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Geocaching

Global Hunts Lead Travelers to Treasured Locations

During a trip to the southern coast of Portugal last year, I probably would have seen only the sandy beaches of the Algarve if it were not for local friends who took my visit as an opportunity to introduce me to the joys of geocaching. This high-tech adventure activity took us inland, up into the picturesque hills and green sloping mountains of Monchique, to magnificent vistas miles from shore that I would have never trekked to otherwise.

Traditionally, getting off the beaten path means tossing maps and guidebooks aside, relying instead on gut instinct to guide travelers to out-of-the-way locations. Geocaching often lends itself to exactly the same kind of wanderlust discovery, but it requires the use of one very specific travel tool. This popular scavenger-hunt geography game relies on the use of a GPS unit (an electronic global positioning device that determines latitude and longitude) to find caches, or hidden containers, scattered all around the world.

The Emergence of Geocaching

Geocaching emerged as an organized outdoor activity in 2000, when satellite upgrades resulted in improved accuracy using GPS technology. This triggered a noticeable growth in usage among GPS enthusiasts and marked the birth of the “stash hunt,” a modern day version of letterboxing, the artistic rubber-stamp treasure hunt hobby that originated in England in the 1800s. As more and more caches were stashed at specific, and often remote, coordinates around the globe, hunt participant Jeremy Irish founded Geocaching.com to monitor interest in the game. The website quickly evolved into a valuable resource for existing geocachers and a new community where other curious explorers could learn about how to get involved.

Six years later, Geocaching.com now manages and tracks information for over 330,000 active caches located in countries around the world. Irish, along with Elias Alvord and Bryan Roth (and more than 100 volunteers), operate the website through their company Groundspeak, whose mission is to provide people with the tools they need to “…experience location-based adventures in the real world.”

The majority of active caches are concentrated in the U.S. (Rhode Island has 430, while California boasts over 32,000), Canada (24,000), and Europe (13,500 in the U.K. alone), but there are also caches in many other countries, including more than 100 each in the following countries: Singapore, Chile, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia.

Discovering Local Gems

Travelers of all ages and tech-savvy levels have expressed growing interest in geocaching because of the appealing opportunities it offers to visit places that often only the locals know about. The cache creator is usually a native of the region who hides the treasure in a distinct and meaningful spot, so seekers will see a specific landmark or breathtaking view while standing at the exact GPS coordinates of the cache location. In this way the local cacher creatively shares a slice of life from his or her own backyard.

Participants don’t need to be GPS experts to play, although use of a GPS unit is necessary for most traditional hunts. Each cache has specific latitude and longitude coordinates used to locate the treasure, but novices only need to be able to enter a shorter waypoint coordinate (no more than six letters or numbers) into the unit to direct them to a cache. Basic GPS units cost less than $100, and the Geocaching.com online forums offer FAQs on a variety of models. A second option is to simply use a GPS-enabled handheld pocket device like a Palm or Pocket PC.

Rules of the Game

Caches contain an assortment of small souvenirs that may include maps, books, postcards, CDs, games, coins or photos. The rules of play are simple—take something, leave something, and record your visit in the logbook. Players keep track of their treasure hunts on Geocaching.com, sometimes posting pictures from the moment of discovery. Owners of the cache often post photos of what the container looks like, and may include a list of what was originally in the hidden bundle when it was first set. Caches are usually in waterproof plastic containers stashed safely among natural elements.

One of the tenets of the game is to be mindful of cache placement and considerate of the local terrain. There are guidelines that geocachers must follow to respect property and secure proper permission before setting caches. Owners are responsible for the upkeep of their caches, and must ensure that the impact to the environment or surrounding area is minimal. Each April, Geocaching.com sponsors International Cache In Trash Out Day, organizing clean up programs around the world. Players also submit reports to cache owners when they discover a container that has gone missing or been tampered with by nature or non-geocachers.

Everyone Can Play

Most geocaching enthusiasts are adults who participate on their own, as couples, or in groups that organize mega-cache events. But this interactive discovery game is easy and entertaining for explorers of all ages, and is a perfect pastime to incorporate into family vacations, whether traveling with grade-schoolers or grandparents. The activity offers countless educational opportunities to teach children about geography, ecology, or GPS technology. Scout troops have used geocaching on camping trips to practice navigation and map and orienteering skills. Some travel treasure hunts transform into full-blown outdoor quests for families to tackle together, complete with multi-step caches and puzzles or mysteries to solve. Youngsters especially enjoy tracking the “hitchhikers” or Travel Bugs included in certain caches. These trinkets travel the world, hopping from one cache to the next with the help of traveling players who transport the small items. The whereabouts of the bugs are tracked on Geocaching.com via a unique serial number and enthusiasts follow along online, exchanging stories of how and with whom these tokens travel thousands of miles, sometimes circling the globe.

Learn with Locals

Caches often act as virtual tour guides, teaching lessons and offering travelers an uncommon perspective on a particular place. For example, a cache called “Lonely Cypress” in the hills of Muggia, Italy reminds seekers that if searching in winter they should beware of the bora, a strong wind found only in this region. The cache also includes a description of significant sights that are only viewable while standing under this exact tree. Another cache in Port Moody, British Columbia encourages seekers to visit the nearby train station museum after completing their search. And multi-caches like those in Dunedin, New Zealand and Shellharbour, Australia offer travelers a unique alternative to the traditional walking tour, in this case providing a series of caches to discover that are scattered around town.

The interaction between locals and visitors can go even further—sometimes the successful discovery of a cache requires that geocachers have direct contact with members of the community they are visiting; for example, you may have to speak with a librarian or historian who provides valuable information needed to successfully pinpoint a cache. In other instances, traveling geocachers pair up with local GPS enthusiasts to create interesting caches together, often coordinating these efforts through online forums or regional geocaching groups.

Waymarking

Most hunts take travelers off the beaten track, but cache owners occasionally place treasures in the midst of busy urban environments. However, as one geocacher said of Prague, “…unfortunately it would not be sensible to place a traditional piece of Tupperware in the center of a city.” His “Cache my Czech” hunt directs seekers to a certain statue on the Charles Bridge, which is the cache itself. There is no plastic container or logbook to sign, so seekers take a photo and post it online as their signature. These virtual caches, originally part of Geocaching.com, were transferred last year to a new Groundspeak sister site called Waymarking.com, where the treasure is the location—no physical object is hidden when a waymark is created.

The Rewards

Whether hunting for a cache or simply searching for a special spot on the globe, travelers will find that the most rewarding treasures of geocaching are quests that involve interaction and learning with locals. My Algarve geocaching experience was a great combination of exploration, education and entertainment too—after a hunt and hike in the morning, we ate lunch at a local cheap eat in Lagos where I sampled berbigão shellfish and bacalhau for the first time. In the evening, after another hunt in the mountains, we capped a full day of cache and culture discovery with a live Portuguese Fado performance.

Geocaching can introduce travelers to new landscapes and provide a glimpse of what life is like someplace else. This challenging recreational activity offers unique and unusual ways for travelers to connect with a place and its people.

For More Info

Here are tips on how to use geocaching to incorporate travel-inspired treasure hunts into your next trip.

Explore online. Join Geocaching.com and browse the forums, organized by states, regions, countries, and languages. Tap the knowledge of an international community of location lovers.

Do a trial run at home. Before investing in a GPS unit, befriend local cachers in your hometown, search on your own zip code and discover caches located close to where you live.

Tag along on your next trip. Team up with seasoned geocachers that can serve as a guide for your first search experience in a new place. Make a day of it, stopping for a local meal and participating in traditional cultural activities in the region you are visiting.

Get your own gadget. Shop around and make a purchase that fits your budget. Then grab some coordinates and get hunting! (You can also rent units from LowerGear.com)

Pick and plan. Choose a city or country to visit, sketch an itinerary and then consult Geocaching.com to gather a list of caches for your destination.

Remember logistics. Do you want to search for caches that require use of a 4x4? Or will you stick to hunts strictly for hiking, cycling, or scuba diving? Pick your preferences, print or download your list and go!

Hide your own cache. Become a cache owner. Pick a special place that you want to share with others and bury your own treasure and travel tips.

Know the rules. Be mindful of the natural habitat and any regional rules. For example, the National Park and Forest Services have specific regulations and permit requirements for setting caches on parkland.

Websites to Find Out More

www.geocaching.com

www.waymarking.com

www.letterboxing.org

forums.groundspeak.com/GC