Geocaching With Handheld GPS

Hi again,

This is the fourth of five pages on Intro to Geocaching.

Here are the other four.

GPS 101

Geocaching 101

Geocaching with Smart Phones

Geocaching Software

If you use a smart phone for your geocaching, then most of what follows doesn’t apply. With Internet connectivity and a geocaching app, you’re all set.

If, on the other hand, you start geocaching with dedicated GPS devices, you enter a world of searches, downloads and pocket queries. No caching on the fly. You’ll have to find the caches online, sort and filter them, download them to the device and then log your finds later. It’s a bit geeky but that’s part of the game. The ins and outs of handheld GPS receivers are the subjects of this post.

The big thing that separates smart phones from GPS devices is unrestricted Internet access. No handheld GPS device has it yet. There are some that utilize Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to send text messages and some other rudimentary functions, but they aren’t the “smart” devices that we’ve become used to.

The other thing that separates them is the accuracy and speed of the GPS function. I have yet to see a smart phone that can get and hold a fix and navigate cleaner than a good handheld device. Like most things in life, geocaching equipment involves compromises.

The three major players in handheld GPS devices for geocaching are Delorme, Garmin and Magellan. I would stick with Garmin and Delorme. I’ve had some real problems with Magellan handheld GPS devices in the last couple of years and can’t recommend them. IMHO, they’ve got real problems with hardware, software and customer service.

Once you pick a vendor, it becomes a matter of what features you want and how much you’re willing to pay. Top-of-the-line handheld GPS devices can easily run $500 or more.

Pretty much everybody is going to the touch screens, which are nice but don’t work with gloves on. You definitely need a USB computer interface cable. Sometimes they are part of the kit. Sometimes not. For power, I prefer lithium AA or AAA batteries. They can get expensive but they pay for themselves in battery life. Our Garmins can eat two sets of alkaline batteries in one day. The lithium ones last for days. Plan ahead and buy them on Amazon for a fraction of the shelf price. The rechargeable NiCad batteries are a real pain in the neck. They’re super expensive, require hours of charging time and wear out after about a year. Not only that, they are considered hazardous waste and can catch fire if they get wet. We ditched them a long time ago.

Whatever you buy, get a protective case and a Zagg screen protector.

Also be aware that if you start buying GPS devices, you’ll be buying new ones sooner or later. I’m on my fourth generation in eight years. I buy my toys at The GPS Store. They’ve got the best prices and excellent customer service, including “no questions asked” returns within 30 days.

So what are these geocaches? What are we downloading and how do we do it?

The little geocache icon on the map points to a small text file with all the information about that cache converted to a special format with a (dot) GPX extension. Geocache files are usually referred to as “GPX files”. They are quite small – only a couple of kilobytes each. If you are dealing with a few single geocaches, you can work with them individually. The process is quite simple.

Text from a GPX file

This is what lies behind the icons – text from a GPX file. This is a small part. They can get quite lengthy. The good news is you’ll never have to deal with them in this format. I just wanted you to see that there’s nothing fancy here, which is why you can pack thousands of geocaches on to a mini-SD card or USB stick.

Login to geocaching dot com, go to the search function in the menu and select search by maps. It will bring up Google maps.

Type in the name of a town or landmark where you want to geocache. The map will go there and geocache symbols will appear. Left click on a symbol to read about the cache. You can pan in or out and move the map around. The geocache symbols will change with it. When you find one you like, you have two options.

A search page

Here’s part of a search results page with the features discussed in the post. You can zoom in to get details on the location or zoom out to get oriented and show more geocaches. Left click on an icon to call up its details. In many areas, there are so many caches that the icons literally lay on top of one another. You have to zoom way in to sort them out. That’s what we call a target rich environment.

1. Click the button “Send to My GPS” to send the file directly to your GPS device, which will be connected to the computer via a USB cable.


2. Click the button “GPX file” to send the file to your computer.

Geocaching dot com screen shot

Here is part of a geocache sheet showing the buttons discussed in the text. Other features can be seen also. You should become familiar with all of them.

I always use option 2 because it creates a storehouse of caches that I can refer to later and makes it much simpler to load caches on to more than one GPS device.

If you use option 1, disconnect the GPS when you’re finished and you’re ready to go. If you have downloaded the caches to a computer, you can load them en masse on to the device.

For option 2, connect the GPS device to the computer via its USB cable after you’ve downloaded all the caches. It will show up in My Computer as a removable hard drive. Double click on it and find the folder the geocaches go to (depending on the device). Select your caches, copy them and paste them into the geocache folder on the device. Disconnect the device and you’re ready to go. Then get the next device, if any, and do the same thing.

Garmin icon

This is what you’ll see when the GPS hooks up to the computer – a device specific icon. All the new major models will do this automatically. Then you right and left click on it to use it just like any other drive.

Important: Be sure you disconnect the device the correct way. Just yanking out a USB cord can cause data corruption and more. To safely disconnect, right click on the device icon in My Computer and select “Eject” from the pop-up menu. When the device icon disappears, you’re safe.

This process works fine if you are geocaching in a local area and/or you’re just lining up a few for an outing. I use it all the time. It’s as close to geocaching on the fly as you can get without a smart phone. Be aware that if you have a free Groundspeak account, you’re limited to three cache downloads per day. Premium membership is unlimited.

However, if you travel and want to plan distant geocaches in advance and maybe in large numbers, you’ll want to learn how to do a pocket query and use software to manipulate the caches. We’ll do those in our next post.

Good hunting … Boris and Natasha

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. John Denys
    May 26, 2014 @ 06:00:17

    Thanks for the explanation. It was very helpful.


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