X Marks the Spot

When in Rome, Geocache

Who said treasure hunts were only for for Tom Hanks and Nicolas Cage movies?

By Bill Wiatrak February 3, 2016

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Geocaches aren't normally out in the open like this; you'll likely have to do a little more searching.

Image: Shutterstock

I was sitting in a wine bar the first time I ever heard of geocaching. Two women at the table next to me were discussing their recent trip to New York and I kept hearing “geocaching” in the conversation. At first I thought they might be geologists, but they were much too excited to be talking rocks. My curiosity got the better of me and I finally asked them, watching as their eyes lit up like a missionary meeting someone who wants to learn The Good News About Jesus. They started explaining the concept to me and I was fascinated. If you haven't heard The Good News About Geocaching either, allow me to explain.

Geocaching is a game—or treasure hunt of sorts—that allows players to find hidden containers stashed by others almost anywhere in the world. Geocachers will hide a waterproof container that contains a pen or pencil and logbook and send its geographical coordinates into cyberspace. When you’ve located the hidden container, you sign your name in the logbook and put it back in the exact place you found it. What’s the point? It’s fun, it’s free and it’s an adventure waiting for you no matter where you are. There are millions of geocaches around the world.

The women who introduced me to the game had spent a week in New York and didn’t really have a plan for what they wanted to do. Their answer: go geocaching! All that’s required is a GPS and a list of geocaches in the area. Most phones have a GPS built into them, so download an app (pro tip: go for Google Maps over Apple Maps every time) and you’re ready to go.

I don’t know exactly why geocaching is so much fun, but it is. I guess it’s a way of getting to know a place in a completely different way mixed with the thrill of a real-life treasure hunt. There are different levels of difficulty listed, making geocaching is suitable for anyone who likes a challenge. It’s really more than just a hunt though; there’s an entire network of players throughout the world and you can make friends, create your own geocaches and look for boxes in almost any country on earth.

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Maps come in handy alongside a GPS unit or cell phone with GPS app.

Image: Shutterstock

Besides the log book and writing implement, geocaches sometimes contain a trinket or souvenir with low monetary value inside. You can take this little prize, but there’s a price to be paid: Geocaching etiquette requires that if you take the goodies inside, you must leave something of higher or equal value. This results in players leaving unique currency, coins, books or other “swag” that can end up traveling around the world. Some of these items can be tracked and are referred to as “hitchhikers” as they actually have their own traveling life separate from their origins. Some serious hobbyists mint their own coins and leave them in boxes for bragging rights.

The first time I went geocaching, I was in Galveston. I started with an easy challenge called “Goodwill Hunting.” It wasn’t until I realized that I was searching behind the Goodwill distribution center that I appreciated the clever name. I found the box magnetically attached to a metal bar and hidden from sight so that a casual pedestrian (called a “muggle" in geocaching slang) wouldn’t stumble across it. I signed my name, logged it in my app and headed to the next one. There was only a log book and a pen (no swag), making the hunt itself more exciting than the prize. Maybe they should have thrown in some Goodwill clothing—that would have been funny.

The second geocaching challenge required that I stand in an exact spot on a dock, log into a website and take a screenshot of my phone. There was no geocache box, but rather a live camera feed and instructions. This geocache was set up so you could log into the webpage address provided and see yourself standing on the boardwalk with the live feed. The snapshot was your proof that you were there, rather than the normal logbook. Interesting.

My final geocache of the day led me to an old cemetery. It was the most difficult challenge, as it was getting dark and there didn’t really seem to be any place to hide a box without digging up a body. Part of the difficulty of geocaching is that GPS will only get you within 10 to 15 feet of the prize—assuming the latitude and longitude are logged correctly. After 15 minutes of searching with no results, I went back to the online logbook for additional clues. One of the messages described a man who lived next door to the cemetery that had helped a previous “cacher.”

To my surprise, the man was standing in his yard—exactly as in the description promised. I shouted his name and asked if he might be able to help me locate this pesky box. He came over and muttered something about how someone must have moved it and seemed less than enthusiastic. Maybe this happens to him every day. In the end, we never found it, but sometimes the journey is more exciting than the actual treasure. (Who am I kidding? I really wanted to find it.)

Geocaching is a fun way to get to know a place where you are traveling. The network of geocachers is infinite so you never know who you might friend as you find hidden treasures around the world and discover nooks and crannies that you would have never noticed. Looking for fun inexpensive entertainment? Look no further.

For more info visit geocaching.com and join the world’s largest treasure hunt.

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