Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ga Ga for Geocaching

Sneaking a peak at something in his hand, the stranger walks up to the bus stop and sits on the bench. He casually looks around and, when he sees no one is watching him, reaches under the bench. He pulls a small object from under the bench. He examines the object, opens it, and pulls out a piece of paper. He unrolls the paper, makes a note on it, and replaces it in the object. He then replaces the object under the bench, and strolls away.

The stranger is not a spy or drug dealer engaging in nefarious deeds. He is a geocacher, who has just logged another find.

I became aware of geocaching several years ago through coworkers and acquaintances that were involved in the sport. I recently received a GPS for Father’s Day and decided to try searching for a cache. My frequent business trips give me the opportunity to geocacher around the country, although at this point, I am still a novice.

Geocaching (pronounced “cashing”) is a relatively new sport that revolves around the availability of handheld GPS (global positioning system) units. Geocaching is essentially a high-tech scavenger hunt in which cachers look up the coordinates of caches on the internet, and then use their GPS units to find them. When they find a cache, they log their find on the internet. Some caches are only large enough to hold a piece of paper for cachers to sign. Others are large enough for cachers to swap small trinkets and coins. Still others are virtual caches that are simply logged on the internet.

GPS is a satellite navigation system that first became operational in the early 1990s. In the early days, it was primarily a military system. Civilian GPS receivers had only a limited ability to decode the GPS signals, and so were not as accurate as military units. That changed on May 1, 2000 when the Department of Defense turned off selective-availability, which greatly improved the accuracy of civilian units. Geocaching got its start a few days later on when Dave Ulmer of Oregon placed a cache, which was found twice in the next few days.

Today, GPS accuracy is much improved by the addition of more satellites to the GPS constellation. However, a civilian GPS still does not have pinpoint accuracy. Most GPS units can find a position within 30-40 feet. When searching for a cache, this means that your GPS will get you close, but you still have to do some looking.

To start geocaching, visit The site is the grand central station of the geocaching world. It includes a section on how to get started and has links to websites that will help you select a GPS unit. You can purchase a GPS for approximately $150. Registration on is free for basic services. You can become a premium member for $30 per year.

Once you have your GPS, the next step is to find a cache. On, you can search for a cache in several different ways, including near an address and by ZIP code. On my trips, I usually search for caches using the address of my hotel. In most areas, there are a multitude of caches within one mile of the hotel.

Caches are listed with a name, code, and distance. There is also a rating on how difficult the cache is to find and how difficult the terrain around the cache is. A novice geocacher would probably want to look for 1s in both areas. Icons tell the type of cache as well as identifying caches that contain special items such as travel bugs and geocoins.

A travel bug is a tag that is attached to an item. You then place the bug in a cache and track it as cachers move it from cache to cache. Geocoins are promotional coins with unique IDs that are tracked like travel bugs.

An important item to note about the cache page is its size. Caches range from micro, about the size of a film canister, to large ammunition cans and watertight plastic containers. Micro caches are more common in urban areas because they are easier to conceal. Larger caches may require camouflage to prevent passersby from finding them.

People not in on the geocaching game are referred to as mugglers. Mugglers sometimes muggle, or remove, caches. Geocachers should try to avoid mugglers to ensure that caches are not muggled.

An assortment of tricks and camouflage are used to prevent muggling. Micro caches can be concealed in nooks and crannies. Magnetic key holders could hold a micro cache. Larger caches can be hidden under leaves, rocks, bricks or other debris. Fake rocks can also camouflage a larger cache. Cache creators can be very creative.

Geocaching has become a popular family activity. Adults and kids alike enjoy getting out and searching for a cache. Kids enjoy swapping items, such as small toys, from the “treasure chest.” Kids sometimes seem to have an easier time finding caches than the adults.

Geocaching can be whatever you want it to be. Whether you want to drive directly to the cache site or go on a hike, you can find caches to suit your preference. Many of the caches that I have found were in urban areas where my feet never left the pavement. With 620,132 caches currently listed on, the odds are that you can find a suitable cache near you, no matter where in the world you are.

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