GPS for Geocaching: Top Picks & Reviews

The immensely popular sport of "geocaching" (pronounced "JEE-oh-cashing") is essentially an outdoor treasure hunt game in which participants containers (called "caches" or "geocaches") anywhere in the world. While the origins of the sport are attributed to the 150-year-old sport known as "letterboxing," which uses references to landmarks and clues hidden in stories, the 21st-century geocaching uses a web site to provide clues and latitude/longitude coordinates, and most of its participants use handheld GPS systems to find their cache.

What can you expect to find in a geocache? Containers range in size from film canisters to multi-gallon buckets. Inside you might find a paper log, along with various objects, such as collectable "geocoins" and "travel bugs" which travel from container to container around the world and can be tracked along their journey. Geocachers are free to take objects from the cache in exchange for leaving something of similar or higher value, so there is treasure for the next person to find. Anyone can hunt for a geocache, and today, more than 800,000 geocaches are registered on various websites devoted to the pastime.

Geocaching is still growing and evolving, with increasing community involvement. Geocaching can be done solo, or as part of organized events. Geocachers have dedicated themselves to cleaning up parks and other locations near cache sites. Educators are recognizing that in addition to being fun, geocaching is an educational experience too and events for children have helped teach them about navigation and nature.

Beyond Geocaching: Waymarking and Whereigo

As GPS units become more common, powerful, and affordable, a new generation of location-based acivities is evolving around them, including Waymarking, which "provides tools for you to catalog, mark­ and visit interesting and useful locations around the world." Perhaps the most interesting new activity is Whereigo, an adventure experience/game that uses the real world as its setting, with participants moving among pre-determinedlocations using a GPS. While Whereigo was inspired by adventure games (think "Myst" outside), developers are learning that its applications are far-reaching for "reality" experiences for entertainment, education or both.

Examples include walking tours of city sights, interactive marketing proposals, a pub crawl for your friends, an interactive fictional adventure, a civil war walking tour through a park, garden tour with information about flora and fauna, new student orientation on campus, etc. Newer GPS systems, including the Garmin Colorado series and the Garmin nuvi 500 series, include specific features not only for geocaching, but also for Whereigo.

Buying a GPS for Geocaching

Truth be told, you can go geocaching with even the most inexpensive GPS and still have fun, but we think it’s even more fun when you spend less time fiddling with your equipment, or performing tedious tasks like transcribing coordinates using paper and pencil, and more time enjoying the thrill of the hunt and the great outdoors. Here are what we consider to be important GPS features you’ll want to consider, followed by some specific GPS recommendations for geocaching:

  • WAAS: Under normal conditions, a GPS can calculate your position accurately within about 15 meters. Newer GPS receivers can take advantage of WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System), a series of ground-based signals that improve GPS accuracy to within 3 to 5 meters.  This can be especially important for getting you close to a hidden cache.

  • Electronic Compass: While some handheld GPS units may include what looks like a compass screen, it’s only a "pseudo-compass," drawing its information from the GPS receiver. The pseudo-compass calculates your direction based on your motion and won’t work unless you’re moving at least 2 mph/3 kph. This means if you’re standing still and want to know which way is north, your GPS won’t be able to tell you, unless it’s equipped with a built-in electronic compass. Of course, you can always pack a separate compass (a good idea anyway), but an electronic compass is a nice convenience and can help you greatly in those final few meters in finding a cache.

  • Barometric Altimeter: The planet is a 3D place, and sometimes you might feel like you’re pretty close to your cache from a 2D perspective, i.e., looking a 2D map, but in fact, you’re too far above or below. A barometric altimeter uses air pressure to estimate your altitude with reasonable accuracy and can be of great help in keeping you searching at the correct altitude.
  • Mapping GPS: Some low-end GPS units may show a very coarse map with little detail, or no map at all. When venturing into the backcountry, having a GPS that accepts topographic maps can help you greatly in navigating by visually seeing your track superimposed upon the map.
  • Example of downloaded geocache waypoint on Garmin Colorado 400t

    Waterproof: You’ll want a waterproof GPS for outdoor use to protect it against the unexpected downpour or drop into a puddle. Look for a waterproof unit that adheres to the IEC 60529 IPX7 standard which means that the GPS case can withstand accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes.

  • Waypoint Storage: A waypoint refers to a location on the map and often has additional information associated with it, such as an address or description. Many handheld GPS units store at least 500 waypoints, though newer and higher-end units may store many more along with much more information associated with each waypoint.
  • Paperless Geocaching: In order to go geocaching, you will need to understand how to enter waypoints into your GPS device. In the simplest approach, you might have coordinates written into a notebook, then enter them manually, along with latitude and longitude, into your GPS. Unfortunately, this can be a tedious process, and one prone to error that could have you wandering miles in the wrong direction. A better option is to download geocache descriptions and coordinates (waypoints) from various websites in various formats and transfer them directly to your GPS. While not as tedious as entering coordinates manually, there can be a bit of a learning curve. The simplest solution is to use a GPS with a built-in paperless geocaching feature, such as the Garmin Colorado series or nuvi 500 Crossover series. With these units you can simply download waypoints from or any other source using the GPX standard, and you’re ready to go.

Our Top Picks for Geocaching

Garmin Colorado 400t
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1. The Very Best for Geocaching
Garmin’s Colorado series ushers in the next generation of handheld GPS units, offering a rich feature set while incorporating the ease of use you’ve grown accustomed to in the car, within a rugged, waterproof shell. Outside Magazine sums it up, "The Garmin Colorado 400t was born for serious backcountry time, and you won’t find a more user-friendly or durable handheld GPS." Like the 5-star rated Garmin 60csx, (see below) the Colorado is versatile, ideal for geocaching while also serving the mariner, inland fisherman, or mountaineer, and even providing turn-by-turn directions on the way home in the car. The Colorado’s "Rock ‘n Roller" wheel offers easy and intuitive one-hand operation. Wired Magazine sums up the Colorado’s design as, "Unbeatable form factor." The Garmin Colorado takes geocaching seriously and sets a new standard in providing integrated geocaching features. Many of the most favorable owner reviews of the Garmin Colorado are from geocachers who have delighted in the advance of geocaching features this unit offers. In addition to a geocaching mode that customizes the unit’s operation toward finding that hidden cache, the Colorado offers "paperless" geocaching. You can simply download cache waypoints from or any other source using the GPX standard. The unit’s built-in barometric altimeter provides you with altitude information while the built-in electronic compass is essential for guiding you when you’re moving very slowly or standing still. Garmin succeeds in providing a geocaching powertool that does it all — and one-handed, to boot. The Colorado is also equipped with features for playing the new Wherigo location based-adventures and games.

Garmin GPSMap 60csx
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2. Best Mid-Range GPS for Geocaching
For the geocacher, hiker, hunter, fisherman or anyone who likes to explore the

back country,
the 5-star Garmin GPSMap 60csx is a powerful handheld unit that’s all about versatility and ruggedness. It’s waterproof and is an ideal choice if you’ll be in the field, on the water, and need a unit that is packed with features yet portable and durable, with an impressive battery life of 18 hours. The 60csx also provides turn-by-turn driving directions for use in the car. The unit includes a “geocaching” mode, albeit without the range of features found on Garmin’s Colorado handheld. A great single unit solution to a wide range of navigation challenges. Winner of Outside Magazine’sGear of the Year



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Garmin eTrex Vista HCx
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Garmin nuvi 500
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3. Best Crossover GPS for Geocaching
What? Take your Garmin nuvi geocaching? Well, the nuvi isn’t just for your car anymore — this nuvi’s different…very different. It will take you from car to trail to the lake or offshore. The nüvi 500 series may be the ideal solution in the emerging "crossover" class of GPS systems. Like its nuvi relatives, the 500 and 550 models are sleek and easily fit into your pocket or pack as well as your hand for comfortable handheld operation with an 8-hour battery life. The nuvi 500 series is waterproof to IPX3 standards, surviving immersion for up to 30 minutes, the first waterproof unit in the nuvi family. Garmin has built the 500 series with a user-replaceable battery, letting you swap in a spare should you run out of power in the backcountry. Like the Garmin Colorado, the nuvi 500 seriesincludes many integrated geocaching features, including "paperless" geocaching. You can download geocache waypoints from or any other source using the GPX standard. The nuvi 500 series is also equipped with features for playing the new Wherigo location based-adventures and games. If you’re looking for an all-around unit with strong nuvi breeding that doesn’t skimp on geocaching features, the nuvi 500/550 Crossover might just be the ticket.

Garmin eTrex Legend
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4. Best Economical Entry-Level Geocaching GPS
One of the most popular handheld units ever since its introduction in 2005, the Garmin eTrex Legend has outlived dozens of other models and remains popular today, despite the fact that it lacks some of the features we’ve come to expect in newer handhelds, such as a color screen or next-generation GPS chipset. Tthe eTrex Legend remains a capable and proven workhorse in the Garmin family, and a beloved one at that (we still use ours), still used by many for a wide range of outdoor activities, including geocaching, despite its lack of any special geocaching features. The Legend includes a World Base Map display and 8 MB of memory, allowing you to load detailed topo or city detail maps from Garmins MapSource series. The built-in base map of the Americas displays city and interstate highway information for North, South, and Central America, as well as U.S. highway exits, points of interest along lakes, rivers, and coastlines. The Legend has a front-panel rocker switch for map panning. Though it doesn’t have a color display, its monochrome LCD has very readable resolution of 288 x 160 pixels. You’ll find the Legend to be a rugged companion — it’s waterproof and will handily survive submersion. The Legend can store up to 500 user waypoints with user-selectable graphical icons, and includes a TracBack feature which reverses your track log and helps you navigate your way back home. The eTrex Legend has always been a competitively priced mid-level handheld GPS. As part of a bundle including the MapSource U.S. Topo Map, which itself sells for around 100 bucks, the Legend is a great value.

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Garmin eTrex Venture HC
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