Outdoors / Tips and Solutions

Hide and Seek: Geocaching 101


Muggles. You have probably heard that term before, in reference to J.K. Rowling’s now iconic Harry Potter series. In those books, and subsequent films, “Muggles” refers to people who aren’t magical; those who are not in the know about such fantastical things. Another group of people has taken to using this term, although they do not use it to allude to any mystical powers. They do, however, use an invisible force to guide them in their quest.

In the Skies above Us

"Suddenly, people almost anywhere in the world could pinpoint their position to within about five meters..."

On May 2, 2000, a military technology was made available to the masses. This technology was previously only used for the precision guidance of military craft, but Congress knew the potential it held for the civilian world. A switch was thrown, and selective availability was removed, allowing civilians access to this new technology. In the skies above us, 24 Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) orbit the Earth, beaming down a series of numbers that can be interpreted by a receiver. Suddenly, people almost anywhere in the world could pinpoint their position to within about five meters (15 feet), which was deemed suitable for navigation but not accurate enough for more nefarious uses. Much like the ancient mariners who looked to the stars for guidance, we once again use celestial bodies to get us from Point A to Point B. 

The following day, May 3, computer consultant Dave Ulmer decided to test the accuracy of these satellites. He turned to the woods near Beavercreek, Oregon, a small town south of Portland. With him was a black bucket filled with various small items, along with a logbook and pencil. He deposited the items, and took a reading with a handheld GPS device before returning to his home. Once there, he uploaded the coordinates to a forum dedicated to GPS enthusiasts, calling the exercise the "Great American GPS Stash Hunt." The other forum members were encouraged to find the cache using only the posted coordinates—and find it they did. Within three days, two separate forum members found the stash using their own GPS receivers. The first one, Mike Teague, was so enamored with this quest that he began to compile coordinates of stashes around the world that he found online. This was the beginning of Geocaching.

GPS technology can be found almost everywhere, from airplanes to ocean liners, rail cars to tractor trailers. Your smartphone probably has one, as does your car, provided by the factory or purchased as an aftermarket item. Whether built into your car’s dashboard or suction-cupped to the windshield, I would hazard to guess that you depend on it to give you turn-by-turn directions. These GPS units have become so pervasive that the thought of breaking out the Atlas & Gazetteer and drawing a route is unheard of, and totally foreign to some younger-generation travelers. Modern navigation certainly uses this satellite-decoding machinery extensively. Like most technologies, the push to create better, faster, and smaller units has spurred innovation. These receivers have gotten so small that they can be tucked into a shirt pocket, and you would hardly know they were there. Some are even smaller, fitting inside a wristwatch, recording statistics about your daily travels.

"Much like the ancient mariners who looked to the stars for guidance, we once again use celestial bodies to get us from Point A to Point B."

Even in Bustling Metropolises

Now, there are more than 1.4 million caches available online, so odds are you have some near you right now. While you may associate this with the wide-open spaces of a rural landscape, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Even in the most bustling of metropolises, there are innumerable nooks and crannies in which to tuck a cache. In Manhattan, a tiny island crammed to capacity with more than eight million people, there are almost 1,100 caches. Los Angeles and Chicago show a similar number. Within a ten-mile radius of Missoula, Montana, there are almost 600 hides. Barrow, Alaska, is one of the most remote places in the United States or maybe the world, requiring air transportation followed by a snowmobile or sled dog ride to reach. If you made that journey, you could try your hand at locating one of the two caches that have made it all the way to the top of the world.

What you need

As you may have guessed, you are going to need a GPS unit to participate in this new sport. The range of devices runs from exceptionally simple, to elaborate models that feature built-in cameras that can be upgraded using downloaded apps. Many units are built with geocaching in mind, a testament to the growing popularity of this activity. Perhaps the most basic of the purpose-built GPS units is the Garmin eTrex 10. This model features paperless geocaching software, so you can transfer your data to your computer with the supplied USB cord to be stored or uploaded to the Web. The unit's screen displays key information, including location, terrain, cache difficulty rating, and hints and descriptions of hiding spots. All of this means no more manually entering coordinates and paper printouts for your geocaching hobby.

Garmin eTrex 10 GPS Unit

Moving up the ladder to a more full-featured unit, we can take a look at the Garmin GPSMAP 64st. It has the geocaching software like the previous item, but it also has many more features to simplify navigation. A three-axis compass gives you your heading even when standing still, and a barometric altimeter tells you your height from sea level or can help predict upcoming changes in weather. An included subscription to BirdsEye satellite imagery lets you see your route, and potential impediments, before you embark. Taking it up yet another notch, the Garmin Monterra is loaded with all the bells and whistles you could want, and since it runs an Android-based operating system, its interface has an instantly familiar smartphone-like functionality. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ANT+, and Near Field Communication allow you to communicate with multiple devices including tablets, smartphones, and other GPS units. The built-in 8-megapixel camera with autofocus allows you to take your own geo-tagged pictures and 1080p/30fps video, complete with an LED flash, so you can upload high-quality images.

Garmin GPSMAP 64st

Types of Geocaches

With GPS in hand, it’s time to get out there and start geocaching. Caches take many different forms. The traditional cache is the original, as the name implies, and consists of some sort of container hidden at a given set of coordinates. These containers have at least a log of some sort for recording who has found it, and often also contain items for trade. Other types may require you to solve a puzzle to determine the proper coordinates. A multi-cache involves two or more locations, with the first one giving you a clue about the next.

The last one in the series contains the logbook and any other items, rewarding the player for their efforts. Some are educational, urging players to visit places with significant geological features. These are called Earth Caches, and to log your results you must typically answer questions based on the unique morphology of the region. There are many more types of caches, ranging from specific events to virtual caches and even experimental ones. A trip to www.geocaching.com or one of the other sites will reveal myriad choices.

The physical caches themselves come in many different forms. Some are rudimentary, just a waterproof box to hold a few items. Some are more devious, and deceitful. This deception is designed to keep the Muggles from finding them by accident, and to make them harder, and more interesting, for other “Cachers” to find. There are all sorts of waterproof containers that can be hidden right in plain sight. Among the more innovative units are the ones designed to stuff down into the hole in a concrete parking barrier with just a stub of rebar to reveal its position. Others are magnetic, and stick to surfaces to hide in plain sight. Some of these resemble electrical access covers, while others look like bolts, complete with a rusty patina suggesting a long time exposed to the elements. Yet others resemble some form of creepy crawler, from rodents to spiders, which help deter people.

"With GPS in hand, it’s time to get out there and start geocaching."

Some caches contain items that are known as “trackables.” Each of these tokens is emblazoned with a unique code that can be used to track its movements across the globe. Some of these markers have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, thanks to this game’s adventurous players. Travel bugs and geo-coins are the two main types. The travel bugs are similar in form to a dog tag, and are usually affixed to an object. Geo-coins, like the name suggests, resemble an actual coin. Many of these have a specific “mission,” with accompanying paperwork asking players to help accomplish this objective. Whatever the iteration, these items are meant to be moved around, with their whereabouts recorded online.

While a GPS is all you absolutely need, there are a few items that can make the sport more enjoyable. Some protective gear is in order, as I strongly advise against just sticking your hands directly into a hole or crevice. A pair of work gloves goes a long way toward keeping your hands free of cuts and scrapes. A quality flashlight can help shed some light on the subject (sorry, I’m not sorry) and illuminate dark corners. A pad to record your finds is a necessity, as is a writing implement to sign the log. A waterproof notebook like that offered by Rite in the Rain ensures your notes will survive a shower, and a waterproof pen makes certain your signature doesn’t run, so future visitors will be able to view your Herbie Hancock.

Another item worth mentioning is the Garmin Chirp. This tiny device can be stuffed inside a cache and will transmit a wireless signal to a compatible Garmin GPS unit (such as the GPSMAP 64t and Monterra mentioned above) when it gets within 10 meters (30 feet). It will store and share hints and coordinates. It can even count visitors. Setting up and maintaining a multi-cache is easy with Chirp.

The transmitter automatically broadcasts program coordinates so other Cachers can find each stage of your multi-cache. Or if you're on a multi-cache, Chirp lets you download coordinates, so there's no need to manually enter numerous sets of complex coordinates; there's just one touch and you're on your way to the next stage. An IPX7 waterproof rating means it will resist the elements, and the CR2032 coin-cell battery will last up to a year.

Get Out and Discover

So the next time you are looking to get a little fresh air, consider giving geocaching a shot. It will give your leisurely walk a purpose, and add an exciting new dimension. Think about it: what could be more exciting than finding hidden objects in a familiar place? Or you can use this hobby as an excuse to get out and discover a new area, near your home or clear across the country. So, why not leave behind the ranks of Muggles, and join this rapidly growing pastime?