Category Archives: Geocaching

Geocaching related posts

UK Topographic Mapping for a Garmin GPS

One of my very early posts that still gets regular traffic is this post on the problems of getting good topographic data for the UK for a Garmin GPS. Back then whilst you could get hold of a topographic mapping for the United States, in the UK it was very difficult.

Subsequently Garmin released their Garmin TOPO Great Britain product which whilst it was an improvement still isn’t great, and is eye-wateringly expensive – the whole of the UK retails for £150. There are several problems with it, firstly if you come from having used a regular Ordnance Survey map there is a distinct lack of detail, and also in a number of places due to copyright issues paths are missing. Garmin themselves alude to this on their website when they say “includes many tracks and paths”.

Following on from that, and with the more powerful processors and colour screens in more modern GPS units Garmin have now added their GB Discoverer product. This contains the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey mapping for the whole of the UK, but again it’s expensive – retail is £200 – although it is included in a number of special packs with various GPS units so you can save quite a bit by buying the maps at the same time as upgrading your GPS unit. The 1:25,000 mapping is available for download in 600sq-km chunks at £20 each – so you’re looking at over £8000 for the whole of the UK. The OS mappings are also not without their issues, chief among them is that they are raster based maps rather than vector based. Essentially the maps are high quality scans of the paper maps so zooming is limited as the maps are pretty well useless if you zoom in too far for a particular map, or if you zoom out too much.

The following screenshots taken from my Garmin GPSMap 62S show some of the issues.

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The first two pictures are of the junction of Nine Mile Ride and Lower Wokingham Road between Finchampstead and Crowthorne. You can see the difference in detail between the 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 mapping at the 500m scale, however look what happens when I zoom in to 50m. On the 1:50,000 you can see the jagged edges caused by zooming in too much, the 1:25,000 is better detail wise, but there are still zooming issues apparent.

Now take a look at these two shots, again from my Garmin GPSMap 62S.

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There isn’t quite as much detail in places, certainly not compared to the 1:25,000, but there isn’t the zooming issue. If I also say that this map is absolutely free to install onto your Garmin GPS, it starts to get more interesting.

The map is using data from the Open Street Map project, started in 2004 by Steve Coast as a result of frustation at the vast amount of data Ordnance Survey in the UK kept locked away. You can take a look at the full map at Whilst the coverage varies, in general after a decade of work the coverage is now pretty good across the whole of the UK. It takes a bit of work to get it to a usable form for a Garmin GPS, but again that is freely available from the site of talkytoaster, a UK Geocacher.

There are other advantages. I’ve had the Garmin GB Discoverer in my GPS for a number of years now, bought when I upgraded my GPS. Whilst the road maps in my regular Garmin Satnav are upgraded quarterly, the Ordnance Survey mapping has never been updated. Whilst mountains don’t move, new housing estates are built, roads change route and new roads are built, so steadily the sizeable investment people have made in maps goes out of date.

It’s different with the Open Street Map project. The UK mapping from talkytoaster is updated every two weeks, again for free. Another example:

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All of the shots are of junction 11 of the M4. You’ll see that the 1:50,000 and the 1:25,000 aside from the resolution differences show the same layout of the roundabout. As anybody who lives around Reading will tell you over the past few years there have been significant changes in the layout of this junction, changes which aren’t reflected in either of the OS mappings. However the layout from the Open Street Map data is different, as you can see from the third shot, and in the fourth I’ve overlaid the OS 1:25,000 with the Open Street Map data to show the difference.

So in summary your options for a UK Topographic Mapping for a Garmin are to go with the official options – £150 for a not great vector based topographic mapping or £200 or over £8000 for detailed raster based mapping that doesn’t get updated, or a free vector based mapping that is updated every two weeks… If you need the detail then that might sway you towards the OS mapping, but for the older GPS units that don’t support raster based maps it’s not really too hard a decision really…

New Year Walk

After the pretty dreadful weather yesterday, and given the equally dreadful forecast for tomorrow, the weather today was definitely something to take advantage of. Whilst it was a bit chilly (about 6°C) in our part of the UK we have clear blue skies and bright sunshine.

The route I took was one of my usual walks out from the Garrison and then around between Farley Hill and Arborfield – it’s quite a well known circuit although most people tend to start and finish in Arborfield village itself so I have on occasion got strange looks when I pass people twice on the circuit and on one occasion last month a rambler actually asked why I was doing the walk twice when I passed them on both sides of the loop.

The loop is also a good one for any geocachers around as directly alongside the circuit there are currently seven caches, with two or three more a short diversion away. I’ve scored all of the caches bar one, which involves climbing a tree! Although it’s not on this circuit there is a particularly good multi-cache based around the footpaths beneath Farley Castle which is worth doing whilst you’re here.

It’s also a good opportunity to enjoy the countryside around here as if the large scale housing development comes to the Garrison site one of the proposals to ease traffic is to build a bypass around Arborfield on this side of the village. There have been a number of routes proposed, the shortest and cheapest option, which it seems is still too expensive for the Defence Estates led consortium who have this ludicrous idea that tweaking the design of the roundabout will alleviate the potential problems, is to build tight around the village – the footpath follows almost exactly the route that bypass would take down the back of Chamberlain Gardens and Melrose Gardens, and on down the side of the football pitch. The route that would probably be more acceptable to most of the villagers in Arborfield although probably not acceptable for those over towards Farley Hill comes off the existing A327 a lot further away from Arborfield Cross and goes across open farmland pretty well splitting this circuit in two. To be honest neither would be really popular, but in terms of scale the proposed Arborfield Garrison SDL would replace the Garrison buildings you can see along Biggs Lane and adjacent to Langley Common Road with houses, and also totally fill the fields to the right of the A327 in the lower part of this picture, plus go beyond what you can see. That perhaps gives some idea of the scale of what is proposed.

Anyway, the circuit is just over 10km from here, although obviously there is some extra walking getting there and back, so it’s a bit less if you park up in Arborfield or Farley Hill to give it a try.


One thing I’ve found with all my walking of late is that there are a surprising number of people with very little control of their dogs. I guess I’m pretty aware of it as if ever I’m out with Lucy she has a total meltdown whenever we meet a dog not on a lead.

To be fair this isn’t an irrational fear. A few months back we were walking in the Swinley Forest and a bull terrier of some variety jumped up at her. It didn’t seem unfriendly, but considering that she was about the same size as the dog and started screaming, which then made it more curious. The owner was a long way away up the path, shouted at it for a bit before coming and grabbing it, barely mumbled an apology before putting the dog on a lead until he’d walked about a quarter of a mile ahead of us.

Compare this to what happened a couple of weeks back when I was out walking a path in Farley Hill. Coming in the other direction was a man with a lovely red setter. The dog was off the lead and exploring the bushes and path ahead. The dog saw me and started to trot towards me. The key difference was that the man was paying attention to what the dog was doing, whistled, at which point the dog stopped, turned and trotted back to him. The dog then walked to heel past me and carried on. No barking at me, no jumping up, and no lead needed.

Sadly there are precious few owners who take their time to properly train their dogs. Yesterday I passed one woman vainly wondering where her dog was before shouting at it as it chased the cows in the nearby field. There was also a father and son with an Alsatian off the lead again shouting at the dog as the dog just blindly ignored them.

I’ve lost track of the number of owners for whom the usual response to their animals jumping up, and if I’ve got Lucy with me she’s usually shaking by this time, is a shrug.

It’s not only me that has a problem, there are several farms whose land is crossed by public footpaths I’ve come across that are quite clear that they will shoot dogs that are running loose in the livestock fields.

Dogs are certainly not untrainable, it’s just that people don’t take the time to do it properly. It’s not really a new problem either.

Quite what we do about Lucy remains to be seen, certainly her having a meltdown doesn’t help. Beth has said that she is now starting to have problems around cats as well – it being over a year since Sophie died. Perhaps for a start we’ll need to get a new cat, and get her used to having animals around, slowly working up to getting her less petrified around dogs.

Ten Years of Geocaching

It’s now been over ten years since I started Geocaching, the worldwide game that started when the US government turned off selective availability on the worldwide GPS system giving the accuracy that we now rely on for satellite navigation systems in our cars, and that allowed Dave Ulmer to hide a plastic bucket, and Mike Teague to find it purely from the location details Dave posted on the sci.geo.satellite-nav newsgroup back in May 2000.

We got started back on Spring Bank Holiday in May 2001, finding GC171 – View from Coombe Hill which amazingly is still there a decade later – you can see proof of that in this collage of pictures from the camera in the cache. Many of our early finds are now gone, although another cache that is over a decade old now is our own GCBE3 – The Queens Oak which has been hidden in four different spots over the years around St James’ in Finchampstead – it’s had to move a couple of times due to maintenance work on the church grounds exposing the hiding place, and once because of safety concerns over a wall. It’s also been totally replaced with a new container following an incidence of cache trashing.

We’re certainly not high scoring cachers if you look at our stats – although it’s worth remembering that back when we were caching frequently the caches were a lot further apart – my nearest hundred caches covered about half the country, now I have one hundred caches within a few miles. Over the years we’ve tended to cache on holidays mostly, and to be honest after delving into cacher politics for a bit with approving caches, and being one of the founders of the Geocaching Association of Great Britain I’ve largely kept a low profile.

What is interesting though is looking at how the game has changed over ten years. Back at the beginning you needed what could be regarded as a pretty specialist bit of kit to play the game, now with millions of people across the country having a GPS enabled smartphone almost anybody can join in easily.

I’m also somewhat amused now at one of the biggest early rows, which related to a local cacher around here, a chap called Robin Lovelock. He owns a company producing GPS software and hid a lot of geocaches in the local area, but alongside the usual trinkets put a copy of his software and a business card in each cache. This caused uproar on the cache forums because it was commercialising the game, and because of the cache density – one person said to me that he didn’t want the game to be such that you were tripping over a cache on every corner. What is amusing now is firstly that Groundspeak are quite happily running a commercial business based around the game and were back then, but more importantly the cache density in our area is now way in advance of the number that Robin placed back then – indeed from St James’ there is a circuit of over twenty caches that can be completed in a couple of hours.

Beth with the UK Project A.P.E. Geocache Another change is the size of the caches.

I started to notice things were changing a couple of years back when people finding our Queens Oak cache started commenting on how big the box was. From my point of view, when I hid it most caches were ammo cans, and the tupperware container we used was a pretty average size. Certainly it wasn’t the biggest – that honour goes to the UK Project A.P.E. Cache, GC12AD – Mission 10b: Meridian Snake. As a side story, this cache I actually ended up making two trips to in order to be first to find. The first trip was about an hour after the location had been published, at which point I discovered that Groundspeak had screwed up the coordinates, having returned home, moaned online and had the correct coordinates I then drove back down and was first to find the next morning. The picture here shows Beth with the cache container – I guess you can see why I was surprised at people describing our little tupperware tub as big.

To be honest having a cache this big doesn’t exactly make the game difficult – you could see this one across the field from where it was, which is kind of why it didn’t last that long. Having the smaller caches does make the game more challenging, even if it does mean that the space for swaps is somewhat less.

Going along with the size change there are now more micro-caches, even in rural areas, which didn’t seem to be done when we started. Our micro-cache was placed in an urban area, but recently I’ve found micro-caches hidden in false rocks, magnetically attached to the top of a direction sign, and even a magnetic key container attached to the underside of a rural post box.

What hasn’t changed though is that it is still a relatively unknown activity – certainly with the recent geocache bomb scare it was pretty clear that nobody in the local police organisation knew anything about the game, and that is despite regular TV spots over the past ten years, including one featuring a somewhat younger Richard and Beth!

There is still a regular influx of new people starting the game, promotion from GPS manufacturers, and word of mouth promotion. I suspect we’ll be doing more caches as the children get older. Lucy has already come on a couple of cache hunts with me, and seemed to enjoy the treasure hunt, and with 1.3 million caches worldwide we’re not going to run out of things to find any time soon.

Another Geocaching Convert?

Found It!

You know those moments when someone thinks they’re telling you about some really great secret, but you, and a load of other people already know? Various of us at St James had that experience this morning listening to Rev Richard’s sermon.

On his day off, he and Penny his wife had headed off to the Bramshill Plantation, a large area of Forestry Commission land just over the border into Hampshire on the other side of Eversley. They went walking off into the forest, Rev Richard armed with a map and compass, and managed to get them thoroughly lost.

Luckily for them, they met someone else walking through the forest, and asked him if he knew where they were, he pulled out a handheld GPS unit – something Rev Richard hadn’t seen – and read off the co-ordinates. They then got talking about precisely why this man was wandering around the forest, and he said he was a Geocacher, and that he’d just done one of the caches that are hidden in the plantation.

At this point in telling the story, Rev Richard asked whether anybody knew about Geocaching, and I guess was slightly surprised at the people who knew. The reason of course that a lot of people around the Church know becomes clear when you watch our Geocaching video in which our segment is filmed around St James. Various people know about the game having seen us on the programme when it was originally shown, and various others, generally those involved with grounds maintenance know about the game having inadvertently found the cache – indeed the cache has moved twice following occasions when the regular maintenance rendered the previous location unsuitable. The interesting thing is that despite having been here several years, nobody had actually told Rev Richard about the cache. Not surprising really as it’s not usually the kind of thing that comes up in conversation…

Anyway, Rev Richard carried on, telling how the Geocacher had taken him back to the cache he had just found, and the story was used as an analogy – searching for treasure with the Christian search for ‘treasure’.

St Swithun's Nately Scures

After the service I told Richard quite how close he’s been to a geocache (our Queens Oak cache mentioned in the film) for the past few years, indeed the fact he’s walked past it every day. I also mentioned myself and Beth’s involvement, including us being one of the seven founder teams behind the Geocaching Association of Great Britain, and have since sent him the link to the video. I’ve also taken the opportunity to upload some of the older Geocaching snapshots I have on iPhoto – these ones are from back in 2003, including some shots of the preserved planes a Lasham Aerodrome which figure as clues in a cache, and another church with a cache close by, the almost totally unaltered St Swithun’s Nately Scures, which gives you an idea of what St James must once have looked like before the subsequent generations started knocking through bigger windows and adding bits.

So I guess the question is, has Rev Richard now got the Geocaching bug?

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

So since I have a nice little device that can play video, I’ve been trawling through all the old video clips I have sitting around to try them out. One item I came across was this, our fifteen minutes of fame from early 2003 back when Inside Out interviewed us about Geocaching (see their page about the show here) which went out originally in the Southern area, and in some other regions later on.

The clip sequence is especially notable for the fact that thanks to the BBC cutting everything I said it’s basically Chris Packham interviewing Beth and me holding the box… It’s also worth it for Dan and Pid, the infamous night cachers who appear after us. Enjoy.

Incidentally, the full set of pictures from the cache, up to the point the camera was removed can be seen online here. Where known the pictures include the names of the cachers.

Back Searching the Countryside with Mapsource GB Topo

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking that I really should get some more exercise. One of the ways I tended to do that, before I worked at SSE was by Geocaching, however over my time there with the extra time I was spending travelling, plus a lot of other demands on my time our caching trips generally reverted to being on holiday only.

A couple years back I wrote about the lack of UK topographic maps from Garmin, and discussed a way around the problem. However since then, Garmin have addressed the problem with the release of Mapsource GB Topo – although subject to a number of limitations as to what the user could do with the Ordnance Survey data it contained. However it didn’t particularly help me, as it was only supported on the newer generation of eTrex units, not my first generation eTrex Vista. Anyway, since we were only really Geocaching on holiday, and Topo Canada worked fine on my old GPS, it didn’t really bother me much.

With the decision to get some more exercise, I took a look at doing some more UK Geocaching, and came across a whole raft of special offers at GPS Warehouse, including a bundle containing the latest generation eTrex Vista Cx, and a copy of GB Topo too. I couldn’t resist and put my order in. It has to be said that there was a worrying moment or two, as in the past packages from them have arrived the next day, and this one took a few days to despatch, but anyway, the new GPS arrived this week. Incidentally, if you look down the list of offers, there is quite a range, including a number of cheaper packages, however I opted for an eTrex Vista again because it includes the electronic compass. Whilst it is possible to go Geocaching with a unit without this, personally I’ve always found it is better to have a unit that correctly reads the direction in which you are facing when you are stood still – the other units, that base the direction on the direction of last movement are a bit more of a pain, especially close to the cache. However if you want a cheap and rugged GPS to get started, you can’t go wrong with the classic yellow eTrex – which you can currently pick up for £69.99 from GPS Warehouse.

Old and New eTrex Vista

Unpacking my new eTrex Vista, it was a slight case of same yet different. You can see what I mean from the picture – the new unit, although laid out in exactly the same way as the old one is somewhat shorter and fatter than the original, I suspect because the colour screen in the new unit is a more conventional shape for other devices that are using colour screens. Hardware wise, the old style serial port has been replaced with USB – a relief as my laptop doesn’t have a serial port, and the serial to USB cable I have doesn’t like Windows Vista-64. The new eTrex Vista uses exactly the same cable as my Streetpilot i2, and so is quite happy thanks to the 64-bit support from Garmin I discussed recently. Alongside this, the new unit now makes a selection of beeps during operation, including a useful proximity alarm when you get close to a Geocache. Software wise things have moved forwards. There is explicit Geocache support – back when I first started there weren’t even Geocache icons in the default set, these didn’t arrive until a later software update for the units. The unit also takes the same sized microSD memory cards that the Streetpilot i2 takes which is useful, and the software has been expanded to include a routing mode. However I wouldn’t recommend it for road navigation as it lacks the voice directions – it only beeps to tell you of a new instruction, meaning you have to look at the screen to see the next direction. In my opinion, the most important thing for a road navigation unit is good clear spoken instructions as the last thing you should be doing is to take your eyes off the road to look at a little screen – hence what you need is a good reliable unit with spoken instructions and a simple interface, hence why to some peoples surprise I opted for the black and white Streetpilot i2, rather than a more fancy unit.

Anyway, back to the new eTrex Vista. For Geocaching, my requirements are somewhat different. I’ve already mentioned the importance of the electronic compass, but with the colour screen and the topographic maps, alongside the fact that the unit is rugged and fully waterproof, coupled with the small size, it is great for a bit of caching. So this afternoon I took it out for a spin, trying a couple of local caches.

Back when I first went out caching, caches in the UK were few and far between, indeed our Queens Oak cache was the first cache to be placed in Berkshire when it was hidden back in 2001. Now when I pulled the list of the closest 100 caches to home from the site, all the caches were between the line of the M4 and M3! Whereas for a long while our closest caches were our own, just two miles away, there are now twelve caches closer to home than those.

As I had a couple of errands to run at the Church, I opted to try the Finchampstead Microcache, and Rectory Hollow caches as these were a short walk from the car park there.

Late Afternoon Finchampstead Fields

The closest was the microcache, a 35mm film canister hidden close to the path down from White Horse Lane to the village, which as implied by the description on the page, didn’t prove to be too much of a problem to find. One of the things you pick up quite quickly when caching is there are a number of common places people will hide things – indeed one of the reasons I drifted away from caching was due to the repetitive nature of a number of the caches. However it was the first time I’d actually explored this bit of Finchampstead, and I was treated to some quite stunning views across the fields in the late afternoon sun.

Next on my list was Rectory Hollow, which was a much larger box, but also had reports of issues with the co-ordinates. The cache owners had checked several times, and usually got the right co-ordinates when approaching from the north-east – the direction from which I was coming. This one was again alongside a path, but this time the path from the Church that heads down towards the Tally Ho pub and Eversley. Oddly enough, although the GB Topo included the footpath from the Church (or at least from the point where it is only a footpath rather than the access for a couple of houses on the top of the hill, the part of the path on from where it meets the Whitehorse Lane to the Village path is missing – a common problem. According to this discussion (relevant statement is about a third of the way down the fourth page) the problem is down to the quality of the data supplied by the Ordnance Survey. Apparently the vector mapping includes only those paths surveyed by the OS surveyors – paper maps and the raster mapping generated from them include right of way information licensed from local authorities that isn’t licensed here – as the vector mapping is primarily aimed at business who have more interest in urban and city areas, the vector mapping is apparently more accurate there.

Heading down to the cache site, and trying not to look suspicious to the various dog walkers I passed, I actually initially missed the cache site as the proximity alarm for the cache didn’t sound. This was because the co-ordinates placed the cache out in the middle of the adjacent field. I tried moving out from under the trees, and trying again, but the GPS was consistently placing the location in the field, necessitating a more detailed search to try and find the box. Unfortunately I’d hit the time of day when quite a few people were out walking their dogs, so that combined with the problems with the co-ordinates meant that I decided to call it a day and head back to do what I needed at the Church. I’d got the bit of exercise, which was the point anyway, even if I didn’t find both caches. I’ll head back another day when hopefully the geometry of the satellites will be such that I can get a better fix on the location.