For geocachers in Florida or southern California, the only accommodation they may need to make for winter geocaching is a long sleeved shirt on chillier days. For those who live in snow country however, winter geocaching presents unique challenges. Despite those challenges winter geocaching has its advantages. No insects, limited underbrush, uncrowded parks and great GPS reception are just a few. There is also something to be said for enjoying the stark beauty of the winter landscape, while most people are in front of their television sets or prowling the mall.
When spending time outdoors in the winter there are the obvious challenges of staying warm and safe, but geocachers often have the additional challenge of finding a cache under a blanket of snow. Here are a few tips that will make your winter caching experience an enjoyable one and perhaps help you actually find a few of those elusive, snow encased caches.
Finding that geocache
One way to increase your odds of finding caches in the winter is to look for those with the “winter accessible” attribute on the cache page (shown as a snowflake on Geocaching.com). In snow country many cache hiders consider winter conditions when hiding caches and will conceal them above the usual snow line. The use of that attribute indicates that it should be fairly easy to find with snow on the ground.
The winter accessible attribute isn’t the only way to find caches in the winter. Keep in mind that caches aren’t moved in the winter, so searchers can still use their summer “cache sense” to find caches, even under several feet of snow.
Sometimes snow actually makes finding a cache easier. Footprints in the snow leading directly to the cache can make for a quick search.
Even when there is a blanket of fresh snow, possible hiding places can be obvious by looking for surface evidence. That circular mound of snow? It probably conceals a boulder, which if at ground zero, is a likely hiding place for a cache. Dig until you reach the bottom of the boulder and search around its base. That long, narrow mound in the snow is probably a down tree. First look for the root ball and dig around it, as that is a popular place to hide caches. Also poke alongside it searching for that tell-tale pile of sticks or bark. Pay particularly close attention to where large branches split from the main trunk just as you would in the summer. Don’t forget to look above the snow in other common hiding places. Sometimes you get so focused on the snow, you can forget to look elsewhere.
A hiking or ski pole will be useful for poking around in the snow and carrying a small, collapsible shovel in your pack will give you a handy tool for digging. Be gentle though, as you don’t want your hiking pole, or shovel poking a hole in a plastic container.
If the container is frozen in place, or you can't open it, please don't force it. Plastic becomes brittle in the winter and can shatter easily. Most cache owners would rather you forego signing the log and let you count the find, rather than having you destroy their container. If you are geocaching purist who insists that the log must be signed, you'll just have to come back in warmer weather.
Any discussion of winter geocaching isn't complete without mentioning safety. An incident that might result in minor discomfort in the warmer months may be fatal in the winter. Most important, don’t wear cotton. All you need to do is google “cotton kills” to find warning after warning about the dangers of wearing cotton in the winter. Yet every winter area trails are full of people wearing jeans and cotton hoodies. If you are wearing cotton, a fall in a stream, through some ice, or a sudden winter rainstorm can make you an instant candidate for hypothermia. Stick with either wool, or synthetics like polyester and polypropylene. Dress in layers. Several layers will keep you warmer than a heavy jacket of equal bulk and you can always add or remove layers as needed. Overheating and working up a sweat can be just as dangerous in winter as getting soaked from the outside.
Start with a thin layer of polypropylene or similar material, then a layer or more of either wool or synthetic fleece. Top it off with a waterproof, breathable layer. And always bring extra clothing. A down vest packs to a tiny package that takes up little space, but can provide plenty of extra warmth if needed. Dry socks are indespensible if your feet get wet so bring several pairs, and an extra wool or fleece sweater is also a good idea.
If you are traveling more than a short distance from roads pack enough clothing to survive an unexpected night or two outdoors. It may save your life.
Wool or synthetic socks will help keep your feet dry and warm. Because you'll be moving, insulated boots usually aren't necessary until temperatures reach the teens, but make sure whatever boots you choose are waterproof regardless of the temperature.
Though snowshoes are rarely necessary in northern New Jersey, a traction device can be essential. With the frequent freeze and thaw cycles common to the region, even sidewalks in town parks can become slick and treacherous. On the steep and rocky trails of the Highlands a slip can result in a sprain, broken bones or worse.
On flat ground Yaktrax and similar devices will suffice and on very steep slopes crampons are the safest choice, however for most of New Jersey’s terrain, Katoola Micro Spikes are ideal. They provide enough grip to keep you on your feet on all but the steepest terrain and are easily removed and stored when not needed.
Snowshoes aren’t necessary unless there are more than about 10 inches of fresh snow. That’s because even with snowshoes you’ll sink in 8 -10 inches depending on the snow’s density, your weight and the size of your snowshoes. So under most conditions, unless the snow is deeper than that you are only carrying unnecessary weight on your feet.
If you have a dedicated, hand held GPS it should work fine well into the teens with a standard, alkaline battery however if you are expecting single digit or sub zero temperatures switch to lithium batteries.
Digital cameras and cell phones should be kept in an inside jacket pocket. Bring a Ziploc bag along and place your camera in cell phone inside before going indoors. This can prevent condensation from damaging them.
Winter is a great time to be outdoors and a fun season for geocaching. Your find percentage won’t be quite what it is in other seasons and sometimes you’re going to have to walk away and come back in the spring, however snow is no reason to to put your GPS away for the winter.