The Rigors of Planning an Epic Cache Run


As I’ve mentioned time and again, there is a ton of work involved in planning an epic cache run.  There’s a lot more to it than just looking at a destination, running a pocket query for geocaches in the area, and then heading out.  Logistics play a huge part in making a successful cache run, and it’s those logistics I’m going to focus on in this post.  Now I will say here and now that epic cache runs, whether you’re planning one or just tagging along, are not for everyone.  Regardless of whether its a 150+ cache power trail run or a multi-state, multi-day trip, the caching experience is a lot different than a more traditional run.  If you’re someone who gets frustrated doing the same thing over and over or lose patience spending more time in a car then out seeking a cache, these types of runs are definitely not in your wheelhouse.  Having said that, I think that everyone who feels they could handle it should partake in at least one epic cache run.  It’s definitely an experience that can produce memories that last a lifetime.  And for those that have participated and/or want to plan their own epic run, then this information will serve you well.  I’m not going to claim that my way is the best for planning, but it has worked successfully so far and I feel it can work for others.

Decide on a destination

Obviously before you can do anything, you’ll need to know where you’re going.  This step is pretty easy if you’re planning to do all the heavy lifting and then ask others to join you, but if it’s a group effort from the get-go, you’ll want to make sure everyone is on the same page, destination-wise.  You don’t want anyone settling for your plan and then harboring some resentment towards the rest of you for not going with their idea.  If you’re planning a run at a power trail, the work is pretty much done for you and you can move on, but in the case of a trip to a destination cache/location, you’ll want to make sure that everyone who is involved in the planning is on board.  In the case of our Mingo trip, the initial foundation was laid by the two masterminds of the trip, but once the core group of tag-alongs joined in the planning, we came up with additional stops on the trip.  And with our upcoming New England trek, we made sure to decide on the major stops first, and have been adding additional stops along the way since.

Set expectations and goals

Now that a destination has been decided on, it’s time to set the goals and expectations.  While power trails are pretty much the easiest in this regard, you’ll want to make sure that these details are decided on early in the planning stages.  The cache run itself might be about having fun with friends, but you need to make sure that all bases are covered.  Do you have someone in the group getting close to a milestone?  Is there a site at one of the stops that someone wants to see?  Will you be passing within 2 hours of the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth?  Just so happen to be passing by the location of one of the oldest benchmarks in America?  While spontaneity is never lost on me, I also like to have a defined set of goals to plan all my trips by, be it a cache run or a family road trip.  If you set your expectations early, then anything extra that comes up will go above and beyond and make the trip that much better.

For our trip, the hard goals are destination-based instead of cache-based this time.  We wanted to make sure we got to D.C., the 9/11 Memorial in NYC, see the ruins of the ghost town Centralia in PA, and grab a cache (ANY cache) in every state in New England.  With those goals set, we’ve since tweaked it to include Arlington National Cemetery, a stop in Philadelphia to eat a legit, original Philly Cheesesteak, a stop at Metlife Stadium to see where the NY Giants play, rerouting our NYC trip to allow us to ride the Staten Island Ferry into Manhattan and see New York from a very different view, and a stop in Scranton for my brother and I to pay homage to NBC’s The Office.

There will always be casualties in this stage of planning.  Someone will have an idea that sounds pretty good, but for one reason or another it just won’t work out.  For our trip, this involved a trip to Niagara Falls.  We had intended on going across the Canadian border to not only see the falls from the best vantage point, but to also say we’ve cached in a new country.  This involved a lot of extra planning, including obtaining a passport.  In the end, we decided against this part of the trip as it was just too time consuming and there could have been complications involving the border crossing.  Don’t get discouraged when something like this happens.  It’s best to just roll with the punches and move on.

Figure out the logistics of traveling

At this point you’ve either already set your party or have a pretty good idea of how many people will be coming with you.  The next step will be figuring out how to get everyone there.  Do you take one large vehicle or several smaller ones?  Do you rent a 15-passenger van or two minivans?  This is really going to be all about preferences and costs.  Taking your own car may be preferable as the cost of rentals can be rather exorbitant, especially if you have to rent multiple vehicles, but keep in mind that if something should go wrong during the trip and maintenance or repairs are needed, it is completely on you and could be a costly endeavor, both on money as well as time.

If you’re planning on taking just a small group of people or even family members, it may be more advantageous to take your own vehicle, especially if it’s just a powertrail run you’re doing.  However, I fully endorse renting a vehicle for any trips that take you more than 300 miles from home.  Besides not putting excess wear-and-tear on your vehicle while driving (or racking up precious miles against your lease allowance), if something were to happen with the vehicle, be it a burst tire or a mechanical failure, the rental company is responsible for repairs (unless you were negligent) and if it’s something very serious, they will put you in a replacement vehicle.  Some would say it is overkill, but I like the peace of mind to know that my group isn’t going to be stranded 800 miles from home due to an issue for longer than a couple hours.

Choose a route

Now that you know where you’re going, who’s going with you, and how you’ll be conveyed there, it’s time to figure out a route.  In many situations, the route should be nothing more than a relatively straight line from Point A to Point B and back.  But the truly legendary runs aren’t so easily defined.  With our Mingo trip, we started in Indianapolis and made a massive loop that never had us driving back on the same road.  And with our upcoming trip, only the last 450 miles or so will we be on familiar road.  Obviously a trip with multiple stops that ISN’T a power trail will not be as cut and dry.  The best way to choose a route is to first look at how much time you have for the trip.  Mingo had a time table of 56 hours.  The route had already been set when I jumped on, and the total travel time was stated as being around 41 hours. For our New England trip, we decided that we’d need to nearly double that amount of time.  So this time around we have around 98 hours, beginning around 4pm on Friday 6/14 and ending around 6pm on Tuesday 6/18.

Knowing how much time I had to work with, I began plotting rough route ideas using Google Maps.  Unfortunately due to limitations with the site, you can only plot out a maximum of 24 points along the route, so this doesn’t include the routing of geocaches.  I began by listing the cities I knew we would be stopping in for the basic outline of the route.  Luckily Google Maps has a handy method for changing routes by being able to grab the route and moving it to different points on the map.  After I got the initial circuitous loop completed, I was then able to manipulate the route to include a stop just north of the Maine border.

With the cache runs we did for the Big Blue Smiley Geo Art series (56 caches) in Louisville and the Back Home Again in Indiana Geo Art series (125 caches) in western central Indiana, the solved coordinates had us going all over the place.  Because of the number of stops we’d have to make, Google Maps was no longer the ideal option for route creation due to it’s limitation.  I had originally intended to use Google Earth, as you can place a large number of pinpoints on a map, and I had in fact already uploaded the GPX for all the caches for each run to look at their relative locations on the map (since GC.com was showing only the original coords, not the corrected ones).  However, the routing functionality of Google Earth leaves a lot to be desired, so this wasn’t ideal for me.  I then decided to purchase a copy of Microsoft Streets and Trips 2013.  Not only does it allow for multiple-stop routing, but it allows for the importing of GPX files (GSAK even has the capability of making S&T-compatible waypoint files if that’s more your thing).  Using this software, I was able to import the GPX of all the caches’ corrected coordinates, and then went to work optimizing the route to minimize backtracking and wasted time.  The BBS trip was a little trickier as I had to negotiate one-way streets, neighborhoods, and areas where the caches weren’t actually along a road and required a little footwork.  With the BHA series, however, the software exceeded my expectations.  We were able to complete the entire series in just under 5 hours, which really isn’t bad considering the number of caches and the unfamiliarity of the area.

I’m not going to say that the MS software is what you’ll need, as I’m sure any other offline software solution will work.  I can only speak for what I’ve used.  Streets and Trips allows you to set driving times, set speed adjustments (for those who tend to drive faster than posted speed limits or slower), assign specific time to spend at each stop, and even figure out estimated fuel costs based on criteria you set (tank size, estimated price per gallon, and MPG).  I remember the defunct Rand McNally TripMaker (this was pre-Mapquest/Google Maps days) had similar features so I am sure any other software on the market can offer you something like this.

Fill that route with caches (if you haven’t already)

Now we’re getting to the meat and potatoes of the trip.  You’ve got your route figured out, you know where you’re going to be, now it’s time to add caches to that route.  This was actually the most time-consuming part of the process.  There really isn’t an easy way to do this.  Initially I thought I’d do a search for highest-favorited caches in the states we were going to be in and then whittle that down to a reasonable number, but the problem with that approach is that you’ll find most of the caches end up being NOWHERE NEAR your route.  So abandoning that method, I limited my search for the quality caches to the major stops, knowing that I’d have a far greater chance of finding quality caches in a limited area.  This produced the results I needed and I was able to plot some amazing gems for our outing.

The next step was to find caches along the route.  We’ll be passing through several states along the way and if we don’t stop for a cache, we don’t get those states lit up on our Statistics Maps.  For this I used the “Caches along route” tool on GC.com.  You set a start and end point as well as the radius for which to search and it will give you a page where you can name the route and make it public, if desired.  From there you can make a PQ for the route, based on the normal PQ criteria, and it will then return results along the route.  Unfortunately a route cannot be longer than 500 miles so on some stretches I had to do more than one of these routes.  Ultimately this turned up over 2,000 caches available.  I imported all the PQs into a GSAK database and began the arduous process of eliminating caches that were either too difficult to get in a 5-minute period of time, run-of-the-mill P&Gs with no value outside of the numbers, and caches that have high numbers of DNFs.  While I’d love to do 10 caches in every state (as well as the caches slotted for each major stop), with the uncertainty of road conditions and other things that could cause delays, I just don’t want to chance delaying something or causing problems time-wise for caches that aren’t quite worthy of the “Destination” or “Must-do” title…especially if a P&G costs us a 100+ favorite point-awarded cache down the road.

Tweak and Optimize

After you’ve come up with the route and decided on the caches to go for, it’s time to tweak and optimize your trip.  Whether you’re using something like Streets and Trips or breaking a sweat and doing it via atlas and pen-and-paper, you’re going to want to make sure you’re taking the most direct, efficient approach.  This is the point where you get the most clear-cut estimation of how long this trip will take.  S&T gives you the time it expects you at your destination.  If you have a loose window for arrival, tweaking will obviously be less involved.  For our trip, however, we have some stops where we have a strict amount of time to be there and if anything put us in danger of missing that window, we had to drop caches or find a better route to get there.  Naturally we cannot plan for all circumstances or eventualities so while there is organization, chaos can strike at any time and we’ll just have to roll with the punches.  Power trails and Geo Art series runs will never really have this issue as they are a different beast altogether, but it’s good to have a plan, a contingency plan, a backup to the contingency plan, and then a Plan Z when all the rest fails.

Divvy up responsibilities

Now that all the hard work is out of the way, you should now be ready to start dropping information on all the participants.  The first thing anyone is going to want to know is how much money do they need to bring.  If you’ve done everything the way I’ve lined it out, you should have no issues with giving them a good figure.  If you’re renting a vehicle (or two), you’ll simply need to take the amount the rental(s) are for and divide it by the number of attendees.  Fuel becomes a much more finicky number to nail down.  Unless you’re completely oblivious to the volatile nature of gas prices, you’ll know that there can be massive swings in fuel prices from one day to the next…not to mention geographical differences.  There will never be a way to accurately gauge the costs for fuel, but there are ways to help get the best estimate possible.

Gas Buddy is one of the most up-to-date price indexing web sites available.  It’s so popular it has it’s own iOS and Android apps.  Just by looking at their Heat map, I can see that gas prices in several of the states we’ll be going to are averaging between $.50-$.60/gallon LESS than what we pay locally.  Knowing that estimated MPG for your vehicle is always helpful in figuring out how much gas you’ll think you’ll use.  If you’re expecting to travel 2500 and your car gets ~25 MPG and has a 20-gallon tank, basic math will tell you that you’ll get about 500 miles to the tank, which in turn would mean you need 5 fill ups.  Using this knowledge, you can then go to your map and get an idea of where you’d need to fill up and then go into Gas Buddy and look at the area gas prices using the Heat Map.  OR, you could go to their nifty Trip Cost Calculator, enter up to 12 stops (it won’t be “dead-on-balls” accurate but it works), answer some questions regarding fuel efficiency or enter the make/model info, and presto, it not only does the work for you in telling you where to stop for gas, but also tells you how much it thinks you’ll pay, based on the cheapest gas station in the area it’s determined you should fill up.  Using that number (or the number from the first method) you can then tweak it to what you feel would be a good estimate and provide that to the group, splitting evenly amongst everyone.

Going even deeper, make sure everyone who can contribute to the planning is involved.  If someone is really good with organization, have them create lists for each attendee of all the caches, their requirements, etc.  While the vast majority of those playing this game have smartphones, tablets, and laptops, sometimes it’s easier to unplug a bit and go analog when it comes to getting their notes and logs together for caches on these runs.  If someone is creative, have them come up with things to entertain while between caches, especially if you’re on a long trip with vast distances between stops.  And while snack food like chips are always an easy go-to, if someone has a knack for cooking, by all means, ask them to make something special, be it Puppy Chow or even homemade Chex Mix.  These treats will serve the group well and keep spirits high.  While these details may seem trivial or unnecessary, if you’re going to be confined to a vehicle for a lengthy period of time, any little deviation from the status quo will make things that much more enjoyable.

I’m not going to preach that this is the only way to plan.  This is technically only my 3rd go with this sort of thing and I’m still learning and finding ways to tweak my method.  There might be some of you out there reading this that know of a better way to do this.  If so, I invite you to leave a comment explaining what you do when it comes to planning.  I don’t think there is a wrong way to do this, but perhaps there’s a more streamlined method or less over-thinking involved.

Don’t forget, I’ll be posting daily recaps of our upcoming trip while on the road, so if you’re looking forward to seeing what a trip of this magnitude is like, you won’t want to miss it.

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One thought on “The Rigors of Planning an Epic Cache Run

  1. Pingback: One Year Later: A post-mortem of CIA-NEA13 | Tales from the GZ

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