Geocaching Part 2

After our recent poll question I asked a good friend of mine, Gabe Vistica, to write something up on the wonderful world of Geocaching. 66% of you had no idea what it was. So I thank Gabe for the following info. This is part two of two. Enjoy, and if you happen to start GeoCaching please let me know about your experience.

-Justin Flores (Star 92.7 Morning Show)

Gabe, take it away….

Welcome to part two of a two-part article on the global sport/phenomenon that is geocaching. Since this is clearly labeled as part TWO, I am going to assume that you have read the first part and just jump right in.

Required Stuff

To place or find a geocache, a geocacher must have an account on one of several websites that keep track of geocaches placed all over the world. The largest, and most popular, of these listing websites is Geocaching.com. To keep things simple, I will simply use Geocaching.com as my listing website in this article. It is worth noting that all the listing websites I have seen offer a free membership. Geocaching is now, and should always remain, free. However, some websites also offer paid memberships, which include access to “premium features” such as advanced and automated searches. Such memberships are generally less than $5 per month; highly affordable, even in this economy.

A geocacher must also have a GPS unit. Without one, it is extremely hard to pinpoint your location with enough precision to find a geocache. You can get a decent GPS unit for under $100. GPS units designed for use in cars are not very good for geocaching, as they were designed to figure out what road you are on, not your precise latitude and longitude. Because the new iPhones have a GPS built in (and thanks to a new app from Geocaching.com), it is actually possible to go geocaching using only your iPhone, so if you have a newer model, you don’t even need to buy a GPS!

Finding a Geocache

When a geocacher decides to find a geocache, they go look up cache listings on Geocaching.com. They can look up a specific geocache listing, or they can search for geocaches in a specific area; for example, within 5 miles of their house.

Once they have found the listing for the cache (or caches) they want to find, they can write down the information or print it out. They put the latitude and longitude, or “coordinates”, of the geocache into their GPS, and start trying to get there. That isn’t always as easy as it sounds; just going straight to where the geocache is doesn’t always work. You generally can’t see a big hill, or a ravine, on your GPS screen, so you have to use your head to get from Point A to Point B. This can involve hiking around the long way, driving to the other side of the canyon, or maybe jumping over that mud puddle.

After the geocacher gets close to where the GPS says the cache is hidden, it’s time to get their brain out again! Because the GPS system is still only accurate to 10-20 feet (due to technical issues, not the military this time), when a geocacher gets close they have to stop looking at their GPS’ screen and start looking for likely hiding spots, based on the size of the container. Depending on the difficulty of the cache, they could be looking for an ammo can in a stump, or maybe a Tupperware container painted in a camouflage pattern, with fake (or real) twigs and leaves attached to it, maybe even in the bush the twigs came from.

Once the cache is found, it’s time to open it! Pop the lid off and “WHAT’S THIS?!” It’s got toys from a McDonald’s Happy Meal in it! Those little useless trinkets are known as “swag” (think pirate loot!), and some geocachers like to trade them around from geocache to geocache. There are just two rules: If you take something try to leave something, and if you DO leave something, try to leave something that you think is worth about as much, or more, than what you took out. Geocaching is a family sport, so you should never leave things like knives or fireworks in a geocache.

You should also never leave food (Dave Ulmer hadn’t figured this out yet). Animals have much better noses than we humans do; when there’s food (or scented candles) in a geocache, they can smell it, and they will rip the cache apart to get to it. One time, a geocache was ripped open by a bear, all because someone had left some mint-flavored dental floss! There’s also the logbook; never forget to sign the logbook! That’s the proof that the geocacher was there and found the cache!

After the geocacher gets back home, it’s time to log that find! They get back on Geocaching.com, go to the listing of the cache they found, and click the “Log a find” button. They write a little (or big) story about the journey there, trying to find the geocache, and maybe even the journey back! Once they submit their log, the website updates their numbers so that in a year or two, the geocacher doesn’t decide to go find that cache again, not realizing they already found it. The log is also available for other geocachers to read, so they can be aware of stuff to watch out for, like a soggy logbook, or that patch of poison ivy 10 feet away that looks like a really good hiding spot.

Hiding a Geocache

When a geocache is hidden, the geocacher that is hiding it must consider a few things before hiding it. First, they must ensure that the spot is either on public land, or that they have specific permission from the landowner to place the cache there. Sometimes, geocachers forget that they need to do this, and it causes problems. Also, because so many of our National Parks have very delicate areas right next to the trails, the National Park Service does not allow any physical geocaches to be placed inside park boundaries.

Second, they must make sure that the spot they chose is not near a potential terrorist target, such as in an airport or under a bridge. Several geocachers have not thought their cache locations through very well, and people have called the police because the geocache looked like one of those “suspicious packages” that you hear about on the news every few months. Third, they must make sure that there are no other geocaches within about 500 feet. This is to ensure that nobody finds the new cache when searching for the old one, or vice-versa. Fourth, the cache hide must meet the rest of the “Geocaching Guidelines”. These ARE only guidelines, but exceptions are very rare, as most of the guidelines are based on common sense. (If you want to read the guidelines, you can find them on Geocaching.com, under “hide and seek a cache”.)

Once the geocacher has put the container in its hiding spot, they use their GPS to find out what the latitude and longitude of the container are. Then they go home (or get out their iPhone), go to Geocaching.com, and create a cache listing. They enter the coordinates of the container, a basic description of its surroundings (so other geocachers know they’re in the right place), and, if they want to, a small hint. When other geocachers look at the listing, they will not be able to read the hint just by looking at it. When a hint is given for a geocache, the website automatically encrypts it. The reason the hints are encrypted is that some people don’t want to accidentally read it, but if they do, using ROT13 makes it very easy to decrypt. With ROT13, A = N, B = O, C = P, and so on. This method is very easy to use because when A = N, N = A, so you don’t have to think backwards when you want to decrypt the hint. Like I said, it’s not to stop you from reading it, just reading it by accident.

Once the geocacher that hid the cache finishes the listing, it is looked over by a volunteer cache reviewer. Every geocache placed (with the exception of the first few ever made) has been reviewed by a volunteer. These reviewers look over the listing to make sure that there are no glaringly obvious spelling mistakes, that the geocache isn’t on National Park land (see consideration #1 a few paragraphs back), and that the coordinates aren’t pointing people to the middle of a lake. They also check that the geocache and its listing aren’t violating the guidelines. If it doesn’t, the reviewer will contact the person that hid the cache and try to resolve the problems. Once in a while, though, a resolution isn’t possible and the listing is never published. When the listing is published, though, it immediately becomes publicly accessible, and other geocachers can go look for the geocache.

The End

Wait a minute! The end?! That’s not the end! There’s more! Must… write… more…!

Seriously, though, there is quite a bit that I didn’t even mention. I guess you’ll just have to find it out for yourself.

If you have any questions about geocaching, you can email me at v6rocket@gmail.com

Geocaching Part 1

After our recent poll question I asked a good friend of mine, Gabe Vistica, to write something up on the wonderful world of Geocaching. 66% of you had no idea what it was. So I thank Gabe for the following info. This is part one of two. Part two will be posted tomorrow (Wednesday 11/4/09 around noon). Enjoy, and if you happen to start GeoCaching please let me know about your experience.

-Justin Flores (Star 92.7 Morning Show)

Gabe, take it away….

Welcome to part one of a two-part article on the global sport/phenomenon of geocaching. This was going to be a single article, but it just got too long. There’s too much that you need to know to get the basics. Besides, I would be remiss if I didn’t try to get you to join in. I will definitely be leaving parts out, not only because the info is irrelevant if you decide to not play, but also because I need to let you find out SOME stuff for yourself. After all, that’s what the game’s about: finding stuff.

Geocaching (it’s pronounced GEO-kash-ing).  Some of you may have heard of it before, but you didn’t know what it was. Some of you may be hearing the word for the first time. Basically, it’s like a worldwide, high-tech scavenger hunt with a little bit of hide-and-seek thrown in. Let me give you a little background:

A Short History of Geocaching

On May 1, 2000, an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton took effect. It required that the U.S. military turn off the Selective Availability feature on all GPS satellites in orbit. Selective Availability (or SA) was designed to introduce slight, non-random errors in a GPS signal, making any GPS unit that did not know what the errors would be, very inaccurate. When SA was turned off, civilian GPS receivers, which had previously only been able to pinpoint a location to within about 100 feet, were suddenly able to pinpoint a location to within about 15 feet.

On May 3, the first documented geocache was placed about 25 miles southeast of Portland, Oregon, by Dave Ulmer. It was a black plastic bucket buried most of the way in the ground, and contained computer software, videos, books, food, money, and a slingshot. Ulmer sent a message with those details, plus the latitude and longitude of the bucket, to an email mailing list he was part of, and challenged them to find it using their handheld GPS units. Three days later, it had been found by two people, and one of them had written back to the group to say they had found it. Originally, the group was going to call the activity a “GPS stash hunt” or “GPS-stashing”, but decided on “geocaching” when it was suggested that the word “stash” could have negative connotations. The word originates from “geo”, for “earth” (in this case, worldwide), and cache, a secret hiding place or a special type of computer memory (the high-tech side of the sport).

Since that day, the sport of geocaching has grown considerably. Today, almost ten years later, there are over 930,000 geocaches hidden in over 100 countries, and on every continent, including Antarctica.

About Geocaches

Nearly every geocache in the world shares certain traits. All of them contain a logbook, notebook, or piece of paper for geocachers (people who go look for geocaches) to sign to prove they found that particular geocache. Pretty much every geocache container (or cache for short) can also be classified as being one of four sizes: Micro (about the size of a 35mm film canister), Small (around the size of a small Tupperware container), Regular (close to the same size as an army surplus ammo can), or Large (anything significantly bigger than an ammo can, commonly a 5-gallon bucket). All containers should be waterproof; containers that aren’t generally end up with soggy logbooks, and metal containers have been known to sometimes rust shut when they get wet inside.

Every geocache also has a difficulty rating and a terrain rating. Each rating is 1-5 stars in 1/2 star increments (allowing for ratings like 1.5 or 3.5). The difficulty rating indicates how hard the cache is to find once you get close to its location. 1 means there are very few hiding places, while 5 means heavy camouflage and lots of hiding places (like a film canister in a boulder field). The terrain rating indicates how hard it is to get close to the cache in the first place. 1 means a nice, level, well-maintained trail, while 5 usually means a 10-mile hike or that special equipment is required, like rock-climbing gear.

There are several types of geocaches. The most common type is the Traditional cache. It consists of, at the very least, a container and a piece of paper to sign. Another popular type of cache is the Multicache. With a multicache, multiple containers are hidden; all of them must be at least 500 feet from other geocaches, though that rule doesn’t apply to containers in the same multicache. Only the coordinates of the first container, or stage, are posted in the cache listing. The first container has the coordinates of the second container on a piece of paper, or a puzzle to solve to get them. What the first stage does not have is a logbook; only the last stage has a logbook. If you don’t find the final stage, you haven’t found the cache.

There are several other types, but I’ll let you find those for yourself. Like I said, that’s what the game’s about.

Coming up in part 2:

–   How to find a geocache

–   What you need to get (and do) before you go looking for one

–   And how to hide one yourself!