Amazing Places

Geocaching Is a High-Tech Treasure Hunt That Just Requires a Smartphone

Imagine yourself on an old-fashioned treasure hunt. You've pored over the map and you've assembled all the clues; now it's just a matter of finding the X that marks the spot. You're sure it's over the next ridge, but once you get there, there's no "X" to be seen. So you pull up your phone, load your GPS, and re-examine where, exactly, this treasure trove is hiding. Okay, so this isn't exactly an "old-fashioned" treasure hunt — this is geocaching.

Hidden History

Here's what you need to go geocaching: a GPS device (or a phone with GPS technology) and a free registration with Geocaching.com. Once you've got that, just download the Geocaching app, and you're good to go. Seriously, that's all the investment it takes — but we dare you to do all that and then not feel the need to immediately go hunting for all the caches you see popping up around you. If you live in a major city, we're willing to bet there's a mysterious bounty waiting within a block or two of where you are right now.

This uncommon hobby got started on May 2, 2000, when President Bill Clinton ended selective availability, which intentionally limited the effectiveness of GPS signals available to commercial properties. Well, technically, geocaching got started on May 3, 2000, when computer consultant Dave Ulmer set out to test the accuracy of the newly upgraded system by leaving a small stash of random goodies at a remote point in the woods near Beavercreek, Oregon. What did he leave? Just a five-gallon bucket full of videos, books, software, and a slingshot. Oh, and a simple rule, delivered with the coordinates he published online: "Take some stuff, leave some stuff."

These days, the caches you'll look for aren't usually as easy to spot as a giant plastic bucket. They tend toward the small side, and people love to hide them in secret and hard-to-spot places. The result is that actually finding one feels like winning a scavenger hunt — and your prize is the chance to sign the log and record your name in geocache history.

Head-Scratching Caches

Part of the joy of geocaching is discovering something unexpected, so it's sort of cheating to point out what you'll find at certain caches ahead of time. Still, there's nothing like a taste of what might be waiting out there for you. So here's something you might find: a tiny gnome's house, built directly into a tree in Bella Vista, Arkansas. The cache itself, where you'd find the log to sign, is hidden in the gnome's rock garden. Or you could head to Virginia and put on a brave face to find the cache named "Duck, Duck, Poop," where the prize you're seeking is hiding in a piece of fake ... well, guess.

And then there are those caches that defy physical expectations. Like the one at the top of Mount Everest, which has been discovered by a grand total of seven people, or the one located on the International Space Station — only one person claims to have found that one. And then there's the one simply entitled "Deathwish?" The instructions: Do not attempt this geocache unless you fulfill one of the following criteria:

  • You have a serious deathwish
  • You are immortal
  • You have more than three lives left
  • You are very stupid and not afraid of heights

The cache is hidden underneath a towering Swedish bridge, so it's easy to see why there are so many warnings — and as the cache-hiders warn, no cache is worth dying for. But it just goes to show how intense this globe-trotting hobby can be.

When you start geocaching, let the Idiot's Guide be your guide. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Geocaching, Third Edition" offers tips and tricks for the beginner geocacher. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas August 2, 2018