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Geocaching: The High-Tech Scavenger Hunt

When the U.S. government turned off GPS Selective Availability (SA) in May 2000, it was like magic. Suddenly civilian GPS receivers that were formerly accurate to about 300 feet were accurate to 30 feet. This level of accuracy offered some creative possibilities. Three days after SA was turned off, a message appeared in the sci.geo.satellite-nav USENET newsgroup proposing a worldwide stash hunt, where people would post GPS waypoints on the Internet to lead searchers to hidden goodies.

Starting with a humble little bucket full of goodies in Oregon, the game took off like wildfire. Within weeks, caches were hidden in Washington, Kansas, California, New Zealand, Australia, and Chile. A newsgroup and Web site that hosted the coordinates of the stashes soon popped up as the word started to get around.

Today, geocaching has grown popular, and the rules are still pretty much the same: Take some stuff, leave some stuff, record it in the logbook, and have fun! Relatively cheap and accurate GPS receivers and widespread Internet access have helped the sport flourish. As of November 2003, the www.geocaching.com site (currently the largest geocaching site on the Net) had over 72,500 active caches in 188 countries listed in its database. That's a lot of caches out there to find!

Sounds pretty intriguing, doesn't it? But before you can try it out, you need a few things. You probably already have many pieces of the required gear, and your biggest investment will be a GPS receiver if you don't already have one. With that in mind, here's a list of basic things you need.

  • Cache location: Obviously, you need to know where to look for a cache: a set of latitude and longitude or UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) coordinates. You'll find tens of thousands of caches freely listed on the Internet.
  • Geocaching alias: Most people who geocache use a registered handle (alias) instead of their real name when they sign cache logs or make Internet posts. The aliases are cool-sounding names like Navdog, Wiley Cacher, or Moun10Bike. Be imaginative and come up with an alias that fits your personality. The aliases are all unique: If you try to register an alias on one of the popular geocaching Web sites and someone else already has registered the alias, you need to select another name.
  • GPS receiver: You can certainly find caches by using only a map and compass, but it's sure a lot easier when using a GPS receiver. You don't need an expensive GPS unit with lots of whistles and bells to geocache; a basic model around or under $100 will work just fine; receivers that support WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation Service) usually are more accurate than those that don't.

Don't forget to bring the GPS receiver user manual, especially if you just purchased your receiver and are still trying to figure out how to use it.

A few other things can make your outing a little more enjoyable:

  • Map and compass: A fair number of geocachers use only their GPS receiver to get them to a cache, but a good local map of the area can be very helpful. Although a receiver can lead you directly in a straight line to cache, it's probably not going to tell you about the river, deep canyon, or cliffs between you and the cache. Even GPS receivers that display topographic maps often won't show enough detail that can help or hinder you on your way to a cache. Additionally, a map and compass serve as a backup just in case something goes wrong with your GPS. (Just make sure you know how to use them.)
  • Pen or pencil and paper: Carry a small pad of paper and a pen or pencil for taking notes about your route or things that you see on the way. Some geocachers keep an ongoing journal of their adventures, and you never know — you might turn into a geocaching Hemingway.
  • Something to leave in the cache: When you locate a cache, you'll find all sorts of swags, which are treasures other people have left. Don't expect diamonds, gold bullion, or Super Bowl tickets. (You're far more likely to find baseball cards, costume jewelry, or corporate marketing giveaways.) Just remember that one man's trash is another man's treasure. The best things to leave in a cache are unique, out-of-the-ordinary items (such as foreign coins, fossils, exotic matchbooks, or anything that has a high cool factor). And, please, avoid leaving McToys, geocaching lingo for junk that you reasonably expect to find with fast-food kid's meals.
  • Appropriate clothes and footwear: There are no geocaching fashion police, so wear clothes that are comfortable, weather appropriate, and suitable for getting dirty. Even if it's the middle of summer, it's not a bad idea to bring along a jacket in case of an unexpected rain shower or drop in the temperature. Also, make sure you're wearing sturdy and comfortable footwear if the cache is outside an urban area. High heels and silk pants generally aren't recommended.
  • Food and water: Some caches take all day to find, so be prepared with enough food and water to get you through your search; you can even plan a picnic lunch or dinner around your outing.
  • Walking stick/trekking poles: If the terrain is really rough, a good walking stick or set of trekking poles can make life much easier when going downhill and negotiating uneven surfaces. A stick or a pole is also useful for poking around in rock cracks looking for a cache, just in case there's a creepy-crawly inside.
  • Digital camera: Although definitely not a required piece of geocaching gear, a number of cachers tote along a digital camera to record their adventures or to post pictures on the Web.
  • Small pack: It's much easier to put all your geocaching gear in a small daypack rather than stuffing your pockets full of stuff.

Don't forget a few safety-related items. As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared:

  • Flashlight: This is a must-have for looking in cracks and crevices where a cache might be hidden — and also in case you run out of daylight. If you're smart, your flashlight uses the same type of batteries as your GPS receiver, giving you even more spare batteries.
  • Cellphone: You probably have a cellphone, so bring it along (preferably with the battery fully charged). But don't fall into the trap of assuming cellphone as an absolute insurance policy against trouble. They can fail, cellphone batteries go dead, and you might have really bad cell coverage out in the middle of nowhere. So although a cellphone is great to have along, be prepared to take care of yourself!
  • Spare batteries: Bring them along for anything that uses them. (Your GPS receiver and flashlight — and if you're really safety conscious, your cellphone, too.)

That's the basic gear you need for geocaching. The whole key with gear lists is to find out what works best for you. You'll probably end up carrying too much stuff in your pack at first. After you've geocached for a while, check your pack and see what you're not using so you can lighten your load.

Most geocaches are located in pretty tame, civilized areas (usually 100 feet or so off a main trail or road), but still let someone know where you're going, when you'll be back, and what to do if you're late. Twisted ankles and broken-down cars seem to happen a lot in areas without cellphone service. If you haven't spent much time in the great outdoors, check out a list of The Ten Essentials (which has been expanded to 14 over the years) at Backpacking.net.

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