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The Thrill of the Hunt with Geocaching

Christine Randall - August 8, 2012





What do you get when you combine outdoor family-friendly fun with a little bit of exercise (well, sometimes a lot!), and a chance to use your navigational and puzzle-solving skills to seek out hidden “treasures?” An adventurous sport called “geocaching!”

Geocaching is sometimes referred to as “adult treasure hunting” or “adult hide-and-seek,” and it’s been catching on and gaining popularity in countries all around the world for over a decade. One of the biggest websites that coordinates this activity, www.geocaching.com, estimates that currently there are over 5 million geocachers searching for 1.8 million geocaches worldwide, hidden in places ranging from urban and wooded areas to deserts, mountain peaks, and even underwater.

The only equipment that is necessary is a hand-held GPS (Global Positioning System) device for navigation, a pen or pencil, a compass if you want to save the batteries in your GPS device while navigating, and a sense of adventure. In its simplest form, geocaching involves using the GPS unit to assist a searcher in finding a hidden cache, the location of which is indicated primarily by the latitude and longitude coordinates provided by the person who hid the cache, and which has been published on a geocaching website. If you are lucky, that person also has provided a few additional clues, which are often in the form of a puzzle, to help in the quest.

When you enter the latitude and longitude coordinates into your GPS unit, it utilizes satellite technology to calculate and display the distance and compass bearing to help you head out in the right direction from your location. GPS devices can get you to within about 20 feet or so of your destination, and then you have to stop and look around, using your eyes, imagination, and intuition to locate the cache. According to my sister Sarah, an avid geocacher in California, since caches are often hidden in waterproof Tupperware-type containers, a popular slogan amongst geocachers is, “I use billion dollar satellites to find Tupperware in the woods!”

After several years of listening to my sister enthuse about the wondrous geocaching adventures she and her family had been enjoying and being urged to give it a try, I finally gave it a shot this summer. Although I have a geography degree, can read a road map, and know my left from my right, my compass navigational skills are pretty rusty (practically non-existent) and I have never used a GPS unit before, but on the bright side, my puzzle-solving skills are fairly strong. On the other hand, my husband Tony, a surveyor, is very proficient with the use of a compass (I suspect he was probably born clutching a compass in his tiny fist) – and best of all, he has had a hand-held Garmin GPS device for years (and he knows how to use it!).

Between the two of us, I figured we might make a good team and have some success in hunting out some of locally hidden caches, so I decided to rope him in to help me with the navigational part of geocaching. I also contacted my sister, who kindly and enthusiastically gave me some basic information about the sport, and she also encouraged me to check out the www.geocaching.com website to get more information and to register (which is free) so that I could give geocaching a try.

The website gives a new geocacher a lot of good information and suggested guidelines for both hunting and hiding caches. Geocaching is supposed to be a family-friendly activity, so caches are not supposed to contain things like ammunition, drugs, knives, explosives, or alcohol. Food and heavily scented items are also discouraged so as not to attract the unwanted attention of wildlife.      Caches have to be replaced exactly where you found them for the next person. Hiders and seekers also need to respect private property and are encouraged to pick up litter when they see it. After reading about the process and the guidelines, I registered online as a basic member to check out some local caches (you can also register as a “premium” member for additional perks at a cost of $30/year). The easiest way to find these caches in your area is to enter in your zip code, which brings up a number of caches hidden within a 100 mile radius (although you can adjust this if you would like).

The “beginner” caches are thoughtfully highlighted, and each description gives an estimate of the size of the cache, from micro (things might be hidden in film canisters or pill boxes) to small, regular and large.        The cache is given a rating in terms of both difficulty and terrain, with “1” being the easiest and “5” the hardest rating.  Other useful information includes the date of the last find and whether or not the site needs attention (from water damage and so on).

All caches contain a logbook so that the finder can record his or her name and the date of the find.  The small, regular and large caches also often contain inexpensive little items available for trade; if you take an item from the cache, you need to replace it with something of equal or greater value.

After I entered our zip code, I went to the first highlighted entry called, “Geographic Center of NH.” Since I know that Ashland is the geographic center of New Hampshire and we live here, I thought this would be a good cache with which to start our geocaching adventures. I printed out the page containing the coordinates of the cache, as well as the description and the clues.

I was also interested in trying to find a series of five different caches which have all been hidden within close proximity to Exit 24 in Ashland by the one person as part of a set, so I printed that information as well (never mind that these caches are not considered beginner level and their descriptive names, which often contain a clue, are in French!).

I then proceeded to get a crash course from my husband in using his Garmin GPS as well as a hand-held compass. It took a few minutes, but after I got the hang of it, we took off, thinking it would only take us a short time to log our first find and the adventure would be over for the day. Well, we were partly right!

Our first cache was very easy, especially since we know the town of Ashland very well.        The clues were numerous and clear, and the cache was in the right location and easy to find. We recorded the find in the logbook and decided against helping ourselves to any of the toys and trinkets inside. After replacing the cache and flushed with the optimism brought on by success, my husband and I decided we were ready to tackle some of the five caches around Exit 24, so we entered the coordinates of one of them into the GPS, got the distance and bearing information, and started heading in the direction indicated.

The coordinates and distance information lead us to a local cemetery, and the information that I had printed out about the cache indicated that in order to find the actual location of the cache, we had to find a 3-word sign (no specific information given) and decipher an easy code using the letters in the sign to find the coordinates for the cache. After we located what we believed to be the correct sign, we deciphered the puzzle to determine the coordinates.

Now, I prize my puzzle-solving skills, but this particular instance, I made a small mistake, which as anyone who does navigational work knows, leads to big differences in a location. We spent over an hour in a nearby ballpark fruitlessly looking for a cache which, it turns out, wasn’t hidden anywhere near where we were looking, although we did rescue a few errant softballs lost by the local middle school team. I made a mental note to myself not to wear open-toed sandals and shorts the next time we went geocaching – and at this point, I knew there would be a next time.  This sport is addictive!

We retired in temporary defeat from this cache and went on to the next one listed in this particular cache series, which, with a little luck and perseverance, we actually found, using the coordinates given and a compass.       We had the added bonus of enjoying the sight of a flock of wild turkeys hanging around the area.

Since we were two for three and still in the general vicinity of Exit 24, we then tried our luck with a fourth hunt, entering in a new set of coordinates to get the distance and bearing information. This information brought us to a local fast food restaurant, and we spent about a half-hour looking around for the cache before conceding another temporary defeat and heading home, where I immediately looked for translations of the French titles given to the caches in the Exit 24 series. This gave us a few additional helpful clues.

I also decided to spend a few minutes reading some of the other logs posted by other geocachers about the cache sites, and I realized that at the restaurant, we had been at the right spot, but failed to use our imaginations (and “think outside the box”) to find the cache.         I also reviewed the coordinates I had deciphered at the cemetery, which had sent us erroneously to the ballpark, and realized that, although we had selected the correct sign to use as the basis for deciphering the coded clue, I had written down one wrong number in one of the coordinates.  Whoops!

Even though two out of four wasn’t a bad result for our first time geocaching, we resolved to find the two caches we had missed, going back out on the hunt the very next day. My husband invited his adult son to go with us for a third set of eyes, and using our new information, we were able to find both caches (one was exceptionally sneaky and hard to find, and the other was located about 200 feet into a wooded area, which brought to mind another mental note – don’t forget to wear bug spray!).

Once again feeling optimistic, and having taken a moment previously to translate the French titles of the last two remaining caches in the 5-set series, we set off again.    The first new cache of the day (the third hunt overall for that day) that we looked for had been given a 4 rating (out of 5) in terms of difficulty, and a 1.5 rating in terms of terrain, which meant it probably had little bit of an incline involved.        Fortunately, two clues were provided that helped to find the camouflaged micro cache, located in a small hide-a-key container in the woods, and now we were 5 for 5 in geocaching.

We entered the coordinates of the final cache of the 5-set series (and our final hunt of the afternoon) into the GPS and headed down Route 3, staying close to Exit 24. When the GPS indicated that the distance was getting greater instead of smaller, we turned around to look again, proceeding slowly (fortunately, there were no cars behind us at the time). I noticed a pull-off area where I had seen cars parked on previous occasions (suspiciously wondering, or curious, what nefarious activities the drivers were up to in this overgrown, out-of-the-way spot), and suggested that we head there.

Surprise, surprise, we found this cache without much difficulty, using my husband’s navigational skills and his son’s eagle eyes, although the cache had been cleverly camouflaged. We signed the logbook and went home, happy to be 6 for 6 in our introduction to the world of geocaching.

Geocaching is a lot of fun, and I admit that in this short period of time, both my husband and I have become big fans of the sport. We are looking forward to more geocaching next weekend, and we plan to hide our own cache sometime in the near future for others to hunt out and find. I think I might be asking for a hand-held GPS device for my birthday….

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