Catching the geocaching fever

Jacques, geocaching in Iceland.
Jacques, geocaching in Iceland.

Summer 2016 may be best remembered as the summer when Pokémon GO took the world by storm, forcing teens and gamers out of their houses and onto the streets. All this activity was set in motion by the goal of catching virtual critters populating our neighbourhoods.

While some found it ridiculous to see hordes of people roaming the streets in search of Pikachu, others viewed this phenomenon as a way to combine the appeal of video games and virtual reality with the great outdoors. People were stepping out of their homes and exploring their neighbourhoods in a new way. It was a type of urban awakening, where people began to notice city landmarks and murals they never knew existed. It appeared to be as much an opportunity to gather and socialize in groups as playing the actual game.

But long before Pokémon GO was even a concept, there was another activity that let you explore your surroundings using technology: geocaching.

Geocaching is an outdoor activity where participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or smart phone to find containers (geocaches) at specific coordinates all over the world.

Tools you may need along with your GPS for geocaching.
Tools you may need along with your GPS for geocaching.

It started in Oregon over 16 years ago, when Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant, wanted to test the new accuracy of the GPS system by hiding a large container in the woods. He posted the coordinates online and a few days later, someone found the box. The modern-day treasure hunt was born.

Today, there are approximately three million active geocachers worldwide and more than 2.8 million geocaches waiting to be found in over 180 countries. While there are several different types of geocaches, they usually fall into three categories: physical caches where a box is hidden at the final coordinates, virtual caches where no boxes are hidden, and event caches which consist of a gathering of geocachers.

A typical physical geocache usually consists of a waterproof box containing a logbook, a pencil and small trinkets for trading. It may also have a trackable item, a geocaching “game piece” that needs to travel from geocache to geocache. Geocaches vary greatly in size and appearance. They could be everything from large plastic containers to tiny film canisters to fake rocks, fake bolts and bird houses with a secret compartment.

To find the geocache, participants enter the coordinates in their GPS receiver or use their smartphone and head outside in search of the box. Some geocaches are quite well camouflaged and tricky to find while others are obvious and easy to spot. Once someone finds the geocache, they sign their names and the date they found it in the logbook and trade items if they want. After signing the logbook, they must return the cache to exactly where they found it for the next person to find. They can then share their experience online on the geocache page.

Success! Sign the guest book and hide it again for the next player.
Success! Sign the guest book and hide it again for the next player.

Geocaching is an activity that has a wide appeal. It is a great way to get everyone spending some time outdoors. After you discover your first geocache, you’ll be hooked on the treasure hunt and want to find more. While Pokémon GO has created quite a buzz in the past few weeks, there are a few big differences between Pokémon GO and geocaching. In geocaching, there’s a physical item to find at the end of your search. Game play is not dependent on cell coverage, so the game is able to extend into more remote locations. And since players create the geocache locations, they’re more likely to hide caches in places where finding the cache can be secondary to admiring the scenery surrounding it. Geocaching can help you discover some beautiful trails, parks and natural areas located in your neighbourhood. Oak Hammock Marsh, for example, is home to over 50 geocaches. Trips are enhanced by finding geocaches, as they often lead to beautiful areas only known by local players and not found on any travel guide maps.

Geocaching is a free activity that simply requires creating a user profile on the main website geocaching.com. There are also local geocaching organizations such as the Manitoba Geocaching Association (MBGA) mbga.ca that can assist new players and organize geocaching events. Some of the upcoming events include a Mystery Puzzle Solving event at the Louis Riel Library on Sept. 24 and a Geocaching Event at the Assiniboine Park Zoo on Oct. 29.

Whether you enjoy catching virtual Pokémon with your phone or finding little treasure boxes in parks, both activities are great as they encourage people to use technology in the outdoors and have a fun adventure.

Jacques Bourgeois is the head of marketing and promotions for Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre and an avid geocacher. He has found 17,636 geocaches in 36 different countries.