One year of Geocaching: Stories and why you’ll love it
It was a year ago today at the back of a Sainsbury’s carpark that my friend and I decided to try something we had never done before.
Hot, sweaty and fiddling about in the dark, we had no idea what we were looking for, except that it was a size “small” and we had to use as much stealth as possible to avoid people seeing us.
It took nearly an hour before we worked out what we were doing wrong, but the feeling when we succeeded was already addictive.
What is Geocaching?
Geocaching is an activity, an interest and a platform. It involves using clues and GPS coordinates, provided by the virtual platform, to find real life objects (called Caches) hidden around the world.
Enabled by the standardisation of GPS, Geocaching was the digital incarnation of the 160 year old activity called Letterboxing. A community driven activity involving the hiding and finding of “treasures”.
There are now 3 million active geocaches across 193 countries that you can find and they have been found over 600 million times. Trying to put numbers on the scale of this game is difficult, but mainly because it is so diverse.
There are Caches that get found over 6000 times every year and yet there’s also a cache hidden in Venezuela that has never been found since being hidden in 2001.
Why Geocaching is addictive
This week marked the one year anniversary of my friend and I joining a community of people larger and more diverse than the population of Hong Kong.
That first time was followed up by another 144 just like it, in 4 different countries and with many different friends, but it took only 4 before we decided to hand over our money and fully commit to the world of Geocaching.
Geocaching isn’t the only app out there that encourages people to get outdoors in search of a virtual list of ‘things’. Pokémon GO is just one example of a recent game that has made use of the same concept and there have been many before it and hopefully will be many more to come.
But, for me, the thing that sets it apart is its integration with the real world. Being able to solve puzzles that lead to something physically tangible and knowing you’re part of a community of thousands of people who have searched for it is intrinsically rewarding. The game manages to maintain an enormous scale, whilst still feeling local and achievable and this is just one reason why it has endured for nearly 20 years.
In the rest of this post I will talk about some of my favourite things about geocaching, some stories I’ve experienced and why I will continue to do it and think you should too.
It gets you outdoors
Despite this blog, my interests and my career all being centered around technology and what is usually a desk, I’ve always been inspired by things that encourage people to engage more with the world around them. Geocaching epitomises this goal in every sense and the stories you hear from people who have done it will only inspire you more.
When you sign up you’ll get little in the way of a tutorial and won’t be told what to do. You’ll simply be presented with a map and told to go have fun. The barriers for starting are so easy that if you’re ever bored all you need to do is get up and walk towards one of those funny green circles on the map.
It encourages exploration
There’s probably a cache located less than 10 minutes away from where you are right now and you’ve probably walked past it countless times obliviously, it’s a secret world. Or maybe it’s somewhere within walking distance that you’ve never been before, now you have a reason to go explore.
Maybe you’re driving back along the motorway and feel like you need to stretch your legs? You can pop open the map and see if there are any on the way.
On the way back from a holiday my family decided to stop off for a break. We thought we could use the opportunity for a quick “Cache and Dash” by the side of the road. We ended up 15 minutes deep into what turned out to be a forest covered National Trust Nature Reserve and found the ruins of a roman viaduct. It was an amazing find we all enjoyed that we wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
It makes you think, in a fun way
So far I’ve only covered what are called “traditional caches”. These appear on your map as green circles and are the most basic caches, however, they get more challenging. Inside the app you will also find orange multi-caches (which I prefer to call puzzle caches) and blue Mystery Caches.
Multi-caches will require you to go to a location and solve a specified puzzle (hence my preferred name). The puzzles range from something as simple as finding phone numbers to something as complex as translating or gathering the dates and ages on grave stones. Whatever the challenge they will always provide you with a new, near-by, coordinate where you will then find the physical cache.
Mystery-Caches are more challenging and need to be worked out, usually from a computer, at home before you venture out to the actual location (which can be miles from the initially published co-ordinates).
The idea of needing to go to a location and solve a puzzle reminds me of those escapist stories from Lara Croft, Uncharted or Indiana Jones films & games, and there’s no better feeling than when you solve one.
You learn more about your surroundings
Many caches are used to provide information on local significant people, places or events. This makes it a great way to engage with people in a fun and creative way and to potentially educate them without even realising.
One series of geocaches that I enjoy take you to churches where you discover history about the building and people buried there. Most recently I found out about the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.
I’ve also solved puzzle caches that involve finding out about the origin and founding of the British sea side town Bournemouth, and that many of the local pubs are named after the founding members.
I’ve even worked on a project with the National Trust where we looked into using Geocaching as a way to engage families and children with their local communities.
It can challenge you physically too
Although there is no physical entry-requirement to be able to geocache and most are wheelchair accessible, some caches are more than a mental challenge and can require physical skill.
1) I’ve got three stories that come to mind. The first was on a geocaching trip with friends. We’d already found a good handful that day and the final one was hidden up a tree.
Being the adrenaline junkie I am I happily volunteered myself to tackle the challenge. It was about 30ft before I’d decided I’d probably gone too far and missed it. My reasoning being “If I’m normally more insane and risky than the average person and I’m starting to get scared now, surely it isn’t further up”. It was someone from the ground who then spotted it, twice the height I was currently at.
This left me 60ft up a tree in shorts, a t-shirt and canvas shoes. Worse yet, I needed my hands to sign the log. So I had to resort to precariously hooking my arm around and hanging from a branch, the only thing supporting me. Success (and one of the best adrenaline finds ever).
2) A few months later I was geocaching with my family and we decided to attempt a nearby cache, opting not to read the description in advance.
We got to the tree, only to discover that the cache was hidden 100ft up the tree and required rope and a climbing harness to reach. Fail.
3) On the same day we found another and after searching around the side of a river, we eventually spotted it underneath a bridge.
There was no recommended way of reaching it although the description recommended low-tide, a ladder and wellies. None of which we had. Our solution? I volunteered to shuffle along the beam hanging over the river to reach it. Success (apart from the blisters).
It engages you with a community
The Geocaching community has been 20 years in the making and it loves to engage. Every week there are new local meet ups or groups who want to talk about the activity, share their stories or go on hunts together.
There’s a large following online and the activity logs are an amazing example of this. It even has it’s own terminology such as ‘Muggles’ (meaning people who don’t know what geocaching is and think you’re weird messing about with that bush in the corner) and abbreviations such as FTF (First to find).
Also, nothing is more confusing and exciting as when you suspect or meet another geocacher out in the field. “Do I hide? Do I say hello? Do I act casual and wait for them to go?” *Whistles suspiciously*
It’s as much fun by yourself as it is with a large group
Because the app has no real tutorial, it actually encourages most people to get inducted into the art of geocaching by a friend. That friend was probably inspired by another friend, who likely discovered it from someone else, who probably sat down on a bench and shouted “What the hell is this magnet digging into my back”.
I love the idea that over the past year of geocaching I’ve personally got 12 different people into activity, some addictively and some who have even used it as inspiration for community projects. I also know that most of these people have also got their friends into it.
To date, that dark night in a Sainsbury’s carpark has lead to at least 50 people joining the community (I should get commission, I know), that’s 50 more people who can join me on geocaching adventures.
Which is lucky because although I do enjoy the relaxing solo-stroll collecting caches here and there, some require a minimum of 10-15 people to actually find. Our average party is usually 2-5 people and I do find it more fun when you can share the experience, but I also enjoy the look on someones face when they realise they’ve walked past all these caches all their life without realising.
You will have some amazing stories to tell
Geocaching in general will provide scenarios and experiences that make for amazing stories to tell and your friends will be begging to tag along. However, one of the other types of caches you can discover with the app and website are called Wherigo’s, and they are a whole new bag of fun.
Less common than the other types of cache, Wherigo’s require another app to read a file that you download from the link supplied. These are “story caches”. Once you load them up you will be taken from position to position as you’re told a story set around the local location.
My first Wherigo was on a family holiday in Exmoor National Park, we hadn’t done one before and thought we’d give it a go. Expecting it would be quick, we launched the app not far from our car in the late afternoon. The story was about a little girl who was from the town and it proceeded to take us around the town, telling us about her life. So far so good.
It then went on to tell us how she used to wander out of town into a nearby forest and up a tree-covered hill. Despite our reservations and the fact we kept telling each other “we can’t keep going, it’s getting dark. We need to stop. Where are we going”, we followed the story out of town and into the forest.
It was at this point the story decided to reveal we were following the final route the girl took on the night of her disappearance. The story would point out that the stacks of stones we were walking past were left there by the girl, and the markings in the walls were warnings. Nearer the top of the hill we found a den created out of sticks, the story later explained this as a witch hut that the girl from the story used to play in. The story also directed us to look into the distance, which by this point was pitch black, where you could see the witches patrolling the woods (lights on fence posts through the trees).
By the time we made it to the end of the story and were told the cache was nearby everyone was a mixture of stressed, worried and cold. I’d been running back and forth thinking we’d gone past it for 10 minutes when we’d decided we needed to turn back and find a way home. That’s when, last minute, we found it hidden under a tree.
As we messed about in pitch black fiddling with the cache I was reminded of my first find. It was like I had come full circle, from being clueless and lost trying to find a cache in a dark urban carpark to the same situation, but this time with my family in the middle of nowhere.
Then, as if perfectly on cue, as we put the cache back under the tree, thunder struck, the trees shook and the sound of a hail storm faded in. We all looked at each other and started running, continuing down the path with no idea where we were going.
In the middle of a storm, in the pitch black, with the only light being the flicker of phone torches swinging in people’s hands. The path slowly turning into a down hill slope, with mud banks on either side restricting the path and witch like willow trees arching back over and hanging above our heads. Still slightly freaked by the creepy story we’d put ourselves through: A family of 5 ran as fast as they could, laughing, giggling, working hard not to trip over, screaming every time a wet leaf stroked their arm and trying as hard as they could to freak each other out.
It took us over 2 hours to get to the top of that hill.
It took us only 10 minutes to get back down.
Get out there and start Geocaching!
This post has been more a diary round-up than sales pitch but I hope some of my stories will inspire you to get outdoors and give it a go.
In a world where the currency is attention, the environment is indoors and people’s eyes are glued to screens, and a world where children learn to use a touchscreen before they learn to climb a tree – Geocaching is the perfect gateway activity to the engage with the world.
It’s a great social activity, challenges you physically and mentally, widens your knowledge and understanding of your local community, encourages you to explore and gives you an intrinsic feel-good feeling.
So get out there and start Geocaching! Get in touch or comment below your best geocaching stories and feel free to add me on the app or website!