Tuesday, August 18, 2009

This just in.. I made a bonehead move.

Today is my blunder post. We’ve nabbed a few caches in the past few days—which has been nice—but in the pursuit of another park and grab, I made a mistake. Fence post caches are pretty neat spots but there’s only a few ways you can hide a cache on a fencepost. Yesterday I approached a cache location, saw a fencepost and knew immediately it was one of these three ways: hanging inside, attached to the lid or magnetically affixed.

This cache was one of the “inside the pipe” hung-by-a-hook type, and I spotted it immediately. I set down my PDA, reached for the cache.. and promptly dropped it. It fell all the way down the pipe to the bottom. Great. I logged the find but gingerly left the cache and posted a note as to my mistake. I came back later that evening to try and extricate it with a hanging magnet but I hadn’t thought that through either as the magnet would (duh) cling to the side of the pipe instead of gently being lowered to the metal hook. I had another idea to remove it, but It occurred to me that I was going through far too much trouble for a hanging micro.

So I’m going to open my cache box at home and see if I can fashion a suitable replacement. If not, I will offer to upgrade the owner’s cache with an Army decon container.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hardware: Geocaching with a PDA

The hardware! It’s about time I got to this article. I’ve received a number of inquiries about how I make the PDA work as a geocaching device, and it’s actually pretty simple. I have a knack for over-complicating things, but I have to admit—this one is pretty straightforward.

The gear:

n Dell Axim X30 PDA with Bluetooth

  • 1 car charger
  • 1 desktop cradle sync/charger
  • 3 cases (2 aluminum hard, 1 black leather soft)

n Holux GR-230 Bluetooth GPSr “puck”

  • 1 charger A/C + usb cigarette lighter charger port

n 1 Apple iPod Touch 2nd Generation (optional)

The Axim:


n It’s cheap! When I first bought mine in 2004, it cost me thereabouts of $200 +/-. Now a solid used unit will run $50-90 depending on condition and accessories on eBay.

n Replaceable battery! There’s essentially 2 types of Li-ion batteries for the Axim—900mAh, which sits flush with the PDA’s back and 1400mAh (the extended battery) which sits about ¼ inch out from the back of the PDA. Ironically enough, each cost roughly the same on eBay at $10 each and they typically last 3-5 years depending on use and care.

n SD card, wi-fi, bluetooth, internal microphone, external speaker, runs all Windows Mobile 2003 software—syncs with Outlook or a server for contacts, calendar, email and files—infared port for sharing data, printing or working as a remote control.. etc. You get the idea. This little guy does quite a bit.

n It’s light! With the 900mAh battery installed, it weighs less than my cellphone (handy if dropped—less inertia = less chance of damage)


n It’s not ruggedized. It is a PDA, after all. To get around this, I’ve procured two aluminum cases (one for the 900mAh battery size and another for the extended battery) with neoprene cushioning.

n Battery life. With the 1400mAh battery, battery life is approximately 4 hours without any form of recharge. The 900mAh will yield about 2 hours and change depending on usage and battery care. To mitigate battery drain as an issue, I travel with the 900mAh as a backup battery and charge the device between caches when driving.

n It’s a 2-part unit. To work as a geocaching platform, the Dell Axim must connect with a GPS receiver. This can be done through a physical cable but that’s just not very conducive to good caching. Instead I connect to a Holux-manufactured GPSr “puck”. And yes, as the name suggests.. it looks like a hockey puck.

The Holux GR-230 GPSr:

There's really not much to say about this device, and certainly not enough to do a pro/con writeup. It's operation is mind-numbingly simple. Get this—you turn it on. Oh, yeah that's really all there is to it. Once you turn it on, you connect to it via bluetooth on the PDA and viola, you've got a GPS feed. It's durable, it comes with a non-slip pad on the bottom to keep it anchored to whatever you set it down on (no adhesive) and the battery life is extremely long. I got 8 hours out of it once, and it was still going strong without a recharge.

It does come with a port for an antenna if you'd like to plug it into a vehicle without a clear view of the sky above, and it's chargeable both through DC (USB cable to a cigarette lighter charger) or A/C (USB cable to a regular A/C socket plug adapter).

The iPod Touch:

I've got to say, this is one cool app for iPhone users but it's less than helpful for iPod Touch users--especially those who already have an all-in-one caching platform on the PDA. That said, it's user and fat-finger friendly so I've caught myself using it from time to time. If I could use the iPod Touch the same way I use the PDA, I'd retire the PDA as the iPod Touch has far more features and capabilities than the PDA and a much longer battery life.

In the field I've caught myself shutting down the PDA when I get to the cache location, and whipping out the iPod from time to time to get the cache hint and/or clues to the cache itself. I do this because it preserves battery on the PDA and its easy to "fat finger" your way through the cache details. The PDA has the exact same data, but it takes me just a little bit longer to get to it.

That’s about it! As I’ve said before, it’s pretty straightforward. If you have any questions regarding your setup, don’t hesitate to ask.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Updated paperless software setup for PDA geocaching

Since I’ve been successful at getting the PDA brought back from the dead like Lazarus from the grave, I thought I’d share how my PDA setup looks and feels as a total geocaching platform. This is going to be a longer post with more pictures than usual, so go grab a cup of coffee and a warm blanket.. or perhaps a nice frosty lager (just one!)—whatever your preference.

First things first, the biggest and most prevalent problem with PDA geocachers is battery life. With the Dell Axim (and many other good quality PDAs) there’s one great, cheap and easy fix—a higher capacity battery. I bought a 1400mAh extended life battery and a replacement 900mAh battery (sits flush with the device), and so far the 1400mAh is more than enough by itself. The battery monitoring software I’ve installed has shown a 4 hour lifetime with strong PDA use (Bluetooth, gps applications, TomTom, etc.) and that’s not even factoring the spare 900mAh I keep.

I’ll focus on the hardware in another post. Today I want to focus on the software. Under most circumstances, I stick with only three bits of software on my Dell Axim (Windows Mobile 2003) PDA—TomTom navigator, BeeLineGPS, and Cachemate. Sometimes I’ll use GPXview, but it’s similar in function to Cachemate and much slower to use. All of these geocaching-related software packages are listed in the right of this blog’s page under “notable links.” The design of this setup is entirely a paperless caching device born on outside functionality as a business (or personal) tool as well. Until recently, it served as my everything box—a contacts, email and calendar platform with internet functionality (with the added benefit of serving as a Skype-phone too).

The PDA connects via Bluetooth to a Holux GR-230 “puck” that weights a few ounces and has a separate and very slow draining battery. Once I establish a connection between the PDA and the Holux (a 5 second procedure of clicking 2 buttons) I’ll get to the business of locating a cache and navigating to it.

TomTom is the program I use primarily to identify local caches in relation to the roads available—I import my Geocaching.com .gpx files in to TomTom by loading them in GSAK and converting them to .ov2 files and copying them to the TomTom maps directory on my PDA. I’ll usually use the GC.com website to get a rough idea of the locale I want to visit and make a brief list of caches I want to hit before I go. It’s not required by any stretch, but I prefer having a small checklist of my own. If I don’t make the list, I’ll just load TomTom and look for a cache (identified by the beige asterisk in the left screenshot), and then tell TomTom to navigate me there with turn-by-turn directions. Before TomTom, I used Mapopolis—but they’ve since folded and are offering no support for purchasers of their original product (TomTom is still the better product in my opinion anyway, so despite the additional cash out that wasn’t so bad after all). The latest version of TomTom fetched about $150 USD at the time this article was written.

Once I get within the vicinity of the cache, I’ll close TomTom and open up a program called BeeLineGPS. This is my core geocaching program as it allows me to simply import my .gpx files and display them in the same way that most modern GPS geocaching devices do, with plenty of added features (more on those in another post). BeeLineGPS will take me within 2-4 feet of a cache, and will provide a track line so I can trace my way back out of a location the exact way I came. It’s a super-easy program to use, and runs automatically once loaded. I’ll usually highlight the cache I’m targeting in BeeLineGPS and ask it to draw a line between me and the cache (one tap) so I can keep an eye on the general location of the cache without being zoomed too far out. The latest version of BeeLineGPS fetched $29.95 at the time this article was written, and all future updates are provided free.

Once I’m satisfied with my location, I’ll close BeeLineGPS and load up Cachemate to learn more about the specific details of the cache and perhaps pry into the hint and the latest finds if I’m having trouble. Cachemate is essentially a portable database that allows geocachers to go into the field entirely paperless on the same PDA, with full access to the data contained within the .gpx files. The latest version of Cachemate fetched $10 USD at the time this article was penned. However, as an alternative to Cachemate users are more than welcome to try GPXview available at Geocaching.com’s website under the download section for free. It serves a similar purpose (with slightly fewer functions) as Cachemate, but it’s definitely a slower program to load—something that can be very tedious when you are out caching and switching quickly between programs. Cachemate is clearly the superior program despite the price tag.

Altogether, these programs are the totality of our geocaching toolkit, and they all operate on our Dell Axim X30 with a Holux bluetooth GPS puck (all circa 2004). I've recently acquired an iPod Touch, so I also carry along the Geocaching app (which serves mostly as an alternative to Cachemate for iPod Touch users).

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Return of TetrAmigos! Hooah!

The battery came in—the big extended 1700 mAh battery that doesn’t sit flush with the device—and I got the software loaded, so today when I finally had some time to grab a lunch break I decided to get out and geocache a little bit in the nearby area to clear my head. It was amazingly effective.

The first cache I set out to find was ingeniously hidden. The clue told me that it was on a fence and magnetic—pretty easy, right? Wrong. The cache owner had somehow located one of the bolts that was loose and pulled it out. He sanded off the end of it, and affixed a very small micro with a metal head and a small magnet. I almost didn’t believe I’d found it when I had, because I’d been looking for 15 minutes and just happened to stumle on the right one. GPS coordinates were off by about 7-10 feet (I know, I’m picky) but I eventually had her logged and was on my way smiling from ear to ear.

I nabbed a total of 5 caches today: Fencing 101, Wildwood Trail Troll (great view), Set Your Sites Low (smelled of urine and feces—everyone’s dream cache location), and Montclef Blvd P&G 1 & 2. The cache with the less-than-favorable odors wasn’t the safest spot to hide a cache, either. Sometimes you have to wonder why you’re the only one to A) notice it and B) actually say something about it. A few years ago I found a cache that was hidden behind a car safety rail—the kind they put up to deflect a car from going off a hill—at the end of a blind hill. Genius. To top it off, there was no safety margin of a sidewalk or obstacle to hide behind if one of the 50mph cars strayed. I wasn’t too quiet about that one.

All in all, it looks like team TetrAmigos is back in action, using an upgraded setup to boot! I’ll post more on the status of the geocaching tools later, but for now I’m going to bask in the glory of getting our cache count up a little higher and enjoying some spectacular and not-so-spectacular views along the way.

The Noid Retoins! ..and 100 reasons why I'm wearing the "dunce cap"

I’m fired. In the process of digging up my old geocaching gear and getting everything back up to snuff, I found something.. and now I feel about 2” tall.

I found the Noid Retoins. A few years ago I visited my first event cache—Farewell Blig—a fellow who was known in the local area for placing some of the most challenging caches known. He was moving off to Texas, so the local geocachers and I got together and celebrated over pizza and a couple of beers.

To celebrate the event, we all brought our favorite trackables to trade and log . I dropped off a bunch of the wooden nickels that I’d helped manufacture and picked up a travel bug. Well, between then and now the travel bug had disappeared and I was feeling sheepish as the responsible cacher who irresponsibly lost it.

Good news! I still feel 2” tall, but the Noid Retoins and will be placed in a cache as quickly as possible to get going again. To the owner “chaosmanor” I sincerely apologize. The next time we meet, the round is on me. Count on it.

Lesson to myself and others? If you loose a travel bug it’s generally considered good etiquette to replace the bug and apologize to the owner personally. I did non of these things, and for that I deserve the dunce cap of the month and the shame that comes with it. Chaosmanor had a ton of patience—more than I would have exhibited under the circumstances.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Geocaching Revival: Teaching an old dog (Axim X30) new tricks

Wow, another big gap. And my cache count has dropped. Wait, what? Dropped?! Yep. So much time away, and the slow decomposition of old finds has seen our find count drop to the 60s. Definitely not cool, and definitely time to get out there and get back to it. We’re done having kids and both kids are walking and always looking for excuses to get out. What better reason than treasure hunting?

So for the third time, we’re reinventing our little family team with a new name and improved technology. Always a stickler for making old dogs learn new tricks, I’ve decided to blow the dust off of the old Axim X30 and turn it back on again. In digging out the old trusty Axim and blowing the dust off of it’s various components (literally), I began the BDA (battle damage assessment for you non-military types).

As I suspected, the battery and the backup battery were near useless after 5 years of use and 2 years of inactivity. The internal emergency battery was drained and the portable USB cable was MIA. Oh and I’d cannibalized the SD card it once depended on, so that’s going to need replacement too. Here’s the good news. As far as hardware is concerned, larger higher-capacity batteries are now available for the Dell Axim series at a very low price. SD cards are also cheaper and much higher capacity. So I dropped about $20 at eBay and picked up a replacement oversize battery and a flush 900mAh battery. I put in a bid on an OEM replacement USB cable, and will likely head down to a local store for a cheap 2GB replacement SD card.

On the software front, there’s been a number of changes as well. After a quick trip to Dell and Microsoft’s websites for the latest ROM updates to my Axim X30, I began poking around at the software companies where I’d purchased my custom GPS and geocaching software packages previously.

Certainly they would have released more advanced versions of these programs, and with any luck these upgrades would be free! I can’t test them out yet until I get the SD card (all software will be installed on the SD card to keep plenty of operating memory available and free on the device) but a few tests proved that BeeLineGPS has been updated to fix bugs and provide new features. I still have my TomTom software package, so I’ll be using that as well.

Lastly, the Mrs. bought me an iPod Touch for my birthday so I’ll be looking to download the Geocaching app for that as well to enhance my multitasking paperless capabilities on the trails.

More to follow as our GPS geocaching hardware is updated and upgraded.