Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Getting to Know Geocaching

What is Geocaching?

In the simplest terms: finding things hidden by others with the GPS location or clues to the location posted on the web.

Another view of the sport: a somewhat geeky form of entertainment that gets mouse-jockeys outside for a while. Often very addictive.

How I came to geocaching:
I've always been a geek. Even when I was 7, I thought about computers before I ever saw a real one. I helped build our first computer when I was 12. I work and hobby with computers.
I used to bike all the time before I started driving. I hiked and biked a bit on rare occasion as a child and adult - and did some downhill skiing. But like most mouse-jockeys, I spend most of my time staring at a computer screen and not much time outside or exercising. I've always been heavier than 'standard'.

When I moved to Colorado in the second half of 2000, that started to change. They say it takes about 6 weeks to get acclimated to the altitude - the town is about 6,000' (about 2km high). We live at the Eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The town is where the high-plains meet the Rockies. There are 9,000'+ foothills at the western side of town - and at the western edge of town, a 14,115' peak mountain called Pikes Peak. The Purple Mountain Majesty in the national song.
I'm not here 2 weeks, and I'm already starting to hike around and bike a bit. I do find I run out of breath easier, but you catch your breath faster when you stop.
On my first hike, I start thinking how neat it would be to have a digital camera to take pictures along the hike. That happened less that a year later.

Since then I've been on a bunch of hikes - taking lots and lots of pictures. We would go hiking with friends - until they moved to Germany. I'd hike on my own or with others. Then 1.5 years ago, I did a bigger hike. Starting on the back side of the mountain, I hiked from 10,000' to the 14,115' summit. At one point other hikers with a GPS passed us, and were able to tell us how far we'd gotten. Neat.

At some point after that, my wife found a GPS unit in the parking lot where she worked. She turned it in, but nobody claimed it. She gave it to me. I used it a bit to track a few hikes. It was neat, but not all that exciting. A friend of ours from back in New Jersey - who moved out to California not too long before we moved to Colorado - wrote about geocaching in an email. He'd been doing more hiking with his family too. His job was working with satellites, and he was involved in sending up some of the GPS satellites, so it made sense that he would be interested in a GPS game. I didn't get it at first.

Seven months later, I was doing some training. I wanted to be able to hike up Pikes Peak again - this time from the front, starting at about 6,700' and going up to 14,115'. 7,500 vertical feet over about 13 linear miles. So I took my GPS on a bike ride up one of the foothills. I pushed until I made it past 8,000'. Then I was planning another training hike on my own. I was going up an old quarry that went up the foothills called The Scar. And I decided to check geocaching.com to see if there were any geocaches on or leading up the scar. I'd expected, as it was semi-private property, that there would not be any geocaches. I was wrong. There were a few listed, but I wasn't sure how many were on The Scar. I took 4 print-outs from the web site with me.

At that time I didn't know you could pre-load a location into the GPS and have it point out direction and distance to the point. So as I was climbing halfway up the scar, I checked the coordinates on one of the print outs. It seemed close. So I looked at the latitude and longitude on my GPS, trying to figure out which way the hidden spot was. I wound up spending about 15 minutes going down a very steep scree field before I decided I was going the wrong way. I scrambled back up and decided to get to the top of the scar before I tried to find the hide again. On the way down, I managed to wind up on the correct side from the scree field. In fact, the GPS got me to about 5 feet away! Considering the accuracy of the model I have is at best about 13 feet, that is pretty good! I'd read that most geocaches are hidden under something that can make them stand out - rocks or stumps being popular. I was right near some dead trees. Peeking under some trees, I see the edge of a zip-lock bag. Inside was a plastic sandwich container with some toys and a log book. I signed the log, and left a nickel I put my nick-name on.

I was pretty excited. This was more interesting than I thought it would be. I hadn't realized I was infected. Many people find geocaching becomes an obsession. I had a relatively long incubation period, but I was definitely infected. A little less than a month later, one evening after work, I took my 3 boys out to find some nearby caches. A lot less hiking was involved. We found 2 caches that evening. The following weekend we all went out and found another 2 - though there was another one we couldn't find. I was starting to obsess. I figured out caches we could find further away. I took other friends geocaching. I found caches near shopping. I found caches to stop at on road trips. I considered road trips just to find caches. My family was not as interested as I was, and I could not convince them to do as much caching as I wanted. But I still managed to do a little caching most weekend.

I looked at my eldest son. Not yet 13. But larger than me in most dimensions except height, and he will pass that before he is 13-1/2. I've had some hand-me-up from him, because he out-grew something, but it would still fit me. He is a big kid. And he could definitely use some more exercise. I know the only times I've really lost weight and kept it off for a while is when I've done lots of hiking.
So I needed to get him hiking more.

I could just taking him hiking purely for exercise, and nothing extra. Or I could take him geocaching. Geocaching would give us various hikes, in new spots, with a chance to find toys. This sounded like a great additional motivator. Sometimes he still complains, but he also seems to enjoy it some of the time too.

So geocaching to me is the chance to exercise and get my kids outdoors. It give us a chance to enjoy the outdoors more - especially with all the warmer days that Colorado has to offer year-round. It give us new places to find all the time. I've also found caches in places I've hiked in the past, and had no idea there were caches there. It gives me a new geeky view of places - knowing where caches are hidden about town. It gives me new reasons to take pictures - and share pictures. It give me a chance to hide my own caches.

And even more, it has given me a new connection to people. I've never had many friends from work. I don't have that many contact as friends. But I've found kindred souls in geocaching. Even more, the geocaching infection has affected me more strongly in some ways than the average geocacher. Most get obsessed with how many caches they can find. Some see if they can be the first to a new cache. Some see how devious or hard they can make a hide.
But I've found myself connecting with other cachers. And not just one or 2 at a time. But groups.
I've always been somewhat shy. I'm almost always uncomfortable in groups. Public speaking is not something I'm known for.
Yet, somehow, I'm driven to do just that. I've run one event - and I am planning another. And I'm working on teaching classes at the library.
Organizing. Public speaking. Big groups. Me. If that doesn't tell you the power of the geocaching addiction, nothing will.
Okay - there are other factors I could point to that would help explain some of my interest. But most of it is just the obsession.

But what is geocaching really like?
It started when the government decided to turn off the fuzziness of information sent to consumer GPS receivers. Instead of an accuracy of worse than 150 feet, suddenly you had an accuracy of less than 30 feet. 3 days later, sort of as a test, a person hide a 'stash' and posted it on the internet to a news group. It didn't take long before a few people found it and posted that they had found it.
A little while later, a web site was dedicated to the sport. The eventually lead to geocaching.com - the main site of GPS hides. There are a few other GPS games and hide sites out there, but together they don't even come close to geocaching.com.

If you put in a zip code, especially if you are in or near a large population center, you will find a lot of caches in your area. There are a variety of types and sizes of caches. Anyone can make and hide a cache. While there are some rules and a few guidelines, there is a huge amount of freedom to make hides whatever you want.
A lot of caches with trade items are old ammo boxes or tupperware. Many of them are camouflaged. Some are hidden more deviously than others. And some are so small, all they have is a place to write a log entry.
Trade items are usually dollar store items and happy-meal toys.

So you decide to find a cache. Often you can find a few in a general region. Take a print out or download the data to a PDA. Download or enter the coordinates into your GPS. Drive to the area. Follow the GPS and the trails until you get pretty close. Follow the GPS until you get really close - about 20 feet. Look around. After doing a few caches, you start to see most hides pretty quickly. A stack of rocks or sticks, a likely hole, they start to jump out at you when searching. Sometimes they are a bit harder, or the GPS was being a bit more inaccurate. So it may require a few passes with the GPS to get an idea of the range to search.

The first thing to do when you spot the cache, it to stop and take a good look so you can do a decent job of rehiding the cache.

Open it up. Usually newer caches have more interesting stuff to choose from. Older caches can get pretty thin on loot or swag as it is called. Sometimes you might find a 'travel-bug' a hitch-hiker. An item with a special dog tag that is purchased and tracked on geocaching.com. Some have missions of where they want to go or what they want to do. Geocachers are supposed to take them only if they plan on helping with the mission and moving them to another cache usually within 2 weeks. Unluckily, too many go missing - but a good number of them travel great distances and have interesting adventures.

But even when it is only a log, or nothing good to trade - it is still neat to find a cache. It is a bit like a scavenger hunt or treasure hunt. Some of the puzzle caches can be quite a challenge. Most of the caches we have placed are easier and most are good to do with kids.

It is interesting to see how many caches there are - and how it has spread all around the world.

It is interesting to see the interesting things people write when the find my caches. I also check out what is being written on other caches near mine - and also watch travelbugs I've moved to new caches.


Holden said...

Thanks Keith! A blog just for me! (or something a little less self-involved) :P

It's less vague now. Although I still dun really get some of the parts but it maybe because I am reading it at 6 in the morning, just before I go to sleep. I'll take a another gander when I've rejuvenated.

Um, my take is that it's a little bit like a treasure hunt. But what do you get when you find the cache? Something valuable?

Keith said...

Most caches have something you can trade - dollar-store toys or fast-food toys. But that is mostly for the kids. For adults, it is mostly about finding the cache. It is about being able to find it - and log it - both in the cache and back online.