I am suspended 10 feet in the air, dangling from a lanky maple tree with two police officers at my feet, their Taser guns drawn. I jump out of the tree, land firmly on my feet, and approach the campus police with poise. I tell them my business with that particular maple, and how it’s just like that Brady Bunch episode, and, well… they don’t want to hear it. So then I explain with sincerity to the officers that I’m participating in the outdoor recreational phenomenon called geocaching, or what can be described as nerdy treasure hunting with a smartphone.
The plunder I hoped to find in the maple? A small, waterproof parcel—or cache—containing a logbook, a pencil, and possibly a small trinket or treasure. Much like its 150-year-old ancestor called “letterboxing” (Google it, it’s kinda cool), geocaching is an outdoor recreational game in which players use a GPS device to track caches left by other participants. It’s a 21st century phenomenon, and coupled with the growing accessibility of GPS, it has become an increasingly popular way to pass an afternoon.
Frequently referred to as the father of geocaching, Dave Ulmer concealed the first geostash on May 3, 2000, and on the same day he predicted: “Soon we will have thousands of stashes all over the world to go searching for.” He was right, though the term “geostash” was later changed to its current name due to the negative, drug-related connotations and the desire to make it a family-friendly game.
With roughly 400 caches hidden throughout the greater Columbus area, geocaching isn’t some esoteric secret whispered about exclusively amongst the technologically savvy, but rather it’s a user-friendly hobby embraced by a growing community. All you need is access to a smartphone and presto—you are now Indiana Jones or Lara Croft rummaging for hidden treasure concealed in random crevices around town.
After downloading the geocaching app, your GPS will list all of the hidden
packages in your general vicinity, typically spanning a five-mile radius depend-
ing on how many caches are in your area. Caches might include a military box concealed in a bush on the intersection of Summit and 17th or a tiny parcel hidden under the metal cap of a gatepost in front of the Blue Danube.
Once you discover a cache listed nearby, the app will rate it by using three variables—difficulty, terrain, and size of the cache. There are also descriptions, which are typically cryptic messages or pictures that help lead the user in the direction of the cache. After you choose your target, the app turns into a digital compass, directing you within 15 feet of the prize. The rest is up to you. If you’re stumped, most users include a couple hints in order to help you out. To prevent wild goose chases, each cache contains a blog where users describe their previous search experiences, so you aren’t desperately searching for a box that was removed months ago.
The loot varies depending on the size of the cache, but it always contains a pencil and a list of signatures so you can immortalize your achievement, and so fellow geocachers can acknowledge your treasure-hunting prowess. Larger caches typically contain small trinkets and toys. Geocachers are expected to keep knickknacks with them while hunting so that they can replace anything that they find. I usually leave a few dusty Pokémon cards, which I now habitually carry on my person just in case I am feeling adventurous.
You might be surprised how many caches you pass by every day without realizing it, and in that way it’s like a secret. Geocachers are warned not to uncover their finds in front of unaware bystanders—nicknamed “muggles” by the geocaching community. The fear is that they might steal or deface the cache because they are simply oblivious to its purpose: that it was delicately placed in that particular spot and is potentially being tracked down by hundreds of geocaching participants.
geocaching isn’t some esoteric secret whispered exclusively amongst the technologically savvy
For obvious reasons, people are advised not to leave drugs, a problem in the past. Because the activity aims to be family-friendly, most parents would be more than a little put off by their youngster returning home with a nugget of kine bud or an ecstasy pill they found strapped under a trashcan.
Certain people dedicate their lives—or at least an inordinate amount of free time—to tracking geocaches, some accruing thousands of finds. Yes, it does have its cultural stigmas and drawbacks (like getting threatened by officers) and often attracts curious attention from passersby, especially when you’re wandering in circles looking for hidden parcels. Critics and a few legislators have called it littering, some even petitioning to have it banned.
Ultimately, no matter how it’s perceived, geocaching is simply a game. It’s the anti-Candy Crush, designed to pass time but in a way that’s active and exploratory. It’s a way to feel like
you’re in on something special, geeking out while trotting around with a digital compass, a modern urban adventurer looking for hidden treasures amongst the ordinary debris of everyday life.
For more, visit centralohiogeocaching.org.
Geocatching Dos and Don’ts
Keep a pair of gloves on hand: Rummaging in random crevices is not a clean or sanitary job.
Always have a pen on you—and extra log sheets are often a good idea.
share your experience with the online blogs—including what you did or did not find and vanished caches.
be cool: Get a trinket, leave a trinket. however, don’t leave food or liquids, illicit substances, or sharp objects like knives. keep it family-friendly.
don’t move the cache or throw it away! that’d be a bad surprise for the next geocacher.
if your quest sends you further out of the city, you’ll want water , good shoes, and sturdy clothes. You never know when climbing in the sun, rocks, and mud will be involved.
For the hardcore geocacher, think about getting a gps in addition to your phone. dead batteries cut into playing time.
don’t leave litter behind you, and leave no trace.
don’t let the muggles see you. nothing to see here, move along, move along…
have fun and enjoy the adventure!