Geocaching: What is it, and how to do it?

An ‘X’ still marks the spot, but long gone are the days of tattered maps. Indeed, the treasure hunt has entered the technology age. Geocaching, an activity less than 10 years old, uses a Global Positioning System receiver to help users navigate to a specific location where someone else has left “the treasure,” so to speak. Called “stashes,” by many players and aptly “caches” by others, the bounty usually consists of a logbook and something to write with along with various trinkets that can be left or traded out for something of equal or greater value. The value, however, is not often first weighed monetarily. Oftentimes, the items in the stashes are simply things that the meant something to the original user.

This high-tech game of hide-and-seek is easy to start and only a few clicks away. But first, a little history on the subject:

Geocaching’s start was credited to an Oregon GPS user named Dave Ulmer, according to a New York Times article published in October of 2000. Ulmer hid a black bucket in near Beaver Creek, Ore., which held a logbook and pencil among other items, according to “The History of Geocaching,” on He then reported the location of the cache on a GPS user Web site. Before the month’s end, someone found the cache and left an entry in the logbook. At that moment, geocaching was born. The ability for geocaching came when, on May 1, 2000, President Bill Clinton put an end to “selective availability,” from the global positioning satellites. Turning over the satellites full functionality over from government use to everyone else allowed for GPS systems to gain improved accuracy with the simple flip of a switch. Since then, geocaching has grown to include caches in all 50 United States and more than 200 countries worldwide.

Currently, there are more than 800,000 cache entries on, the main user Web site for the activity. To get started, there’s really only once piece of equipment you’ll need aside from your computer with Internet access, and that’s a GPS receiver. Outdoors experience is a plus, but not necessary. There are nearly as many caches hidden in urban locations as there are in the wilderness. After logging in with your geocaching account, there are usually several search methods. You can search by your address, or broaden your possibilities by searching by your zip code. You can even sign up for premium access and get a list of caches along a trip route. How’s that for adding a little spice to a road trip?

Whichever way you decide to search, you’ll then see a list of caches. Simply choose one, and read the description. Once you have selected the treasure you’re about to seek, enter the coordinates into your GPS receiver. Directions for doing so vary form model to model, and will be available in the user’s manual of your GPS. Don’t forget to either print out or write down the rest of the cache description, because there may be clues that could lead you through the final steps of your journey. According to news story on a Fox station in San Antonio, Texas, aired on KABB, your GPS unit should take you to about 10 yards of your destination. The rest will be up to you. There are a few tricks you can deploy to finish the task, aside from just looking around. One of the more advanced techniques involves triangulation. The Web site offers advice on the technique, stating, “From 100 feet away, follow the arrow on your GPS towards the cache. Repeat twice walking from a different directions. Where these three paths meet, hopefully one point, should be the cache location.”

Once you’ve got the basics down, you’re almost ready to start. But geocaching is actually a touchy subject with many law enforcement agencies. There is actually a matter of ethics you must understand before setting out. As many of the caches are on public land, geoseekers must take heart not to disturb the surroundings. It is a duty of the cache placers not to put their stashes in sensitive areas, such as landmarks or crowded pedestrial areas. Such advice can be found in the Geocachers’ Creed. The creed wants geoseekers to observe all laws and rules of the area, respect property rights, be considerate of others, protect the integrity of the game pieces and avoid causing disruptions or public alarm.

It’s the latter which has caused the most media attention. In May of this year, the main entrance of the University of California at Santa Cruz was shut down for three hours because of an alarm caused by a geocache, according to an article printed on May. 22 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. In Boise, Idaho, Scot Tintsman placed a green bucket under a highway bridge in September of 2005, according to an Associated Press report. The suspiciousness of the item led to the bomb squad being called out and the police setting up a barricade. There are numerous other instances where geocaches have set false alarms. Authorities and geochachers alike have agreed that such alarms can be averted by a simple used on common sense.

Should you get into cache placing, choosing a location that not only allows the finders the type of adventure they want while still keeping safety in mind and respect for others and the environment will be a game in itself.

But if for now you’re simply treasure seeking, you’ll find geocaching can be as rewarding an experience as you want to make it. The game offers the chance at everything from trading trinkets to exchanging geocoins and geotags. Geocoins can be purchased at many outdoors retailers, and each carries a unique serial number. Many geocachers move these coins from cache to cache, and record each transfer in an online logbook, thus marking the coin’s journey.

So whether you’re into cache placing for cache finding, your new activity could be only a few clicks and steps away. Remember, return caches just as you’ve found them. This means hiding them in the same manner as they were hidden when you arrived. If you’re going to place a chache, remember that it must stand up to the elements: rain, wind, heat and cold. One final thought, Cashe In, Trash Out. Once you’ve made your cache exchange, on your way out from the location, many geocachers pride themselves on picking up any trash or garbage in the area, thus minimizing geocaching’s effect on the environment.

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