Tracking Trinkets and Treasure
By Scott Lindlaw
Geocaching, an Internet-based hide-and-seek adventure, is as challenging as most video games. But you play it in the great outdoors.
Five Venturers from Crew 84 roamed an oak-studded forest in Northern California, hiking toward hidden treasure. Satellites in the heavens and handheld electronic devices guided them, but the space-age technology could take them only so far. As they honed in on their target, they relied on keen wits and sharp eyes to locate their prize.
“Oh my gosh. It’s right there!” cried Monika Larson, spotting the cache.
Hidden just above a creek bed was an ugly rubber cockroach that appeared to be crawling out of a log. And in its “belly” was the booty that geocachers crave: pins, patches, key chains, tiny stuffed animals, and other “swag” -- all of it provided courtesy of the person who created the stash and countless others who left their own trinkets.
Geocaching, a high-tech scavenger hunt, is adding excitement to hundreds of outdoor Scouting programs nationwide. Think about it: Put a palm-size computer in a teenager’s hand, tell him it’s part of an Internet-based hide-and-seek game, and watch how fast it becomes your unit’s favorite activity.
Scouting and geocaching are natural partners, says Mary Stevens, Advisor of Crew 84 in San Rafael, Calif. That’s because the activity puts a high-tech twist on an old Scouting skill: pathfinding. Mary and her husband, Brad, are pioneers in popularizing the sport and have dubbed the cross between geocaching and Scouting “Geoscouting.”
“There are so many hidden lessons that the kids don’t realize they’re learning when they’re out there having fun,” Mary says.
Those lessons include leadership, problem solving, cooperation, and teamwork, not to mention basic orienteering skills.
Clues and coordinates
Before these Venturers headed to the lush hills of Novato, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Francisco, they met at the Stevenses’ home. On the back deck the young sleuths spread out maps and decrypted clues dropped by the owner of the hidden stash. Those clues -- along with coordinates that were loaded into the GPS units -- were on a Web site dedicated to the sport, www.geocaching.com.
Arriving at the trailhead, the geocachers found blooming wildflowers and a dirt path that curved along a creek into a stand of oaks. The teens switched on their GPS units and waited as the units acquired signals from several navigational satellites. Then the hunt began.
The technology was dazzling. The handheld devices guided them in the right direction with an electronic arrow, told them how fast they were walking, and indicated how far they had to go to reach their target.
Along the way, the group reviewed the clues they received from the Web site: “Stay on the trail till you’re about 30 feet away from the cache.” This cache was called “Full Belly,” and that was yet another clue. For the moment, it only deepened the mystery. But it was soon solved by Monika’s discovery.
Don’t forget map and compass
Geocaching’s chief component is a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit, a minicomputer about the size of a cell phone. The unit, which costs $90 and up, receives signals from two dozen navigation satellites orbiting the Earth. These signals transmit an electronic readout of the user’s location, speed and direction of travel, and altitude.
The system, though, has its shortcomings: Even under ideal conditions, GPS can only spot a user’s location to within a few feet. Often it is much less precise due to atmospheric conditions, stark terrain, and thick forest canopies that can interfere with the satellite signals.
But Geoscouting organizers use the device’s inherent weaknesses to reinforce traditional map-and-compass skills. With this knowledge, Boy Scouts and Venturers can usually handle the final leg of a search on their own.
That’s why Mary and Brad Stevens hammer home this basic rule of land navigation: Never rely solely on a GPS unit because too many things can go wrong. Satellite signals can be weak; batteries can run down; a fall can break the device; or a technical glitch can knock it out altogether.
“Know where you are and always carry a map and compass, too,” Mary says.
For many people, the most important thing about geocaching is finding the site and adding a new place to their logbook -- not the stuff inside the cache. For others, the top priority is obtaining “travel bugs” and “geocoins.”
Those tagged trinkets can be monitored on the Web as they circulate around a community or circle the globe. The thrill comes from leaving a travel bug at a cache like the Novato “Full Belly” and then watching its globe-trotting progress on the Internet.
Each bug is stamped with a tracking number. As the bug hitches rides with the people who find it in stashes, each stop is intended to be logged on the Internet, allowing the travel-bug owner to monitor its journey. An odometer built into the www.geocaching.com Web site allows for calculation of the mileage. Mary Stevens says one of her travel bugs has traveled nearly 25,000 miles.
Similarly, some enthusiasts have their own “geocoins” minted to reflect their interests. These, too, can be tracked as they travel.
What keeps geocachers from pocketing their finds? Etiquette. No hard rules apply, but there are a set of expectations and courtesies:
“The whole concept of geocaching is based on trust,” says Jeremy Irish, who started www.geocaching.com and co-owns the site. “You place containers out in the woods, and the expectation is that people who go out there will be responsible. Without trust, this entire activity wouldn’t exist.”
Mary and Brad Stevens and their young geocachers always bring a satchel of cool trinkets -- some traceable, some not -- when they go hunting. At the “Full Belly” cockroach site, they leave a patch bearing a Marin BSA Council logo -- travel bug attached. And they always pack out their waste, following Leave No Trace principles.
“We are ambassadors for Scouting when we’re geocaching, especially since we are so easily identified by our Venturing shirts,” Brad says.
Need help? Ask a teenager
The Stevenses say Boy Scout leaders and Venturing Advisors shouldn’t be intimidated by the high-tech gizmos at the heart of geocaching. After all, they have one valuable resource at their disposal: a generation of young people fearless about plunging into new technology. “Kids are a whole lot smarter than adults when it comes to programmable electronics. The kids get it immediately,” Mary Stevens says.
Still, a modest amount of tech savvy is required for adults who want to liven their outdoor programs with geocaching. It takes some time to become familiar with a GPS device and learn how to upload cache coordinates. Knowledge of Internet navigation is essential for finding public geocaches, because the Web is the backbone for locating permanent caches and organizing searches.
The Internet’s leading destination for the sport is www.geocaching.com, and it contains a wealth of information, from how-to-get-started basics to sophisticated topics such as transforming a cell phone into a geocache device. Garmin, a manufacturer of GPS devices, has good tips at www8.garmin.com/outdoor/geocaching/. And www.geoscouting.com, the Stevenses’ site, offers useful guidance on how to integrate geocaching into Scouting programs. Mary also wrote a handy booklet on how to use geocaching to promote Scouting. Find it on her Web site and on www.scouting.org.
Stevens says geocaching lends itself particularly well to Boy Scout and Venturing rank requirements, unit activities, new member recruitment, retention, and large outdoor district and council events.
“We have boys standing in line at camporees waiting for a GPS unit to come back from a course, so they can go out and do it again,” Brad Stevens says.
Leaders who want to learn more about geocaching should check for seminars presented at local outdoor retailers such as REI.
A five-day “Geocache and Scouting” course will be taught this summer at the Philmont Training Center, June 15-21. To register, contact your local Scout council service center, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The course fee is $420 and includes meals and lodging.
Scott Lindlaw is a writer for the San Francisco bureau of The Associated Press.