Time to Discover Geocaching
A growing community of GPS-enabled adventurers has turned the world into its own personal treasure map.
Strolling through forgotten historic sites or discovering the hidden corners of a familiar city, they seek out petrified dinosaur tracks and solve puzzles stashed in trees. “I think there is a universal appeal in having that discovery and adventure and finding that location,” says Shauna Maggs, one of the new breed of geocachers who hunt for more than 800,000 notable places and secret containers hidden around the globe and cataloged online.
Geocaching hobbyists use clues and GPS coordinates from sites like geocaching.com, navicache.com and terracaching.com to find stashes that have been hidden by other participants. Once the GPS gets them close, they search for containers like plastic boxes and film canisters. These found objects contain a log of all the people who’ve discovered them, and many also hold trinkets to exchange, including geo coins and travel bugs that may be moved to other caches after they’ve been found. Geocachers are expected to either leave the cache or replace it with something of similar or higher value.
For frequent travelers, the hobby can turn a few free hours otherwise spent with a hotel’s cable lineup into an entertaining trek to some favorite local spots. Have an iPhone or any other phone with GPS? You’re in.
All you need is GPS
Groundspeak, where Maggs is the director of marketing, owns geocaching.com, the leading resource for enthusiasts to look up caches and record the ones they’ve hidden. The proliferation of portable GPS technology has helped draw an estimated two to three million people to the activity since it began in 2000.
In May of that year, the U.S. government vastly improved the accuracy of signals that civilians could receive from the military’s navigation satellites. The next day, an early GPS enthusiast got the idea to hide a box of bric-a-brac “treasure” in the woods and post its coordinates. An online community soon gelled around the challenge of finding caches and hiding new ones. While the coordinates are easy to obtain online, a GPS device is still only accurate within 15 to 30 feet—so there’s always an element of tracking skill (or just luck) involved.
“There’s a random circle for the guy who put it there and measured it, and there’s a random circle for you,” says geocacher Jim Evans of Clear Lake, Tex.
“There are caches everywhere, essentially, and some of them are in very-difficult-to-get-to locations,” Evans says. There are caches hidden atop Mount Kilimanjaro and at the South Pole. Some require seekers to solve puzzles and find multiple clues. In other variants, people look for geologic features known as EarthCaches or discover unique places, known as waymarks.
In Brady Nellis’s home town of Golden, Colo., he placed a cache near a sod house built around the time of the Civil War. “It’s one of those things where people say, I live three blocks from here, and I didn’t know it was here,” Nellis says. Under the geocaching handle of Grand High Poobah, Nellis has found more than 15,000 caches and manages cacherstats.com.
Handheld GPS units can cost as little as $100, and Nellis says that beginners can get started without a major investment: “We have a number of people who have very basic, entry-level GPSs, and they do a great job.”
Spending more will get you a better receiver, and technology known as WAAS can increase accuracy. Most units come preloaded with major streets, and more detailed maps are available for purchase. But whether you have the latest handheld device or just a company smartphone, anyone can use GPS to discover the secret nooks and crannies of just about every community in the U.S.
Freelance writer PETER BARNES does not own a GPS, but may have run out of excuses now that he’s discovered geocaching.