Insider Info

Geocaching is like a computer-assisted scavenger hunt.

Using small hand-held location devices called global positioning systems (GPS), participants search for a "stash" hidden by another geocaching enthusiast using location coordinates posted on the Internet.

A GPS unit is an electronic device that can determine your exact location anywhere on Earth. It can also assist you when traveling from one location to another.

Using coordinates normally given in longitude and latitude, you can use the unit to navigate from your current location to the location of the hidden stash.

The rules for geocaching are still in the development stages. But there are some basic rules of etiquette to follow.

The stashes are usually placed in weatherproof containers and hidden at the stash site. Geocachers who find the stash, using the coordinates posted on the Internet, are asked to leave an entry in a logbook that is usually included in the stash.

Anyone finding the stash is free to take one article from the container, as long as he or she replaces it with an item of his or her own. These items range from compasses and toothbrushes to instant cameras and potato chips.

After putting an entry in the logbook, the successful geocacher is asked to re-hide the stash for the next adventurer.

The very first cache was placed by Dave Ulmer of Portland, Oregon, on May 3, 2000. The cache's location coordinates were posted on an Internet newsgroup's site. Within three days, the cache had already been visited twice by scavenger hunters using GPS units.

In Dec. 20, 2000, the website had a total of 165 cache locations listed in the U.S., covering 37 U.S. states. By 2009, there were 766,722 around the world!

It is difficult to determine how many people are involved in geocaching. That's because there is no requirement to register and it is open to anyone with a GPS unit.

The future of the activity looks very bright, if you consider the ever-increasing number of caches being hidden around the world. The brisk sales also seem to indicate that more and more people will be able to use their systems for geocaching.

Getting Started

Equipment needed for geocaching can range from relatively inexpensive -- about $100 -- to over $1,000. It depends on the features the buyer wants.

Bob Hogan is a land surveying teacher and geocacher from Massachusetts. He says his inexpensive unit suits his needs. "[It] is fine for almost all geocachers," says Hogan.

"The more expensive map display types are nice, but [my unit] and my compass work just fine and will for most geocachers."

Gregg Gruen is another avid geocacher. He agrees that it isn't necessary to spend a lot of money. But be sure to get a unit that is durable.

"Just be sure your first unit is waterproof to some degree -- not for dunking, but more for rain -- and fairly rugged," he says.

"I wouldn't go all out for a first-time unit. They don't really get all that much more accurate anyway, unless you're willing to tote around an external antenna."

Geocacher Ken Kane adds that activities such as geocaching allow GPS owners to learn more about their units.

"It teaches you to put in a location and then be able to reach that position," he says. "That in itself is great, but really only a small part of what a GPS can do. In fact, I consider it one of the easier tasks that can be performed by a GPS."

The physical demands of geocaching vary, depending on the location of the stash. Hogan notes that searchers should be ready for anything, but the hunts are not usually that difficult.

"It does involve hiking, bouldering, bushwhacking and the like, but for the most part is far less physically demanding than, say, mountain biking or running," says Hogan. "It seems that most geocaches are located within a half mile or a 30-minute walk from the starting point."

In addition to posting the location coordinates on the Internet, those hiding caches are also asked to let searchers know how physically demanding the search will be and what type of terrain they will likely encounter.

Janelle Brown took part in a geocache hunt while researching for an article about it. Aside from a steep climb down to the cache location, she notes that the hike wasn't that physically demanding.

"It wasn't very hard, but it was about as difficult as I thought it would be," she says. "I guessed that it wasn't merely a case of walking straight to it, but that there would be challenges in the terrain."

Jeremy Irish is the webmaster for a geocaching site. He says the benefits of the activity go beyond the exercise and fresh air.

"Other than the fact that you're exercising, you get a better understanding of map reading and geography in general," he says.

"After a while, you may be interested in the technology behind GPS and how to search out stashes without a GPS unit at all -- in extreme cases. It's a really neat way to get kids interested in hiking, too."

Irish says geocaching really owes its very existence to the Internet.

"This would never have happened without the Internet, at least at the scope it is now," he says. "Our list remains pretty current because of the interaction through e-mail. When someone logs a cache on the site, the person who hid it knows that they found it immediately."

The official site

How Geocaching Works
Great review from the folks at

Introduction to Recreational Geocaching
An explanation of how it all got started

Wisconsin Geocaching Association
Great site for geocachers in the Wisconsin area

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