Geocaching: Treasure Hunting with GPS Devices


For most techno-geeks, technology and the outdoors are usually at odds with each other. Geocaching gives a new twist to the old scavenger hunt game that appeals to both cubical dwellers and outdoor enthusiasts. Basically geocaching uses a GPS receiver to find boxes, or caches, of trinkets squirreled away somewhere outdoors like a park. The concept is you seek out these boxes with known GPS coordinates, and once you find the cache, you remove a stored item and replace it with something else. Perhaps you want to unleash an army of plastic monkeys from a barrel upon an unsuspecting public, or even more interestingly, track the progress of an item around your city, state, country, or even world.

At the time of this writing, there are over 180,000 active geocaches in over 200 countries. Geocaching isn't anything new, but it's certainly catching on. The Website tracks all of these caches and some items found within them. To find the geocaches near you, you can simply type in your zip code. You'd be hard pressed to live somewhere without at least a handful of caches nearby. Players are free to start their own cache, provided they have an acceptable location.

The most interesting part of geocaching is the tracking of items. Players can obtain a coin or dog tag with a serial number that can be logged into a Website. Travel Bugs from is one of the most popular items. A Travel Bug is a dog tag that can be attached to an object. That object can be removed from a cache and placed into another cache. The player who moves the item then logs it into the Website, where the owner or other players can track its travels. Want to send that stuff animal to Europe ? Send it on its way and see where it ends up. Each time an item is logged in, the logging player is encouraged to tell about its adventures and even add pictures.

Unique GPS Application

GPS of course is the system of navigation satellites. Players can use any type of portable receiver, whether it be a handheld, PDA, or even laptop solution. If one was to buy a receiver just for geocaching, my personal choice would be a handheld model intended for hiking, fishing, camping, etc. I use the Garmin eTrex Legend. The handheld devices designed for outdoors are typically pretty durable, some even waterproof. These devices are relatively inexpensive, usually starting below $100 and up to $300 for the basic models. These receivers usually have some mapping capabilities and expandability that can extend its use beyond the treasure hunt.

Unfortunately Mac users don't have an ideal setup for connecting to most GPS receivers, but there are some work arounds. This Website has a good collection of info for Mac users looking to connect their receivers. I haven't gotten around to getting my Mac connected mainly because I seem to have misplaced by Keyspan USB adapter, so I've got nothing to report yet on that. In terms of geocaching, connecting to your computer makes things easier to upload waypoints for your caches. Otherwise, you just have to dial in the locations manually. Not a big deal, but connecting to a computer can be a time saver.

If you already have a GPS receiver, geocaching could be pretty attractive. At the very least, you'll get some use out of something that might otherwise be sitting in a drawer or glove box. If not, there are some pretty inexpensive receivers out there new and used on places like eBay. I'd suggest looking into a receiver that supports WAAS. WAAS is a complementary technology used in North American to improve the accuracy of GPS receivers. It boasts up to 3 meter accuracy.

The Challenge

We've all seen those movies, whether it be Aliens or TV's 24, where a handheld device leads the good/bad guys to some object/person/thing. It's a great story device that gives the feeling of a suspenseful chase without the often tired quick footfalls or squealing tires. While you technically have a pinpoint location of a cache, it isn't as easy as following an arrow on a LCD. Even the best accuracy of 3 meters gives enough variation to make you look for something. Things like weather, tree cover, and terrain all further affect accuracy. Some caches are as small as a film case, while others are as big as a barrel, although most seem to be about the size of a shoe box. Some are on the ground, under a bench, or suspended in a tree for example. While caches should not be buried, there's nothing that says they can't be under water. This is where the technology ends and touching/feeling begins. Furthermore, even with a clear direction of travel, you're not always walking across a flat meadow. The journey can be quite challenging. The Website rates each cache by how it's hidden and the path to its location.

To me, the main point of geocaching is getting out and finding not a box, but the boxes surroundings. Often geocaches are located in or around parks, natural areas, and historic places. The owners typically place their geocaches somewhere for a reason. A cache's location could just be a challenging hike or the owner's favorite quiet spot. It's a great chance to travel and explore new places across town or across country.

IGM Geocache Coins

If you're a geocacher or want to become one, I'm trying a curious experiment. I'm fascinated with the idea of tracking objects to see where they end up and the stories they find. The thing is, Travel Bugs and other geocache coins can be a bit expensive. They usually start out around $6 or so, which I think is too much for something you probably will never see again or could just disappear and become a resident of a junk drawer. I've decided to make a bunch IGM coins to be distributed to anyone who wants them. The wooden coins are free and have a unique serial number that can be tracked on IGM. If you wish you can drill a hole and attach an item to hitchhike around the world. All I ask is if you get an IGM Geocache Coin is to log it and keep it in circulation by placing it in another geocache.

To get your free IGM Geocache Coin, send a self-address stamped envelope to:

Insanely Great Mac
PO Box 26042
Lansing, MI 48909

I'll keep giving them out until I run out.