Geocaching Revisited

Hunting for hidden treasures.

Back in 2005, I discovered geocaching, an outdoor activity where people use a GPS to find hidden containers of trinkets. I wrote about my thoughts on the topic — and some big plans that never came to fruition — in some detail here. Because part of the game is to pull something out of a cache and replace it with something else, I started gathering items to share. Among these were some “travel bugs,” which are basically serial numbered tags you can affix to an item so it can be tracked. The tracking is mostly done on the Geocaching.com Web site. That’s also were you can find a list of geocaches just about anywhere in the U.S.

And that’s the interesting thing: these things are everywhere. Did you drive more than 10 miles to work today? I bet you passed at least a dozen of them within 3 miles of your car. There’s one a block from my house in Wickenburg and one 4/10 of a mile from my RV here in Quincy. As this map shows, they’re all over the place:

Geocaches Near Me
My RV is just about dead-center in this map. The little box and question mark icons indicate geocaches in the area. The smiley face icon is a geocache I found that I logged.

For some reason, I find the proliferation of these little boxes of hidden “treasure” fascinating. It emphasizes how big the world really is. It also reminds me a bit of a walk my husband, Mike, and I had along the rim of the Grand Canyon once. We got off the beaten path and walked right along the rim, far from where the tourists wander. We happened to stop for a rest on a rock outcropping. And there, tucked under an overhang with a beautiful view of the canyon, was an urn of cremated remains. How long had it been hidden there? We didn’t know. It was like an uncharted geocache. Seems like a good final resting place to me.

Geocaches are hidden. They’re tucked away in painted coffee cans, sealed lengths of black PVC pipe, and plastic Tylenol bottles. In the old days, ammo cans were popular, but I think the value of these has prevented their widespread use — too likely to be stolen if found. (I bought 3 nice-sized ammo cans from a seller in Beatty, NV some years back to create my own geocaches; I still have them.) Caches are hidden in bushes, under rocks, and among the remains of pioneer trash heaps. You’re not likely to stumble upon any of them by accident. You have to look for them. And even with GPS coordinates, they’re not always easy to find.

For some reason, I brought my bag of geocache goodies along with me on my trip to Washington this year. I guess I thought I’d try it again. I didn’t think much of it until the other day when a Twitter friend, @PlagiarismToday, started tweeting about his weekend geocaching activities. It got me thinking about it. I pulled out my bag and took a look inside it. I had a GPS with me, and an Internet connection to get information about local caches, so I had everything I needed to try again.

So I went out yesterday to search for three caches. I found three, but not the original three I’d set out to find.

  • Ryann’s Hide was the first cache I’d hunted for in over 5 years. Although I’m using a newer GPS (a Garmin GPSMap 60c) than I did in 2005, I soon realized that precision was something that needed patience. As I walked, the GPS would guide me, but I quickly overshot the location. Seems that the GPS could not keep up with my movement. I needed to slow down and let the signals catch up. Zooming in on the map gave me ever-increasing detail. Standing still, gave me ever-increasing precision. Once I caught on, I was able to zero in on the location. The cache was alongside a two-track road that led down a hill to a fishing spot. The road was closed to unauthorized vehicles. It started on the edge of an orchard and curved down into a very pleasant wooded area. (I think I need to explore further down that trail.) The container was a painted coffee can with a plastic lid. I pulled out a plastic car and replaced it with a tiny stuffed teddy bear. I entered my Geocaching.com user name in the log book, closed everything back up, and replaced it exactly where I’d found it. Success!
  • Quincy Valley Rest Area II was a bit easier to find — once I got on the correct side of the rest area fence. It was a nicely made cache container consisting of a short length of black PVC pipe with a screw-top on one end. Inside was a baggie with the logbook, some plastic dinosaurs, and a very nice shell. I took the shell and replaced it with an emery board with advertising for a nudist colony on it. (I really don’t remember where I got such a thing, but it is pretty funny — and clean.) I logged my visit and closed it all back up. Success!
  • West Bar Overlook is the one I really wanted to find. It’s located on Babcock Bench, high above one of the orchards I dried several times this summer. The entry on Geocaching.com provided lots of photos and information about the geologic significance of the spot. I’d brought along my camera, planning to get some shots from its perfect vantage point. Unfortunately, the two-track access road that appeared to link the cache area with pavement was inaccessible. Not only was there a locked gate across the road, but there were lots of tall weeds making the start of the trail a bit questionable for someone wearing shorts during snake and tick season. I’ll either try again next spring, before the weeds grow so tall or possibly try to visit via helicopter. I already scouted the power lines in the area. So this was a failure.
  • Rust Everywhere was my consolation prize. I’d already imported its GPS coordinates into my GPS, so I knew approximately where it was. But because I hadn’t planned to look for it, I didn’t have the details — like a basic description of what it looked like. Having a location but no description makes things a bit tougher. Patience and perseverance paid off, though. The cache was a label-less Tylenol bottle hidden well among rocks. I pulled out a kid’s hair clip and replaced it with a computer chip, logged my visit, and put it back. Success!

In all, it was a nice way to spend the afternoon. I was at it for about two hours and it got me out and about. To onlookers, I must have looked pretty silly, walking around while studying a GPS. But I got to find a neat place — that wooded trail — and get some exercise and fresh air. I hope to do more tomorrow.

I also think that it would be a great family or small group activity. A way to combine socialization with exercise. Working together to complete a challenging task.

I do have a geocaching project lined up. I’m going to release one of my travel bugs into the wild with the mission of traveling down to New Orleans, LA. That’s where @PlagiarismToday lives and does his geocaching. He, in turn, is going to send one my way. We’ll see which one completes its mission first.

I’ll likely blog about the progress here.

5 thoughts on “Geocaching Revisited

  1. Glad that you’re back into geocaching and looking forward to our travel bug race! This is going to be fun!

    It sounds to me like you had a pretty good day out and about. Four hunts with three finds is really good. I would call that a very successful day.

    Regarding the GPS delay issue, it is something we’ve noticed here too. We have a basic Etrex H we use for most of our actual cache hunting but there is a noticeable lag in it. It’s sensitive enough to detect even a single step (if you make it a big one) but it’s a case of “step, wait, step, wait”.

    This is especially bad under canopy as we were yesterday.

    I don’t have a real answer for it. I don’t think any GPS unit really beats this problem.

    If anyone knows of a GPS that does, I’d be very interested in getting it!

  2. @Jonathan Bailey
    The problem with geocaches and GPS precision (or lack thereof) is that if you don’t know exactly where something is and your GPS isn’t precise and you don’t know what it looks like, you may not find it. Then you wonder: did I not find it because it’s gone? Or because my GPS is off?

    Today, I spent 15 minutes beating around in tall grass all around when a cache was supposed to be without finding it. No one else has logged a visit since March. What should I think? Who knows?

    But that is the challenge.

    As for the fourth hunt I didn’t find yesterday…if this wind ever dies down, I’ll take the helicopter out. (We don’t need no stinkin’ roads.) Rather than facing the challenge of tall grass possibly filled with snakes and ticks, I’ll face the challenge of finding and landing on a level piece of ground wide enough for my skids on the edge of a cliff, near some power lines.

  3. That is the real fun of geocaching, you don’t know what you’re going to get or not get. We once drove out to a remote geocache near Crystal’s parents only to find out the coordinates were completely wrong. Sadly, though all of the logs admitted they were off, no one had corrected ones so we followed the clues but to no avail.

    I’ve hit a point where, if I put the GPS coordinates in right and they were uploaded correctly, I know that I’m probably going to land within 25 ft of zero point. However, there is still a HUGE area to cover, approximately 2000 square feet, bigger than many houses.

    Combine that with thick brush, bizarre clues and camoed caches, it’s easy to miss one you are standing on.

    When I think about geocaching, I think of a game that is one part physical endurance, one part technology and one part sleuthing. We have a LOT of work to do in all three.

    I like your idea for the fourth cache. That is an awesome idea and it really makes me want to go geocaching with you. How well does GPS work in the air like that?

    Hope you had a good day’s caching!

  4. I definitely think you have the right idea about part physical, part technical, and part sleuthing. Put good eyesight in with the sleuthing, though. Your eyes need to be able to comb through the terrain and find the thing that doesn’t quite fit in. In most cases, the cache container is so purposefully camouflaged, or well hidden, or just so dirt-covered from being outdoors that you really can be standing right on top of it without seeing it.

    The helicopter is part of the extreme geocaching idea I had years ago. I have a lot of friends who own helicopters and like to explore. The idea was to find and/or create caches that were ideal for helicopter hunts.

    The GPS works fine in the helicopter. Before I got my geotagger (for photography) I used to use my Garmin to create track logs during flights. (Still use it once in a while for its trip computer feature.) I do, of course, have a GPS on board for navigation and it can be programmed for caching. But you can’t always land near a cache. My approach would be a bit different. I’d use the handheld to find the cache, but would study a satellite photo of the cache area in advance to get an idea of the lay of the land. I’d fly to the nearest safe LZ, land, shut down, and get out for the hike. It certainly wouldn’t be a “stop and grab.”

    Right now, I’m being sorely tempted by a cache on a small island in a nearby lake. I don’t have a boat, but I think the helicopter might be overkill.

  5. The idea of extreme geocaching sounds like a lot of fun. It’s kind of a strange coincidence that Crystal and I were talking about “Extreme Geocaching” on our latest trip but in a very different context.

    There, the idea was to make geocaching a sport by deploying a defense, including tackling people as they got close to finding the cache.

    Helicopters are much more awesome.

    On that note, I got confirmation today that my travel bugs are on the way, now I just have to find something cool to send.

What do you think?