Geocaching is a combination of old-school piratical treasure hunt—without the plank walking—and new-wave technology, with GPS devices and the Internet helping track down the booty. Players hide a cache, usually a waterproof container with a logbook and a handful of goodies inside, post coordinates and clues on the Web, and the hunt begins. Then, armed with a handheld GPS unit, other players track down the cache and replace some of the treasure—anything from wind-up toys to disposable cameras—with gifts for the next cache hunter. "It's not what you find in a cache, its the thrill of the hunt," says Jerry Carter, publisher of Todays Cacher.
This high-tech spin-off of hide-and-seek was born on May 1, 2000, when the Clinton administration removed a satellite scrambler that limited civilian GPS units' accuracy to 100 meters, upping their precision to within ten meters of a sought-after spot. Two days later, former computer engineer Dave Ulmer hid the first cache near Portland, Oregon—with contents including a can of beans and a $5 bill—and posted the details to an online newsgroup. Within a day, the stash was found, and the game was on.
Now more than 750,000 people are hiding and searching out caches from Finland to Fresno, and clubs of geocachers are cropping up around the world. Most people post their caches and finds on the website Geocaching.com.
Small stashes, called microcaches, lurk in urban locations, often placed in 35-millimeter film canisters or a Hide-a-Key-style disguise. Others require bushwhacking, serious route-finding, or even multi-part hunts that involve phone calls and library sleuthing to unravel the puzzle. On the Geocaching.com website, the difficulty of the find itself and surrounding terrain are ranked, so that you can choose how tough you want your quest to be. A hunt for a cache could mean a three-mile hike up Washington State's Mount Ellinor, a huff through San Francisco's hilly streets, a 5.8 rock climb in Virginia, or a stroll across a Parisian pont with the Musée d'Orsay as your wayfinder.
Pioneer: Bryan Roth, co-founder of Geocaching.com
The Seattle-based Roth, 34, was working at a doomed dotcom when someone walked into his office with a GPS unit. That was the start of this adventure for a group of three self-described technogeeks—Web developer Jeremy Irish, network guy Elias Alvord, and Roth, an attorney—who together founded the Geocaching.com website in September 2000.
Roth, who handles the business end of the site, has watched the sport grow from the first few stashes to today's more than 118,000 caches worldwide. The secret of its success: "It blends two things that a lot of people enjoy—outdoor recreation and technology," says Roth.
A geocacher himself, Roth's best day on the hunt was a trek to Melakwa Lake near Washingtons Snoqualmie Pass, a nine-mile round-trip hike that he took with a group of 20 other geocachers. Finding the box at the top of a ridge was only part of the fun, he remembers. "It was just an incredible day of hiking."
One of the current geocaching trends: travel bugs, a specific item with a serial number that's tracked as it travels from cache to cache. More than two years ago, Roth stuck his son's Shrek stuffed animal in a cache in New York, with a note that said he'd like to see it make its way back to its original owner in Washington State. "It showed up on our doorstep three weeks ago," he says.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication