Treasure can be found in the unlikeliest of places: hidden in the knotted base of an Oak tree, tucked underneath a large rock on an old railway path or magnetically attached to a signpost behind a busy suburban shopping center. Welcome to the world of geocaching.

Geocaching originated in 2000, and it’s one of the fastest growing outdoor activities and tech-hobbies. Part real world treasure hunt, part high-tech hide-and-seek, geocaching’s popularity has quickly spread as a family pastime, and teachers around the world use it to teach students about maps, coordinates, technology, geography and the environment. But what exactly is geocaching and how do you play? From understanding the technology and finding geocaches to making your own, here’s everything you need to know to play. This certainly isn’t your ordinary treasure hunt!

What is Geocaching?

Geocaching is a sophisticated treasure hunt with a modern, technological twist. Put simply, players attempt to unearth a hidden cache using GPS. Most caches are watertight boxes containing a trinket or souvenir – foreign coins, buttons, plastic toys and other small prizes and gifts. Geocaching is about the hunt, not the reward; the treasure has little or no monetary value, but players earn precious bragging rights when they find the cache.

“X” marks the spot… right? Geocaches are hidden in publicly accessible locations around the world. The treasure containers are hidden by volunteers (typically other geocachers), who then upload the coordinates to popular websites like geocoaching.com, and leave them for other players to find. Some enthusiasts also upload local history and site specific information with the coordinates. To find a geocache, players simply plug the coordinates into their GPS-enabled device, typically a smartphone or iPad. When a player finds the cache, he or she signs a small logbook, takes the treasure and replaces it with another one. According to the Guardian, there are between six and eight million players – and 2.8 million caches – registered around the world. In fact, there are 21,000 stashes within 100 miles of Times Square in New York City.

What Do You Need to Play?

There’s an old axiom in the geocacher community, “Geocachers: We use multi-billion-dollar technology to hunt for boxes in the bush.” When geocaching originated in the early 2000s, players used GPS handheld devices. Technology has evolved over the better part of two decades. Today’s players are introduced to geocaching through their smartphones. Apps such as Apple maps and Google maps have spurred geocaching’s popularity. They are accurate, readily available and easy to use. Considering most people have smartphones, which is the only equipment you need for geocaching (a love of adventure and quests helps, too), turning Apple or Google maps into a hobby is about as budget-friendly as it gets.

Tips, Hints and Key Terms

Don’t expect your smartphone to lead you directly to the geocache. What would be the fun in that? The technology is accurate enough to get you close to the cache, but when the numbers on the screen indicate that you’re 30 or 35 feet away, it’s better to rely on your experience and intuition and start looking around. When geocaching was in its infancy and players used handheld GPS devices, orienteering systems and geographic concepts like longitude and latitude played a more significant role. Today, many players interact with the game at face value; however, if you want to be a skilled and formidable geocacher, the Indiana Jones of your community, for example, then you need to think beyond the screen and experience the modern day treasure hunt.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that finding a cache depends on the accuracy of the coordinates recorded by the person who hid it. If the person made a mistake in his or her recording, it will affect the success of your treasure hunt. Factors such as nearby buildings and power lines can often affect the reading and throw off the cache’s true location.

While geocaching requires minimal gear and equipment, it has an intricate list of glossary terms and acronyms. Before you venture out into the park or woods, be sure to familiarize yourself with geocaching vocabulary.

Making Your Own Geocache Box

Part of the beauty of geocaching is its simplicity. While it’s made possible by high-tech, multi-billion dollar technology, it offers the analogue pleasures of an old school scavenger hunt. It’s easy to make your own geocache box. First, you need a water and dirt proof container. Small, lock-style lunch boxes, Tupperware containers and ammunitions boxes make great geocache containers. However, players have been known to use anything from birdhouses to film canisters. Place a pencil, small spiral notebook/logbook and a little treasure inside the geocache box. Label it “Geocaching Box,” hide it somewhere, and then upload the GPS coordinates to an official website.

Get Out and Explore the Community

Many cities and communities host formal geocaching events. These large-scale gatherings are as much about socializing with like-minded people as they are about treasure hunting. Groups like the Metro New York Geocaching Society are known for their complex “puzzle” hunts. Some geocaching hunts even have different themes – James Bond, for example, or “Mission Impossible.” The Boy Scouts of America recently added a geocaching merit badge. However, while organizations host community geocaching events, most players take part on their own through a variety of national websites. Geocaching sites have a place where you can type in your location, via zip code, and it will tell you the whereabouts of the caches in your area.

Whether you’re on a day trip with the family looking for a hidden cache, geocaching as part of a school science project or on a solo quest to unearth as many caches as you can… remember, geocaching is like the famous saying: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” Happy treasure hunting!

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