If you thought the thrill of finding hidden treasures belonged only to archaeologists and Boy Scouts, think again. Welcome to the exciting world of high-tech GPS treasure hunts. It’s like Indiana Jones without the sword fights and snake pits.
Global Positioning System: (GPS) is a navigational system that uses satellites and computers to determine the latitude and longitude of a receiver on Earth. In addition to military, commercial and scientific uses, it’s a great high-tech toy. In 1996, I bought my husband, Jim, a GPS for our anniversary. His mission – and he chose to accept it – was to use the GPS to kick off a romantic getaway. Because of a scrambling technique called selective availability, GPS technology for civilian use was inaccurate up to 300 feet. That was close enough for Jim to find me waiting for him at a bed-and-breakfast that stood alone on a country road. When the Clinton administration removed the degraded accuracy of selective availability in May 2000, GPS enthusiasts were abuzz with ideas for new uses for the technology. Computer consultant Dave Ulmer tested the new accuracy by hiding a treasure in the woods near Beaver Creek, Ore., and posting the GPS coordinates on the Internet. Within three days, two separate people read about it and used GPS receivers to find the hidden stash. The concept spread quickly. Within four months of the initial cache, Jeremy Irish and Mike Teague, two of the early participants, launched a Web site, www.geocaching.com, with 75 geocaches. Today, there are nearly 1 million active caches and 3 million to 4 million geocachers. Geocaches can be found in all 50 states, in more than 100 countries and all seven continents. Geocaching has become one of the fastest-growing recreational activities in the world. What is geocaching? Simply put, geocaching is a worldwide high-tech treasure hunt. Adventure-seeking geocachers use GPS receivers to locate hidden containers. At a minimum, geocaches have a container and a logbook. Some hold treasures, such as toys, stickers, tools, batteries and coins. Ammo boxes are popular containers since they are waterproof when sealed and their olive-drab color helps them blend into the environment.
Finding the right GPS: Compared with the billions of dollars the U.S. Department of Defense spent developing GPS technology, the cost for you to get started is a mere pittance. Prices range from less than $100 for an entry-level hand-held GPS receiver to $600 for a top-of-the-line unit with preloaded maps, camera and touch screen. Cell phones, such as the Apple iPhone and Android models, also have GPS technology. If you’re new to geocaching and you use a vehicle-based receiver in your motorhome, you may be able to use it to try your hand at geocaching. Our Garmin nuvi worked fine for finding caches hidden in relatively flat, open fields. It was enough to show me how much fun geocaching can be. When I tried using the same equipment on steep, mountainous terrain, I quickly realized I faced a technological disadvantage. Generally, hand-held GPS receivers are better suited to geocaching because of their small size, lightweight, rugged construction, waterproof housing and longer battery life.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching: Second Edition, by the Editors and Staff of Geocaching.com, contains excellent advice about choosing the right GPS. Outdoor stores such as REI offer free introductory GPS and geocaching classes to help determine what type of receiver you need. The Geocaching Web site The next step is to get an account on www.geocaching.com. With a valid e-mail address and name, a basic account is free. A premium account costs $30 a year. Try the basic account until you know whether geocaching is for you. Geocaching.com can locate geocaches by address, ZIP code, longitude and latitude, state or country. The difficulty and terrain for each cache is rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 the easiest. While a cache with a 1/1 difficulty/terrain rating can be found in a few minutes of searching after a short, flat walk, a 5/5 rating requires specialized knowledge and equipment. One notable 5/5 cache is hidden in Antarctica at the crater rim of a 12,000-foot active volcano – definitely not RV friendly. Once you’ve selected a geocache, enter the coordinates into your GPS. This can be done manually or by downloading the data directly from your computer. Consult the manual for your GPS model and Geocaching.com for details on how to do this. In addition to the coordinates, you’ll want to print the description and logs. After searching for geocaches with your GPS in one hand and paper in the other, you may long for the simplicity of downloading descriptive information directly to your GPS unit. That’s when you know you’re hooked.
Finding a geocache: Sometimes the cache owner will include clues or an encrypted message, which could be helpful in finding the cache. The cache will most likely be hidden off the trail so that casual passers-by won’t notice it. With your detective skills and perhaps a bit of luck, you’ll find the cache. According to Geocaching.com, the rules of geocaching are simple. 1. If you take something from the cache, leave something of equal or greater value. 2. Write about your find in the cache logbook. 3. Log your experience at www.geocaching.com. Often the items found in a geocache are things that might excite your children or grandchildren, such as toys or stickers. Occasionally the cache will contain trackable items that thrill avid geocachers of any age.
A Travel Bug is a trackable item that hitchhikes from cache to cache to achieve its travel goals. Its progress is tracked on Geocaching.com by a serial number stamped on a dog tag. The dog tag can be attached to some small trinket, such as a key chain, or it can be used by itself. Geocachers who take Travel Bugs from a cache log the find on Geocaching.com, and then move it to a new geocache. The Travel Bug owner and everyone else who adds their names to the Travel Bug’s watch list gets an e-mail notice every time the item is moved. Finding geocaches is exciting, and soon you’ll want to hide them, too. Anyone who is willing to set and maintain a geocache can hide one. Geocaching.com has some common-sense guidelines for locations, containers, contents and maintenance of your geocache. You won’t need a Boy Scout Merit Badge in orienteering to find easier caches, but understanding how to read maps may be helpful in finding more difficult geocaches. If you plan to geocache in backcountry, use a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map and compass as your primary navigation devices, and the GPS as secondary. A topo map, compass and orienteering skills can lead you out of the wilderness if your equipment fails.
Benefits of Geocaching: The benefits of geocaching are many. It’s fun. You’ll get some exercise, use your brain, visit new places and make new friends. It’s also a great family activity. Mary and Tim Scofield have been geocaching since their 9-year-old daughter was a toddler. At 3 years old, Shannon would do a five-mile hike – make that a toddler with lots of stops – if a geocache was involved. We met the Scofield family while camping in City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico. Now an avid geocacher, Shannon led our group to the site and was the first to spot the hidden treasure. She said, “Geocaching’s funner than just hiking ’cause you get a prize at the end.”
GPS and RVing – a Perfect Match: Traveling is safer, easier and more interesting with a GPS. It guides us to our destinations and helps find places of interest. Many GPS receivers can provide instant directions to the nearest hospital, police station or gas station. Geocaching is a natural activity for RVers. It allows us to visit out-of-the-way places locals thought worthy of hiding caches. With a premium Geocaching membership, you can search for geocaches along a route. Leave those nasty spiders and snakes to Indiana Jones. Travel Bugs are a lot more fun.