Geocaching offers fun, outdoor, high-tech adventure

Release Date: 7/22/2010

Technology has changed our diversions in the past half century. As the microchips grow smaller and subtler, the distance between the hula hoop and the Wii gets bigger and bigger. But some games never change, right? What about, oh, say, hide and seek? Or the old-fashioned scavenger hunt?

If you said some things never change, you would be wrong. 

Geocaching is an outdoor activity in which the participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers (called “geocaches” or “caches”). A GPS is any device that receives these satellite signals for the purpose of determining one’s present location. They are small, hand held, and in function essentially the same as the Tom Tom in your car or cell phone application you use to find your way around in a new city.

One of the geocaches found on the Ozarks campus.

Contents of a geocache located on the University of the Ozarks campus.

With geocaching, the purpose is to locate the caches – which can be of virtually any size, although usually they are not large, often a Tupperware container or weatherproof ammo box – inside which at the very least will be a notebook log of some sort, where the geocacher can record their identity, proving they’ve found the cache. Geocachers hide the caches, and then other geocachers obtain its coordinates from that listing site and seek out the cache using their GPS handheld receivers Larger containers can also contain items for trading, usually toys or trinkets of little value. Geocachers are free to take objects (except the logbook, pencil, or stamp) from the cache in exchange for leaving something of similar or higher value. Geocaching is most often described as a “game of high-tech hide and seek.” Higher value items are occasionally included in geocaches as a reward for the First to Find (called "FTF"), or in locations which are harder to reach. Dangerous or illegal items, weapons, and pornography are generally not allowed and are specifically against the rules of most geocache listing sites.

The geocacher then goes online at http://www.geocaching.com, where they log their find and make any notes about it. (Notes might include whether the cache was where it was supposed to be, or had been damaged, etc.) Each geocacher has a code name or “handle,” and geocachers log their findings just as birdwatchers keeps track of all the different birds they see.

The first documented placement of a GPS-located cache took place on May 3, 2000, by Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon. By May 6, 2000, it had been found twice and logged once (by Mike Teague of Vancouver, Washington). According to Dave Ulmer's message, the original stash was a black plastic bucket buried most of the way in the ground and contained software, videos, books, food, money, and a slingshot.

There are dozens of geocaches in the U of O/Clarksville area.  Hunter Jackson, U of O Director of National and JLC Recruitment, said many new students come to the University of the Ozarks ready to start searching.  "We've had freshmen come in with lists of sites they want to check out," he said.

U of O sophomore Lauren Ray, was one of those freshmen.  Lauren has searched for geocaches all over Johnson County.  One site she found particularly interesting is located off Spadra Trail, which runs from the U of O campus across town. “It’s a book swap,” she said. “You take one, you leave one.” This particular cache – “Cherrywoods Book Exchange” – is colorfully named, as are most, based somewhat on location or contents. Local cache-names run the range from “S’naturally Difficult,” “Spooky Reverberations,” “Can You Hear Me Now?”, “Doctor, Doctor,” and “Car in the Sky.”

According to another Ozarks geocacher, U of O Director of Broadcasting Susan Edens, some geocaches contain what’s called a “travel-bug” (like a dogtag) or a “geo-coin.” “The purpose is to get the travel bug from one point to somewhere else in the world,” she said. “Since you can track it online, you can follow as one geocacher takes it from here to a cache in Tennessee, let’s say, or from there to the next point, until hopefully it makes it to where it’s supposed to go.”

She said other caches are “multiples,” where the first one gives you clues to the second one, and so on.

Edens has been involved in geocaching for about four years. “I had heard about geocaching here and there,” she said. “Then I went to visit my brother in Arizona and he was into it. He and my nephews took me geocaching out there. I’ve been doing it ever since.”

She said installing a cache requires following certain criteria – you must register it on the official geocaching site and receive their permission, as well as the permission of property owners. She said most people try to include local historical or educational information when they register their cache online, and as a rule don’t hide caches in places requiring you to endanger yourself in order to find them.

Edens cautioned against muggles – which, much as in the Harry Potter books and movies, are “mundane” people – in this case, those who might observe the geocacher without understanding what’s going on, and either tamper with the site later, or worse yet, as has happened in the past, call the police or even the bomb squad to report “suspicious activities.”

“I usually just explain to them what I’m doing,” Edens said. “It saves a lot of trouble.”

The official geocaching web site has a list of suggestions for those considering taking up geocaching as a hobby. Their recommendations include:

  • Find a geocache that will meet your immediate goals. Are you looking for a difficult hike or an easy adventure?
  • If you're headed out on the trail, pack any needed supplies such as water, food and extra clothing. Bring both a map and a compass. Check geocache terrain and difficulty ratings.
  • For safety, let someone know where you are going.
  • Do not forget your GPS and extra batteries.
  • Mark your car as a waypoint to ensure your safe return.
  • Be mindful of the environment. Don’t litter. In geocaching, this is called “cache in, trash out.”
  • Remember that distances can be deceiving. A geocache can take longer to find depending on trails, rivers and other obstacles.
  • If you take something from the geocache, leave something of equal or greater value.
  • Write about your experience in the geocache logbook.
  • Place your geocaching stories and photos online.

Further information, including how to set up a geocacher account and a general geocacher FAQ, can be found at the official web site.