use hand-held GPS devices to guide them to hidden containers, or
caches, in state forests, parks and other public places. The devices
use radio signals from satellites to pinpoint a location within
about 20 feet.
Steve Paul parks
his truck by a trail head at Henning Conservation Area near Branson
and heads into the woods. As he walks he stops from time to time to
check his progress on a hand-held GPS receiver. The device locks onto
satellites above the Earth to tell him his exact position and lead him
to his destination.
After walking well
over a mile and climbing 400 feet Paul reaches the coordinates hes
programmed into his GPS. From there he searches the woods for something
out of place. Within a few minutes he spots a beat-up olive drab ammo
box partially hidden by rocks piled near an old building foundation.
Paul has located
the Henning Homesteaders Cache, one of more than 600 such hidden treasures
The box, placed
there as part of a high-tech hide and seek game called geocaching, contains
a small log book and an assortment of trinkets. Paul examines the contents,
decides to add nothing to it and writes his name in the log. When he
returns home hell go to an Internet Web site and write the following:
little hike for a fat boy, especially on a warm day like today. Found
with no problem . . . Took nothing & left nothing. Thanks.
pronounced gee-oh-cash-ing challenges participants
to locate hidden ammo boxes and Tupperware containers using a hand-held
GPS, or global positioning system, device. The exact coordinates of
these caches are posted on the Internet and geocachers spend evenings,
weekends and family vacations searching for them.
Henke of Rolla checks his GPS while his son, Jonathan, searches
a brush pile for a geocache near Jefferson City.
Although few caches
contain anything of value the allure of finding the unknown has attracted
thousands of players. The game is little more than two years old and
already there are nearly 40,000 caches hidden in more than 160 countries.
It just kind
of snowballed, says Paul, an Ozark Electric Cooperative member
from Battlefield, who began geocaching in October. Paul already owned
a GPS device that he used to record prime fishing spots when he decided
to look at the geocaching.com
I was sitting around and went into that site and looked at it. There
were some caches right close to my house, Paul says. I went
out and found one and I thought, well, this is kind of fun.
The key to geocaching
is the GPS device, which receives signals from the U.S. governments
24 navigational satellites and displays the longitude and latitude position
of any spot on Earth.
Geocachers use the
devices, which cost from $100 to about $300, to both determine the location
of caches they hide and to guide them in their search for others.
cache contained trinkets, a log book and a disposable camera that
geocachers are invited to record their conquest with. The owner
of the cache later posts the photos on the Internet. The dollar
bill is a Wheres George? dollar, a common item
in geocaches. The bills travels can be tracked on an Internet
In May of 2000 President
Clinton signed an order which granted civilians access to the same clear
signal the military and other government agencies used. While once the
GPS units used by fishermen and hikers would get them within a football
fields length of a coordinate, overnight they became accurate
to 20 feet or less.
of the improved civilian satellite access, GPS enthusiasts in the Pacific
northwest begin hiding containers of toys and trinkets along trails
and in parks and challenging others to find them. Two months after Clintons
order the geocaching.com Web site was in place and a new pastime was
The rules are simple:
Find the cache. If you take something out, leave something in its place.
Record your name and any swaps you make in the logbook in the cache.
Go back to geocaching.com and enter your find on the page that describes
Most caches contain
little more than keychains, small toys and other souvenirs. Some also
contain a travel bug, which is an item attached to a special
tag bearing a serial number. Travel bugs travel from cache to cache,
usually with an intended destination, and their progress can be tracked
on the Internet.
Virtual caches guide
geocachers to a monument, tombstone or other landmark to answer a question
posed on the Web site. Other variations involve offset- and multi-caches,
in which the coordinates provided lead the searcher to more clues. A
new aspect of the game has geocachers searching for survey benchmarks.
Britton logs onto the geocaching.com Web site from his home near
Cassville. The Barry County Electric Cooperative member hunts survey
benchmarks, the newest area of the geocaching hobby.
has been using a GPS device to record the benchmarks in Barry County
for the past six years. When benchmarking became part of geocaching
he bought a computer and joined the game.
me is what has allured every man, the thought of a hidden treasure,
he says. It doesnt matter what the treasure is. Its
there is more to this game than just finding a box or a spot on a map.
For Paul, a retired
computer technician, geocaching offers an excuse to get outdoors and
be active. Its a way for me to get out of the house, to
get a little exercise. I have a tendency to sit behind that computer
way too much.
Besides, he says,
he enjoys the challenge.
you the coordinates and you say, By golly, I can find this.
Well, sometimes its a little harder than you think.
Paul of Battlefield checks the contents of a geocache near Springfield
Lake. Often found in an ammo box or plastic container, the caches
rarely contain anything of value.
the accuracy of GPS, the devices only get geocachers to the general
area. They still must find the cache. The online logs reveal that sometimes
players hunt for hours without finding anything. Whether they find the
cache or not, geocachers say there is a joy to the hobby that surpasses
bragging rights or keychains exchanged.
I know theres
never going to be anything in that box thats going to be valuable.
But what am I going to see on the way? asks Dan Henke, a mapmaker
with the U.S. Geological Survey in Rolla who took up geocaching more
than a year ago.
One of the
caches I went to is on a Conservation area way back in the sticks. About
three quarters of the way back to the cache a red fox came out in front
of me and stopped and looked at me. Thats neat, the Intercounty
Electric Cooperative member says.
you got to the cache it was sitting right over the top of this huge
bluff that overlooked this valley and this great view. I went to one
near a natural arch that I had no idea was even there and its
only about 10 or 15 miles from my house.
has led untold numbers of people to visit public lands they otherwise
would never have seen, the pastime has some officials a bit worried.
The National Park Service forbids geocaching and both the Missouri Department
of Natural Resources and Conservation Department are unsure what to
do about people hiding things on the land they manage.
It snuck up
on us. And its everywhere, says Sue Holst, a spokesperson
for DNR. At this point we are a bit concerned that they are doing
this on our property without our permission. Our concern isnt
for the activity itself. Its that people might be hiding items
in sensitive areas that they may not even be aware are sensitive.
hikes through Henning Conservation Area near Branson in search of
We have some
rare and endangered plants in certain areas that we do not want people
walking over. We have archeological sites that we dont want people
digging in, she says.
But geocachers say
they know enough not to disturb the environment any more than necessary
placing and finding their cleverly hidden caches.
Most of the
cachers Ive come across want to preserve the wilderness,
says Nick Sage of Springfield, an avid hiker who says shes walked
as far as 10 miles round trip searching for a cache. Whenever
I go in I pick up litter and carry it out. Most of the cachers I know
do that. They cache in and trash out.
Still, there have
been problems. One cache hidden on Conservation Department land had
a castaway theme. A hunter stumbled across it and mistook the Help,
Im lost! message written on the outside as a genuine distress
signal. The confusion prompted a brief manhunt and a new department
policy requiring special use permits for geocaches.
Department is so concerned about the new game that some land managers
say, soon, geocachers will not be the only people scouring the woods
with a GPS unit in hand. John Vogel, a wildlife management biologist
who oversees Busch Wildlife Area and other Conservation land in the
St. Louis region, says he plans to find and confiscate non-permitted
way in the GPS world
To participate in geocaching
youll need two things: a hand-held GPS device and access
to a computer with an Internet connection. To get started, go
and set up an account. There is no charge to register, access
the caches, announce a cache or post your finds.
GPS units are available
at sporting goods retailers (Wal-Mart carries a few). A basic
unit costs about $120 but may not include the cord to attach it
to your computer. More sophisticated units that display maps cost
about $300. A number of Internet retailers, including www.offroute.com
and GPS City Garmin offer
a wide selection and reduced prices.
To date, GPS units
are designed to connect to Windows-based computers. There are
a few Macintosh programs available, including those from www.macgpspro.com
But despite growing
pains that come with a new activity on public land Conservation and
DNR officials say they are adopting a wait and see attitude in hopes
that geocaching brings new visitors to Missouris outdoors.
I would have
a hard time arguing that theyre much different from somebody who
wants to come out here and go hiking or bird watching. Theyre
using our property for an outdoor recreational use, says Vogel.
It gets people out in the woods and it gets people out hiking.
And that, geocachers
say, is the reason the hobby is growing so quickly.
get outside anymore. All of a sudden youve got a reason to go
outside, even if its only for an hour or two, says Henke.
something to find other than whats at the cache. Youre getting
back in touch with nature. Youre getting back in touch with the