“Should we call it off?” My friend Amy and I stood in the middle of a field full of nettles and thistles in the Delta, global positioning system devices in hand. Through some creative leaping and contortionism, we’d managed to find a relatively pain-free path this far, but we had about another 40 feet to go until we reached our target, and we had to wade through the knee-high thistles to get there.
We later found out that for most of the year, this particular cache, “The World’s 6th Tallest Structure,” was in a pleasant field that was quite easy to walk through without any trouble. Apparently, we’d timed our attempt for the short span from late August to mid-September when nature fought back against intruders.
It was our own fault. We’d planned for a day of searching for geocaches — hidden containers found using GPS coordinates — in Rio Vista, Isleton and Locke. This was the only one outside of a town that we’d planned to find, and it was a hot day, so we were in shorts and flip-flops.
“We’ve gotten so close, though,” Amy said.
“Alright, it’s my turn to be the stupid one,” I said, and I waded into the weeds.
We’ve climbed trees, accidentally wandered through poison oak (luckily, in proper pants and shoes for traipsing through the outdoors that time), squeezed under benches and waded under bridges in the hunt for caches before, and those challenges are somehow what makes caching more fun. Finding a well-hidden cache in a difficult spot is just really satisfying, and it gives you a story to tell.
None of that prepared us for this field.
After 40 painful feet — with Amy taking pictures of my poor decision and offering shouted advice whenever it looked like I was straying into a particularly thick patch of stickers — I checked my GPS. My legs were a scratched mess, but I was at the cache location. Victory!
But where was the cache?
History of geocaching
Geocaching is a global scavenger hunt that uses GPS signals. But it wasn’t always so easy to use a handheld GPS to track down a location.
On May 2, 2000 the U.S. government turned off “selective availability” — an intentional degradation of public GPS signals for national security — on 24 satellites. Civilian GPS fans were pleasantly surprised, and one of them decided to have some fun with it.
Computer consultant Dave Ulmer posted a message to an Internet group challenging users to go hide a stash out in the woods, send the coordinates to the group, and see who found it. He placed a stash of his own — a 5-gallon bucket containing a Delorme Topo USA, two CD Roms, a cassette recorder, a “George of the Jungle” VHS tape, a Ross Perot book, four $1 bills, a slingshot handle and a can of beans near — near Beavercreek, Ore.
Mike Teague, the first person to find Ulmer’s stash, began recording all of the stash locations on his homepage, and by the end of May 2000, Matt Stum, another member of the mailing list, had coined the term “geocaching.” A new hobby was born.
Jeremy Irish, a Seattle web developer, stumbled across the hobby and created Geocaching.com in September 2000, attracting the attention of media sites like Slashdot. He founded Groundspeak, Inc., the company that runs the site and markets tools, T-shirts and more for geocachers, with two co-workers, Elias Alvord and Brian Roth. They still run the company out of Seattle today.
The Geocaching.com site continues today as the main hub for geocachers to research caches and record their finds, and there are more than 2 million active geocaches today, along with 5 million people hunting for them.
The Original Stash is long gone, irreparably damaged by a road crew, but the Original Stash Tribute Plaque has been placed at the same coordinates, and can be visited today. A nearby ammo can contains a logbook for visitors to sign.
Types of geocaches
Geocaching has evolved a lot in the past 13 years, and types of geocaches have, too. Here are a few of the more popular kinds of caches you might run into out in the field:
Traditional cache: These are straightforward caches, but that doesn’t mean they’re all easy to find. They can range in size from micro or nano (nanos are about the size of a pill or pencil eraser) to large enough to climb inside. Containers can be plain Tupperware or ammo cans, or designed to look like anything from rocks to pinecones to telephone booths. However, when you find a traditional cache, you’re always going to find a physical container holding some kind of logbook, and it will always be at the coordinates listed on that cache’s page.
Multi-cache: Multi-caches involve multiple locations. At the coordinates listed on the cache page, you will find coordinates to the next location. Enter the coordinates in your GPS, and head to the next location. The final location always has a physical container, but there may be more containers along the way.
Mystery cache: Also called a puzzle cache. These are a bit trickier. The cache page usually contains some kind of problem to solve. Some local ones get cachers translating ancient runes, answering trivia about TV shows, movies, and Super Bowls and Oscar ceremonies of the past, and even solving trigonometry problems. Once the problem is solved, the cache’s actual coordinates — or sometimes coordinates to the next clue — will be revealed.
Letterbox hybrid: Letterboxing is geocaching’s older British cousin. It’s a similar type of treasure hunt that involves orienteering rather than GPS use, and it originated in Dartmoor, England in 1854. Each letterbox contains a logbook and a unique rubber stamp, and letterboxers carry a personal logbook (usually a sketch journal or other blank, unlined book), an ink pad and a personal stamp. The stamp in the letterbox is used to stamp the boxer’s logbook, and vice versa. Hybrid geocaches use elements of both types of treasure hunt — GPS coordinates may lead you to a starting location, at which point you use a compass to find the cache, or a compass may lead you to various clues that reveal the GPS coordinates for the cache. Once you find it, you can sign the logbook or stamp it, but please do not remove the stamp that goes with the cache! (For more about letterboxing, visit www.letterboxing.org or www.atlasquest.com.)
Virtual cache: Virtual caches can no longer be created at Geocaching.com, but old ones have been grandfathered in and there are plenty in the area. Virtual caches don’t have a physical container or logbook. Instead, cachers are led to a specific site — usually a historical site or a piece of outdoors artwork — where they can either take a photo of themselves at the site, answer a series of questions, or find some sort of clue to prove they were there.
EarthCache: These are a lot like virtual caches, but they focus on geological features: Fault lines, old mines, caves and more. EarthCaches have to meet certain standards, including teaching cachers some geoscience, before they can be approved and added to the site. There are also special challenges for creating and finding earthcaches; for example, a Platinum EarthCache Master has to visit and log 20 EarthCaches in at least five different states or countries, as well as create at least three EarthCaches of their own. (For more about EarthCaches, visit www.earthcache.org.)
How to get started
All you need to get started is a geocaching name that you can use to sign a log sheet (usually the same as your user name for any of the geocaching websites), and a handheld GPS or a caching app on your smartphone.
That said, it’s a good idea to carry a caching kit with gloves, tweezers (to get logs out of and back into small caches), water, a first aid kit, at least one flashlight and extra batteries, a mirror (for checking under ledges, if you don’t feel like lying down on the ground), a pen or pencil, a notebook, and a few small items to trade. Some cachers also carry extra baggies and logsheets, in case they find a cache that has been damaged by water or critters.
If you’re heading out to cache in nature rather than in city limits, it’s also a good idea to wear long pants and sturdy shoes — don’t be like me.
A few other tips for beginners:
- With the exception of trackable items like travel bugs and geocoins (which will have a six-digit tracking code on them), you may take and keep items from a geocache, provided you leave something in trade. Please don’t leave food or anything dangerous, illegal or inappropriate — remember that geocaching is a family-friendly hobby!
- Trackables are meant to move from one cache to another. Most have a goal, such as traveling across the country, or “visiting” caches in the wilderness. You cannot keep trackables, but you can “discover” them by entering their tracking codes on Geocaching.com. You can also move them to another cache.
- Put the cache container back exactly as you found it. This is important! If you move the container, it will make it more difficult for other geocachers to find. And if you don’t hide it well, it may be spotted by a “muggle” and mistaken for trash or a dangerous item and removed. Then everything in the cache is lost.
- Cache in, trash out. Carry a trash bag when caching, and if you see trash around a cache site, pick it up. If there is a lot of trash in the area, or the trash is dangerous (like broken bottles or drug paraphenalia), report it on the geocache’s page at Geocaching.com to warn other cachers, and to the proper authorities.
- Log your finds at Geocaching.com. When writing a log, be sure to note if the cache is damaged, the logbook is full, or if there is anything dangerous in the area. It’s also nice to tell a bit about your caching adventure — without giving away the cache location, of course!
‘I can’t find it,’ I yelled.
“Try under rocks?” Amy shouted back.
I carefully checked under every rock within three feet, but nothing. And then I looked up, and the cache that had been hidden while I was standing was suddenly visible. I won’t say where — that would spoil the fun — but I still can’t believe it took so long to spot it.
“Got it!” I signed the log sheet for both of us, then made my way back through the weeds, less painfully this time because I’d broken a trail on my way in.
On the way back to Amy’s car, we agreed that this was the most satisfying cache we’d found yet, because we had to work so hard for it.
Even after we retrieved alcohol wipes from the first aid kit to nurse our wounds.