Rating Difficulty/Terrain for a hide

When you submit a cache, you need to carefully consider the difficulty and terrain rating that you give it. This gives an indication to finders of what may be involved in finding the cache without them having to dig too deep into the description. Additional details can then be provided in the description and attributes if there are any notable hazards, if any special equipment is required, if there is a difficult puzzle to solve first, etc…

For multi-caches the difficulty may be increased if there are many stages, or a lot of clues to hunt. For puzzle caches don’t just consider the difficulty of finding it, but also the difficulty of solving the puzzle first.

As a personal note I find micros hard to find when they are hanging from a nail. With a micro you typically think that if it’s up high it will either be poked into a hole, resting on something, or magnetic. You don’t really think it will be hanging on a nail out of sight. So perhaps if you’re placing that kind of cache you may want to up the rating slightly. We found one on Saturday that was behind a fence panel hanging on a nail. There was a string of 5 DNF’s before we got there so we planned a very brief search. However, something made us stay and carry on searching. There had been plenty of DNF’s before and the difficulty was a 4 star. It was also in a place that was unlikely to get muggled. After a 20 minute search we had it. We were looking in holes on the fence, in tops of fence posts, in trees behind the fence, on the ground buried under leafs. NOTHING! The difficulty rating was definitely appropriate in this case!

The official Groundspeak documents on rating your cache are provided here. However there are also a couple of online rating systems that allow you to answer a few questions and receive a recommended rating score. These are only guidelines, and you are the best at judging what rating your cache should be. There are also half stars, so if you think you’re inbetween two ratings you can use the half stars to reflect that. So let’s take my underwater cache as an example…

Cache and Splash

Cache Container – The container is very non-typical. Sure there are other rock caches out there and I have found 3 of these, however this rock cache is very different and I expect (and hope) that none of the finders will have encountered a container like it.

Access – The path to the cache is not actually too bad. There’s quite a steep gradient leading onto the trail and you would probably have a bit of a job getting a wheelchair to it. Also, it would probably get a bit muddy in winter. It’s no more than half a mile from the road along a marked footpath and there are in fact about 5 different routes for access and ample parking places in a lay-by.

Cache Location – OK, this is where it does get a little tricky. Although I sometimes see kids playing in the stream where the cache will be it’s probably not the safest place for kids to play. The water is very shallow and they wouldn’t drown, but they may slip and hurt themselves. Therefore I probably wouldn’t recommend it as a cache that younger kids should go in and get. It will be hidden under a stepping stone, underwater with another stepping stone resting on the stone that is over the cache meaning it is not visible. Therefore to find it, you will have to remove the resting stone, plunge your hand into the water, and pull out the rock container before flipping it over to see the micro container inside. There is a fair bit of muggle traffic around here as a lot of people walk their dogs along these paths.

First we observe GroundSpeak’s text-based documentation:

1 star Easy
In plain sight or can be found in a few minutes of searching.
1 star Handicapped accessible
Terrain is likely to be paved, is relatively flat, and less than a ½ mile hike is required.
2 star Average
The average cache hunter would be able to find this in less than 30 minutes of hunting.
2 star Suitable for small children
Terrain is generally along marked trails, there are no steep elevation changes or heavy overgrowth. Less than a 2 mile hike required.
3 star Challenging
An experienced cache hunter will find this challenging, and it could take up a good portion of an afternoon.
3 star Not suitable for small children
The average adult or older child should be OK depending on physical condition. Terrain is likely off-trail. May have one or more of the following: some overgrowth, some steep elevation changes, or more than a 2 mile hike.
4 star Difficult
A real challenge for the experienced cache hunter – may require special skills or knowledge, or in-depth preparation to find. May require multiple days / trips to complete.
4 star Experienced outdoor enthusiasts only
Terrain is probably off-trail. Will have one or more of the following: very heavy overgrowth, very steep elevation (requiring use of hands), or more than a 10 mile hike. May require an overnight stay.
5 star Extreme
A serious mental or physical challenge. Requires specialized knowledge, skills, or equipment to find cache.
5 star Requires specialized equipment and knowledge or experience
(boat, 4WD, rock climbing, SCUBA, etc.) or is otherwise extremely difficult.

Going by the Groundspeak guidelines, for difficulty I’d mark it as 2 stars (Average), however I do think an experienced cacher could find it a little challenging, but not challenging enough to take up most of the afternoon. So overall I’d probably mark it 2.5 for difficulty. For terrain I wouldn’t say it would be suitable for small children, and I wouldn’t quite tick any of the boxes for it to be challenging so again I’ll opt for a safe 2.5 for terrain.

Next I tested it using Geocache Rating System by answering a series of questions, like so:

Is specialized equipment required? NO
Is an overnight stay likely? NO
What is the length of the hike? Less than 1/2 mile
What is the trail like? Other trail types
(Could be gravel, sand, mud, etc. May be an animal trail. If you’re riding a bike, it had better be a mountain bike.)
Is the path bushy or overgrown? Some light overgrowth
(An adult could step over or around this)
What is the terrain elevation like? Some elevation changes
(Changes are slight enough that someone could ride a bike up such a slope.)
How easy is it to find the cache? Cache may be very well hidden, may be multi-leg, or may use clues to location.

And the final result is: Difficulty 3, Terrain 3

Finally I tried TechBlazer’s Geocache rating survey which has slightly different questions. Strangely this page doesn’t work at all in Internet Explorer for me. I can use it fine in Firefox and Safari on my iPhone 😦


Hiding Spot Very well hidden in one of several locations / may require multiple trips to find (3/5)
Geocache container Camouflaged so that it appears to be part of the environment (4/5)
Description / Hint Vague, slightly cryptic, but can be solved using using common knowledge, the data on the cache page, or information at the cache location (3/5)
Environment / GPSr Reception Periods of light to mild traffic and/or muggle activity / decent GPSr reception (3/5)


Location Trail or path with a medium to hard surface / water hazard less than 6 inches deep (3/5)
Hike Distance Less than 1/2 mile from paved parking/road (2/5)
Vegetation/Wildlife Light (less than 12 inches) vegetation growth / encounters with poisonous plants and/or wildlife unlikely/seldom (2/5)
Elevation Little or no change in elevation / max slope less than 23 degrees (2/5)

This gives me the rating of Difficulty 3.25, Terrain 2.25.

So my final results from all 3 systems is:

Difficulty rating 2.5 3 3.25
Terrain rating 2.5 3 2.25

So which do I choose? If I do an average I get approximately 3 for difficulty and 2.5 for terrain. I think my favourite rating system was the TechBlazer one as they ask about the hint and details in the description. When you think about it, this is a very important aspect of rating the difficulty of a cache. I think I’m going to slightly up both averages by 0.5 taking difficulty to 3.5 and terrain to 3. I don’t think any of the systems are going to give me an extremely accurate rating as my cache is an exception. It’s underwater. I’m currently at just over 500 caches and am yet to find one underwater. They are rare in my area in particular. I don’t plan to be too detailed in my description and hint, but will mention that you will get a wet hand, but shouldn’t get wet feet unless it’s been raining hard recently. I can’t really get away with not mentioning the wet hand bit, as it would be unfair for people to visit the cache thinking it’s just your usual hide. At least if they know they may get a little wet they can bring their wellies, a towel and some hand wipes.

So that’s my research. I’ll add a separate detailing my Top Ten Tips for cache ratings


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