Techie travelers have long embraced the fun, tech-driven, on-the-road adventure that is geocaching. For those of us who haven't caught on to the craze just yet, here's a quick-and-easy guide to geocaching:
What's the History of Geocaching?
Back in 2000, the U.S. government released the "selective availability" hold on GPS technology, essentially opening up satellite access to anyone with a GPS device. The very next day, a computer consultant named Dave Ulmer buried a bucket of trinkets in the woods outside of Beavercreek, Oregon, and then posted the coordinates on a GPS user's group with the simple instructions, "Take something, leave something." And, just like that, geocaching was born.
Who Uses Geocaching?
In the 14 years since that first "cache" was hidden, geocaching has grown into a popular hobby practiced by over 6 million people in 185 countries—and has been used in locations as remote as Antarctica or Easter Island, and even underwater or in space.
How Does Geocaching Work?
The premise is simple: Anyone can hide a container (called a cache), register the coordinates online, and check on the cache regularly to make sure it is still active (and hasn't been carted away by an animal or out-of-the-loop human). Then, participants can use smartphone apps or GPS devices to go in search of these hidden "treasures," which are located just about everywhere: think suburban parking lots, hotel lobbies, city parks, or along hiking trails in remote national parks.
Each cache is categorized based on the difficulty of the terrain and how tricky it might be to find. Cache containers vary considerably—from camouflaged Altoids tins to fake rocks to tree stumps—and typically contain a logbook and pencil (so successful geocachers can record their find), and trinkets like key chains, plastic toys, beads, or coins. The "take something, leave something" rule still applies, meaning that you should replace whatever you uncover, while keeping in mind that the goal of geocaching is less about what you turn up than the journey you take to get there.
What's the Point of Geocaching?
Given its aim of getting people out to explore new areas—be it a natural setting or even parts of their own cities—geocaching has proved a hit with a wide array of users. The most popular geocaching app and website, Geocaching.com, has logged rave reviews from parents (who love it as a way to get kids active and out in nature), pilots and flight crews (who use it as a fun way to explore a new layover city), environmentalists (who have incorporated it into cleanup drives), and more. Some folks have even set up geocaching-themed proposals and birthday surprises. American astronaut Rick Mastracchio recently took one of Geocaching.com's trackable TravelBug tags (a sort of dog tag) with him on a trip to the International Space Station to help teach kids about geography—and then proceeded to find another cache that had been hidden on the International Space Station five years ago.
Back on earth, Geocacaching.com has partnered with tourism boards, historical societies, and national parks around the world to create "GeoTours" that lead users through a particular area in search of a series of caches, each highlighting a noteworthy site or picturesque setting. The themed trails might include anywhere from 10 to over 100 caches, and participants can spend just a couple of hours or devote a few days in the area to try and log them all; there are typically prizes for participants who complete the whole list.
How Can I Get Started Geocaching?
Here are the basics on five standout domestic GeoTours (with no location spoilers!) to get you started; for more details on geocaching and to download the free or upgraded apps, visit Geocaching.com.
1. GeoTour: '20s Speakeasy
Location: West City, IL
Number of Caches: 40
Located in southern Illinois, about a 90-minute drive from St. Louis, Missouri, West City and its surrounding Benton County were notorious during the 1920s Prohibition era, thanks to local gangster Charlie Birger's bootlegging (and other, more violently criminal) activities. This GeoTour's 40 caches, mostly found along Interstate 57 and near Rend Lake, are themed around this scandalous period, with names like "Stool Pigeon," "Bathtub Gin," "Gumshoe," and "Dollface."
2. GeoTour: Eugene, Cascades & Coast
Number of Caches: 108
One of the largest GeoTours currently offered, this Oregon option is actually made up of four adjacent editions. The McKenzie River tour highlights the waterfalls, old-growth forests, and lava fields along the river and in the Cascade Mountains (including hikes in several national parks), while the Florence tour goes from charming small towns and lighthouses to the seal caves and dunes along the beautiful Oregon coast. Lakes, fish hatcheries, and woodlands are part of the Oakridge/Westfir edition, and the Territorial Highway version—launching March 2014—spotlights historic covered bridges, farm stands, old Gold Rush towns, and several South Willamette Valley wineries.
3. GeoTour: Birthplace of Texas
Location: Washington County, TX
Number of Caches: 28
Set between Houston and Austin, Washington County, Texas, boasts rolling hills, notable historic sites and homes, and wildflower-filled scenic spots—plus Bluebell, the most famous ice cream brand in the state. If you go in search of all 28 caches along this trail, you'll travel about 80 miles and through five towns, stopping at locations like the oldest continuously operating cotton gin in the nation, an 1898 mansion, an antique carousel, and the church where Sam Houston was baptized. Of course, there's some ice cream involved, too.
4. GeoTour: Smithsonian Natural History
Location: Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania; Maryland; and Virginia
Number of Caches: 9
Sponsored by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, this trail is a bit different from the others: the coordinates of each of the nine caches are only revealed after you've solved a puzzle or answered a question, which may require web research, museum visits, or in-the-field activities. Since archeological and geological education is the goal, you'll learn about some of the activities, research programs, and exhibits at the museum along the way. The caches are spread out over three states and Washington, D.C, and are located in areas like a wetland habitat and a fossil-rich dinosaur park.
5. GeoTour: Discover Milwaukee's Neighborhoods
Location: Milwaukee, WI
Number of Caches: 15
You'll see what makes each of Milwaukee's neighborhoods so distinctive with this 15-cache trail that leads from the shores of Lake Michigan to the quaint downtown area of the Village of Wauwatosa. Along the way, you'll search for caches in Lake and Kadish Parks, along bohemian Brady Street, in the Historic Third Ward's Catalano Square, and on the campus of Marquette University.