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The first time I remember hearing about geocaching was last autumn. I was preparing to go on a cruise so was reading through the Cruise Critic forum for my particular sailing (a great resource to hook up with other cruisers to set up group tours and whatnot) when a bunch of *cough* nerds *cough* went back and forth about setting up shore excursions to go geocaching.
I quickly googled it and found out that it was basically a *cough* sport *cough* where people go hide things and other people find them with GPS devices.
Really? Someone would rather traipse out into the woods to find a film canister which may or may not contain anything valuable instead of visiting the Colosseum or a French farmer’s market? And you don’t even get to keep what you find? How is this an enjoyable activity, much less one that has caught on internationally?
I didn’t understand the hype until fellow Saigon blogger, Dyanne Kruger, who’s logged more than 1,000 finds, recently agreed to be my guide through the world of Geocaching.
For all you Muggles (slang for non-geocachers, taken from the Harry Potter series), here’s a brief history of geocaching:
- May 1, 2000, the United States removes Selective Availability, the intentional degradation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) signals originally designed for military use. Immediately, GPS devices were 10 times more accurate than they were previously
- The next day, Dave Ulmer, a GPS enthusiast, leaves a black bucket in the woods of Oregon, USA and posts the coordinates to an internet user group. Within days, users find the stash which includes a log book, a pencil, various prizes and the mantra, “Take some stuff, leave some stuff”. Finders post their experiences online and geocaching (originally known as “geostashing” but some thought that “stash” sounded a little too illegal) is born
- Within weeks, caches start appearing in other countries, with New Zealand, then Chile leading the way
- May 2001, the marketing machine of 20th Century Fox hides caches all around the world filled with movie artifacts for the upcoming “Planet of the Apes” summer blockbuster
- More than 10 years later, there are now over 1.8 million active caches and 5 million geocachers worldwide
How it works:
- Sign up for a geocaching account (free at the largest and oldest geocaching website, www.geocaching.com)
- Search for a cache near you, rated by difficulty and terrain
- With a GPS device, go find it, sign the physical log book and log your find on the website so others can see how many people have been there (and report any problems with finding it)
- Optional: Trade some SWAG (“Stuff We All Get” or “Souvenirs, Wearables and Gifts”)
- Geocoins: Sometimes customizable, geocoins are trackable (you find it, you log it and take it somewhere else to hide for others to find as it makes its way to interesting places)
- Travel Bugs: Often a metal dog tag, owners can set goals for where they want their Travel Bug to go (think: “Take me on a helicopter ride!” or “Take me to the Louvre!” or a canister with the goal, “Fill me up with sand from beaches from around the world!”). Another type of trackable could be a distinctive patch or a sticker that cachers can log in when they see them.
- Promotionals: Dyanne talks about making her own signature item — a small globe, with special 14K gold continents to commemorate her landmark finds
For hardcare geocachers, it’s not about the swag at all. It’s more about the creativity of the cache owner who is tasked with creating, hiding and maintaining the cache. Dyanne talks about a cache called “Radio Days” where she found herself in the middle of an out-of-season tulip field with nothing but dirt, roads, telephone poles and a farmhouse about 300 ft away. She eventually figured out that she needed to tune into an AM radio frequency (powered by a transmitter in the farmhouse) to get the last piece of the puzzle, the actual coordinates of the cache. Or the time when she needed to attach jumper cables to power a device that elevated the cache from inside a piece of plastic pipe.
Some of her own caches have included custom made lottery-type scratch tickets which revealed the coordinates of the stash or removing a rusty bolt from underneath a picnic table to insert a tiny nano cache.
Dyanne’s tips for hiding a cache:
- Don’t hide it anywhere crummy, like a dumpster
- Don’t hide it somewhere where people have to pay money to access (like at a zoo)
- Don’t make it too easy to find (like attached to a guardrail)
- Find at least 2 dozen caches to get a feel of what makes for a good hide before you attempt to create your own cache
- Hide the cache in a pretty place or a place with sentimental value that you want to share with others
- Use a sturdy container (film canister, tupperware, bison tube or similar — no plastic bags)
- Do not include anything that smells (food, candles, shampoo) and attracts animals
- If a cache includes souvenirs or things to trade, always trade up, leaving something more valuable behind
One of the more appealing features of geocaching is its social aspect. Groups can meet together to find caches. Events and races are organized. Dyanne talks about a time when she had a 12 hour layover in Amsterdam. She emailed a local geocaching forum and had 6-7 geocachers meet her at the train station spending the day together, renting a paddle boat and finding a cache hidden under a bridge.
On a lazy afternoon, Dyanne and I (and a Word HCMC photographer) head out to a park in the backpacker area part of Saigon in search of the first nano cache ever placed in the city. Under duress, I’d have to admit the nerd in me felt a bit of a thrill when seeing the meters count down to where the cache was located. (Disclaimer: At home, I wussed out and clicked the “hint” feature on the website which showed me a picture of exactly where the cache was, even though the actual cache was not visible. This is why I wouldn’t be a good treasure hunter. I’d be the guy who hires the team to go find the treasure and split it 80-20. I get the 80, of course.) When I reached up and found the magnetized canister, I felt not unlike a modern day Jack Sparrow. We signed the log book (a tiny roll of paper) and looked at all the international coins other cachers had left behind before making sure the coast was clear of Muggles and replacing the cache.
While I don’t think I’d ever get into geocaching seriously…
… I can see the allure.
Dyanne sums it up: “It’s for people who love being outdoors. It adds another layer to travel. Besides, if you’re going to be romping through jungles anyway, why not add this?”. She remembers sharing her 500th find with her father, then an 82 year old ham radio enthusiast. “I found a cache in a nice park just half a mile from his home. We were able to log the find together, which was really sweet”.
While geocaching hasn’t exactly caught on in Vietnam (a quick scroll through the site reveals all tourists who have logged finds), there are more than 50 caches hidden around the country — in towers, caves, museums, temples, cable cars and even one that involves a swim and a climb on one of Ha Long Bay’s more than 2,000 islands. Why not unleash your inner treasure hunter and see what all the fuss is about?
For more on geocaching, check out my article in the August 2012 issue of the Word HCMC.
What about you? Has there been an activity you were convinced you wouldn’t enjoy only later to change your mind?
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