This global game combines high-tech navigation and outdoor recreation. By Glenn Derene
Hidden in the framework of a classic New England covered bridge in Pittsford, Vermont, there is a Tupperware container with a surprise inside. I know this because I put it there. That Tupperware container is a geocache, and, along with the surprise, it has a few standard contents – a logbook, a Travel Bug and a Chirp radio beacon. If you know what those things are, then you have already been initiated into the geocaching community. If you’re not familiar with those terms, then you are probably a “muggle”, and in all likelihood, you’ve been unknowingly walking by a world of hidden treasures for years.
Geocaching started in 2000, just after selective availability was removed from the Global Positioning System (GPS). In the early days of GPS, the American government instituted purposeful inaccuracy for civilian navigation devices, as a national security precaution. When that inaccuracy was lifted, consumer-grade GPS devices became useful for tracking and pinpointing objects to within 10 metres – and a global game of hide-and-seek was born. Today, geocaches are hidden in more than 100 countries (Afghanistan has 186 caches), and caches can be found in areas both populated and unpopulated. The community prides itself on clever placement, and there are entire subgenres of extreme caches – underwater, in caves, on top of mountains, in trees, on islands, etc.
What separates geocaching from a runofthemill scavenger hunt is the integration of technology. The tech is twofold: geocachers use GPS navigation devices to find their quarry, and sophisticated online databases to organise, find and share the location data. In many ways, geocaching integrated the phenomena of social media and locationbased networking long before most people had heard of either. Before GPS, a hobby called letterboxing was the equivalent of geocaching sans GPS, but caching with modern technology lowers the barrier to entry for newbies, and amps up the challenge for experts who want to do some serious backcountry navigation.
There are several community sites for geocachers. Some sites, such as navicache.com and gpsgames.org, are simple database search engines with awkward interfaces and dated designs. Far more sophisticated are sites such as geocaching.com and opencaching.com, which is the newest entry. Started by GPSdevicemaker Garmin, Opencaching has a slick interface and is opensource, so anyone could create software that plugs into its database. But so far, the only GPS devices that natively work with the opencaching.com site are Garmin’s own.
Geocaching.com may not look as polished as its main rival, but it has the largest, richest database around and is the clear centre of gravity for geocaching culture. Users must register with the site. A basic membership is free and provides access to the coordinates of existing caches. The site allows these users to upload comments on found caches and post new caches. Premium membership costs about R200 a year and allows subscribers to create custom maps and rank caches for the rest of the community. Groundspeak, the company behind geocaching.com, also sells logbooks, waterproof boxes, trackable objects and other geocachingrelated gear, but none of that stuff is required for the player who wants to create and hide a geocache.
The major outdoorGPSdevice manufacturers (Garmin, Magellan, DeLorme and Lowrance) have embraced geocaching, and many GPS handhelds have special submenus dedicated to the pursuit. Garmin, Magellan and DeLorme have also created browser plugins that allow users to upload caches to their GPS handhelds directly from geocaching websites. The standard data format for cache information is a .gpx file, which includes location data as well as a text description of the cache. Navigational devices can both store and add to .gpx files, so you can log and comment on a cache you find out in the field, then upload that information back to the geocaching site you use.
As is the case with many portable electronics, the functionality of standalone GPS handheld navigators is easily translated to, and arguably improved upon by, smartphone apps. Since smartphones generally have GPS antennas built into them, as well as access to maps, they can perform the same basic navigation duties as dedicated GPS handhelds. And, because they can access offboard data via cellular networks, cache files don’t need to be preloaded onto the device, and updates on geocaches can be logged online directly from the field. Dozens of geocaching navigation apps are available for the iPhone as well as Android and BlackBerry devices, but the gold standard for usefulness comes from Groundspeak. That company’s geocaching apps for iPhone and Android have an even slicker interface than the geocaching.com Web site itself, potentially freeing cachers from any need to go indoors. As great as smartphone geocaching apps are, however, they do have two flaws: first, the maps and interaction with online cache databases require a cellular signal, which can be a problem when hunting down remote caches. Second, smartphones are hardly ruggedised devices, so before you take them out into rough terrain, you might want a shockproof and waterproof case from a company such as Magellan or OtterBox.
If the concept of gadgetassisted exploring interests you, it’s worth noting that geocaching is as much a cultural as a technological phenomenon. Cachers are a welcoming bunch who are willing to provide helpful advice to newbies, but they also clearly relish the secrecy of the world they inhabit. They even seem to feel a bit of kinship with the wizards of the Harry Potter books, as evidenced by the borrowed slang term muggles, for noninitiates. A creatively designed or wellplaced cache can earn plenty of pats on the back in a cache’s comments section, and there are some detailed guidelines on cache placement intended to discourage bad behaviour. For instance, no caches should be placed on private land without permission of the owner, and they should never be buried. Geocaches should generally not be placed on school property or military bases. They should be at least 160 metres apart. And no geocache should deface public or private property. The restrictions ease off once you rise above the stratosphere, though: Geocaches are expressly permitted in outer space. (There is one on the International Space Station.)
Aside from a logbook, the contents of caches vary widely. Geocache containers should generally be weatherresistant, and the stuff inside should never be dangerous or perishable. The contents of some geocaches launch another level of geogame. Some “multicaches” hide the coordinates and hints for a second cache inside the first – creating a chainreaction search. Some caches contain Travel Bugs, Geocoins or other trackable objects that users move from cache to cache (each trackable has a dedicated website that chronicles its journey). Last year, a new technology was added to geocaching when Garmin started selling Chirp beacons. These send out periodic messages to compatible devices using a shortrange wireless signal.
Some critics consider geocaching littering – an accusation that the community has addressed with its Cache In, Trash Out initiative. Some caches have caused confusion with authorities, leading to their destruction by bomb squads. Most caches, however, last for years and can get dozens, if not hundreds, of visitors. In fact, by the time you read this, my cache in Vermont most likely will have been found already by a cacher who will add his own surprise – another contribution to the hidden world.
Rainbow Hydrothermal Vents, 2 280 m below the Atlantic near the Azores
Co-ordinates: N 36° 13.800 W 033° 54.200
Highest in the sky:
International Space Station, in orbit 354 km above Earth.
Co-ordinates: Depends when you ask
Near the South Pole, Antarctica
Co-ordinates: S 89° 59.517 W 008° 54.821
Peak of Mount Whitney, 4 421 metres above sea level in Sequoia National Park, California
Co-ordinates: N 36° 34.731 W 118° 17.571