Photo courtesy lollyknit

Geocaching couldn’t exist without the cutting-edge, satellite-based positioning technology that is GPS. But at the same time, it’s centered on an activity as old as our species: exploratory walking.

Late fall bites at my skin. I’m a mile from the nearest house, but the air is so crisp I can smell wood smoke drifting from the outskirts of town.

Though a long-time area resident, I’ve never had reason to explore this tract of woods until now. A shame, because the modest elevation gain, the bare tree limbs, and the early autumn sunset along the horizon make for a beautiful landscape.

Soft beeps begin to emanate from the GPS receiver clutched in my gloved hand. “Arriving at destination,” the display reads. Following the compass arrow, I navigate the last 40 feet across a small clearing and over a dry stream bed to the coordinates of the cache.

It takes only seconds to sift through the crackling leaves, displace a couple stones, and the treasure hunt is over. There it is, a rectangular Tupperware container sealed tight against the elements. Popping the top, I’m greeted with the now-familiar note: “Congratulations, you’ve found a geocache!”

History

In early May of 2000, the Global Positioning System (GPS) was in essence “declassified” by the U.S. military, making it available for public use. The following day, a man in Oregon decided to test the accuracy of this new tool.

Dave Ulmer hid a small container of items—books, videos, and a slingshot—in the woods near his home. He recorded the latitude-longitude coordinates of its location with his hand-held GPS receiver and posted them to an Internet newsgroup, inviting others to try and find his “cache.”

In a matter of days, GPS enthusiasts had taken up the challenge, logging the results of their treasure hunts online. This was the spontaneous and creative birth of geocaching.

Since then, the activity has become an international sensation. The official website, geocaching.com, lists nearly 700,000 caches hidden in more than 100 countries on all seven continents.

Basics

Most caches include a stash of inexpensive, harmless items, along with a logbook. When you find the cache, you’re allowed to take an item as long as you replace it with something of your own. In addition, you’re asked to log your visit in the book.

Photo courtesy Dave ® (was: Buck!)

Some caches, especially those hidden in busy urban areas, are so small they contain nothing more than a tiny roll of paper for logging.

A database of the world’s caches is maintained at the website mentioned above.

Getting Started

Unlike many other outdoor activities, geocaching start-up costs don’t necessitate loads of disposable income. It’s likely that the only piece of equipment prospective cachers will have to purchase is a GPS receiver.

Entry-level units go for as low as $50, with accuracy and special features increasing with price.

In addition to a GPS, you’ll need a computer with an Internet connection. Create a free account on the geocaching website in order to access cache coordinates. Next, select a cache near you and input its coordinates into your GPS.

Photo courtesy shroomazoom

Take note of any clues or other information provided by the hider, which may come in handy during your search. Also, check to make sure others have found the cache recently. Sometimes caches are damaged or lost and the hider neglects to update the listing accordingly.

Step-by-step instructions, guidelines for beginners, and a glossary of terms are also available on the website.

Don’t forget to share your experience with the community—did you find it? what did you think?—once you return.

Implications

Some may view geocaching as a mere recreational oddity, a quirky hobby riding a fad wave. But look deeper and you’ll see the phenomenon has profound insights to offer—on the modern intersection of nature and technology, the potential of virtual communities, and the future of exploration.

Geocaching couldn’t exist without the cutting-edge, satellite-based positioning technology that is GPS. But at the same time, it’s centered on an activity as old as our species: exploratory walking.

This merger of old and new, high- and low-tech, is significant. It has the potential to expand horizons, sending techies out on forest hikes and introducing nature lovers to a beneficial technology. More abstractly, it suggests a model by which high technology and the natural world can coexist.

Geocaching is also a testament to the positive power of virtual, grassroots communities. Out of the simple desire to have fun, a handful of people produced something that’s now enriching the lives of countless others.

Photo courtesy shroomazoom

In doing so, they’ve given new meaning to a technology originally designed to help wage war more efficiently, steeped in the all-too-sinister prospect of global surveillance. If that’s not evidence of the creative potential of the Internet, I’m not sure what is.

And perhaps most importantly, geocaching redefines our understanding of place. For many, the sport is less about the act of locating a hidden object as it is about discovering a heretofore overlooked locale.

Most caches aren’t hidden in arbitrary places. The chosen location is special to the hider somehow, and more often than not the cache listing will include a personal anecdote or historical exposition introducing a backstory to the cacher’s destination.

Otherwise mundane locales are given unique value, embellished with meaning, forever transformed.

As the world grows smaller, as we run out of new places to explore, we need to learn to see ordinary places in a different light—in effect, to recycle a place and discover it all over again. Geocaching offers such an opportunity.

Community Connection

Do you participate in geocaching? Is your interest piqued? Share your thoughts below!

Interesting in getting started? Check out our picks and recommendations for 5 Hand-held GPS Receivers.

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