Last week I came about as close as I’ll come to knowing what it feels like to be Indiana Jones. Aided only by a handheld GPS unit, I followed its arrow out into a muddy, middle of nowhere location, at which point the GPS informed me that I had reached my destination. As I looked around at the nothingness that surrounded me I was more than a little perplexed, until I noticed a small wooden box buried in the ground and half covered over by nature. As I knelt down to open it, I wondered if the excitement I was feeling was the same rush that explorers and treasure hunters feel when they are on the brink of a wondrous new discovery. The box opened, and inside I found a small plastic container holding a log book, a pencil, and several small trinkets and plastic toys. It wasn’t exactly the treasure of King Tut’s Tomb, but it was exciting nonetheless; I had found my very first geocache.
Geocaching, I now know, is a worldwide system of hidden containers that people have stashed all over the world, and then listed them online for other fellow geocachers to find. According to the website www.geocaching.com there are over 1.6 million geocaches waiting to be found, and over 5 million geocachers actively searching for them on all seven continents. All you’re told is the set of coordinates to plug into your GPS, the size of the geocache ranging from micro to large, and in some cases a hint to help guide your search. Once you locate a geocache, you add your name to the log book to record having found it, and then enter your find on your online geocache profile.
The first geocache was hidden in 2000, and since then an entire culture has sprung up around this treasure hunt, complete with its own rules and terminology. Borrowing a page from the Harry Potter universe, Muggles are people who are not involved in the geocaching pursuit, and if you attract the attention of a Muggle while searching for a cache, or if a cache is taken by a Muggle, then you and the cache are said to have been Muggled. Geocaches can also contain Geocoins and trinkets called Travel Bugs, each having its own unique ID number that when entered online, you can track its progress around the world.
However, beyond the thrill of a treasure hunt, what most impressed me about the geocaching culture is how the whole thing is mostly run on the honour system. Caches are hidden anywhere, some in plain sight and in locations you may pass every day, and geocachers are invested in keeping them in good condition. It’s free to play, all you need is a GPS, and geocoins do actually travel around the world, taken from cache to cache without being pocketed. Geocachers are careful to not hide caches in areas that would arouse suspicion or alarm, and most caches are hidden with permission from the local governing bodies. When hit with criticism that geocaches effectively amount to hidden litter, geocachers adopted a “Cache In, Litter Out” policy, wherein geocachers pick up trash along the routes of their searches. So far, these self governing policies appear to be working, as geocaching is showing no signs of slowing down in its popularity.
For myself, geocaching was a marvellous way to spend an afternoon; it’s fun, free, and it gets you moving outside. Even better, it shows how the simple act of making GPS publicly available has led to a worldwide culture of treasure seekers. As new technology continues to become available, who knows what other cultures will be created in the future. In the meantime, I’m content with my new hobby, as it is just a little bit addictive. So far, I’ve located and logged eight geocaches, so only about 1.6 million to go.