Ready to Try Geocaching?

By | January 9, 2012

We’re not experts at geocaching, so we asked Val Joiner if she would give us an intro to the sport. She obliged, and we are ever so glad she did. Val is a former geologist who now spends her time as a wandering homeschooling mom. She believes travel and exploring nature are vital to kids and adults alike. She chronicles the adventures of her family (aka Camp Granola) at Val in Real Life.

Golf Course Cache

Some of you out there in cyberland may be very familiar with geocaching, but if you’re one of the folks who aren’t in on the game, here’s a quick primer.

Welcome to Geocaching 101…
In a nutshell, geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunt played with a GPS. You use coordinates to track down a cache and sign the log. You then post your find to your account online and watch your collection of smiley faces grow.

There are over 1.5 million caches hidden all over the world in an amazing variety of imaginative places, from your local parking lot to the deep wilderness (yes including Antarctica). These “hides” come in all shapes and sizes. From a “nano” the size of a pinto bean on up to creatively disguised large boxes, they can look like just about anything from a bolt to a birdhouse to well…you name it, someone’s probably done it. Sometimes they’re simply camouflaged in duck tape and hidden under branches, other times you’ll discover seriously creative hides like fake tree branches that you can’t tell from real ones.

There are over five million geocachers playing this game/sport. That means the rest of the population are what geocachers call “muggles” or non-players. Therein lies much of the fun because one of the big challenges in geocaching is not drawing attention to yourself by muggles as you’re hunting your quarry. This can prove trickier than it probably sounds. Sure you can find caches deep in the woods without attracting prying eyes but many caches are deftly hidden in urban settings like parking lots where being inconspicuous is no small task. So if you’ve ever noticed someone lifting a lamp post skirt you now know what they’re up to…just turn a blind eye or give them a little wink.

So how does this work?
You can start with a free account at Geocaching.com. That’s where the cache information is and where you’ll log your progress. Each successful find earns you a smiley face where the cache is located. [Note: There’s also a new upstart site called opencaching.com but since I don’t use it I can’t speak to it’s worthiness. Feel free to check it out though. And hopefully some commenters out there will help out and fill in the blank for me.]

Given all of the potential ways, places, and scenarios to hide a cache, each one is rated by its difficulty and terrain by a star system. The rating system is quite handy in helping decide which caches to tackle and when. A park and grab under a lamp skirt at the local store is likely to be a 1 or 1.5 difficulty and a 1 terrain…easy enough for even the little cachers to grab or a quickie on your way home from work. But as the “hiders” up the stakes in terms of how well-camouflaged the cache is and how difficult it is to get to, you’ll see those ratings go higher and higher…which means those caches will take more time, energy, and planning to successfully grab. These “evil” caches can be in some crazy places…cliffs, underwater, up towering trees…you get the idea. Or they can be just so cleverly disguised that their difficulty is 4 or 5 stars but the terrain is only a 1. Like I said, huge variety. But that’s a good thing. It means there’s something for everyone.

And while many caches are one-shot grabs, there are many other kinds of caches as well like multis & puzzle caches (among others). Multis are just what they sound like in that there are multiple stages to the final glorious find. As well, puzzle caches are aptly named. You may have to solve sort sort of puzzle/mind-game to get the correct coordinates or figure out something once you get there but either way, it’s an added challenge that is always welcome at Camp Granola.

What’s in it?
For the smaller caches you’ll find only a log to sign since there isn’t room for anything else. The larger ones will have everything from little toys and trinkets to trackable coins and tokens. The understanding is that if you take something, you leave something of equal or greater value. The trinkets are how I initially lured my little cachers on the hunt but now that they’re older, it’s things like GeoCoins, Travel Bugs, and Pathtags that put a sparkle in their eyes.

Who can play?
Geocaching is available to all ages, shapes, and sizes. You can have a fancy GPS or a simple GPS…or even no GPS and you will have all the adventure and fun every other cacher is having. As I mentioned, given the wide range of difficulty and terrain for caches, this is s sport/hobby that accommodates all ability levels.

Why play?
First, it’s just fun. Each find is like scoring a goal or landing a fish, you get a sense of accomplishment. It’s a great challenge that gets you outdoors and it doesn’t get better than that in my book. It also takes you to locations you wouldn’t have gone otherwise and you end up discovering surprising new places and things to do. Sometimes you even find out a little more about your world and how it works. Much like photography, geocaching helps you develop a keen eye and the ability to set assumptions aside so it’s a great mental workout. Plus, when you’re traveling about, there’s never an excuse to be bored when there’s always a hunt to be had.

A bonus for parents of little cachers is that it’s an invigorating family activity. All of the reasons I love caching for myself, I love doubly so for Fred and George. Hand them the GPS, let them lead the way, and you’ll have some sharp kiddos on your hands. Geocaching demands several skills from them in simultaneously and it’s a treat to watch them work through the hunt. It’s real-world problem solving at its best because they’re having fun. And it isn’t just for homeschoolers…it’s catching on as a tool in mainstream education.

Getting started…
As you can see, there are a lot of facets to this sport. I’ve only scratched the surface. If you’re intrigued by the notion, the best source for getting started is the probably over at Groundspeak’s Geocaching 101 FAQ and/or Geocaching in 2 Minutes at Geocaching.com. You can also check out How Geocaching Works from the folks at How Stuff Works.

The next best step is to go with someone who knows the ropes. If you don’t know an active geocacher, find a local geocaching group. We geocachers are a friendly lot and welcome the chance to show new cachers the ropes. There’s a treasure trove of new friends to be had out there.

My personal PSA…
I wouldn’t be the Queen of Camp Granola if I didn’t urge outdoor sensitivity when caching. Be sure to Tread Lightly when caching in the wilderness. I would add that taking care in urban environments is crucial as well. Many a shrub, fence, sprinkler head, etc. have been destroyed by overzealous hunters which isn’t fair to property owners and undermines our group as a whole. Let’s keep a good name for ourselves so people love having us around.

Cache on friends!

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