Hide and seek Geocaching combines technology, nature in fun hobby

By Justin Schuver

Most modern mothers are likely familiar with the sentence, “Turn off that computer and go play outside!” Well, thanks to geocaching, now they can also say, “Turn ON that computer and go play outside!”

Geocaching is still a relatively new hobby, and was first developed in May 2000. In simple terms, geocaching is played like a game of high-tech “hide and seek.” A special object, or “cache,” is hidden somewhere and the hider notes the GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates of that hiding place.

The hider then gives the seeker those coordinates, and the seeker can then plug them into a GPS device — typically either a standalone device similar to an electronic compass, or a smart phone with GPS software. Using those coordinates, the seeker will eventually find the hidden cache.

This simple hobby has blossomed into a multi-million-dollar industry. There are official geocaching websites, official geocaching gear, and even an official “Geowoodstock” festival that draws thousands of visitors each year. The improvement of GPS technology, especially in smart phones and tablet computers, has also allowed the number of geocachers to skyrocket.

Richard Dykes, of Bainbridge, is a fan of the hobby. He has been playing since June 9, 2005, when his brother first told him about geocaching.

“My brother was telling me about this cool new game,” he said. “I have always liked computers, so I wanted to try it out. I got an Explorers GPS Unit for my birthday that year, and I’ve been hooked every since.”

Dykes not only enjoyed the seeking aspect of geocaching, but he also got into the hiding aspect. For example, he once hid a large box near a bridge behind Oak City Cemetery — that cache has since been removed. He has traveled as far away as North Carolina, just specifically to go geocaching.

“It’s a neat sport because it takes you to some regions of the country that are hidden gems,” he said. “Anytime I’m visiting some place new, I always check online to see if there are any caches hidden there.”

Of course, any popular sport eventually has to develop rules, and there is one main rule of geocaching — permission, permission, permission. It is important for any hider to seek permission of the land owner, or public management agency, before placing a geocache in an area. The reason is obvious; anyone who seeks a geocache is forced to look meticulously through grass or inside trees, and such activity would otherwise be considered suspicious.

“It’s one of those things where it’s all about respect,” Dykes said. “The entire game is based on the honor system and respect.”

In fact, the game has grown so large that most novice hiders are discouraged from simply randomly hiding caches. Now, they are first asked to register online (the main website is geocaching.com, and is operated by a private company, Groundspeak). Then, administrators make sure that permission has been sought, and verify that the caches are actually located in an accessible place, before making the coordinates “live” to share with seekers.

Early on, many public parks and public lands were wary of geocaching, but they eventually realized the boon is has for tourism, Dykes said. Now, just about every state or national park has geocaches hidden on site, and often runs contests developed around those geocaches.

“It’s a great way to get people outside that might not normally go outside and enjoy nature,” he said.

The hobby has also evolved over the years, to develop its own jargon and “unwritten rules.” For example, there are three different primary sizes of geocaches — a “micro” is typically the size of a film canister and is only large enough to hold a “log book,” which is a small written account of people who found the cache and when they found it. A “small” is around the size of a Tupperware container, and may not only contain a log book, but also small items that people leave behind when they re-hide a cache — such as Happy Meal toys or necklace charms. A “large” may be as big as an ammo box, or even larger. Dykes said he has heard of one cache that was an entire old car someone had hidden in the woods.

However, even those three varieties have since evolved. Now there are also “nano” size, which is only the size of a postage stamp and has just enough room for seekers to mark their initials. A recent development is the “virtual” cache, which isn’t actually a physical object, but instead just a location that has to be sought. For example, the hider may post a photo of a particular view of a waterfall or rock formation, and it is up to the seeker to then find that spot and take a photo of himself in front of it.

Cache seekers have their own honor system and rules. For example, Dykes said that seekers should always “trade up” if they take something from a cache — if there is a toy that you like, you should leave one in its place that is as good, or better, than the one that was taken. Also, the cache should be re-hidden in as close to the original location as it was originally discovered.

Dykes noted that the game continues to develop and evolve every day. A “geocache trail” is a special game where the hider will hide a small geocache in one location, and when that cache is found it will contain the coordinates to the next location, then that cache will have coordinates for another location, and so on. Eventually, the trail will end at a larger geocache, or perhaps a picturesque “virtual cache.”

“Travel bugs” are special objects that are left in geocaches. These objects have numbers that can be logged on to an Internet site, and allow the travel bug owner to see where his bug is currently “hidden.” The owner can even request that his bug end up in a particular location, and see the various “stops” it has made on the way to that ultimate location.

However, Dykes said that his favorite caches are those that are large enough to include full “journals.” With these caches, not only can the seekers write their names (or anonymous “handles,” similar to a name used on an instant messenging services), but they can also draw a picture, write a poem, or do whatever comes to mind.

“There’s something very calming about discovering a neat cache and then taking the time to sit down and just write in the journal for a while,” he said. “It’s also neat to see what over people wrote and thought, when they found the same exact spot that you did.”

There are tons of geocaching websites and forums online, and also some nearby clubs. Dykes is a member of the Tallahassee Area Geocachers (www.tagfla.com), and said they are an excellent group. The official website of Geocaching is geocaching.com, where anyone can quickly do a ZIP code search to see what caches are in their area. Premium members pay a small fee and are then entitled to more complex searches and activities.

Dykes said one of the great aspects of geocaching is that it lends itself to a group excursion, whether with friends or family members. And when you have an activity that’s social, outdoors, and uses the brain, that’s just about all you need.

Happy seeking!

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