How to Stumble into Geocaching

Jay Oyster's picture

I've recently taken up the hobby/game/interest/waste-of-time/pursuit(?) of geocaching. So how did this happen? Yet another thing to occupy my already endangered spare time? In hindsight, it seems only natural. It involves technology, being out in the woods, conservationism, exploration, and a childlike sense of wonder. What's truly a wonder is that I didn't stumble into this sooner.  But in my case, it took a nudge from my son and a conversation with my wife to get me off my duff to try it. My son got a treasure map from one of his friend. His father had given him a treasure map a couple of years ago, which led him to a treasure box on their property that was just chock full of gems and doubloons. Liam and his cousin were bouncing off the walls one Saturday about this map, because, you see, the map was BIGGER than just his friend's yard. It also showed areas all the way down to Florida . . and there were other treasures on it! We just about had to tackle them as they were headed out to hitchhike to the Sunshine State. (Not really, they're nine. But I wouldn't have put it past them if they had gotten any more worked up about that map.)

Just about to go down a slippery slope

My wife and I were talking about how fun it was to see Liam and Aidan so excited. I said something about how there's nothing better in the world than that sense of wonder you have as a child. And then my wife said those fateful words, "You know, we could take them geocaching or something, so they can at least find something."  One of our former neighbors had been into this hippy-thing called 'geocaching' and was always going on and on about it. That came to mind, so I looked into it. And a giant, bemusing, out-of-control slippery slope opened up under me and down I went . . . like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in 'Romancing the Stone'.

What is geocaching? Basically, it's a glorified global scavenger hunt, using any GPS-enabled device to guide you. It was started about fifteen years ago by a couple of people in Oregon (naturally) who were into GPS and exploring the natural world. It has now evolved into a global passion followed by millions of people in search of more than 2.6 million individual secret stashes of stuff. Mostly the stuff doesn't matter, it's the hunt that matters. The game is to log into one of the two or three cache tracking websites, find one in the area where you will be travelling, use your iPhone or Garmen to track it down, FIND IT (not always a simple taask), open it, trade stuff for stuff, sign the logbook, put it back where you found it (hopefully hidden even better than when you found it), and finally log your find online. To get the most out of it, you have to pick one of the geocaching communities. There is an Open Caching site and movement, mostly pushed by the GPS maker Garmin, which is sort of like the wild west of geocaching. But 99% of all geocachers use the ones that started it all: Geocaching.com, which is run out of Portland, Oregon by several of the originators of the activity, with their company Groundspeak, Inc. But all of the things you need are at Geocaching.com.

This is the Geocaching.com logo. The symbol often shows up on the side of a cache . . . if you can ever find the damned thingI'm just a baby at this. My score is only 6. That means I've located 6 geocaches, all in my local area, all within the last two weeks. There seem to be thousands in the Atlanta area alone. Heck, I found one less than 1000 feet from our house, and another less than 500 feet from my office. The fun of it is that once you get within about 50 feet of a cache, GPS isn't going to help you much. It isn't that precise . . . and frankly, lots of the people who create these caches are just evil. They go out of their way to make it hard to find them. (Don't get me wrong, most of them aren't that hard. Many of them are obvious once you get nearby. It depends on what the cacher is going for . . . a tricky, clever hide, or just to get you to a beautiful spot out in nature.)

Our two and their three cousins locating their first geocacheLast Sunday, I conned all five boys, our two plus their three cousins, to walk down our street and across Riverside Drive where there is a big wooded 'park'. It's sort of attached to the Roswell Community park system, but not really. It's just a low lying area near the Chattahoochie River. They looked like the cast of Stand By Me. And we went hunting for three geocaches I found on the Geocaching iPhone app. We found two, couldn't find the other. The last one was truly out in the woods, and it was getting kind of late, and the boys were freaking out because . . .well, there's lots of spiders in the woods in Georgia. hee hee hee.

But finding them, especially when their hiding spot is tricky or clever, is just a joy to experience. It's especially fun to see kids come upon a location and run around looking for the cache. And then when you open the cache, you get to see them pour over the contents. Usually, as long as it hasn't been muggled, there a logbook, a pen that probably doesn't work (take your own at all times, that seems to be the rule), some swag, maybe a couple of geotagged items, and very rarely, some real treasure.

Some important terms (Lots of exclusive terms are important to any secretive playful community):

  • A Muggle - A person who doesn't know about geocaching
  • Muggled - When a cache has been disturbed, distroyed or stolen by a muggle
  • Swag - Mostly just little colorful trinkets. The rule: if you take one, leave something of equal or greater value. Every geocacher carries around a bag of old toy pieces and dollar store knick-knacks to trade.
  • Trackables - Items that have unique identifiers attached that are being tracked by the owner on geocaching.com. You're not supposed to take them, but rather pick them up and move them along to another a cache. And you're supposed to log when you've picked one up or drop one off somewhere. 
  • Travel Bugs - A sort of dog-tag like thing that is a particular kind of geotag sold by Groundspeak. Usually, they're attached to a little toy or keyring sort of thing that identifies it.
  • Hitchhiker - The colorful toy or keyring sort of thing attached to a travel bug or geotag.
  • Geocoins - A very special kind of geotag that was usually created as a limited set to be used as collectibles by parts of the community, but also sent around as regular geotags. My impression is that most of these get stolen very quickly when people try to send them around, so you won't see one very often these days.
  • Treasure - Very rarely, depending on how difficult it is to locate and get to a geocache, some caches really have something of value in them. Mostly it's just symbolic value, like a particular giveaway token that the cache owner provides, but sometimes there are actual coins or other valuables. But that's not the point. It seems that most geocachers would rather leave such things so that the next child that finds the cache will get that amazing sense of wonder of finding a real treasure.
  • Souvenirs - These are virtual badges or achievements that are given and tracked on the Geocaching.com website. For instance, you get a souvenir for each state in which you find a cache. Others are for finding a cache that's part of a special event, a multi-cache challenge or a mystery cache. A lot of this activity seems to be about gathering experiences. These are to help track that.
  • BYOP - Bring your own pencil
  • FTF - First to find. The recognition given by a cache owner to the first person to find a newly placed geocache.

I have to admit that I'm doing this at least partially as an experience for my boys . . . but to be honest I have to admit that it's also a blast for me. My wife says she hasn't seen me this excited about anything in a long while.  So what's next? Well, I'm going to go out and find a ton more caches, logging them all and hopefully finding a few travel bugs. Adri and I are going to Italy next month and I can't wait to take along a few trackables to a new continent! 

Some examples of geocache containersAnd then, of course, there's the create of my own caches. I'm taking this seriously, even if it is fun. They recommend that you don't try to create your own cache until you've found at least 15 or 20, so you know what the do's and don'ts are of this activity. I've already gotten some hints about it:

  • a geocache can be in anything, from tiny to very large, but they always need to be a watertight container of some sort, or otherwise protected from rain and snow
  • Latching tupperware containers (or similar) that have a seal inside the lid are the most popular
  • Larger ones are often made from ammunition boxes (some real, from Army surplus stores) but most just plastic versions of the same thing
  • There are very small caches often placed in urban settings, like pill bottles and things called 'Bison tubes' (It's a brand name, I gather.)
  • PVC pipe seems to be very popular, as well as coffee cans and other screw top bottles
  • At least basic camouflage is needed if you don't want your cache to be muggled
  • The community respects clever, tricky, creative, fun, and most of all . . . wondrous

I think I'm going to be doing this for years to come. It gives us an excuse to get out and see places and things in the world we wouldn't have seen otherwise, and it's always good to be out among the trees. I plan to place caches both here in Georgia and up in Ohio where I was born. And maybe I'll use woodworking to create some treasures of my own to place out in the Cache-o-sphere and see where they go. It sounds fabulous.