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Great Geocaching App for iPhone

Price: $2.99 (regularly $9.95, will return to this price in January with new release)
Version Reviewed: 1.1.1

This is the iPhone app I have been waiting for.  An iPhone app that not only accomplishes what it sets out to do, but significantly improves on the traditional way of accomplishing the same task without the app.

Let’s start at the beginning.  For those of you who don’t know what Geocaching is, you should learn all about it right now.   There is a good FAQ at Geocaching.com. Put in simple terms, people hide little trinkets such as toys, cards, postcards, coins, etc., usually in tuperware containers, and then go to the website geocaching.com and input the coordinates of where they hid the cache along with a description of the surroundings and clues to help find it.  Using a handheld GPS device, usually costing from $100-600 you set out to locate the ‘treasures.’  Once you find them, you can take out a few trinkets and substitute some of your own.  Most of the caches include pen and notepad where you can log the date, your name and anything else you wish to include.  Some even include disposable cameras to take a picture of your group. The cache “owner” will periodically post the photos on the Geocaching.com website. You can also go back to the website and include your opinion of the cache along with your own clues on how to find it.

Some caches are hidden in urban/city environments behind buildings, in parking lots, etc., but most are hidden in hiking trails, woods, canyons and other beautiful settings.  Geocaching is a great way to spend time with the family and get the kids wanting to go exploring.  Caches are hidden all over the world, so not only can you usually find them in your own neighborhood, but you can almost always find them while vacationing.  You can also  read about it at wikipedia.  Okay, enough with the description.

Enter the GeoCaching iPhone App

The iPhone 3g was an obvious match for GeoCaching with its built-in GPS, internet access and Google Mapping app. To understand how well it works, let’s quickly review how one would normally go Geocaching. Typically you decide where you are going to go and then visit Geocaching.com beforehand and enter the zipcode or city where you want to start. The site shows you lists of caches in the area and you then browse through them, decide which you want to explore, print out the descriptions and hints and then visit Google Maps or Mapquest to get directions to a good starting point.

You next enter the geo-coordinates of each cache into your hand-held GPS unit and save them. This is not as easy as it sounds because the interface of most of the cheaper sub-$200 units are not very user-friendly. When you go on your explorations, you need to match the coordinates you entered for each cache with the print-outs. It’s not rocket-science, but it is a bit tricky and requires planning and patience.

Now let’s compare the steps I just outlined with how it works on the iPhone. Let’s say that you are out in the park one day (or for that matter, anywhere at all) and decide you want to go geocaching. No problem. Just fire up the geocaching app, which costs $2.99, and tell it that you want to ‘search for nearby caches.’ The app uses your current location to search the database at Geocaching.com for caches in the area.

Geocaching search results page

There are several informative screens to help you learn about each cache Here are the basic description and a user review screens.


Geo cache iPhone GPS

You can save any cache to your iPhone which is a good idea in case there is no cell reception in the area you will be going to. You can link directly to Google Maps to get directions to the the cache location. The iPhone’s built-in GPS works fairly well in conjunction with the app’s built-in compass to help you locate the cache.  We found the satellite view especially helpful to help pin-point the location on streets and trails.

Geocache Compass

Things we would like to see in future Geocaching.com iPhone App updates

The app gives you the option to login to your Geocaching.com account. This is a good idea to do if you’re an experienced Geocacher because by doing so, caches you have previously found will not show up in the search results page. However, the current version of the app does not allow you to log your finds through the iPhone. Another nice feature we would like to see is the ability to simply mark caches you’re not interested in as “hidden” so they don’t show up over and over again.

The app is at the mercy of the iPhone’s GPS and built-in software. For example, the compass arrow often swings wildly if you’re standing still because the iPhone does not have directional capability in its firmware (rumored to be coming soon), so you must start walking so that the iPhone can triangulate your location in order for the compass to work. For this reason, you might want to use Google Maps to get close to your location. Google Maps actually works pretty well and has the benefit, via the satellite view, to show you landmarks in the area of the cache.

Dedicated GPS devices will also give you better readings if there is heavy cloud covering or if you’re in a wooded or urban area with nearby tall buildings.  For this reason, we sometimes bring along our hand-held GPS too.  The iPhone is almost perfect until you get very close to the cache.  Once within 100 feet or so, the readings are not always as accurate as the dedicated devices.  I wouldn’t go out and buy one of these dedicated devices, but if you have one you might want to pack it and just take it out if the iPhone + the clues and hints on the cache page do not quite get you there.

That said, I have used the iPhone + app to find a few dozen caches (with no dedicated device) already and best of all, I have been able to spontaneously go caching with the kids without any pre-planning.  All-in-all, this is a wonderful iPhone app and for the price it is nothing less than a treasure!

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