Geocaching involves a “hider” placing a cache of prizes in a hidden location for a “seeker” to locate after downloading coordinates (that would be latitude and longitude) from a website into a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. That’s a pretty barebones description of what has become a worldwide phenomenon game … or is it a sport? More on that later.
I think of myself as a pretty experienced outdoorswoman, so I jumped at the chance on a Sunday afternoon to add a new skill to my outdoor resume. I invited myself to tag along with experienced geocacher Mercy Pilkington, who happened to be on a quest for her 100th find.
A GPS is required equipment when geocaching, whether it is a car version, a handheld device, or on your smart phone (yes, there’s an app for that). A GPS uses satellites to pinpoint any location in the world.
My husband, Tom, who tagged along as the chauffeur for our trip, swears geocaching must have been created by Garmin, one of the more popular manufacturers of GPS devices, to increase the sales of the smart little machines beloved by the directionally challenged.
In reality, the sport of geocaching began in August 2000, after the Clinton administration removed scrambling techniques on GPS systems that had rendered the receivers inaccurate up to 100 meters. Now they are accurate within 15 meters, or about 49 feet.
A computer consultant named David Ulmer ran with the idea of creating a hide-and-seek game using satellites and hidden treasures. Thus, according to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching, modern-day geocaching was born.
The website for all things geocache is www.geocaching.com, which began with 75 cache locations posted online. To date, the website claims 1.4 million active caches and more than 5 million geocachers worldwide.
Pilkington says that, within a 10-mile radius of her home in Calhoun County, there are 98 logged caches; within a 100-mile radius, there are more than 14,000.
The local fertile hunting ground for treasure seekers is what piqued Pilkington’s interest. But the opportunity to capture her daughters’ attentions for the outdoors is why she started planting and locating caches, after husband Todd gave her a Garmin LCX for Valentine’s Day last year.
She feels that adding a goal to hiking and camping trips helps her daughters, Annslyn, 11, and Carly, 9, become more comfortable in outdoor settings. She deems it especially important for Carly, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age.
“Geocaching has really helped Carly with her fear of shrubbery and grass, which can be overwhelming to a child with autism,” Pilkington said as we loaded up for our hunt. “This gives her a purpose for being outdoors.”
For Pilkington, geocaching is a hobby with objectives. She incorporates the game into her curriculum as a teacher at Coosa Valley Youth Detention, instructing her students on the basics of navigation and geocaching.
I didn’t want to appear uneducated in the ways of geocaching, so before meeting up with Pilkington, I delved into the website to pick up some strategic points.
Caches are generally plastic waterproof boxes or metal ammo boxes with trinkets inside, sometimes called “swag,” along with a logbook to record who found it and when. Swag can be anything, but usually it’s a collection of small items reflective of the treasure-hunters.
Not to go geocaching empty-handed, I ran by Hobby Lobby to find a small plastic or metal bauble that would tell the world of geocachers who I was. Symbolic of my love of the outdoors, I chose a collection of itty-bitty frogs and turtles. The next question was, “Would I be willing to give these up if the time came?”
How do you start geocaching? The website invites you to become a member of the geocaching community, create a catchy geocache name and read the rules. Before you fork out too much money for a GPS, you may want to see if this game is for you. Maybe borrow a GPS from a friend first.
Once you are a member, you can download locations, and the website gurus very nicely organize the route for you, which helps save gas and time as you drive all over looking for hidden stashes.
Pilkington emphasizes the importance of creating a bag of necessary items for each excursion. Her bag includes her GPS, notebook and pen, batteries, a flashlight and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t quite identify. Reminded me a little bit of my grandmother’s purse; I always thought she had a small hardware/candy store in hers as she was as likely to pull out a hammer as a roll of Lifesavers to keep us quiet in church.
When you find a cache, what do you do? Take something; leave something. Sign the log.
Pilkington generally keeps a collection of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys to trade if she fancies an item from a found cache.
With my turtle and frog swag in hand, the three of us headed out in the Choccolocco Valley area to hunt treasure. Pilkington downloaded three locations for us to try to find — an easy afternoon for her, as she has found as many as 20 caches in one day.
You may think, “Where’s the sport in this?” since the GPS does the location work for you, but the inaccuracy of the GPS can make it a lot harder to find a cache in the woods than you might think.
Our first hunt was aptly named “One Lane Bridge,” and the trusty Garmin led us through bucolic winding rural roads where cows barely lifted their heads as we passed by and directly to, EUREKA!, a one-lane bridge. The downloaded instructions informed us to “Pull off the road; turn on flashers.” The next trick was to locate the cache.
This turned out to be trickier than I thought. According to Pilkington, I had not yet developed my “geo sense,” the ability to size up an area and sense exactly where the cache is before you ever really start looking.
Have you ever played the childhood game “Hot. Hotter! You’re burning up you’re so hot?” That’s what I felt like as Pilkington gave gentle commands as I began my search. It was almost as if she knew where the stash was hidden.
Turned out, the One Lane Bridge location was a cache created and hidden by Pilkington, and while I was desperately looking over and under the bridge and trudging through the creek, she realized the previous geocaching visitor had returned the cache to a different location than where she had originally placed it.
With a little help from Pilkington, well actually a lot of help, a 12-inch-long red plastic box was found. I eagerly sorted through the trinkets, choosing an unidentifiable action figure as a reward traded for one of my prized frogs. I kissed the little amphibian as I placed him tenderly in the box.
I logged my name and date in the cache’s logbook, so others would know the last time someone had found the box, and placed it back in its hiding place.
Pilkington said the website offers “hints” that can be downloaded in encrypted form if you hit a snag. Hints can include such information as the size of the cache and specifics about terrain.
“The hints are especially good if you have kids,” she said. “I set a timer for 15 minutes, and if we don’t find it by then, we move on to the next one.”
Pilkington does her homework, reading all the feedback and online posts about each cache before she leaves home. “Some geocachers are very creative,” she said. “One man drilled a hole in a softball and another hollowed out a log with a hinged opening.”
Pilkington admits to being pretty clever herself, as she has inserted a metal tube cache inside a rubber snake. (She logged a note on the website for seekers “not to be afraid of the snake.”)
Her family enjoys island caches, and they incorporate geocaching into their vacation plans. “We love to paddle out to an island knowing nobody else goes there except other geocachers,” she said. “Shell Island at Panama City might be my favorite. It’s a hard walk around the island from the bay side to the ocean side, which is much prettier.
“We felt like pirates!” Pilkington continued, describing the find. “The cache was marked with crossed palm fronds, and the treasure was in a bucket half-buried in the sand.”
Geocachers rely on other members to post accurate information on the website. If a cache has been destroyed or stolen, that info is posted. If a cache has had to be relocated due to floods or tornados, that info is posted, too.
Reveling in our first find, we proceeded to a business location off of Highway 78. Cachers must seek permission from property owners to hide caches. Before a cache is official, it must meet the geocaching guidelines as posted on the website and be approved by volunteer reviewers.
Geocachers are relentless in their seeking and leave no stone unturned and no bush uninspected, but the rules are strict: Do not disturb wildlife, like birds’ nests, and do not do anything illegal, like put a cache in a mailbox, which is U.S. Postal Service property.
Our second attempt proved to be problematic. The cache was described as a “microcache,” a very small one. “It will probably have only a rolled up logbook in it,” Pilkington said.
“What? No treasures?” I thought. “I’m only here for the prizes.” Heck, I loved to go to the dentist as a child purely to dig through the trove of cheap plastic goodies, hoping to score a springed hopping toy or magnetic kissing dogs.
Undaunted by the prospect of no trinket, my husband was not to be denied a find of his own. Well past the imposed ding of the 15-minute time limit, his eagle eye spotted a thin plastic tube covered in camo tape, blending in between a thick vine and the tree to which it was attached.
He quickly completed the log, and we were off to location No. 3, titled “New Bypass in Town.” The Garmin guided us to a more inhabited area of Anniston, and for the first time I realized people may wonder what we were doing.
Pilkington admits she’s garnered the interest of local law enforcement while searching. “Don’t try to explain it to the police,” she said. “They don’t get it.”
Maybe Geocaching.com should issue ID badges that members could whip out when needed, validating why you were digging in a water meter or repeatedly wandering around and around a business on your knees.
As the Garmin honed in on the location, Pilkington’s geosense was activated. She took one glance at the area and said, “It’s in that tree.” Of course, it might have helped that the area was a stark parking lot and the only thing besides pavement was a lone cedar tree.
She made quick work of finding the hanging metal tube, signed the logbook and exclaimed, “My 100th find!”
Our quest was complete. Pilkington had hit her milestone, and I had new outdoor skills.
So, is it a game or a sport? Arguably it’s both. Geocaching appeals to the child in all of us. Who didn’t grow up participating in Easter egg hunts, scavenger hunts, treasure hunts or hide-and-seek? A quick perusal of the website confirms the activity can be as competitive as you want it to be; there are many ways to earn prizes and points. Want to log a find in every state or even every county in Alabama? The downloads await you.
The biggest plus to geocaching is that everyone can do it, from small children to grandparents. The game hones navigational skills, and it gets people off the couch and outside. Anything that increases a love for the outdoors, thereby instilling a sense of ownership and responsibility, is a valid sport in my opinion. Or should that be a valid game?
Notes on geocaching
• The word “geocaching” combines “geo,” for geography or world, and “cache,” a term used for both hidden provisions and, in a more modern sense, data stored on a computer.
• A Travel Bug has a metal tag with a tracking number on it, which is logged on geocaching.com and allows you to locate the bug wherever it roams. Local geocacher Mercy Pilkington has placed four travel bugs and tracks them as they travel from cache to cache.
• Most extreme location of a cache? The inventor of the Ultima Online game series, Lord British, used a Russian Mir submersible in the Atlantic Ocean to place a cache 1.4 miles underwater.
• Geocachers take their responsibility for the outdoors seriously, and practice CITO: Cache In, Trash Out.
• Geocachers don’t let fellow cachers GPS and drive! Always designate a driver and a GPS navigator for safety purposes.
—SOURCE: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching