Geocaching the COVID blues away

While this past spring was both scary and stressful as the pandemic raged about and kept us locked up during the last gasp of a Buffalo winter, summer for our household has been better. Unconventional compared to past years, but actually pretty fun and full of family bonding activities. Lots of hikes, lots of socially distant activities like berry picking, and a renewal of an old favorite activity of mine — geocaching.

In fact, when I had thought of this in August, I was slapping my forehead that this didn’t come to mind earlier when my wife and I were brainstorming things to do with the kids that were safe for them and for others around us. Geocaching is kind of a perfect COVID-era activity: It takes you to remote spots off the beaten path, it encourages you to not “play” if others are near, and it turns the world around you into an exciting treasure hunt.

So for the past month, I’ve been taking out my older kids a few times a week for geocache hunts. We haven’t really done it since arriving in New York two years ago, so this is fertile exploration ground for us, and there are hundreds if not thousands of caches to find. For both me and the kids, it’s thrilling to go on these trips because we never quite know what we’ll find or what we’ll see. Geocaching is often about being led by strangers to interesting places and shown things that most folk never witness, and that connects us with this invisible but real community.

It’s social distancing, gamified.

Some of the notable geocaches we’ve found so far:

  • One that included a small Polaroid camera for geocachers to take pictures of themselves and put them back in the container.
  • A multi-cache that involved finding death dates on gravestones and using those for the GPS coordinates of the final cache.
  • A WWII memorial that was one of the more visually impressive shrines I’ve ever seen.

It’s certainly helped us to get our exercise, especially since the kids grew so sick of “yet another walk.” Now we’re walking with a purpose, and they don’t complain but keep chattering away. We have team roles — navigator, log signer, treasure holder — and everyone gets to join in on the challenge of finding the cache.

Anyway, I’m hoping to keep this going until it gets too cold this year to do it. The question of winter activities in a city that’s still pretty locked up looms over our heads, but one day at a time and we’ll make it though even that.

Geocaching: Quarter back play

Now that my children are old enough to take on small expeditions, I’ve been introducing them to geocaching over the past couple of months. We had so much fun on our first outing, in fact, that I ponied up for a $25 yearly subscription to get the premium version of the app. I highly recommend that, by the way, because many of the best geocaches are hidden for all but premium members.

I also introduced my youth group to geocaching as an unstructured event. After showing them the basics, they picked our next adventure, and we found ourselves finding all sorts of interesting places all over town. In the span of two hours, we discovered secret paths that cut through small forests, climbed a tree in a fruitless search for a cache that wasn’t there, encountered a whole lot of suburban wildlife, hiked over train tracks, and trekked through a cemetery.

As one of my teens later put it, the appeal wasn’t in what tiny little trinkets we got out of the caches, it was in the stories of the journeys that we went on. It was like being guided to cool spots by strangers, some of whom went to a lot of trouble to set up some neat geocaches.

Four really cool ones stuck out at us:

  1. There was one that we spent hunting for a half-hour, focusing on the key word of “attractive.” We thought it meant good-looking, but there was nothing pretty there. Eventually we found a hidden metal tube with a magnet that was “attracted” to the underside of a metal scaffold.
  2. Someone took a lot of time to put together a coffin-shaped geocache in a cemetery that had a giant thumb pop up out of it when you opened it (“thumbs up!” was written on the lid).
  3. As part of a leftover Halloween cache, someone placed a mannequin’s head deep into a thicket. Creepy as all get out, let me tell you.
  4. Our absolute favorite, however, was a “Quarter Back” cache. This one was an actual newspaper vending machine that someone had painted with the geocache logo and placed off of a business’ parking lot. You put in a quarter to open it, but you got the quarter back (hence the name). Inside was a huge cache with more trinkets than I’ve ever seen in one of these.

Geocaching isn’t an activity that I have a lot of time for these days, but it is a great “once in a while” or “oh I have 10 minutes of spare time” or “we’ve got to hang out here a while, what do we do?” filler, especially in a populated area. While we don’t always find our caches, the journeys that we go on more than make up for the disappointment. And that’s something I want to keep doing for a while to come.

Urban geocaching

geoMy 31 days of geocaching is going strong at this point — I’ve collected six geocaches in six days, and thus far it hasn’t been that much of a hassle.  I’m basically going for quick finds over deep adventures through the woods, which means that I’m on the lookout for any that are within striking distance of my home.

The more geocaches you find, the more you get used to tricks that people use to hide them.  Really, the best tip I can give you is to get in the mindset of the hider and keep asking yourself, “If I was planting a geocache, where would I put it?”  Usually, your answer is the same as the person who hid it.

One common hiding technique for urban areas is putting a geocache underneath the skirt of parking lot lightpoles.  You’d never really think about it otherwise, but those lightpoles typically have a decorative metal skirt that covers the bolts and whatnot.  Those skirts lift right up and are great places to hide a geocache where it’ll be protected from the weather.  Another common urban geocaches are putting them in fenceposts (the caps often come off) and guardrails (there are usually hidey-holes in those).

Last night’s find involved driving around the corner to a local park and looking for a tree with a hollow.  It wasn’t too hard to find, with a geocache encased in a large toy tire hanging from a wire.

One of the things I like about geocaching is that many of the finds come with their own story or unique container.  Two days ago, the find was a geocache that was created to honor someone’s birthday, and I noted that in the logbook, parents had signed it and said that this particular find was their 5-year-old’s first.  Last week there was a “baa baa black sheep” find that involved a hollowed-out porcelain sheep that someone had glued a tube into.  Clever hides, clever containers, and interesting stories are the real rewards here.

I am a little concerned that I’ll mine all of the easy, near-my-home geocaches within a week, forcing me to go a little further out every time I need to find one.  I like doing this, but time-wise, I don’t need to be spending an hour to find a single cache during the work week.  We’ll see!

31 Days of Geocaching

geoToday’s the first day of a month-long adventure for geocache hunters: the 31 Days of Geocaching.  The goal is to work up what geocachers call a “streak” — a string of finds on successive days — that lasts for the entire month.  So at the bare minimum, you have to find a geocache every day in August (or, really, however many you want to).

To incentivize participants, the official geocaching site has put out a printable calendar and is giving out one souvenir per day.  Souvenirs are basically geocaching achievements that pop up on your app or the official website.  So far I got a souvenir for each state that I’ve found a geocache in.  Racking up 31 of them in a month seems pretty cool.

For me, I wanted to participate in this because I haven’t gotten to geocache much since baby #3 came along.  Geocaching usually requires some freedom and time to do it, and that’s tough when you’re usually lugging little kids around.  But I’ve missed it and decided, what the heck, let’s do this thing.

So for days that I can’t really get some time to get out of the house without the kids, I’m looking up “park and grab” geocaches — these are hides that you can just drive up next to, jump out of the car to find it in less than a minute.  I got my first one today, a fake rock hidden under a boulder on a nearby industrial drive.

30 days to go!  I think it’d be a great time to get into geocaching if you’ve never done it before.  You just need to sign up on the main site (it’s free) and get some sort of GPS device.  I recommend the official geocaching smartphone app.  It’s $10 but is totally worth it as it plugs into the main site and Google maps.

Geocaching Quote of the Day

“I thought I had a good gift for detail, until I took up this hobby. Then I realised what true detecting skill is: seeing what’s right in front of you and realising its significance. Our lives are crazy busy. We have media and advertisements in our faces all day. We eat on the run. We never have time to catch up with old friends, or enough time to finish everything we’re working on. But when we stop, just for a moment, to appreciate something that’s staring us in the face, to focus entirely on one thing for just a short while, it stands out in our memory.”

~ Author Morgan Talbot


I haven’t done any geocaching this past winter.  With the new baby and icky weather, it’s just made sense to put it on hold.  But it’s definitely something I want to get back into when spring hits, as I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately.  I really like this quote because it not only applies to geocaching but life AND video games.  We stop seeing things all around us unless we’re given a reason to do so.  Maybe activities like geocaching help us to slow down.

I was thinking of that yesterday in Guild Wars 2 when I was crossing a rippling brook.  I stopped for a minute to appreciate how good it looked in its simplicity: water flowing over stones.  I thought about how far graphics had come, how many older MMOs have water effects that look like someone slapped a blue filter on a chunk of land and called it a day.  I walked in the water and imagined being there.  The details are good to notice.

How I ended up with 27 mosquito bites

Yes, I’m enough of a nerd to take a photo of the map before I walk back there.

“Honey, can I go out for a few minutes?  I really need a bit of quiet.”

That was me last night, and my wife answered in the affirmative.  It just got to be one of those evenings where I was taking care of the kids, making dinner, and trying to do a dozen other things at once, and I needed to downshift into a little solitude.  So after getting the go-ahead, I hopped in her car and started driving.

I didn’t have any grand plan, but earlier that day I had prepared a pair of my own geocaches to hide — might as well go all in with the hobby, right?  I purchased a couple of lock ‘n lock boxes for the occasion, which are essentially air-tight sandwich tupperware containers, and then added a Geocaching label, a log book in a ziplock bag, and a few trinkets in each.  I knew where I wanted to go put one, so I went and hid it, then started randomly driving around looking for inspiration.

Inspiration came in the form of a local park that I’ve visited once or twice.  I never have, however, entered the few miles of hiking trails that exist, and so I thought that that might be a good idea.  With only a pen, my phone, and the geocache on hand, I plunged into the wilds of suburban forest.

I was not thinking ahead.  This ended up being a problem.

Okay, I *did* take a picture of the trails, which was smart, but I lacked my geocaching kit or any solid plan.  It turned out that there were a few stagnant pools in the woods here that served as a launching pad for a billion mosquitos, and as my bug spray was in my kit, my defense became “move swiftly and constantly swat yourself like you’re a medieval monk performing rituals of penance.”  A part of the back of my brain kept saying that I should just turn back, try it another day, but by that time I was a half-mile deep into the brush and determined to find a good hiding spot.

This proved surprisingly difficult, as tons of hikers were around, the bugs were everywhere, the ground outside of the paths muddy, and most of the trees not a great place to hide anything.  But I kept going, and all the while that voice in the back of my head kept yammering that I only told my wife I was going out for a few minutes, and these few minutes had now become an hour and a half of trailblazing through the most extreme wilderness that a highly populated area adjacent to a shopping mall could offer.

Then came the kicker.  So I’m way, way back in the woods (at the top of the map there) and I look up the geocache app to see where I’m at on the map — and it’s then I notice that this place is littered with caches.  Another point in favor for doing homework ahead of time, I guess.  Geocaching asks for space between the caches so that they can each have a distinct GPS coordinate, and in this park there were like nine or so.  It didn’t feel special anyway, so I ended up double-timing it back to my car and feeling quite foolish.

And yet — adventurous.  As with most of my geocaching trips, even the most spontaneous ends up being a memorable trip to a place I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.  I’m already planning a return trip to the park to find all of these geocaches, but I think I’ll hide my remaining container elsewhere.

P.S. — Great to hear that a few of you have tried geocaching because of these posts!  It really is an addictive little pasttime.

P.P.S. — If you missed it, I wrote an article about Richard Garriott’s geocache on Massively.

Eight ways geocaching is similar to MMO gaming

My geocaching kit: bug spray, flashlight, notepad, pens, business cards, trinkets collected and trinkets to give out.

I’m still very much hooked on the concept and activity of geocaching, even though I don’t seem to have as much time to do it as I’d like.  Still, I’ve been jumping into it at least a couple times a week now, and my cache find is up to 15.

Some readers have asked me what my thoughts on the connection between geocaching and MMO gaming are, and I actually have many.  My conclusion is that if you’re an MMO gamer, this is right up your alley, here’s why:

1. You use a computer

At a bare minimum, you need a smartphone or GPS device — both computers in the technical sense — to participate in geocaching.  It’s a high-tech hobby that wouldn’t have been possible more than a decade ago, but now is accessible to anyone with a smartphone app that shows GPS coordinates (or better yet, the official Geocaching app) or a GPS device.

2. You go on quests

Each geocache site is a quest unto itself.  And here’s the thing: No two are alike.  Some are exceedingly easy to find, some are so difficult I’ve stomped out of locations after a half-hour of fruitless searching, and some have fallen prey to weather or vandals.  You really never know what you’re going to get.  Geocachers as a whole seemed the most delighted when a cache is hidden cleverly so that it does take some thought and searching, but it is ultimately obtainable.

While many MMO quests front-load the story, the story with geocaching happens as you go on the quest.  It can often be a journey just to get to where the place is, to figure out if your GPS is working correctly, and to decifer hints and clues left behind by the creator.  It’s true player-generated content that’s everywhere, and it’s awesome.

3. You have an inventory

While you only need a pen and a GPS device to go geocaching, myself and many other geocachers put together a small kit to take with us on our adventures.  While some geocaches are right off paths and main roads, some require some bushwacking, and it’s a good idea to have some bug spray, a flashlight, and a first aid kit on hand.  Plus, my “inventory” bag contains some business cards I made up to leave at caches as well as trinkets to exchange.  I’m planning to store the trinkets I find in a box until my kids get older, then have them go on a treasure hunt to find it.

4. You interact with strangers

Geocaching is weird in that you often don’t bump into fellow adventurers, yet you still interact with them all the time through the website and the cache logs.  It’s cool to know that others do this and to feel part of a larger community.  I’ve even heard of teams of geocachers that get together for weekly or monthly hunts, so I’ll have to check that out.

5. It requires exploration, puzzle-solving, and orienteering

MMOs may be mostly about killing these days, but that’s not all they have to offer.  The better ones do emphasize exploring and puzzle-solving as side activities for when the bloodbath becomes too much.  Geocaching has very little killing (okay, none), but it definitely evokes the same feeling of venturing off a beaten trail in an MMO and finding cool places that few others know.  Some of the caches not only require a sharp eye to find, but the smarts to solve a puzzle that unlocks coordinates or locking mechanisms.

6. There are achievements

Geocaching is on the honor system (there really isn’t much of a reason to cheat, anyway), and while the site does list how many caches you’ve found, that number doesn’t represent the difficulty or sometimes epic adventures you’ve undertaken to get them.  However, there is a rudimentary achievement system in place on the app that does give you pats on the back for, say, finding your first geocache in any given state or country.

7. There are quest rewards

Many caches are too small to hold anything other than a rolled-up piece of paper, but there are several that are larger and can accommodate trinkets.  While most of these are practically worthless, it’s really cool to have a physical sign that you did find this cache.  Collecting the trinkets is part of the experience for me, and it feels a bit like the fun of quest rewards in MMOs.

8. You can do it in bite-sized chunks or marathons

As with MMO gaming these days, I have the option to splurge on a few hours of engaging in this hobby or to just do a little bit at a time.  Sometimes I only grab a quick five-minute geocache if I happen to be in the area, but I also have been going out on Saturday afternoons in 2-4 hour blocks to try to get a whole bunch at once.  I’ve been partying up with friends and family members as well, which is a lot more fun (and more eyes makes finding the caches easier!).

Did someone say “treasure hunt”? I am SO there.

Okay, here’s something you need to know about me.  When I get excited about a new project, I get really, really, really excited about it.  I tend to jump into these things quickly and without a lot of hesitation and planning.  Exciting projects consume my attention voraciously, and while many of them flicker and die just as quickly (ask me about any musical instrument I’ve tried to learn), some do persevere.  Take blogging, for example.

This is why, as you’ve probably noticed, I get really juiced up about any new game I’m trying.  It’s a “project” for me, a brand-new character in a world I haven’t seen before, and I love getting enthusiastic about it.  I’ve got a massive project that I’ve been working on that will be revealed to y’all next week, and that’s also been a huge source of excitement for me.

But this past weekend I found myself getting sucked into and addicted to a project that I didn’t anticipate.  Will it flame out or flame on?

So what happened is that I took a group of teens to a camp retreat, which is always a blast.  Nice to get away from the city for a while, to enjoy nature, and to just focus on relationships and God.  Since it’s an annual event, I try to keep things fresh by changing up the activities each time so it doesn’t get stale.  One of my leaders suggested that we do a Geocache hunt, something I was vaguely familiar with but hadn’t ever done.  We planted a few treasure chests, marked their locations on a GPS, and sent the teens off to find them and claim the prizes.

During all this, I started reading up on Geocaching and downloaded the official site app on my iPhone.  It was kind of like falling in love all at once — it just clicked with me.  A worldwide treasure hunt that thousands of people are doing all the time?  And there are these caches all over the place?  I was in!

So if you’re unfamiliar with Geocaching, here’s the quick-and-dirty scoop.  People all over the world (including Antarctica!) hide containers known as “geocaches” in a variety of locations.  Geocaches can be really really small or quite sizable.  They all have logs for people to write their name and date when found, and the larger ones have items inside that can be taken as long as you put something in of equal or greater value.  Each geocache is registered with GPS coordinates, and hunters go all over the place trying to find them.

It is, in effect, a live video game with light platforming elements, pixel-hunting, and Zelda-esque treasures.  Some are multi-stage, some involve puzzle-solving, and some reward the first person to find it with a great reward.  There are even achievements and souvenirs to be won as you log in your finds to the official website.  How cool is that?

The funny thing is that even though my teens enjoyed it, I probably ended up most buzzed about the whole thing.  On my way home from the camp, I stopped at a few exits and found a couple caches.  I don’t know what it is that’s so compelling, but it’s like I just discovered (after more than ten years of them doing this) a whole secret game going on all around us.  My town has well over a hundred caches from the look of the map, and there’s far more than that all around the area.

Thus I’m diving into this.  I’ve put together a Geocaching bag using an old gas mask bag I’ve had since college.  My wife poked fun at me at all this, but I came home and saw she was watching a romantic movie called (I swear) “Pizza My Heart”, so she didn’t retain the high ground.  Actually, I think we’re both going to go Geocaching on our next date night, which should be fun.

Anyone else do this?  I’m quite curious!