Geocaching: Weirdest Hobby Ever?
I stumbled into geocaching via a misdirected Google search; somehow I drifted from Krylon spray paints into this bizarre world of... what? That was my first question: what the heck is going on here? Turns out that geocaching is where people hide small "caches" of stuff and, using GPS, post the coordinates of the cache on a web site. Then others, also using GPS, go find the caches.
Is this hide-and-seek gone horribly wrong? Or has it just gone high-tech? I had to find out more.
Home Base: Geocaching.com
The home base for this hobby is geocaching.com, a site created by Jeremy Irish, one of the first geocachers. The site currently lists an astounding 239,433 caches in 220 countries. I plugged in my zip code and discovered 190 caches within a 10 mile radius. Clearly this is a much larger hobby than I imagined.
Geocaching.com has plenty of FAQs and resources for the newbie trying to get their bearings (so to speak). In addition, there are already five books on the topic (this one is rated best) so I must be an ignoramus for never hearing about it before. I read through the FAQs, signed up for an account (free), looked up some caches near me, and plugged their coordinates into Google Earth. The last step is sort of cheating -- don't tell.
The Hunt is On
With two caches within a mile of my house, I had to go find them. I set out on my motorcycle, stuffing my camera, GPS, and a printout of the cache information in my pockets. I already had an idea of the cache's location from my cheater expedition on Google Earth, so I was able to get close before pulling out the GPS.
One thing that's tricky in populated areas is being discreet about searching for the cache. As b1-66er observed, "it seems subversive as hell from the outside -- they want to hide something." The geocachers on a hunt refer to other people as "muggles," an apt comparison. Like the wizards in Harry Potter needing to not attract attention in public, the geocacher must wait for the right opportunity to go poking around.
I figured the GPS would get me in the right vicinity before I needed to resort to blind searching, but I was surprised by its accuracy. I started poking around as soon as muggles were out of sight, but the cache defied me. When I went back to the GPS and got the numbers lined up just right, the cache was right there.
So what's inside a cache? That varies depending on its size. All caches have a log book for finders to sign. Many have other stuff, from small toys to gadgets to "travel bugs." The rule is: take something out, leave something in return. I didn't explore the contents of the cache -- I needed to work quick (muggle alert) so I just signed the log book, packed things up, and hid the cache again.
Travel bugs are especially interesting. These are tags whose locations are logged on the web site, and people take them and move them to other caches. The bug's owner can see where their travel bug has wandered to. Some bugs may have agendas listed on the web site, for example one bug's owner, living in Quebec, wanted his bug to travel to Las Vegas.
So... Umm... Why?
If you don't have an irrepressible attraction to weird hobbies (like I do), you might wonder: why geocache? To me, discovering interesting things in unexpected places has innate appeal. Simple curiosity is a strong driver, too -- what's in the cache?
A secondary benefit is giving you an excuse to get outside and wander around. I fondly remember exploring the forest around my grandparent's house during the summers of my childhood. As adults we get so task-driven that we don't make time for random wandering. Geocaching, though, provides a task: there's this secret thing in your neighborhood, go find it. I sought out two caches this weekend, and those were two outdoor expeditions I wouldn't have taken otherwise.
Will I continue geocaching? My instant, animal attraction to the hobby makes that a near-certainty. It's the subversive secret-in-your-backyard combined with GPS geekery combined with, in my case, an excuse to ride my motorcycle around. And at least this hobby doesn't cost anything, assuming you've got a GPS already, and who doesn't? Finding a cache is fun in a way that's hard to describe. Try it -- you might get hooked as quickly as I did.