-find geocache. And don’t forget the opportunity to share a beautiful location with fellow geocachers. In a place like Montana, the hidden treasure can simply be a spectacular view.

Geocaching is sure to please, so give it a try and get outside!

Katie Alvin has lived in Big Sky for more than 20 years and owns East Slope Outdoors with her husband Dave. With degrees in Environmental Studies and Soil Science, she has been involved with environmental and outdoor education for 25 years and has been geocaching for seven.