This is a full draft chapter from Joy of Geocaching. We need your input! What have me missed? What have we got wrong? What new stories can you contribute? Please comment or e-mail us
This chapter covers several of the most popular and useful geocaching applications,including GSAK,GeoBuddy and Microsoft Streets &Trips. We don’t claim to be experts in any of these programs,although we have spent significant time with each of them in preparing this chapter. We hope you will help us correct any errors and also point us to important features that we’ve missed. Please submit comments or e-mail us.
One of the forces behind geocaching’s surging popularity is the bounty of new software and Web-based tools that have emerged to make it possible for players to customize the experience.
One of the forces behind geocaching’s surging popularity is the bounty of new software and Web-based tools that have emerged to make it possible for players to customize the experience.
A few years ago,there wasn’t much you could do except load a few coordinates into your GPS,print out a stack of descriptions and head out the door. Today,high-end GPS units like Garmin’s Colorado and Oregon as well as cheap software for the Apple iPod have made geocaching truly paperless. A powerful PC database manager called Geocaching Swiss Army Knife (GSAK) makes it possible to customize an outing to your liking. And everything can now be stored and shared via Google Maps and Google Earth. Not only can you keep track of your own adventures,but you can exchange them with others.
In recent years,a lot of useful software has emerged to help geocachers plan and optimize their outings. The resources page on Geocaching.com lists a few (http://www.Geocaching.com/waypoints/default.aspx) and enthusiasts swear by the programs described below as essential utilities for serious players. Most of these tools carry modest license fees,but we’ve found the cost to be well worth it for serious geocaching.here is hands-on detail on the most popular third-party options
Geocaching Swiss Army Knife
This is by far the most powerful program to store and manipulate caches. It basically takes all the information you find in a geocache description,breaks up into its component parts and presents it to you as a series of fields that looks a little like a spreadsheet. If you’ve ever worked with a database management system,you’ll quickly get the hang of it,but if you haven’t,it’s important simply to know that GSAK can “understand”a lot of the information stored in GPX files and help you look at it in different ways.
Once you start using GSAK,you’ll want to keep all your cache information there and update it over time. Every time you load the results of a new pocket query,the existing information in GSAK gets updated. This has value over time. For example,new logs are added to existing ones in GSAK’s database,which gives you a richer body of information to mine as time passes. You can also modify or add to listings stored in GSAK,something that’s impossible to do on Geocaching.com. Any modifications you make are kept on file even as new information is imported.
GSAK doesn’t require an Internet connection. You can load it on a laptop,import your GPX files and take them with you on the road. You can even download images from Geocaching.com using GSAK’s “Database|Grab Images…” menu option. This allows you to view full HTML pages,including images,when you’re not connected to the Internet. That’s especially useful for puzzle caches,which often rely upon images displayed on the descriptions page. Many veteran geocachers take a laptop in their car loaded with GSAK to enable them to quickly find information when they’re in the field.
Another very useful feature of GSAK is that you can edit cache listings. For example,say you’re seeking a puzzle cache that you solved at home before heading out on the road. Final coordinates for a puzzle cache are never the same as listed coordinates,so you can replace the information in the “Coordinates” field with the solution. You can then store the original coordinates somewhere else in the description in case you need to refer back to them. You may also make notes to yourself that you’ll want to see when you’re in the field. You can’t post this information to the website unless you own the cache listing,but you may find it of value later.
Another reason to edit waypoints is to update them with new information. For example,suppose you find the cache has been damaged by water and you’ve replaced it with a new container. You can write a detailed description of the new container and update your records. You can even share that information later via a log entry on Geocaching.com.
Start by loading a GPX file into GSAK using the “File|Load GPX/LOC/ZIP…”option or directly from e-mail using the “Get data via e-mail”menu (you have to set up the latter to work with your e-mail account).
Here’s a basic GSAK startup screen.
The headings of each column of cells correspond to the information found in a typical geocache description. If you click on a heading,all the Geocaches on the list will be sorted by that category. You can choose which columns you want to see by choosing the “View|Add/Delete Columns…” option on the menu.
The first thing you want to do is set your home point. This is a little tricky. Open the “Tools|Options…” menu or click on the Tools button: (Filename:GSAK_tools_icon)
A screen like this pops up:
Choose the “Locations” tab and type in your home coordinates in the exact format specified. Remove the “#” sign to set these as your home coordinates. If you frequently geocache for more than one location,you can enter as many sets of coordinates here as you want and then change your home coordinates depending on your location. GSAK will only see the ones that don’t have the “#” sign in front of them. You must use the exact format for coordinates that the program requires or you’ll get an error message. (Remember that computers aren’t smart,just fast.) Upon updating your home coordinates,the main screen will be reset with distances measured from your home coordinates.
Not all the icons on the main GSAK screen are intuitive,so let’s look at two that we find especially useful.
This icon shows you the status of the last four logged find attempts. Green means found and red means not found. You might want to avoid caches with three or four red squares because there is a high likelihood that they have been lost.
This is called a “user flag” and it’s used to mark caches you might want to revisit later. For example,if you’re scanning a list and selecting caches that look interesting to you,you can quickly mark them with a user flag and later filter your choices to include only caches you’ve marked this way. You can set or clear all the user flags in a view by choosing the “User Flags” menu item. Filename:GSAK_user_flag.jpg
What We Use
Small books could be written about GSAK,and they actually have,given the tool’s voluminous help menus and large FAQ section on GSAK.net. You probably will never need to use two-thirds of the choices the program offers,but there are a few core features you will use all the time. In the rest of this section,we’ll review the features we find most helpful and help you sort out the sometimes overwhelming number of options.
Double-clicking on any cache name opens a browser window with the cache description. If you’re connected to the Internet,you’ll see the page on Geocaching.com. Otherwise,you’ll get an HTML page populated with information from the GPX database. If you’ve downloaded images using the “Database|Grab Images…” option,the off-line page will look pretty much like the online one.
Right-clicking on any item brings up the above menu with some useful options. “Custom URL” gives you the option of opening that waypoint in a variety of mapping services,logging your visit or visiting the cache’s photo gallery on Geocaching.com.
“Edit…” brings up a summary menu that lists all the information in the GPX record for that waypoint. This is a fast and easy way to learn about the cache and to edit that waypoint if you wish.
“Add/Change/Delete Note…” is useful if you’re using GSAK in the field. Choosing this option opens a window where you can type comments and notes for your log. These can later be uploaded to Geocaching.com directly,although the process is not fully automated (see below).
“Corrected Coordinates…” gives you the option of updating coordinate information so you can share it with others. This is useful if you manage to find a cache but discover that the coordinates are significantly different from the ones listed. You can post the corrected coordinates on Geocaching.com as a log entry to help future players.
“Set This Cache as Centre Point” can be helpful if you want to find other caches in the area or explore the region around the designated cache. This resets the default GSAK view with the selected cache as the center point so you can quickly see what else is nearby.
“Add to locations” automatically adds the designated cache to the box in the “Locations” tab on the Tools|Options menu. Waypoints in this box can easily be set as center points for other views of the list.
“Project waypoint” is an option you probably won’t use very much,but it comes in handy in certain situations. Some puzzle caches,for example,don’t point you to a specific location but rather “project” the destination as a distance and bearing. Figuring this out without a computer can be difficult,so the “Project waypoint” option can help you pinpoint the destination with greater accuracy.
“Color waypoint” highlights the designated waypoint record in a color of your choice. This is a useful tool for marking geocaches with similar characteristics that you may want to easily find later.
Creating a Filter
The most powerful feature of GSAK is its ability to filter a database of caches by any criteria you supply. You can access this feature with the “Search|Filter…” menu option or by simply clicking on the filter button (Filename:GSAK_filter_button.jpg). This presents you with a dialog box that looks like this:
This looks pretty daunting at first,but once you start experimenting with the options you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Basically,a filter lets you drill down to any field of information in a GPX file and create a customized view based on the criteria you specify.
You can build filters with as many options as you choose,which enables you to plan routes precisely. Here are a couple of examples of how you might put filters to use.
Suppose you wanted to make it in an easy day. You’re going to look only for caches that are of low difficulty and have been found by lots of other people. Starting on the “Set Filter” page in the “General” tab,choose terrain and difficulty that are “Less than or equal to” and select “2.0” from the drop-down box. Then go to the “Other” tab,click the “Clear All” button and select the “Traditional” check box. If you want to make this really easy,under “Container size” click the “Clear All” button and then select the “Regular” and “Large” options. This will limit your results to only the largest containers.
Now click the “Logs” tab. This instructs GSAK to find certain kinds of logs filed by previous visitors. Set “Logs to search” at “Last 5,” choose “Include,” set “Required Count” to 5 and choose “Log Type” of “Found it.” Here’s what the screen will look like:
To review:we’ve just told GSAK to find regular or large caches with difficulty and terrain ratings of 2.0 or less that have been found by all of the last five visitors. Click the “Go” button and check out your results. (Filename:GSAK_Go_button.jpg) You can now sort this list the same way you would any other. You can also save your filter for later use.
Now let’s try constructing a really complex filter,probably more complex than you would ever want to create. This simply shows you the range of options that are available to you in GSAK.
We’re going to look for caches that:
- Are less than 10 km from our home point
- Have a difficulty rating of less than 4.0
- And a terrain rating of less than 3.0
- Are available (in other words,not archived)
- Have travel bugs
- Were last found and logged after Feb. 1,2009
- Are multi or traditional
- Are east or southeast of our home coordinates;and
- Are small,regular or large size
Our filter screens look like this:
Our filter yields one matching cache working from our home base in eastern Massachusetts:Rhodys &Canoe stop (GCWA0W). Check it out!
As we mentioned earlier,you can customize the records in a GSAK database to add your own notes and logs. If you look at any individual waypoint page,you’ll notice there’s a place for “User Data.”
This is a very powerful feature of GSAK that lets you add your own information to any record and filter or sort on that information. For example,say you were browsing a set of geocaches in your area and wanted to mark some for a later visit by your scout troop. You could enter “scouts”in the user data field for the selected caches and later create a filter that lists only waypoints containing that notation. GSAK supports up to four user data fields,which should be enough for anyone.
Where’d the Data Go?
Whenever you create a new filter,the results on your screen usually change. Don’t panic;your data is still there. All that’s changed is the view of the data. You can get your original data set back by clearing all filters (In “Select a saved filter,” choose “NONE”). However,be aware that if you edited or deleted any individual record,that record permanently changes. It’s a good idea to keep the original GPX files generated by the pocket query if you need to refer back to them.
Okay,I Like My Filter. Now What?
GSAK gives you several nice ways to use the results of your filters. You can print them out in a plain text format that preserves just the most essential information,export them to a spreadsheet or upload them to a GPSr or mobile device. Chances are you’ll want to do the latter at some point
You can export your selection of caches as a GPX file for upload to any compatible GPS device. GSAK supports most popular units via the “GPS” menu,and the transfer process is straightforward if you plug the device into your computer’s USB port
However,every GPS unit is different. The newer breed of devices,with their ample memory space,can store and display entire descriptions,logs and hints. However,many older devices are more constrained and can display just a few characters. This is where the export options come in handy. By default,most GPSr units identify waypoints by the GC number (for example,GC1MFFT). This code has little utility to a geocacher in the field,though. GSAK lets you modify the identification number so that your GPSr displays useful information about the cache.
Go to the “Export”option,choose “Export GPX/LOC file,” uncheck “Use Defaults” and enter new variables in the “Cache description” field. This will create an alternative code to the GC number that tells you something about the cache. There is a vast number of variables you can use,ranging from obvious to obscure. Consult GSAK’s help screens for a list
For example,entering the following instructions gives you a code that tells you the container type,difficulty,terrain,cache type and whether the cache contains a travel bug:
This will replace a geocache named GCZENK with the letters R15YFNFF. Why is this useful? Because each letter refers to a different characteristic of the cache:
R = Regular size
1 = Difficulty in one digit (1=1,1.5=2,2=3,2.5=4,and so on)
5 = Terrain in one digit (1=1,1.5=2,2=3,2.5=4,and so on)
Y = Cache has a travel bug (simple Y/N)
FNFF = Results of last forr logs (three finds and one “did not find”)
Load this information into a GPSr unit with limited memory and display capabilities,and you can see much more information about a cache than you would with the standard GC codes. By changing the naming convention,we have turned a relatively meaningless code into five bits of useful information. There are many more options you can build into the file you export,but these are some of the more useful ones. The GSAK help menu provides advice on many more.
GSAK also has the ability to create a list of caches along route,similar to the “Create a Route”option on Geocaching.com. It’s called Arc/Poly,and it’s available from the menu you use to filter geocaches. The instructions in GSAK may make your head want to explode,but it’s really just a matter of specifying a list of geographic points along the route you’re planning to travel. GSAK will filter caches that lie within a specific distance of those points. Fortunately,newer versions of GSAK link to a Google Maps mashup page (http://gsak.net/google/polygoneditor.html) that makes it pretty simple to generate a list of waypoints. The sample routd below generates the coordinates on the right that can be copied and pasted into GSAK.
Logging Your Finds
It would be nice to be able to log your finds by uploading them directly to Geocaching.com,but the website doesn’t permit this. All is not lost,however. GSAK contains a macro that makes the process almost automatic.
If you carry a laptop running GSAK with you,you can log your finds offline in the program and upload them later one-by-one using a macro. A macro is a little program that plugs into GSAK and performs a small but useful task that isn’t included in the main software. Users have written hundreds of macros that you can download from GSAK.net. Some are very useful,like Email Log Reader which automatically grabs e-mails from Geocaching.com and updates relevant waypoints in GSAK. Most are pretty obscure,but if you use an uncommon GPSr or want to load your results into a specialized web service,chances are someone’s written a macro to do that.
Log your finds using the “Add/Change/Delete Note…” Option in the “Waypoint” menu or by right-clicking on the cache record in the list view. Anything you enter in the “User Notes”field will be kept in your own records. Whatever you enter in the “Logs Section” field will be uploaded to Geocaching.com.
When you return from your journey,connect to the Internet and run the macro called “LogCache.gsk.” This will pull up the appropriate log page on the website and enter your comments. Just follow the prompts. It isn’t perfect,but it’s a heck of a lot faster than cutting and pasting everything yourself.
Using Google Maps and Google Earth
Google gave geocachers a gift with its 2005 release of Google Maps and later Google Earth. Not only do these impressive web services allow you to map nearly any spot on earth,but they’re also the foundation for thousands of third party software applications that ride on top of their basic features. Geocaching.com’s “Find with Google Maps” feature is just one example.
Entire books can be written about all you can do with Google Maps,but we’ll stick to a few basic features that we find most valuable
Although many people don’t know it,Google Maps can provide you with the precise geographic coordinates of any spot it can map. To find this information,click on the “Print,” “Send” or “Link” options. The dialogue box that pops up has the geo-coordinates in both decimal and UTF formats embedded in it,although you may have to hunt around a bit for them. The string of text looks something like this (we’ve highlighted the coordinates).
http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=1+park+ave.,+new+york,+ny&sll=42.287469,-71.421304&sspn=0.007588,0.016565&gl =us&g=4+thurber+st.,+01702&ie=UTF8&ll=40.746948,-73.981504&spn= 0.007771,0.016565&z=16&iwloc=addr
Copy and paste this code into a text editor like Notepad and then copy and paste the coordinates into whatever application needs them
An easier way to find the coordinates for any address is to enter the address into the “Hide &Seek a Cache” page on Geocaching.com. The results page provides the coordinates of the address just above the search results
Some more recent Google innovations that are interesting to geocachers are the satellite,street and terrain views. The terrain view (below) is useful if you don’t have a topographic map and want to get an idea of what kind of climb you may be in for.
Google Street View gives you an actual photo of the location you searched for with the ability to pan and zoom all around you (see below). You can also use this to get an idea of the neighborhood you’re going to be entering or even to scout out potential hiding spots. Street View is a work in progress that Google is building out by laboriously sending teams of photographers into the field to capture images. It works well in major North American cities,but rural and suburban areas are spotty.
And as of this writing,Google Maps can’t import GPX files,which gives it limited utility as a way to organize your outing. However,the service is constantly being improved. Google Maps can export waypoint to a GPS pretty cleanly. Choose “Send” and then select the “GPS” option and follow the instructions. Each manufacturer handles the export somewhat differently.
If you’re interested in the innovative things people are doing with Google Maps,a blog called Google Maps Mania (http://googlemapsmania.blogspot.com/) does a fantastic job of keeping up with them all.
|The White House as seen on Google Earth|
A global initiative that seeks to apply satellite imagery to mapping the entire Earth,Google Earth is an impressive technical achievement that has modest value to geocachers. As of this writing,Google still requires a software download to display Earth’s impressive capabilities. A $400 annual fee gets you the Professional Edition,but that functionality is more appropriate to surveyors and architects than it is to geocachers. Fortunately,what you get for free is pretty amazing.
|Google Earth image showing a cache site and driving directions|
Google Earth can give you a bird’s eye view of any spot on the planet photographed by satellite and made available to the service via Google’s network of information providers. You can specify an address or a set of geo-coordinates and zoom in to that exact location to view landmarks and surrounding territory. The quality of the imagery can be quite striking in some cases,although the basic free version does not provide enough detail to enable you to make out features of individual buildings with much clarity. However,Google Earth can give you a pretty good idea of the terrain you might encounter in searching for a geocache. In that respect,it’s a pretty good free alternative to the topographic maps that cost $50 or more.
Google Earth can import GPX files created by Geocaching.com or GSAK and show you waypoints on its satellite maps. In our experience,however this process is somewhat error-prone. Clicking on the waypoint titles on the map delivers the descriptions downloaded from the Internet. The software also has extensive information about local features such as bridges,dams and scenic areas. Most of this is gathered from public domain resources and will improve in time. Some of the same features in Google Maps are also available in Google Earth,such as driving directions. The combination can provide you a much richer view of your destination and the surrounding area,which can be helpful in deciding how to prepare for a trip.
There are quite a few other applications and utilities for geocaching,with a growing number of them running on Apple’s iPod platform. Many of these are free and do a basic job of managing waypoints and logs. For example,EasyGPS is a simple PC tool for managing waypoints and tracks in LOC format and loading them into a GPSr. GPSBabel is a free utility (created by the author of GSAK) that addresses the incompatibility problems between different GPSr units by converting waypoints,tracks,and routes between receivers and mapping programs. Use Google to find them.
|GeoBuddy track and caches superimposed on an aerial map of Orlando,FL|
One of the few that carries a license fee is GeoBuddy from mapmaker Topografix. While some of its features are duplicated by the free Google Maps and Google Earth services,GeoBuddy has some unique characteristics. You can import GPX files and see the waypoints and detailed information on individual caches on maps that download automatically from Topografix’ database. Choices include topographic,aerial and urban maps,which are somewhat more detailed versions of aerial photos. GeoBuddy downloads new maps from the Topografix site whenever they’re needed. These topographic maps are mostly hand-drawn and feature excellent detail,but suffer from the limitations of scanning and enlargement. Users also have the option of scanning in their own maps or retrieving them from Microsoft’s TerraServer.
GeoBuddy displays cache waypoints and descriptions in a separate window. You can narrow down a list of target caches by flipping back between this list and the maps,and then create a GPX file to load into your GPSr. There’s also a feature for drawing tracks and routes on a map and another one that makes it easy to geotag photos. (See sidebar.)
In our tests,GeoBuddy’s library of topographic maps was excellent. However,you need to be connected to take full advantage. If the topographic map isn’t available,GeoBuddy has to download it from a server,which can take several minutes if you need a lot of map segments. In most cases,you’re also working with scanned images of paper maps,which have the limitations or weak resolution at high magnifications and fixed labels that don’t scale to match your view.
GeoBuddy’s collection of urban and satellite maps is weak in rural areas and practically nonexistent outside the US. While you do have the option of scanning you own maps,it’s hard to believe many people will have the patience to do that. Some of GeoBuddy’s basic features are becoming irrelevant because of advances in Google Earth. The big advantage of GeoBuddy is that you don’t have to be connected;you can save maps locally and take them with you on a laptop. For caching in major metropolitan areas,GeoBuddy is a useful complement to GSAK,but for $50 the software will probably appeal mainly to the most enthusiastic geocachers.
Microsoft Streets &Trips
Microsoft positions this powerful PC application (street price of about $60,including a plug-in GPSr) as an automobile navigation aid. It performs many of the functions of a Garmin Nuvi or Tom Tom on a PC,but also has a rich database of information about local attractions and businesses. When connected to the Internet,Streets &Trips can also update routes with information about construction delays and route you around them.. The software comes with a miniature GPS receiver that plugs into a USB port on a laptop,and directions can be delivered by a text-to-speech synthesizer. In our view,it’s worth the extra money to invest in a convenient navigational GPSr,but if you want to get away cheap or don’t always have your auto navigation unit with you,Streets &Trips can fit the bill.
Streets &Trips is not intended for geocaching use. In fact,it doesn’t even read GPX or LOC files. It does have one unique geocaching feature,though:the ability to optimize routes. This can save time if you’re planning to pick up a lot of geocaches and want to minimize driving.
Creating a route is a bit of a kluge. You need to export your list of target caches in CSV format (GSAK has a special filter for Streets &Trips),which basically separates fielded data with commas. You can then important that list into Streets &Trips and display the waypoints on a map. Select the individual caches you want to visit or draw a rectangle around a group of waypoints and Streets &Trips automatically generates an optimized route and detailed driving directions. These routes aren’t perfect,and their quality deteriorates with length and complexity,so it’s a good idea to reality-check the results. For complicated journeys or power-caching trips,though,Streets &Trips can save you a lot of drive time.
The other nice feature of Streets &Trips is its database of information about local attractions. If you want to add a restaurant or a museum to your itinerary,simply include it in the waypoint list. You can also optimize routes that incorporate caches and other points of interest.
Geocaching iPhone Application
One of the past year’s most eagerly awaited events was the release of Groundspeak’s Geocaching iPhone Application. While clearly a work in progress,the $9.95 utility has rapidly become an essential tool for iPhone-toting geocachers.
Users can search for caches near any location they specify or near their current location using the iPhone’s GPS tracking feature. Results are displayed with all the familiar Geocaching.com colors and icons,either in a list or on a map. The query function is somewhat less flexible than that of Geocaching.com’s Hide &Seek a Cache page,but it’s not bad. The cacher in the field can click through to read a full description (photos aren’t supported),hints and a limited number of logs. Caches can also be saved for later use.
The Groundspeak application can indicate the location of a cache relative to the user’s current position and alternatively display results on a topographic map. Field notes can be recorded and submitted wirelessly. Curiously,the application does not enable users to actually log a find from the iPhone. The actual find/did not find must be submitted on the website.
The setup screen includes a handy “Basics” option that only returns traditional caches in the result set. There’s also an integrated compass and a page for querying trackable items.
There are a few quirks in the version 2.0 release that we tested. Groundspeak will presumably iron them out over time. One is that geocaches can’t be saved in categories. Everything is clumped together in one list and deletions must be made one by one. Users also can’t save groups of caches,but must store each one individually. The inability to display images is a problem,since many descriptions use them for clues. It’s also baffling why logs can’t be filed from the field. We have to assume this is just a technical issue.
Recent versions of the iPhone come with a built-in GPS. This can be used with Groundspeak’s and other geocaching applications to find caches in the immediate area or to direct you to a location. However,the iPhone’s GPS has been criticized as being too imprecise for geocaching. For now,at least,players will continue to need a dedicated GPSr and will have to content themselves with the fact that the iPhone is the up-and-coming platform for paperless caching.