Ever get that hankering to don an eye patch, a peg leg, and search for hidden treasure? Thought so! Well, nowadays, it’s ubiquitous—you may even be standing on X Marks the Spot at this very moment. The coveted parchment map has been digitalized and there’s plenty of booty to go around—no missing appendages required (although, if you happen to have a thing for swashbuckling, I’m not judging).
It’s called geocaching, and it was conceived in the first year of this century, just one day after GPS (Global Positioning System) was made available worldwide. David Ulmer, a GPS enthusiast, proposed a way to test the new technology in an Internet chat room: leave a navigational target in the woods and see who can find it. He stashed a black bucket near Beavercreek, Oregon with a logbook, pen and a few cool prizes, and simple directions: “take some stuff, leave some stuff.”
Within three days, two GPS users located the treasure and reported their experiences online. The game rapidly mushroomed, and less than a month later the official title was coined in the brilliant marriage of geo, meaning Earth, and cache, in dual reference to a secret stash and computer memory for frequently used data with a short access time. At its heart, geocaching is an amalgamation of buccaneer, techie and explorer.
There are currently 5 million cachers in 100 countries, and over 1.3 million active geocaches have been recorded.
Want to get in on the gold rush? Here’s how it works: Joe Doe stashes a waterproof container somewhere in the world with a pen and a logbook inside. Then he notes the coordinates and uploads them to one of a handful of websites (geocaching.com being the largest). You, and all the other eager cachers out there, use your GPS device to locate the cache. Sounds almost too easy, right? Well, not exactly—your GPS device will generally get you within fifteen to thirty feet of the cache— then you’re on your own. Many caches are camouflaged and expertly hidden. We have been eluded by a cunningly stashed cache more than once, but oh, the thrill when we strike the spot—well, we feel like midnight marauders!
The inside of a cache is its own little world. Common containers include coffee cans, Tupperware and even Altoids mint tins, and range in size from “nanos,” caches as small as your pinky, to 5 gallon buckets. The logbook is the only essential inclusion, and it tells tales of travelers come and gone. Each “cacher-through” leaves the date, their name (many cachers also have team names or code names), what they took and what they left, and sometimes other anecdotal information. Most caches are also full of SWAG—Stuff We All Get. The golden rule, passed down from the great grandmamma of all caches, still applies: if you remove an item from the cache, you must leave something in return. Many folks like to leave something of personal value—a treasured toy, a favorite book, an artistic creation, a poem, an old coin, a CD; or something that may be of value to others—playing cards, Band-Aids, guitar picks, sunscreen, key chains, flashlights, etc. Some caches contain “trackables,” which include “geocoins” and other items that may be tracked online. These are meant to travel from cache to cache, and some have goals to hop mountain ranges or continents. We once found a trackable Dora the Explorer doll who hitched a ride with us from Sonoma to Marin.
My boyfriend and I are avid hikers. I tend towards flower child and he towards tech nerd, so when we’re out on the trail he deftly handles his iPhone app to locate coordinates and we race to find the cache. He usually wins as I invariably end up wandering off to check out the local flora, but I enjoy the suspense as we pry open the little treasure boxes and peer inside. We’ve never made our own cache or tried a fancy variation, and half the time we forget to bring cool SWAG and end up rummaging through pockets for something worthy, but we love the hunt (he especially) and we love the feeling of being part of something global and sort of secret.
Geocaching can be enjoyed on many levels by almost all ages, it’s a great family bonding activity, and geocaching.com provides geocaching apps for the iPhone, Android, webOS and WindowsPhone7. The same website has a basic, free membership that allows you to find and create caches. Just be careful traipsing through the bushes with your flashlight in the middle of the night—this game has not caught on with everyone yet!
Pirate imagery aside, geocachers tend to uphold a very strong code of ethics. Most websites have guidelines that must be followed when stashing a cache. All local laws apply, and caches cannot be placed on private property, school property, military bases, sacred or historic sites, or ecologically sensitive sites. They are never buried and can’t deface or destroy public property. They are, however, al- lowed in space (although a cache on the mother ship could make GPS tracking tricky).
The Geocacher’s Creed is “Safe, Legal, Ethical” and includes these common sense statements: be considerate of others, avoid causing disruption or public alarm, minimize environmental impact, and re- spect property rights. Misunderstandings do occur—geocachers have been reported to police for suspicious behavior, and several caches have been destroyed by bomb squads. All the more reason, some say, to be a conscientious cacher. CITO, (Cache In Trash Out) is an on- going environmental initiative espoused by most geocachers to leave a space cleaner than upon arrival. Not all geocaches are simple and straightforward—hybrid and variation geocaches are an ever-evolving category. This is just one of the wonders of a game that’s played by 5 million people—collaborative innovation on a worldwide scale.
Everything has a specialized language, and the language of caching tends towards the humorously nerdy. A “muggle” (adapted from Harry Potter) is a non-cacher, and the term “muggled” refers to the act of being caught retrieving or replacing a cache by a non-cacher, while a “muggled cache” is a cache that’s been stolen. A “smiley” is a cache find. BYOP stands for “Bring Your Own Pencil,” TFTC for “Thanks For The Cache,” POS for “Pile Of Sticks” (alluding to where the cache could be hidden), UFO for “Unnatural Formation of Objects,” and UPS for “Unnatural Pile of Sticks.”