Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Geocaching 101

Anybody that knows me knows that I *love* geocaching. I was turned onto geocaching by an online friend. It sounded like a great way to take Kasey on adventures and get out of the house. I found my first geocache with my brother-in-law, Jamie, on March 29, 2004. I've been hooked ever since. I haven't been out geocaching a whole lot this past year since Korey has been born but as soon as she gets more mobile and easier to handle, Ol' EagleEye Kasey and I will be back on the trails hunting for more geocaches. Check out my stats at geocaching.com.

In the meantime, Rick Broida from LifeHacker has written an awesome article that sums up just what all geocaching involves. It sounds like it's a complicated sport with a lot of money and gear involved but it's really not at all. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to do it. teehee

Read on and let me know when you want to go sometime. I gotcha covered!


by Rick Broida

In the spirit of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie that's opening DVD that's coming out in a few weeks, I bring you the ultimate adventure for the modern pirate: Geocaching.

A kind of high-tech treasure hunt in which the journey itself is often the biggest reward, Geocaching substitutes a GPS receiver for the tattered old pirate map and a box of trinkets for the treasure chest.

It's a great way to enjoy the great outdoors, either alone or with a group, and you can do it just about anywhere. Let's take a look at what you need to get started.

The Game

The word Geocaching comes from two separate words: geo, for geology; and cache, a hidden store of goods or valuables. It's pronounced "geo-cashing." If you go around saying "geo-catching," people will laugh at you.

This is a home-grown sport in the truest sense. You can read the full history at Geocaching.com or in my book, How to Do Everything with Your GPS, which makes a great gift.

geocaching1.jpg Here's the nutshell version of how it works:

  • You enter a set of coordinates (the latitude and longitude variety) into your GPS receiver. This is the 'X' that marks the spot.
  • You let your GPS navigate you to those coordinates. They might be in a public park, a patch of deep woods, or a mountain trail.
  • You search the area for the hidden booty, which may be wedged in the crook of a tree branch, buried under a small pile or rocks, or otherwise concealed.
  • You claim a trinket from the "treasure chest" and leave behind one of your own.

Sound like fun? All you need is a suitable GPS receiver, a set of coordinates and possibly some bug spray.

The Gear

geocaching2.jpg What constitutes a "suitable" GPS receiver? Any model that lets you input latitude and longitude as your destination. Alas, the GPS you bought for your car probably won't do the trick; most of these models were designed with street navigation in mind. (And do you really want to tromp around in the woods with such a fragile, pricey piece of electronics?)

No, the ideal GPS for Geocaching is a handheld, outdoors-minded model, something like the Garmin eTrex or Magellan eXplorist 100. Shop online and you should be able to find both for under $100.

geocaching4.jpg Another option is a GPS-equipped PDA like the Garmin iQue series or Mio 168RS, though you may need third-party software: Many of these devices come only with road-navigation software. I recommend ThatWay! ($15) for Palm OS devices, VITO Navigator (pictured; $19.95) for Windows Mobile.

Don't want to invest in new gear? You might be able to hit the trail with your GPS-enabled phone. A new application, Trimble Geocache Navigator, links directly to Geocaching.com's cache listings (see below) so you can search for and navigate to caches near your current location (or any location you specify).

geocaching3.jpg Because it's currently limited to Boost, Nextel, Southern Linc and Sprint networks, I haven't been able to try it yet (I'm on T-Mobile and Verizon). But it looks like a killer Geocaching app, one that's well worth its $6.99/month charge.

Other gear to consider bringing on your expedition: sunscreen, bug spray, water, a first-aid kit, and at least one friend. Even with a GPS, it's still possible to get stranded in the woods.

The Caches

Once you're set with a GPS receiver, all that remains is to pick a cache. Head to Geocaching.com to search its globe-spanning database, which contains thousands of cache locations.

For first-timers, I recommend choosing one that's close to home, just to get a feel for the experience. At the same time, pick a cache that's relatively easy (they're all rated for overall difficulty and terrain difficulty). You don't want your first hunt to involve scaling bare rockfaces or navigating three miles of mountain switchbacks.

Most of the cache listings include the coordinates, a description of the cache and/or its surroundings, and an encrypted hint that comes with a simple decryption key. The latter is intended as a last-ditch, "I-give-up" clue that more or less gives away the cache location.

Wait, won't the GPS take you right to it? Yes and no. Most GPS receivers are accurate to within 10 feet, though some might not even be that precise. Picture yourself standing in dense woods trying to find a small, hidden object that could be 10 feet (or more) in any direction. This is where the actual hunting begins. Getting there is half the fun; the other half is the search itself.

geocaching5.jpg Indeed, remember that the goal of Geocaching is neither riches nor thievery. A cache is usually a box, tin or some other container filled with one or more bits of "treasure": a spool of thread, a tennis ball, a Smurf doll, and so on. You can claim something for your own, but only if you leave a different item behind. Taking the whole cache just isn't done, as it kills the spirit of the game and leaves nothing for the next Geocacher.

Also, it's important that you leave the cache exactly as you found it (whether up in a tree or buried beneath a pile of rocks) so that the provided clues still apply. Let me further add that Geocachers pride themselves on being environmentally friendly, meaning they're careful not to disturb, destroy, or otherwise mess with the locale.

Final Thoughts

I like Geocaching best in the wintertime, as it saves you having to worry about sunburn, mosquitoes and the leaves overhead interfering with your GPS signal. It's also a great vacation activity, as it not only lets you get out and explore, but also gives you a destination.

Finally, remember to be safe. Always let someone know where you're headed, especially if you're going it alone. Geocaching is usually no more dangerous than a walk in the woods, but nothing substitutes for common sense.

Now go forth and plunder, me pirate hearties.

Rick Broida, Lifehacker's new associate editor, is planning to do a little 'caching with his family during an upcoming cruise (after they're docked, of course--there are no caches in the ocean). His special feature, Alpha Geek, appears every Monday. Subscribe to the Alpha Geek feed to get new installments in your newsreader.

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