I've recently gotten into the sport / hobby of geocaching. What is geocaching? Think of it like a treasure hunt, or the world's biggest easter egg hunt, and it is going on every day all over the world. The way this sport works is that someone out there hides a container, call the cache, that holds, at a minimum, a logbook for those who find it to sign. The person who hides the cache locates a clever hiding location, and then gets a GPS fix of the location. The hider then registers the cache on a website such as http://www.geocaching.com/ and publishes the lattitude and longitude from the GPS fix of the cache. Once published, anyone else is welcome to use that location data to try to track down the cache. Given this basic description it sounds pretty simple, but clever hiders can make it really fun and interesting to find the cache, even when you know exactly where it should be.
There are various types of caches. A traditional cache is a container with, at a minimum, a logbook to sign. The cache can be as small as a match book or 35mm film case, all the way up to a large storage container or ammo box. Larger caches usually contain little tchotchkes, toys, and doodads that younger finders can trade for. There are also virtual caches with no container at all, the destination being the goal. Puzzle caches and multi-stage caches are fun variations where you must either first solve a puzzle to get the true coordinates, or find successive stages before reaching the final goal.
Types of Hides
There are as many ways to hide a geocache as there are geocachers. That said, I've noticed that there are some common features to some hides. Many smaller caches use a magnet or some other method to affix themselves to something else. Hollowed out trees are a common hiding location too, as well as under a fallen log or under a pile of sticks. There are also some ways to know that you are looking in the wrong place for a cache. If it looks like you would have to hurt yourself or break the law to get to the hiding place, it probably isn't hidden there. One of the best pieces of advice I've received on how to spot a cache is to not look for the container, but instead look for where you would hide the cache. The coordinates of the cache won't necessarily be right on top of the hiding place, it may only get you within 20 or 30 feet.
Aside from the logbook and simple toys, you might find a trackable item in a geocache. A travel bug is an item that has a dog tag attached to it with a unique serial number. These items are trackable at the Geocaching.com website, and often have a stated goal, such as racing from one ocean to another, or reaching a specific destination. A geocoin is similar in that it has a unique ID, but in this case the coin itself is what is traveling, rather than what is attached to the tag. Many avid geocachers have also created custom tokens that they drop into each cache they find, sort of like a calling card.
There is a bit of etiquette that goes along with geocaching. Foremost is discretion. Caches are intended to be hidden, and only known to those who are looking for them. Non-geocachers nearby the location are known as muggles (think Harry Potter), and it is important not to expose the cache to muggles. There are a couple of bad things that can happen if you do. A curious muggle might investigate after you leave and find the cache. Not knowing what they have found, they may take it with them, spoiling the fun for anyone else looking for it. Worse, they may think it is something dangerous and call the police. Another important bit of etiquette is to respect the property owners in the area. Caches should only be placed in either publicly accessible areas, or in rare cases, private areas where permission has been granted. Regardless of where the cache is, care should be taken to respect the goodwill of the owner of the grounds by not trespassing through private property or littering. In fact, many geocachers will take an empty trash bag with them to 'Cache In - Trash Out', picking up any litter they might find along the way. Once you have located a cache, if you intend to take something from the cache it is important to replace it with something of your own. Nothing can disappoint a young child on a treasure hunt like opening an empty treasure chest. One exception is travel bugs and geocoins. In this case, it is ok to take the item to help it toward the goal, but be sure to log that you have taken the item at the Geocaching.com website so the owner knows where it is. Finally, when replacing the cache, try to hide it as you found it, or better, and always in the same location. There are probably other bits of etiquette, but I'm too new to this to know what they might be.
There are a few things to take with you that will enhance your fun with geocaching. The most common tool is a GPS receiver of some kind. While you might be able to get by with a print from Google Maps, having a good GPS receiver will greatly increase your chances of success. Most modern smart phones (iPhone, Blackberry, Android, etc.) either have a true GPS antenna, or are able to get a GPS fix based on nearby cell phone towers. Native applications are available for many of these phones that will get you on your way. Stand alone GPS receivers are also available and can range in price from one to several hundred dollars depending on the features of the unit. I use a Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx. In addition, it is a good idea to wear durable clothes that will protect you as you hike through rougher terrain. A good pair of hiking shoes will help you keep a grip on the trail and prevent rolled ankles. Pants, long socks, and a light jacket will protect you from common trail hazards, and some good bug repellent is also a good idea. When hunting smaller caches, you will want to bring your own pen or pencil to sign the log, as often times the cache will not have room for one. Aside from these, anything you might want on a hike would be good to take, such as a bottle of water, camera, snacks, walking stick, etc.
There are lots of aspects to this hobby that I enjoy. It is a reason to get outside. I work at a job that has my butt in a chair for eight to ten hours a day. Once I get home, my typical evening entertainment (after the kids are in bed) is to watch some TV, surf the web, or play some video games. Geocaching is a great excuse to get outside and enjoy some of what nature has to offer. Geocaching is also something that my whole family can do together. I'll admit, it is a bit of a struggle with a one year old, but our three year old and five year old love going out and hunting for treasure. They like trading out some old toy they are bored with for whatever is in the cache, even if it is something simple. It is also nice that we work together on these outings. Finally, getting out on the hunt is decent exercise. I've read where some folks mix their running workouts with geocaching, jogging from cache to cache. I'm satisfied with getting in a healthy walk. I'm having a lot of fun with geocaching, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for the outdoors.