During a recent visit home, my dad and I were catching up on all of the many things he finds time for now that he is retired. Finishing his novel, exercising, catching up on odd tasks around the house, geocaching …

“Geocaching?” I ask. He takes me up to his study, a finished portion of the attic with a chair and a couch both suitable for napping, turns on his computer, and loads geocaching.com.

Geocaching, self described as “the sport where YOU are the search engine,” is wish fulfillment for anyone who ever wanted to come across a map to buried pirate treasure, Goonies-style. With a set of GPS coordinates in hand, the geocacher heads out to the general area of the cache and begins hiking and, when necessary, bushwhacking their way towards the cache site. Since most handheld GPS systems can only pinpoint a location within a certain number of meters (the author of the website’s FAQ, for example, has a GSP model that brings him only within 20 feet or so of the coordinates), the geocacher has to search for the cache once they reach the general GSP coordinates.

The caches are all left by other geocachers, often hidden in an old log, tucked under some brush, or otherwise disguised. Once you find a cache, each participant can select some token – anything from a September 11th Commemorative Coin to a half-chewed on pencil (batteries to power your GPS are also popular, according to sources named “Dad”) – provided that they leave another token in its place for future geocachers. Some geocaches are “virtual,” which is to say that the location itself is the reward (an odd perspective reversal on the virtual and the real, where the geographical/physical artifact is the ‘virtual’ reward, highlighting the emphasis on the cache contents as a primary motivator).

The entire system relies on a social and technical network. Caches are planned and placed by geocachers themselves, who then provide the coordinates by entering them into the geocache.com database. Each cache has a commenting feature that allows for feedback and help, such as when geocachers are unable – sometimes after multiple tries – to find the cache once they reach the coordinates.

I haven’t had a chance to “geocache” yet – hopefully an issue that will be rectified next time we visit with my parents – but I’m intrigued by the combination of sport and game, treasure hunt and token exchange, domain mapping and geography hopping. All sorts of correlations spring to mind in the context of gaming, framing and exploring space, systems of reward and failure, and social networking, but I want to reserve commenting too much until I have a chance to do a little experimental caching on my own.


3 Responses to Geocaching

  1. natalie says:

    This sounds an awful lot like Letterboxing (http://www.letterboxing.org/), in which you hike/bushwack/sometimes stroll towards a hidden box somewhere in an interesting/beautiful/funky place. Inside the box is a book that contains imprints of individuals’ personal stamps. You leave your own stamp inside the box and get to peruse through others. I haven’t done it, but it sounds like an interesting way to spend an afternoon.

  2. Jason says:

    That does seem very similar Nat. Instead of mailings and descriptive clues, we have databases and GPS coordinates. I wonder if LetterBoxers sneer at the GeoCachers while muttering “cheaters” under their breath?

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