Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Geocaching Field Trip

My experience with GPS dates back to a work-related stay in Miami 10 years ago. I rented a car with built-in navigation. It was like driving with your mother-in-law in the passenger seat saying TURN HERE! TURN HERE! After a first short trip, I turned the thing off and never turned it back on.

So when I decided that a geocache field trip would be fun and educational, the "educational" part was high on my list. Tom Choma agreed to meet me at Wickham Park, make me smarter, and walk me through a search for a cache. He provided me with some preliminary information and directions to our meeting place in latitude and longitude (!) - thank goodness for Google Earth!

First, some definitions and history. is the central geocaching web site, and it states: Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online. The first geocache was recorded in 2000, and according to, as of today, there are 818,326 active geocaches around the world - that's some growth rate! It is, by the way, referred to as a sport.

Before I met up with Tom, I went to the library to pick up a couple of books. I got a "dummies" book, but the one that was the greatest help was a Boy's Life book for Boy Scouts - Let's Go Geocaching. What a great book, and you can buy it for only $3.99! It provided me with good basic information so that I didn't have to waste Tom's time on that.

Tom is an avid outdoorsman and geocacher and blogs about both (see the Links section). His first cache was in 2002, so he was one of the pioneers. He brought along the first cache he hid (the big one) and a more recent one, a waterproof, camouflaged box kind of like Tupperware. Notice the name of the camouflage tape - Duck Tape. :) Tom carries a long stick wrapped with tape at the end for poking in holes before he puts his hand in, and his geocaching equipment kit also includes an extendable mirror. (Click on photo to enlarge)

I learned that geocaching is not a casual sport - for starters, you need good computer skills and a hand-held GPS (and no, the one in your car won't work for geocaching). There are places where you must get a permit hide a cache (e.g., St. Johns Water Management District land, EELs property), and you cannot hide caches in national parks. As with most activities involving more than one person, there are rules, politics, and disagreements about how things should be. I get the sense that if you like it, it can be addictive.

So here's the drill, as I understand it. Someone hides a cache. At a minimum, it includes a log book and a pen. The cacher then creates an entry on the site and submits it for review. A local volunteer organization reviews the entry in terms of permitting, etc., and then approves it for publication. If you want to search for a cache, you go onto the web site and find one that appeals to you. There are clues, GPS coordinates, etc. - follow the link below to see more. When you find the cache, you sign the log book and trade items (leave something of equal or greater value) if the cache supports trades. When you get home, you record your find on the site.

After Tom and I talked for a while about the sport in general, we went through the process of hiding a cache and then finding it. So far so good. I learned that GPS accuracy can be off by as much as 12 feet, so it's not like shooting fish in a barrel. Then we went in search of a nearby cache that Tom figured I might have a chance of finding. He had already downloaded the appropriate coordinates, so with his GPS in my hands, and with my eyes firmly glued to its red arrow, off we went. I got close and eventually "found" it, but when I noted that "even a blind pig finds an acorn in the forest every once in a while", his rejoinder was "only if there's a smart pig helping." You can see in the photo how small this thing was - a little GI Joe ammo box in a film canister, hanging in a tree. Good grief! We of course replaced the cache carefully and surreptitiously so that nobody would "muggle" it (a Harry Potter term used to describe non-cachers who stumble across a cache and take or destroy it).

When I started this whole adventure, I had hopes that geocaching was a "gentleman's sport" that would get folks out-of-doors and enjoying nature. The Boy Scout book encouraged that belief, with its emphasis on respect for nature, no littering, and cache in/trash out approach. Indeed, states: Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment. I have to tell you that as I was walking across Wickham Park watching that red arrow swing back and forth, I could have stepped on an ivory billed woodpecker and never noticed it. And there are some that are less than environmentally conscious in their search, digging and ripping. On the other hand, it would seem to be a good family sport that would involve a lot of learning opportunities for kids and adults alike.

I can't begin to completely describe everything about geocaching in this post. I have suggested to the Library that it would be a good summer program - if that comes about, I'll let you know. If you're lucky, you'll have a friend that will show you the ropes before you invest in equipment. If you become a geocacher, please be one that includes a little nature appreciation in with the sport and adheres to the cache in/trash out philosophy.

I'm not a big GPS user, but the GeoCarta blog I follow spoke today of a GPS application that I think is pretty cool - a GPS key ring. When you get out of your car in a big parking lot, you mark the spot on the key ring unit. Then when you are done shopping, voila - it will get you back to your car! There's a link below. Pretty clever little device. (Tom wanted me to stress that this is not a GPS unit that you could use in geocaching - its application is limited strictly to getting you back to a location.)

My thanks to Tom for patiently answering my incessant questions and for sharing his skills.

P.S. Wayne and Julie's daughter is a Scout leader and has implemented geocaching as part of her troop leadership. She sent a link to the story that got her interested in the sport, and I've added that to the Links below. Her family also geocaches, and they incorporate it into their vacations.

Let's Go Geocaching
Tom's Blog
GPS Keyring
Tracking Trinkets and Treasures

1 comment:

  1. I've been intrigued by the idea of geocasheing as a way to get families together..outdoors. It sounds like fun.


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