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Geocaching is a Sport With GPS as its Tool


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Updated August 02, 2009
Geocaching is a worldwide outdoor hide-and-seek activity where participants use global positioning system (GPS) technology and latitude and longitude coordinates to locate containers, called geocaches or caches, that can be hidden anywhere in the world- from remote cliffs to along major highways. There are currently over 860,000 active geocaches located in over 100 countries on all continents, including Antarctica.

The word geocaching itself is derived from the use of “geo” for geography and “caching” as the process of hiding a cache. Cache is a term used in computer technology terms to mean the storage of information in a computer’s memory, but in hiking and camping the same term is applied to a hiding place for supplies. Thus when combined, geocaching means the use of geography, in this case GPS and maps, to find hidden containers.

History of Geocaching

Although similar to the older sports of letterboxing and orienteering in that it requires participants to navigate through unfamiliar terrain, geocaching is a relatively new activity. This is because it uses GPS and satellites to navigate and prior to the year 2000, GPS receivers were not accurate enough to allow users to find small objects with a set of geographic coordinates. Before that year, selective availability, or the intentional disruption of satellite signals to GPS units causing errors of up to 328 feet (100 m), was in place for United States security purposes. On May 1, 2000 though, selective availability was turned off and almost immediately, the accuracy of personal GPS receivers increased.

With the removal of selective availability and increased accuracy with GPS, small objects could be more easily located with a set of geographic coordinates. On May 3, 2000, Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant from Oregon, hid a navigational target (a black bucket containing various prizes and a logbook) in the woods to test the new GPS accuracy. He posted the coordinates of his target which were, N 45° 17.460 and W 122°24.800, online and within three days, two different users found the target.

The first person to find Ulmer’s target was Mike Teague of Vancouver, Washington. Upon finding this target, he began looking up other newly placed targets around the world documenting them on his website. He then created a mailing list called “GPS Stash Hunt” to inform other users of new targets and the activity quickly grew in popularity.

Shortly thereafter, interested users began discussing different names for the activity because they believed “stash” could have a negative connotation and on May 30, 2000, Matt Stum suggested the name geocaching. “Geo,” he said could be used to describe the geographic and global nature of the activity, while cache’s meaning as a hiding place for items could be applied to the hiding of a target. In September 2000, geocaching became the official name for the activity and since then participation has grown worldwide.

Steps for Getting Started in Geocaching

Today, there are several steps to begin geocaching. The first step is to find a geocache and conduct research about the area in which the geocache is hidden. There are several different websites available that provide coordinates for geocaches but with all of them, the difficulty of finding the geocache should be considered. There are generally two rating categories, each with a five-point scale. The first category is based on the mental challenge of finding a geocache, while the second relates to the difficulty of the terrain. For example, a rating of 1/1 would be an easy geocache to find- possibly along a busy road, while a rating of 5/5 would be the most difficult and could be on a cliff or even underwater.

Another important step in researching an area is to study maps of the area surrounding the geocache. This will make it easier to plan a route to the geocache that best avoids obstacles like ridges or rivers- topographic boundaries that a GPS receiver will not recognize.

Once found, a traditional geocache will be a waterproof container containing a logbook, a pen or pencil and trade items or other treasures. Typical trade items or treasures include things like coins, small toys, and books. Geocaching participants should sign the logbook and note whether or not they took an item from the geocache. If an item is taken, a rule is that they replace it with another treasure of similar value.

Finally, geocache containers can vary in size. This plays a role in how easy they are to find and what types of items they contain. The smallest geocaches are called nanos and normally only contain a paper logbook, while the largest ones can be five gallon buckets or larger and contain a multitude of items.

Trackable Geocaching Treasures

In addition to trade items, some geocaches contain trackable items that are intended to be moved from geocache to geocache and tracked online. The first of these is a geocoin. A geocoin is a special coin which has a unique tracking number that can be entered in different websites so its owner can see where it has been and where it is going.

Similar to a geocoin is a travelbug - another trackable treasure that is tag attached to an item. It too has a tracking number that can be entered online and allows users to see it be carried from geocache to geocache.

Geocaching Controversy

Although geocaching is not illegal, the activity has sometimes seen negative publicity because of problematic hides on private property or in high traffic areas. For example, in 2005, a portion of a highway in Boise, Idaho was shut down after a hidden geocache was mistaken for a bomb. To avoid such problems hiders should be aware of where they put a geocache and users should also be aware of their surroundings when attempting to find one.

Despite problems such as these, geocaching is a popular activity that is growing worldwide. To learn more about it or to find a geocache close to you, visit geocaching.com.

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