Casual Friday: Geocaching for Geeks

(I occasionally use this blog to talk about non-professional topics.  I confine these posts to Fridays, hence the term 🙂 ).

This summer, I was re-introduced to the hobby of geocaching.  I had read about geocaching many times over the years, but nobody I knew had gotten into it, so I ignored it.  When a few family members started getting into it, I took another look.

First off, for those unfamiliar with the hobby, geocaching is basically a game in which participants retrieve coordinates and/or hints from a common web site, travel to those coordinates using GPS receivers (GPSr), and find “caches” hidden by other players of the game.  Upon finding the cache, finders sign a logbook and report their success.  Caches are hidden on urban street corners and mountain peaks, and everything in-between.

So what makes this hobby fun for geeks like me?  A few things….

Gear

Geeks love gear.  We love to research, compare, buy, trade, review, and basically obsess over gear.  This is a hobby that requires a piece of high-tech gear, a GPSr, even to participate.  But the periphery is loaded with gear as well.  If you’re doing wilderness caches, you will want hiking gear (boots, backpacks, walking sticks, and more).  Some caches require specialized equipment to reach — so you could possibly get into kayaking, climbing, and even SCUBA — so there’s the ability to get into other gear.  Maybe you want a mountain bike for caches hidden on bike trails?  An off-road stroller for taking the baby caching?  A jeep?  Snowshoes?  Cross-country skis?  And never mind the non-GPSr high-tech gear, like PDAs for paperless caching, and consumables like bug spray and sunscreen.

You want gear?  Geocaching has gear.  Yet, you can get into it with nothing more than a $100 GPSr.

Cool software

Just like gear, caching is loaded with software.  The site itself is a cool repository of locations which mashes up with Google Earth and Google Maps.  Users can create complex queries against the database, and load the results into a variety of desktop software for processing, sorting, filtering, and loading onto their GPSr units.  And of course there is PDA software as well.  And GPSr software.  And so on!

Stats

If there’s something geeks love more than gear, it’s stats.  Whether their chosen poison is sports or D&D, geeks are all about tracking, playing with, bragging about, and manipulating statistics.  And the folks in the geocaching scene have not forgotten this.  Caches are rated for difficulty and terrain, and are made up of a variety of types.  All actions you take on a cache (logging it as discovered, logging a failed cache attempt, adding a note) result in database records which are associated with your own account and the cache record.  You can download all that info and run stats on it, and publish the stats as bragging rights.  When you see people sporting scatter graphs in their profiles, you can be sure you’re dealing with geeks.  Heck, we even have stats about our stats!

In addition, a complex system exists for passing around tagged items which cachers find and rehide as they go from cache to cache.  Cachers like to hide these items with specific objectives: “I want this stuffed armadillo to get to Texas, please move it in that direction when you find it,” for example.  Stats on how many of these tagged items you have seen, have hidden, or own are all available.  Want to see a map showing the route a tagged item has traveled?  You can do it.

Puzzles

Geeks love to solve (and come up with) puzzles.  There are two big kinds of puzzles in geocaching.  Obviously the caches themselves are hidden (otherwise people would just steal them), so there’s a fair amount of problem-solving involved in finding a cache even once you know exactly (well, within 15 feet, let’s say) where it is.  Some cache containers are camouflaged, others very tiny, and some are just in tricky places to get to.  But there are also puzzle caches, where even the coordinates are only available after successfully solving a challenge.  Some are simple ROT-13 decodes, others are complex ciphers, some are hidden in weird ways in image files or filler text.  Either way, the community is pretty good about keeping spoilers out of sight, so there are always challenging puzzles to be solved.  And of course some of the puzzles involve going out into the field — it’s not just putting clues together, it’s going to a location, reading a sign, going to a different location, finding something, and so on. Getting the coordinates can take hours, even multiple days.  Granted, most caches aren’t that complex, but they are out there.

Community

While people often think of geeks as antisocial, we’re big on online communities, and there’s a huge online community around geocaching.  Since the hobby requires access to the centralized cache database, and all activity is associated with a profile, everyone who participates has an account and a current profile associated with it.  You can maintain lists of friends, share bookmarks of favorite caches with commentary, and chat in moderated forums.  Sounds pretty geeky to me!

Exercise

Of course, none of this works if you stay inside all day and geek out on geocaching.  At some point you have to go out and, well, geocache.  Fortunately, you don’t need to be in super shape to cache, although the more challenging hides certainly will test your endurance if you go after them.  Still, it’s good exercise and it’s family-friendly.

As I’ve said before, I’m a geek at heart with tons of indoor hobbies, struggling to stick with outdoor activities.  An outdoor hobby that lets me fully realize my inner geek at the same time?  I think I’ve found a winner.

2 comments ↓

#1 Chuck Staples on 09.29.08 at 4:40 pm

I stumbled upon the geocaching community a few years ago, and was similarly intrigued. This seems like a great family activity… that is, if they can be convinced to get out of the A/C and away from the videogames. That’s the tougher part.

#2 Jan on 09.29.08 at 10:00 pm

Wow, this post hit the nail right on the head! You pointed out every reason I love geocaching, and some reasons I love it that I hadn’t really thought about (gear and online communities, for example).