Geocaching 101

Rich with a geocache

Since October 5, 2001, I have been playing a game called geocaching.  What is geocaching?  It’s sort of a high-tech treasure hunt.  People hide a container of some sort – a “cache” – containing a logbook and sometimes other stuff somewhere out in the world.  Using a GPS device, they obtain the latitude and longitude coordinates for the hiding spot, then post them online.  Other people then download the coordinates, and go look for the container.  When they find the container, they sign the logbook.  If there is something else in the cache, the player has the option to trade something they brought with them for something in the cache.  They then re-hide the container in the place they found it.  Later, they can go to the website where the cache is listed, and create an online log documenting their visit.

By far, the biggest and most popular geocache listing website is Geocaching.com.  As of the time this was written, there were 1,728,669 active geocaches listed on Geocaching.com.  Other geocache listing sites include Terracaching.com, Navicache.com, GPSGames.org, OpenCaching.us, and OpenCaching.com.

The only things a person needs to go geocaching is an account on one of the listing websites, and a handheld GPS device of some sort.  If a person is good with aerial photos, they can even get by without the GPS, using a service such as Google Earth to download aerial photos with the cache location marked.  I did this for years, and still do, from time-to-time.

Geocache under a bridge

Geocaches can be hidden almost anywhere – in forests, on the side of the road, in city parks, or in a Wal*Mart parking lot.  I have one hidden in my front yard.  Some places – such as national parks and some nature preserves – will not allow caches, and most sites have some kind of guidelines regarding where is considered acceptable, or not, to place caches.

The containers can range in size from a 5-gallon (or bigger) container, to a “nanocache” no bigger than a pencil eraser.  There are even a few “virtual” caches, without an actual container.  All caches (except the virtuals) contain some sort of log book or log sheet for the finder to sign.

Some caches contain trade items – called “swag” – in addition to the log book.  Very seldom is the swag valuable; typically, it’s small toys, nick-knacks, and dollar-store trinkets.  If a cacher finds a cache and wants a swag item from the cache, they are supposed to replace the item with something they have brought with them, of equal or greater value than what they remove.

Microcache

Some people ask me, what’s the point of geocaching, if there’s not a real treasure to find?  The fun is the hunt.  There’s something about hunting for things that other people have hidden that seems to be intrinsically entertaining for a lot of people.   It’s like hide-and-seek for geeks.  It’s fascinating to see all the different, creative ways people can hide a cache, often in plain sight, so that a passer-by won’t find it, but someone who is looking for it can find it.

Another thing that makes geocaching fun is the variety of kinds of caches.  Most caches are of the “traditional” variety – the GPS coordinates take you to the cache location.  There are also “multi-caches” where the GPS takes the person to a clue, that gives them another set of coordinates leading to another clue, leading to another, eventually leading to the final cache location.  “Puzzle” caches require the hunter to solve some sort of puzzle to obtain the coordinates for the cache; some puzzles are simple, but others can be extremely difficult.  There are even “event caches” where geocachers meet at a certain place and time to swap stories, share a meal, and/or participate in geocaching-related activities.

Geocaches can be easy or difficult to find.  Caches are given a difficulty and terrain rating by the hider, on a scale of 1 (easy) to 5 (difficult).  A terrain of 1 should be wheelchair accessible; a terrain of 5 requires specialized equipment, such as climbing gear, scuba gear, or a boat.  A difficulty of 1 means the location should be obvious once the cacher is nearby; a difficulty of 5 means that the cache will be very difficult to find, even if the hunter is right next to it.

Travel Bug

Many geocaches also contain “trackable” items.  These items have a unique serial number attached, which allows them to be assigned to a specific cache.  When a cacher removes the trackable item from the cache, they move it to a different cache, and log the move online using the serial number.  In this manner, trackables can be tracked as they move from cache to cache, and from cacher to cacher.  Common trackable items include Travel Bugs and geocoins.  Trackable serial numbers can even be attached to vehicles, ballcaps, and t-shirts.

Geocaching is a great way to see new places and meet new people.  Many areas have geocaching clubs that meet together from time to time, volunteer in parks, or work with local governing authorities to keep geocaching safe and accessible.  If a person has an interest in the outdoors, moderate computer skills, and a flair for adventure, geocaching is a great way to explore the world.  Most caches are good for small children, the elderly, and everyone in between.  My son has been hunting them since he was barely 3 years old.  Many can be accessed by people with physical disabilities.  Geocaching is a great diversion when traveling – most highway rest areas have at least one cache, and tourist areas are popular places to hide geocaches.

If you think geocaching sounds interesting, give it a try.  But beware – it’s addicting!

For more information, visit the Geocaching.com website.

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