Adventures in Geocaching

Caching at Lookout Mountain

Nate, Meg and Ian at one of the caches we found on Lookout Mountain

My fabulous wife gave me a Garmin eTrex for Christmas. It’s a basic handheld GPS unit, but it’s exactly what I needed to give “geocaching” a try.

For those of you who know nothing about the “sport” of geocaching, it has kind of an interesting history. Back when the Department of Defense built the Global Positioning System (GPS), it was meant for military use only. Because of this, the signals put out by the satellites were intentionally scrambled. If you weren’t in the military, your GPS device was only accurate to about 100 yards. This was just fine for navigation purposes (i.e. getting from town to town or port to port), but terrible for any application that required real accuracy.

In early 2000, the DOD removed the restrictions, allowing civilians to get positioning information that was about ten times more accurate. Just days after this happened, a guy in Oregan hid a bucket of “treasure” (really just a few trinkets) and published the exact coordinates on the USENET newsgroup sci.geo.satellite-nav. In less than a day, complete strangers were using the recently descrambled satellite signals to locate the bucket, sign the log, and trade for trinkets.

Since then, over a million “caches” have been hidden, and millions of people have taken up the pastime of searching them out.

It’s easy. You sign up for a free account on Geocaching.com, where you can search for “hidden treasure” by address, ZIP code, coordinates, and so on. You pick a cache and get the latitude/longitude coordinates, which look something like this:

N 33° 38.966 W 112° 00.015

Then you simply enter the coordinates into your GPS device (or even your GPS-enabled mobile phone) and go out hunting. Eventually you’ll arrive at the place where the cache is supposed to be, and then you’ll have to start really looking. Sometimes the cache will be a box under a pile of rocks, or a Tupperware container tucked into a hollow tree. “Urban” caches often involve creative use of magnets. Even with my limited experience I’ve already seen a huge variety of containers and hiding spots–including a small plastic tube embedded in a tire tread on the side of a road.

You’re welcome to take something from a cache as long as you leave an object of equal or greater value. There’s almost always a log to sign. When you’re done, you’re supposed to re-hide the cache in exactly the same place so the next person can find it. Then you go online and register your “find” on the Geocaching website.

It should be obvious to anyone who knows me why I would be so attracted to this whole concept. Geocaching is just such a cool combination of technology and the outdoors. After all, geeks like me need a reason to go out and stretch our legs and ramble around in the countryside!

Plus, it’s really fun for the kids. Here’s a great video that my buddy Doran put together to document one of our early cache hunts:

Watch the video and ask yourself: what other activity would get two geeks and several of their children outdoors on a Utah December afternoon? How likely is it that any of us would have decanted ourselves from in front of our computers, Kindles, iPads, iPods, Android devices, Boxees and so on to climb a frickin’ mountain?

The jaunt in the video was our third or fourth cache hunt. Since then, I’ve logged another 16 “finds” in both Arizona and Utah. On Monday, my kids and I spent almost three hours hiking around Lookout Mountain in Phoenix, locating seven of the eight caches we set out to find. It was a great afternoon.

On Wednesday, I took the next logical step and placed my first cache. There are a bunch of rules, so I familiarized myself with what was required, then put together a cache. It was just an Altoids tin (they’re curiously strong!) covered in camouflage duct tape. Inside I placed a small plastic bag containing the standard note of congratulations, plus some slips of paper for people to sign. I also included the requisite trinkets–in this case, they included an American flag pin, a “Vegas” pin, a small carabiner and a guitar pick. I hid my cache under a flat rock behind some bushes in a park near the house I grew up in. Then I took the GPS coordinates and registered the new cache on Geocaching.com.

The Geocaching website requires that all new caches be reviewed by a volunteer before publishing. At about 8:00 this morning, I received notification that my cache had been posted, and at 8:31 I got another e-mail telling me that someone had just logged the FTF (first to find). How about that? Within half an hour of my little Altoids tin making its public debut, a complete stranger:

  1. Went looking for it.
  2. Found it, signed the log, traded a trinket
  3. Reported the find on Geocaching.com

It’s kind of an amazing idea, and a very fun hobby. Tomorrow I’ll be driving back up to Utah for a second job interview, and I’ll probably look for a couple of caches along the way.

View my first geocaching gallery!

Posted in Personal