To the uninitiated, latitude and longitude coordinates can look like a nonsensical jumble of numbers and symbols. But to geocachers, letterboxes and orienteers, they’re so much more. In part, they’re a recipe for adventure, and they lead to the precise location of little treasures hidden around the world by a sub-culture of enthusiasts.
I joined the latter group when I set out with my own coordinates in mind, determined to find a small container hiding at an undisclosed location near my home. I had found the details in an online list, and I knew the container would be near a bridge in a local park. So, I drove to the spot, and with the exact coordinates plugged into my phone, I began searching.
When I stepped out into the unknown, albeit within the safety of my local park, I joined an upward trend of people around the globe who are seeking recreation closer to home in the time of COVID-19. And, I joined a large number – there is not an official count, but it’s likely in the hundreds of thousands – of people looking for more than 3 million geocaches in 191 countries, and on all continents, including Antarctica. It all started 20 years ago when the first geocache was placed in Oregon, and the popularity of the pastime has grown steadily from there.
“Geocaching is the world’s largest treasure hunting game,” says the website for Geocaching HQ, an international organization that offers resources, like a Geocaching App. To these folks, geocaching is all about inspiring adventure and outdoor recreation, as users work to find the cleverly hidden containers based on their coordinates.
The geocaches are placed by owners, who can be individuals or organizations, and they can have a log book inside, plus be filled with small trinkets that players trade, or pieces or paper, or other tiny artifacts. There are more than 360,000 geocache owners officially recorded worldwide, and some of them own and maintain several geocaches. The best place to find out about geocaches in your area is with some online research.
In Vermont, the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation allows geocaching in state parks and forests, and encourages the activity as a great way to get outside. “Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment,” reads a dedicated page on the department’s website. There are geocaches all over Vermont State Parks, and the webpage includes a link to the Geocaching HQ website where they are recorded. There are also forms to fill out to request permission to place your own geocache in a state park.
At the Geocaching HQ website, users can create a free account, from where they can then access a list of geocaches near them, plus find gear, videos and how-to resources. Location services built right into the app can be used to find geocaches, and the app lets users create lists of geocaches they want to find, and also record successful finds.
For those who don’t want to rely on technology, letterboxing is a similar hobby, though more low-tech and better for those looking to ditch their phones in the outdoors. These containers are found with a good old-fashioned map and compass and some basic orienteering skills, and players can learn about the hidden boxes by word of mouth, in local publications and online.
In both geocaching and letterboxing, the boxes can very well-hidden, and it’s not uncommon to spend a good deal of time searching for them. Back at my local park, I searched for about 30 minutes, but never did find the geocache by the bridge; mixed success is part of the adventure. But I did find something new to do outdoors.
Geocaching Basics (from Geocaching HQ, at www.geocaching.com)
1. A geocacher hides a geocache and lists the coordinates on Geocaching.com for others to find.
2. Players will navigate to a geocache using the Geocaching app or a GPS-enabled device.
3. At minimum, geocaches contain a logbook for players to sign. After signing, they’ll log their experience on the Geocaching app or on Geocaching.com to earn a reward in the form of a point and digital smiley.
4. Some geocaches contain small trinkets for trade. If a geocacher takes something from the geocache, they replace it with something of equal or greater value.
5. Traveling game pieces called trackables can also be found in geocaches. These trackables have a unique tracking number engraved on them and move from geocache to geocache towards a goal.
6. Geocaches are often well hidden but never buried.
7. Geocaches are always put back at the location where they were found for the next geocacher to discover.