Geocaching: High Tech Family Fun on the Cheap

Geocaching: High Tech Family Fun on the Cheap

Our kids in front of Missouri's largest geocache container

Our kids in front of the “Jolly
Green Giant,” Missouri’s
largest geocache container

“Dad, would you have any time today to do some geocaching?”

That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot lately. Unfortunately, I too often have to say no, I’m sorry but I can’t today, I’m too busy at the moment helping customers and earning a living. But whenever I can, I do make the time.

This past Sunday the entire family went geocaching. Now if you’ve never heard of this activity, you’re wondering what it is.

On May 1, 2000, the US government turned off the signal scrambling that limited the accuracy of global positioning systems. (This move paved the way for the GPS receivers that are now widely used by drivers to navigate the road.)

On May 3, a 53-year-old computer engineer named Dave Ulmer posted online:

“Now that [Selective Availability] is off we can start a worldwide Stash Game!! With Non-SA accuracy it should be easy to find a stash from waypoint information. Waypoints of secret stashes could be shared on the Internet, people could navigate to the stashes and get some stuff. The only rule for stashes is: Get some Stuff, Leave some Stuff!! …

I’m thinking of half burying a five gallon plastic bucket with lid at the stash point. Putting in some stuff. Adding a logbook and pencil so visitors can record their find. The log should contain: Date, Time, What you got, and What you put in…”

And with one single online post, Dave Ulmer invented a fun new outdoor activity.

Before the end of that month, it had a new permanent name (geocaching) a web site, and a growing number of participants.

Geocaching is basically a high-tech treasure-hunt game played with a GPS unit. It’s particularly fun for families with kids, but some of the more scenic or difficult caches can be fun for grownups to hide and seek, too.

The basic rules remain much the same: Use GPS coordinates to find a hidden “stash” or location. Take something if you so desire. Leave something for someone else. Log your find.

Beyond the basics, though, there’s some variety. There are “multi-caches” which consist of a series of caches. In these, each find leads you to the next. There are easy caches, and difficult caches. There are “virtual” caches which only consist of a location to visit, often a nice landmark.

These days there are around 900,000 geocaches worldwide (around 300 to 400 just in the Springfield area alone) and over 100,000 active geocachers. Most of these use convenient hand-held GPS receivers tailored just for geocaching.

Since there are caches just about everywhere, and since a hand-held GPS unit doesn’t cost that much and can be used over and over again, geocaching doesn’t tend to be an expensive activity.

True, if you want to go for the special and unique “Cache Across America,” which is an entire series of 51 geocaches located in every state of the union and culminating in the nation’s capital of Washington, DC, it’s probably going to run into a lot of miles and some big expense.

But for most of us, the costs of geocaching consist of:

  • The cost of a GPS unit
  • Gasoline to arrive at a cache site
  • Batteries every now and then
  • Fun but inexpensive items to exchange in cache sites
  • Insect repellent for in-the-bushes caches, sunscreen in summer,  snacks, etc.

As an example, you can get a brand new Garmin etrex Venture HC GPS receiver (like the one we use) for around $125. So far, we’ve used it to find around 30 geocaches. When you consider that I can sell it on ebay, used, any time I want for around $90, that’s around $1 a cache… so far. Once we’ve found 300 caches, it’ll be more like 10 cents per cache found.

Not all caches contain items to trade, and you won’t always find interesting things in the ones that do. Admittedly, there are a few too many free McDonald’s toys floating around. Still, interesting items are out there.

My daughter has a pair of dangling “tropical fish” earrings we retrieved from a cache in Jefferson City. And there’s an inexpensive but rather nice little teddy bear we got from our last cache find.

The more people leave fun and attractive items, the more fun and attractive items there will be. With a bit of creativity, you can come up with things to trade that don’t cost much but make for exciting finds. By doing some hunting on ebay, I paid $15 for 40 very attractive Peruvian friendship bracelets, shipped from Peru. I was also able to get an entire roll of 50 wheatback pennies, all in decent shape, for just $10 including the shipping.

So where do you get the info on a particular geocache? From the web, of course. While there are several geocaching web sites, now seems to dominate the space. This is where you’ll find so many different geocaches that no matter where in the country you travel, you’re bound to be close to at least one cache. (Actually, most foreign countries have caches, too.)

What I do is print out the information on a cache, and download the coordinates from the web site straight into the etrex. Then we’re good to go.

As an alternative to more expensive GPS units, Apisphere Inc. has introduced the Geomate, Jr., a geocaching GPS receiver that comes pre-loaded with 250,000 of the easier caches, all for only $70. Since all of the preloaded caches are easy, this unit is specifically targeted to families with children.

So how does finding a cache look in practice?

While there are tons of caches within the city limits — in parks, under bushes, and sometimes disguised in high traffic areas in plain sight — I’ll use our last cache, hidden in the woods at Busiek State Park, as an example.

On this occasion, we combined our geocaching adventure with a family hike. We parked at a parking lot a good distance from the caching location and followed the trails for more than a mile to the cache site. Once there, we found the cache partially hidden under a fallen tree, about 10 feet off the trail.

This particular cache consisted of a metal ammunition box, painted in green camoflage paint. Once opened, it revealed an entire assortment of items. We signed the log, took the little teddy bear and a couple other toys. In return, we left 4 Peruvian friendship bracelets and 3 wheatback pennies. Once home, I also recorded our find online.

In short: We had fun, enjoyed a family outing, and got some exercise, too.

For lots more information on geocaching, visit:

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