One of the coolest things that I accidentally discovered in 2011 was the high-tech “sport” of GeoCaching. One of the funnest mistakes I ever made. While searching for a simple compass app for my mobile phone, I accidentally downloaded not just a compass, but an add-on for existing “GeoCaching” apps and was intrigued with what this was. I spent the next thirty minutes Googling around and reading about this activity and couldn’t wait for the morning to head out and try to find my first “cache”. So what the heck is GeoCaching, what are “caches”, and what does one need to enjoy this hobby? In the final Technology Tuesday of the year, we’ll take a look at this fantastic outdoors activity.
History: It is hard to believe it has only been about ten years since we as civilians have had GPS accuracy that gives results precise enough to find your misplaced phone, use a GPS in your car for navigation or use apps such as Foursquare to “check-in” to a pub. Prior to enabling the “selective availability,” the couple dozen satellites giving the military precise coordinates only afforded citizens with latitude and longitude that was useful for rough location. But, as of May of 2000, a switch was thrown to allow for pinpoint location and the days of buying printed street maps at the gas station were numbered.
An early fan of GPS wanted to test out the new precision and hid a container in the woods of Oregon. In the container, he left a handful of trinkets and a logbook for people to sign to prove they found it. He posted the coordinates on a couple of forums and bulletin boards for GPS enthusiasts along with a simple rule: “Take some stuff, leave some stuff.”
A handful of people made it to the container and had fun doing it. Further containers were hid and mailing lists were created sharing locations of additional containers. The first name used was “GPS Stash Hunt.” Though apparently some felt “Stash” connoted that they were hiding and looking for illicit drugs and a name change was necessitated. Geocaching stuck and is being enjoyed by millions of people just ten short years later.
So How Do You “Play”? There’s a couple of places that publish user created “caches”. Each cache description gives GPS coordinates, a description, possibly a “hint” and some detail on level of difficulty. Often times, a wealth of information on the history of the area, geographical features or other interesting detail is also provided. You can search these sites for cashes nearby, by city or any other criteria that you’d like. Then, you simply head to the coordinates provided, find the hidden cache, sign the log and record your “find.” Additionally, many caches are filled with trinkets or collectibles that you may take one of as long as you leave one of similar value.
Some caches are the size of small tupperware containers or WWII ammo-boxes. Others may be as small as a film canister or even as small as a button with just enough size to hold a tiny strip of paper serving as the log.
The largest GeoCaching site is run by a company called Groundspeak which may be found at http://www.geocaching.com. Another site that is popular is http://www.opencaching.com Each has pros and cons and there’s no reason you can’t hunt for caches from both. Geocaching.com has more caches listed but tightly guards the data & controls usage and is definitely a for-profit entity (through merchandise sales and subscriptions allowing for advances features). Opencaching is more transparent, responsive to users and open with the data that is hosted there.
What do you need? The best part of Geocaching is that many people already have everything they need to enjoy this fun sport. There are apps for all smartphones specifically designed for Geocaching. Not only being able to navigate to the necessary coordinates, but also to search for nearby caches, log visits, upload pictures and every other possible activity you’d need to do. The best app for Android is free and is called C:Geo. Groundspeak offers an official app for both iPhone and Android for their caches but it is $9.99.
I’ve used handheld GPS units and they do have some advantages over using your smartphone but I haven’t found any additional precision with the accuracy of the location. If you are hiking deep into woods and heading outside of cell coverage, of course your smartphone will be worthless. Likewise, if you plan on geocaching all day, y0u will tax your phone battery pretty hard. Most people’s phones are not as rugged and waterproof as GPS standalone units so you’ll need to be careful if you do decide to geocache with your phone.
Fun Things with Geocaching
Above and beyond the thrill of finding any cache, and specifically difficult ones, there’s lots of other fun aspects to the sport.
First-to-find: Often times when a cache is initially placed and published, there is a bragging right with being the “first to find.” Very often there is a special gift in the cache for this FTF. It can be something as simple as gift certificate, silver dollar coin, or other geocaching “collectibles” including geocoins or other “trackables.” In areas with heavy geocaching participation, the FTP can be hypercompetitive with the time from publication to FTP being measured in hours, not days.
Geocoins and trackables: These are special types of “swag” that you’ll often find in a cache. These items have ID numbers affixed to them and you can track their progress from cache to cache. Often, a goal will be assigned to a trackable (visit every US state and return to Massachusetts). Then, the owner of the trackable can log the progress of the item and see exactly where it is. Having found a handful of “First to Find” caches myself and been gifted with trackables and geocoins, I have several floating around the country and have enjoyed watching their progress.
Multi Caches: These are a special type of cache. Rather than simply finding one-and-done, a multi takes you to several locations before satisfying the find of the final container. Each stage holds info on the location of the subsequent cache. These can be particularly fun and challenging.
Series: Cache owners will sometimes hide a series of caches based either tightly or loosely around a theme. For example, “Minor League Baseball Parks in New England” with each cache near the grounds of all parks. Slowly knocking off each one is interesting and by the completion of the series, you will have learned quite a bit about the topic subject.
Micro Caches: Think that you live in a city and can’t enjoy this sport? Think again! You’d be AMAZED at how many caches are sitting right under your nose. It could be in the form of a tiny magnet affixed to the bottom of a bus stop bench or the base of a statue in a park. Urban cachers have a particular degree of creativity in hiding their caches that makes finding these “micros” particularly satisfying especially in light of trying to hunt for them with all the people typically around.
Creative Caches: Most caches are pretty straight forward: in the stump of a tree, behind a loose brick in a wall, etc. Rules prohibit burying caches so you don’t need to every worry about bringing a shovel, but sometimes the caches are devious! Perhaps designed as a pine-cone and hanging from a tree. Or a fake electrical plate cover on a building. Some caches are tricky enough that you likely will not find them at all even though it was right under your nose. Check out this fun cache:
Community: Like any activity, there are certainly ways to get more involved if you like. Active online forum sites and bulletin board, events locally, state, nationally and even internationally.
It is so easy to start Geocaching, and you may find yourself hooked quickly. So why not search for a couple of easy caches around you and see if you enjoy the world’s largest scavenger hunt. Have fun geocaching!
Hidden Track Technology Tuesday
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