What's the cache? The sport of geocaching

Geocachers are on the prowl for "treasure" and fun 


The idea is simple enough.

To play the game of geocaching, somebody hides a treasure somewhere, like maybe out in the woods, and someone else tries to find it.

p.chuck-1 It’s a little like a treasure hunt, but with a twist—an electronic twist.

In this game, the hunter finds the prize using a hand-held GPS receiver.

Tens of thousands of caches are located around the world. Visit geocache.com and type in your Zip Code. A list of sites comes into view, arranged by milage starting with the closest to home.

Choose one and the coordinates of the cache are given. Enter the numbers into the GPSr (Global Positioning System receiver) and the adventure begins.

Chuck Wurth, the naturalist at 4-H Camp Palmer southwest of Fayette, started geocaching less than a year ago when he heard it described at a recreation conference. He thought it sounded interesting and he was soon hooked.

“This is like a cult, a secret society,” he said. “There’s a lot of secrecy to it.”

Caches are hunted somewhat on the sly to maintain the hidden location. It’s not something to shout about, at least not in the woods. “Watchers” maintain sites to make sure the cache is intact and not a wasted search for the next set of hunters.

A cache could be as small as a camera film canister containing only a piece of paper for a signature. Typically, it’s a plastic box with a log book and an array of trinkets.

“To play the game fairly,” says Chuck, “you find something you like, you take it, but you put something back.”

Chuck ’s colleague, Allison Dowell, has plenty of finds to her credit. She sees geocaching as great vacation activity. She even logged a few in San Francisco when she was at a conference.

For a geocaching demonstration, Chuck decided to look for a cache known on the website as the Summer Camp Stash. It was less than a mile away, near the shore of Harrison Lake. He looked for it one day a few months ago but failed to track it down.

Chuck transferred the coordinates of the site—the latitude and longitude, down to the thousandth of a second, as in degree, minute and second—into his GPS receiver, then stepped outside and allowed the unit to begin tracking satellites.

The system operates via an array of 24 satellites in orbit around the Earth. The GPS unit locks into several of them to pinpoint a location, sometimes to within 10 feet. Press a button and a rudimentary map appears showing your location and the location of the cache. Begin walking toward the spot and the receiver shows your direction of travel, your speed of travel and your progress toward the cache.

We headed off in a light rain shower toward the lakeside path, noting the zigzag of our travel on the GPS screen as the path turned this way and that.

The Summer Camp Stash was created by a geocacher from Grand Rapids, Ohio, named Good Dog. Nobody logs into the web site using their real name. The description says: “The cache is a shoebox size camo colored container. Be sure to replace the bungee cord. The box is not far off the lake trail, so there is no need to bushwhack.”

The site is rated 1.5 stars out of a maximum of five for both difficulty and terrain. A five-star site might require rock climbing gear.

Once Chuck learned about geocaching, he thought about Camp Palmer.

“As usual, I wondered how I could put it into a camp activity,” he said.

He starts out introducing the youngsters to dead reckoning—look ing at t heir surroundings to get an idea of where they are and what can be used as landmarks. Then he takes it up a notch and brings out the compasses. Finally, the kids go electronic and the GPS units are used for navigation.

Chuck describes geocaching as an evolving activity. Officially, the sport marks its fifth anniversary this month. The number of stashes continues to grow, along with a few new twists. Earthcaching, for example, leads hunters only to geological formations and points of interest. In Geodashing, teams compete to visit a randomly-generated set of coordinates in the shortest time.

A survey points out that nearly half of all geocachers participate with other family members. About a third are owners of RVs who search for caches as they travel.

Camp Palmer’s GPS units are far from top-of-the-line. They’re basic $100 models offered by Garmin, one of the most popular manufacturers. More expensive units include colored maps, weather instruments and lots of memory.

We travel downward across the Scout bridge, then back up onto the ridge overlooking the lake. All the while, our trail grows longer on the face of the receiver and the number indicating the distance to our destination shrinks.

We go down across the next bridge, back up on top, then climb one more rise at which point the compass on the GPS face starts to move around. On some units, a user can zoom in closer and closer as the distance to the prize grows small. On these receivers, the aberrations in the compass suggest that you’re close.

“It’s gotta be here,” Chuck says, looking around.

Once you’re in the vicinity, it’s time to look around for likely hiding places. An indicator on the face of the unit points off to the left where an unnatural looking hole turns out to be a false lead. Several passes through the area fail to turn up anything.

Chuck approaches from the other direction and this time he’s pulled off to the other side of the path.

Soon he’s standing at the base of a large tree and he’s pointing at the cache box. Judging by the website logbook, finding the cache hasn’t been easy for everyone.

The log also gives an idea of the “prizes” a hunter might find. Don’t expect a lot; the fun is in the search.

Sept. 10, 2002—“Found the cache and took a little blue policeman and left some mosquito repellant.”

Sept. 21, 2002—“I spent way too much time looking for this cache. I took the insect repellant and left $1.”

Jan. 9, 2003—“I found a new way to locate caches. Stop and blow your nose and then look around.”

May 4, 2003—“Thoroughly stumped.”

Aug. 13, 2003—“Took a plastic skunk and left a plastic dinosaur.”

March 24, 2005—“Took one of the seven dwarves.”

Chuck’s comment on the way back could serve as a good logbook entry: “If you had this much fun in the rain, think what it would be like in good weather.”

He’s right and now there’s one more geocacher playing the game.

  - May 4, 2005


A glossary of geocaching terms:

Cache—Pronounced “cash” - In geocaching it is a hidden container filled with a log book and pencil/pen, and possibly prizes. Caches were often used by explorers, miners, etc. to hide foodstuffs and other items for emergency purposes. People still hide caches of supplies today for similar reasons.

EcoScavenging—There’s no cache to find. Getting there is the prize. This a way to lead people to a favorite location or object.

Handicaching—A special rating system lets people with physical challenges know if they can attempt to find a particular cache.

Letterboxing—Letterboxing is similar to Geocaching, but you use a series of clues to find a container. Once you find the container (or letterbox), you take a carved stamp from the box and stamp your personal logbook. You then take your carved stamp and stamp the letterbox’s log book. See Letterboxing North America for more info.

Locationless (Reverse) Cache—It’s the opposite of a traditional cache, somewhat of an electronic scavenger hunt. Instead of finding a hidden container, the searcher locates specific objects and logs the coordinates.

Travel Bug—A Travel Bug is a trackable tag that you attach to an item. This allows you to track your item on Geocaching.com. The item becomes a hitchhiker that is carried from cache to cache (or person to person) in the real world and you can follow its progress online.

Virtual Cache—Adapted from “Virtual Reality,” virtual means “nothing there.” So a virtual cache means there is no cache container. It’s the location that is the cache itself. Nothing is normally traded, except photos and experiences.

Waypoint—Waypoints are named coordinates representing points on the surface of the Earth. Geocaching uses a suggested waypoint for a cache, created automatically when a cache has been created.