Finding Stuff for Fun

By Claire Wolfe

November 1, 2004

“There’s your answer,” Bob-the-Nerd proclaimed, plunking a fist-sized orange device on the table in front of Marty Harbibi.

Marty looked at the object, up at Bob, and was just plain confused. He snorted, “Did I ask a question?”

“The answer to how to find your SKS next time. Or your cache of gold coins. Or whatever you want to find — including a lot of cool stuff other people have stashed.”

Bob the Nerd

Everybody for several tables around at the Hog Trough Grill and Feed leaned over and peered at the doodad. Some recognized what it was. Some looked as baffled as Marty. But everybody remembered the Great SKScapade, when Marty led half of Hardyville on a mostly futile hunt for the rifle he stashed, back when DiFi was banning and we were all stashing such things, figuring we might need them in an emergency.

If Marty had had an emergency, he’d have joined the doornails long before he’d have found that weapon. Definitely, nobody would forget.

Or it might be more accurate to say nobody would let Marty forget.

But poor Marty; it wasn’t just him. A lot of us have done it. You take that little bag of pre-1964 silver coins that you just know you’re going to need so badly in some future catastrophe, bury it out in the wayback, then can’t ever find it again. Or you lose track of your emergency getaway pack, full of MREs, water, and warm clothes. Or your secret documents. Or … um, well, things you’d rather I didn’t put in print. It’s always important stuff though. And then you can’t remember whether it was the third tree from the big rock or the third rock from the big tree, where you hid that Very Important Thing.

“Well, there’s not only the answer,” Bob said, pointing. “There’s a heck of a lot of fun.”

The bright, waterproof object Bob had laid on the table was a hand-held GPS unit. Its job in the world: to use the Global Positioning Satellite System to tell you exactly (to within a few feet or yards) where you are on the planet — or tell you how close you are to some other fixed spot. Like the spot where you buried your whatevers or your watchamacallits.

Thousands and thousands of people around the world are also using hand-held GPS devices to stash ammo cans or Tupperware containers filled with cheap, fun goodies for other people with hand-held GPS units to find. It’s a new and growing sport called geocaching.

Garmin eTrex GPS

Sport is kind of the wrong word, because geocaching is mostly non-competitive. “Play” or “adventure” might be better terms. Geocaching works like this:

  1. Somebody (maybe you) hides a sturdy container in almost-plain-sight (half-hidden by a cairn of rocks, or under the branches of a bush — not buried). It’s usually on public land — or private land, with permission — and usually in a spot that’s either super-scenic, historic, or adventurous to reach — the kind of place most people might never even know about on their own but will be thrilled to discover. Here’s tips on making your first cache
  2. The container holds, at minimum, a log book and pens and pencils — but usually also contains cheap, fun thingamajigs for people to take — like souvenir keyrings, small stuffed animals, badges, bottle caps, postcards, tiny mechanical toys, costume jewelry, etc.
  3. The person hiding the goodies gives the cache a name, which may be stenciled or written on the container. Then they post on the website the name, GPS coordinates of the stash, road directions for getting near it, something about the difficulties of the spot (for instance: “Uneven terrain, be sure to wear hiking boots” or “must cross two barbed-wire fences” or “Easy access; right next to the old pioneer graveyard”).
  4. Then other people (maybe you) use that information to go hunting for the stash. You enter the coordinates of the cache (the “waypoint”) in your GPS unit, and as you approach that exact spot, the unit tells you how many miles, or feet, you are from the cache, and in which direction it lies. Depending on the quality of your unit and the quality of the “fix” you get on the satellites in a given location, you’ll be within two to seven yards of the cache when your unit says “0 feet.” Then you just poke around ’til you spot the container.
  5. Everybody who finds a cache enters the date, time, and comments in the log book, puts the book back, and gets the right to take one object out, if they want to, and put another in. Some people leave signature items — like one man a friend told me about who leaves .50 BMG ammo cases (not complete cartridges, which could be potentially hazardous). You might leave things like pocket copies of the Bill of Rights, pre-1964 silver dimes, or copies of articles from Backwoods Home magazine.
  6. Magellan eXplorist 100 Handheld GPS

  7. You might also find (or leave) a Travel Bug, a little scarab-like creature with a registered number. People place Travel Bugs into caches in hopes that finders will carry them long distances or carry them to interesting places and report their new locations on the website. Some Travel Bugs have specific dream destinations (“Get me to New Zealand!”) Others just go wherever finders carry and re-cache them.
  8. After logging the find, the finder puts the cache back as it was and, later, logs more comments on the Geocaching web site.

“It’s geeky,” Bob admitted. “But it’s one of the only kinds of geekiness that actually makes a person get out and climb rocks and ford creeks. I could use some of that.” He poked at his middle, where a barely visible fold of flab bulged from his otherwise skinny self.

“GPS device, though,” Mrs. Nat shook her head. “Isn’t that what they use to track people? I don’t think I’d want to carry one of those.”

“You can take off your tinfoil hat,” Bob assured us all. “Yes, they do use GPS in various sorts of tracking systems. But a hand-held GPS unit isn’t a tracking system, all by itself. It’s a receiver, not a transmitter. It doesn’t tell anybody — except you — where you are. On the contrary, the GPS satellites tell it where they are.

“You can get basic units like the simplest Garmin eTrex, for under $90 at

“Or something like a Magellen eXplorist 100 like the one I’ve got here for under a hundred.

“Or you can get more expensive GPS units with all kinds of other features like built-in barometers, altimeters, better compasses, color displays, and the ability to store hundreds of waypoints and routes. The Geocaching site has recommendations for gear buying

“There are books to get you started. Like GPS Made Easy: Using Global Positioning Systems in the Outdoors.

“Or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching.

“Or The Essential Guide To Geocaching: Tracking Treasure With Your GPS.

“Or Geocaching for Dummies.”

“But,” Marty objected, “why waste time and spend $100 or more just so you can hunt for worthless junk in the middle of nowhere?”

“Because it’s fun. Good exercise. Challenging. Educational. Great thing to do with your kids, for one. Besides, it’s good practice for other things you might need to do. I mean, aside from helping you find that SKS, even a cheap GPS unit like this one can map your route to a given location and let you backtrack out again without getting lost. Pretty handy on some of those BLM or Forest Service roads. Or when there’s no road at all.”

“Think I’d still ruther go with a map and compass,” growled old Nat. “Like in orienteering. Like in the Scouts when I was a youngster.”

“Well, that’s a good idea, too,” Bob agreed. “In fact, if you’re going way out for a geocache in a remote location, you ought to have topo maps, either paper ones or ones downloaded into your GPS unit. Or both. And you ought to know how to read a compass. I mean, what if your batteries croak? It’s smart to have an alternate way of navigating back.”

“Carry extra batteries,” recommended prudent Mrs. Nat. “AND a compass. And a water bottle and energy bars. And go with a friend who’s got his own GPS unit as a backup.”

“And take a cellphone,” I added. “A pre-paid one, bought anonymously, because they really can track those. Then you can at least call for help if you get lost or stuck.”

“Yeah,” Bob agreed. “But remember, not all geocaches are in difficult or hard to reach terrain. Some are just in scenic spots. Or near a historical site, right beside a road. Some are in cities, even. You can get a pretty good idea what you’re getting into by looking at the difficulty and terrain ratings for a cache before you go out. Or by looking at finders’ comments.”

“Well, it still sounds like a waste of time to me,” Marty snorted, looking at Bob’s little device.

“Then don’t do it,” Bob shrugged. “You can waste your time instead by not having any idea of the coordinates of the things you bury for yourself.”

“Touche,” several of us chorused, as Marty sank down lower in his chair.

“So even if you don’t want to play,” Bob concluded, “geocaching is a good way to practice for hiding important real-world stuff.”

“Yeah, right,” Marty grumbled. “Now all I’ve gotta to do is remember some damn fancy ee-lectronic coordinates.”

“Well, at least,” Nat said, “them cord’nates won’t end up pointin’ at the sky like that big tree limb that was supposed to be pointin’ at your SKS.”

With a big smile of thanks to TCP for introducing geocaching and GPS mapping capabilities to Hardyville.

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