Some people may have heard of a fad called geocaching, however the international swell of cachers is just too large to call a trend a fad, any more than you’d call hiking or biking a fad. Companies are making products for it, there are multiple associations, and it is becoming a new “sport”, at least as much as hiking could be called a sport.
For those not yet “in the know”, geocaching is a new technology related activity where users go online to one of the websites like http://www.geocaching.com or http://www.navicache.com and they lookup various waypoints (points of interest) either around their area or around some place they’re going to visit. They then enter or download these into a handheld GPS unit (GPS’s use global positioning satellites to tell you exactly where you are, anywhere in the world), and then off the trekkers go. They drive or walk until they are in the area, and then follow the GPS, hiking or biking their way along. The GPS unit will get from with a foot or two, to about 30 feet away from the “cache”.
Now what is the cache? It depends. It varies from slightly to demonically hidden container of stuff — an ammo-can to a plastic box to a 35mm film canister, to other. Often it is camouflaged in plain site, or just lightly covered — and the usual, “you’ll know it when you find it” sort of thing. Some are in public places like magnetic key holder or CD-case behind the Newspaper rack, a fake bolt, or even a key holder disguised as rock or doggy-poo.
The cache contains a log, so that the “treasure hunters” can write down that they were there, and often a bunch of trinkets/swag — like coins, marti-gras beads, plastic cars or animals, and so on (for the larger caches). Cachers can exchange one of their own trinkets for one in the cache as a souvenir (decorum says to exchange items of equal value; which is usually near zero). Then carefully they return the cache back the way they found it, and when the cacher gets home, they go on the website and often log the find, or bemoan not being able to find that particular cache. (I’ve found about 98% of the one’s I’ve tried; one was muggled, two were probably just covered/hidden in snow and I had to go back a second time when there was less).
It takes anywhere from immediately to about 10-15 minutes to find or figure out most caches — with occasional stumpers that can take half an hour or even multiple visits. Most seem to be only a few feet off a trail, but what constitutes a trail can vary from major highway/byway to bramble covered rabbit path (the terrain value for each cache will hint at how difficult the trek will be). Some caches are in public places, and you have to find them without attracting the attention of the muggles/normals. (Muggles comes from the Harry Potter books, referring to non-Magician types, or those not in the know). A few caches get muggled — discovered by non-cachers and pilfered or destroyed.
Generally, cachers will download about 6-12 points of interest, and spend a few hours or make a half-day of it. The harder core cachers can do dozens in a single day, or spend entire weekends caching. And I think the activity is most often done in small groups of two or three.
Some people like to create and maintain the caches; many people like to find them. Mostly it is an excuse to get out and walk around in a new area and discover the parks or other points of interest in your area or the area you are visiting. For some people, we are just anal enough to enjoy checking something off of a list (found it), as some sense of accomplishment. The attraction is also the thrill of discovery, the slight puzzle solving aspect, or for the secret of doing something that many people (normals/muggles) don’t even know exists. And you have to be a little stealthy, because if “normals” (muggles) see you rummaging around in something they don’t know what is, they’ll either come and see on their own, or might report it as “suspicious activity”.
I brought a GPS to Southern California for a visit over Christmas, and on Christmas day showed my active 60-something yuppie parents a few caches in their backyard (a park less than a mile from their house), and they became very interested. Coincidentally, we bumped into a retired couple on the trail, who spent a lot of their free-time traveling around the country finding caches; with over 1800 finds logged. Which brings us to the question, how popular and widespread is it? There were 25,000 different caches in California alone, and that was on only one website, not counting benchmarks (landmarks/markers or places to see). I entered my home location in Ohio and found a dozen caches within a mile or two. So I started visiting a few, and found parks and trails that I didn’t know existed, and I’ve lived here 5 years. Now when I drive around town, I can’t help but think, “That place has a secret”, or “there’s that cache that I found”.
If you’re bored or curious, go down to your local sporting goods store (choose one with a liberal return policy; usually 30 days with no restocking fee), and buy one of the Garmin or Magellan GPS units for geocaching — they vary in price from $99 – $600, depending on model and features. Then go on-line to geocaching.com, create an account (about a 3 minute task), find and enter a few in your area, take a friend, and start finding some caches. If you have a fun day, you have a new activity. If not, you can always return the GPS. I suspect the vast majority of people that try it, end up doing it at least a few times a year.