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Geocaching – another reason to grab your boots

Geocaching is an international craze rather like treasure hunting offering a challenging outdoor activity for all the family. Terry Marsh describes the fascinating and hugely popular global activity of Geocaching. But what is Geocaching?

On a Saturday in August, I stood overlooking the Isle of Mull village of Dervaig with a small gathering of similarly damp folk. We were all sheltering from the driving rain under the tailgate and in the lee of my car. The event was a Flashmob, organised by friends from Bolton who were staying on the island for a few weeks. They didn't know we were coming – it was after all a 350-mile drive – and were rather surprised when they pulled up and found my wife and I waiting there. That it was raining was immaterial; it's always raining somewhere.

What we had in common, we few hardy souls, was that we were all part of a growing band – now more than 110,000 in the UK – of slightly odd, some would say peculiar, but amiable individuals, who wander the countryside (and urban landscapes, too) looking for hidden treasure with a GPS.

It's called geocaching, something of a cross between orienteering and treasure hunting, but without the haste, and it may well be the fastest growing recreational activity in the world

192001
Counting steps at South Stack lighthouse, Holyhead, to give numeric cache co-ordinates
192002

Everyone dreams of finding treasure: a crock of gold at the end of a rainbow, a rare antique of singular value, an undiscovered Wordsworth manuscript. Such is indeed the stuff of dreams. Yet the laws of probability suggest that it simply isn’t going to happen to you or me. But for those with less exalted ambition, treasure is all around, just waiting to be found. What is more, there are very accurate and detailed clues about where to find it. Whatever you find may not have a financial worth that will transform our humble existences, but the true value of this particular treasure lies in the satisfaction and sense of achievement to be had in its discovery.

Geocaching only became a possibility when selective availability was removed from civilian Global Positioning System (GPS) devices in 2000. Until then, GPS units, other than those used for military purposes, were neither precise nor useful. But at that moment it became possible to use a GPS to pinpoint, very accurately, any given location using co-ordinates of both latitude and longitude. Once that happened it was just one short step for outdoor mankind into the world of treasure hunting.

Treasure hunting as such has, of course, been around for hundreds of years. Originally it was about unravelling clues to the whereabouts of hidden treasure, and then heading off to a (usually exotic) find it. The first stage in the development of geocaching – known as letterboxing – followed much the same principle.

It is mind-boggling to think that a mere 14 years later in the UK alone there are almost 200,000 ‘geocaches’ (as they became known), and almost 2.5 million worldwide.

Typically, a geocache will take the form of a plastic box that can be sealed against the weather. It is concealed, often ingeniously, by fellow geocachers, in some not-easy-to-stumble-upon location – away from a regular path, for example – and its exact location is uploaded to a website (www.geocaching.com) so that other people can then go and find it. Traditional caches such as these usually contain a logbook and pencil to enable finders to record their discovery (later also recorded on the website). That’s it, fundamentally at least; there is no other achievement. But unlike trainspotting, which has an element of chance alongside the commitment of spending time waiting and looking, successful geocaching is largely a matter of skill.

Every dog walk in the park, every day in the countryside, maybe every visit to the supermarket, leads past a concealed geocache, and most folk would simply never know they were there.

Of course, there are times when some geocaches are not found. Maybe your search wasn’t diligent enough. But maybe you’ve just been unlucky: the cache had been found and removed by a non-geocacher (known within the pursuit as ‘muggles’, a term borrowed from Harry Potter) or the cache was found by a fox that knocked it about a bit thinking there might be food in it. Then you need to record the fact that you did not find it (DNF) to enable the ‘owner’ to go and investigate.

192005
An example of a geocache

Many of the traditional caches include trinkets, of no real value, which can be swapped – take something out, put something in: that's the rule. Caches also contain items that have been ‘invented’ as the activity has grown. Known as ‘travel bugs’ and ‘geocoins’ these items have a ‘mission’ assigned by the owner, usually to travel around the world via caches, or more specifically, for example, to visit mountains, or other caches in an alphabetical sequence. Once a travel bug or geocoin is retrieved from a cache, its discovery can be logged on the website, and its own page and its stated mission can be discovered. It is then for the finder to comply with the mission statement, and move the item on accordingly.

What makes this harmless endeavour all the more appealing is that via the website the progress of each item can be tracked, and displayed on a map, enabling children in particular to learn a little regional, national and world geography.

So popular is geocaching now worldwide that the number of new geocaches is increasing by more than a thousand every week, and, judging by the comments left in logbooks and on the website, people are getting huge enjoyment out of finding them.

Geocaches are everywhere, and not confined to rural locations; they can be found almost on your own doorstep, certainly within a short distance of where you live. Finding them opens up a whole new experience, a healthy one, all the more justified in times when personal well-being has such high priority. And it certainly need not be a solitary activity; many geocachers go out with friends, or in family groups, involving children in the enjoyment of our countryside in an exciting and healthy way.

192007

It gets people out walking, and adds a new dimension to the expedition.

And in addition to the conventional 'plastic box' type of geocache, there are 'event' caches, usually a meeting for a pie and a pint in a pub. Others, like our gathering on Mull, while essentially an event cache, was described as a Flashmob, that is, a momentary event. Our challenge was to meet, say Hello, and then disperse... which we did, to the nearest pub, as it happens. Others have involved gathering at a specified location, remaining concealed until a whistle is blown at a predetermined time, and then rushing forward pulling tin cans attached to string, gathering for a few seconds and then dispersing – imagine that in the centre of your town – or doing the same and suddenly everyone opens a brightly coloured umbrella, whatever the weather. They've even now come up with a Splashmob, where everyone has to meet in the middle of a lake, by whatever means, and get very wet.

Each year there are events – called MEGA events – which attract more than 500 attendees. One such is Piratemania, where everyone dresses up as a pirate; others correspond with Hallowe'en – I'll leave you to imagine what those look like.

To some of you this will just sound rather silly but it’s all about a bit of a mental challenge (decoding the clues), doing some walking, learning something about local history and geography and enjoying time with friends and family.

For me, every walk that I do now is somehow fashioned around geocache circuits, and this often directs me onto pathways you won’t spot on OS maps. I even had a holiday in Venice where I discovered far more of the island than your average tourist, simply by looking for geocaches.

Is geocaching just for ‘anoraks’? Or is it a beneficial social activity? You decide. What it certainly is is one more excuse to get out into the countryside. And that can’t be bad.

Marsh

Terry Marsh

Dr Terry Marsh is a Lancashire-based award-winning writer and photographer who specialises in the outdoors, the countryside, walking and travel worldwide. He has been writing books since the mid-1980s, and is the author of over 100 titles.
Terry holds a PhD in Historical Geography and a Master of Arts degree (with Distinction) in Lake District Studies, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS) and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (FSA Scot), a member of the National Union of Journalists, and an Honorary Life Member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild.

View Articles and Books by Terry Marsh

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