Andrea Vaquera Andrea Vaquera

High-tech treasure hunting

By Christopher Nyerges 09/25/2008

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Imagine thousands of individuals working alone and undetected, using a high-tech device to track down secretly hidden objects in both the wilderness and the urban sprawl.

Secret government workers? Not this time. This is geocaching, one of today’s fastest growing “sports,” a game that can be played alone or in small groups, as easily in the wilderness as in the city.

The high-tech treasure-hunting game, created in Seattle by two college students, is now played throughout the world by people equipped with global positioning satellite (GPS) devices, which can be purchased for between $60 and $500 (though about $100 is most common). The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, referred to as “geocaches,” and then share those experiences online.

Participants around the world log onto the official site, www.geocaching.com, and then locate the geocaches in their area. A geocacher can then be content to simply find a geocache, or players can plant a cache then record it on the Web site for others to locate.

A cache can be as small as a film canister or as big as a box. They are often hidden in plain view in urban areas, but they can also be hidden in the wilderness, in places like hollow trees or behind outhouses. Inside the cache are trinkets and a log book in which players log their names before recording the find online. But this isn’t about whatever trinket is in the box — it’s about the hunt.

According to George of Burbank, “Geocaching creates a new reason to be an urban explorer.” As of this interview, George has located 254 geocaches.

“Some are easy to find,” says George, pointing out that there is a five-point level-of-difficulty rating system. “In some cases, you need to climb or swim to find the cache. But many you can drive to, locate it and go on to the next one.”

George has discovered caches in the Angeles National Forest area, at places like Echo Mountain, Gould Mesa and Millard Canyon. But he says there are plenty of them in the urban wilderness too.
“The most common hiding location in the city is under the lid of a light pole that has a movable base,” George says.

Indeed, another geocacher, Andrea Vaquera of Arcadia, showed me how the base of a light post can be lifted up. We also noted an abundance of spiders and bugs, so geocachers might consider wearing gloves.

Vaquera says that she got hooked right away when she learned about geocaching and now even attends events where fellow geocachers trade trail stories. She has only been doing this for about six months and already has found 161 caches.

“I love it because you can do it at your own pace,” she explains. “Plus, my son does it with me. A child is a great distraction. I call him my ‘tool of the trade,’ since a child can go and look in some places for the cache where an adult will draw suspicion.”

Vaquera explains that every cache has its own name and its own page on the Web site. Sometimes, she says, there are big caches in the woods that are located under rocks, and in the city there could be caches artfully hidden on something as common as a chain link fence — going completely unnoticed by people walking by.

“I look at things differently now that I do geocaching,” says Vaquera. “Geocaching takes me to places where I wouldn’t normally go. Plus, I look at everything more carefully now, wondering if there is a geocache hidden nearby.”

Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and a wilderness instructor. Contact him at ChristopherNyerges.com.

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