By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN When people hear the word “geocaching,” they invariably give one of two responses:
“I love geocaching! I do it all the time!”
Or . . .
“Geocaching? What’s that?”
For those who are new to the game, geocaching is a high-tech “hide-and-seek” that’s played throughout the world using handheld GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, which are hidden in parks, along trails, and in other scenic areas.
Anyone can hide a geocache (pronounced geo-cash) and give its coordinates online. Other players then look at the geocaching website to see where the items are hidden, and try to locate them.
Jennifer andJoe Gallus of Howard Lake said that geocaching adds another dimension to hiking trips with their sons, Joe and Jacob.
“I just think it’s a great learning experience for all of us,” Jennifer said.
“I like how it’s hard and a challenge,” added 11-year-old Joe.
The Gallus family’s first find was at Grand Portage State Park near the Canadian border.
“We needed help with the first one,” Jennifer said. “We were out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t even know what we were looking for at this point.”
They happened to see another family snooping around nearby, and discovered that they were geocaching, as well.
“They told us to look for anything out of place, like a fallen log,” Jennifer said.
It might seem easy to find a hidden container when given the coordinates, but that’s not always the case.
“Some are really small, and off the beaten path,” said Mike Lhotka of Cokato, who first tried geocaching with his wife, Barb, about three years ago.
“They’re not buried, but they can be in a hollow tree or up in the crook of a branch,” Lhotka said.
The element of surprise is always a highlight for geocachers. Players never know what type of treasure they will find.
“You see a lot of different styles,” Lhotka said.
Traditional geocaches include weather-resistant container and a logbook for players to record their pseudo name, date, and time of the find.
Some have little prizes, such as golf balls, erasers, keychains, or collectible cards. People who find the cache are welcome to take one item, and leave something of equal or greater value in its place.
Puzzle geocaches give players clues that they must decipher in order to find the prize.
Dave Racette of Winsted and Todd Baumann-Fern of Waverly ran into this type on one of their hunts.
“When we found it, it was just an old film canister,” Racette said. At first, they were confused, but when they opened it, another clue was inside, pointing them to the real treasure.
A similar type is the “multi-stage” geocache. One of these is on the Luce Line Trail in Winsted, near the trestle collapse site. The first set of coordinates takes players to the west side of the trestle collapse. Once they find that, they are directed to a second set of coordinates on the east side.
One of the hardest caches for Racette to find was in a tree in Delano.
“It was disguised as a pinecone,” he said. “It took me 20 minutes to find. It was the size of half a pinky, hung in a branch.”
Another type is the virtual geocache, where instead of searching for a container, players go to a certain location and answer questions. They can then record their visit by taking a photo. One of these sites is at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum near Chanhassen.
Earth caches are similar, in that participants answer questions about the geographic site, and sometimes record their opinions. A natural spring fountain in Rockford is one such location.
Geocachers also have events where they go out to eat and discuss their finds and love of geocaching.
Those who sign up to be part of the online community can get to know other geocachers through blogs, forums, and personal messages. Some people share photos of their finds, along with interesting stories about their searches.
Some geocachers only play during mild weather, but others don’t mind the harsher elements.
“I went yesterday, and my son waited in the car,” laughed Melissa Portz of Delano.
The Gallus family remembers one hunt where it started raining.
“We didn’t’ let that stop us,” Jennifer laughed. “We were soaked.”
For 9-year-old Jacob, the rain only added to the adventure.
“It’s a challenge when it’s so slippery,” he said.
Geocaching is a popular hobby for people of all ages.
“It’s a great family-friendly game, and it’s addicting,” Portz said. “Geocaching gets me out exercising on the trails. It’s more fun than going to a club and working out on a treadmill I’m traipsing through snow up to my thighs, and I get to enjoy nature.”
According to the Gallus family, geocaching provides incentive to explore.
“It takes you to places you might not have gone otherwise,” Jennifer said.
“People use it as an excuse to get outside, and it’s a fun adventure for families with children,” added geocache enthusiast Bob Blake of Mound. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon.”
To learn more about geocaching, go to www.geocaching.com.
Think you want to try geocaching?
The first thing you’ll need is a handheld GPS device. Depending on features such as digital compasses, water resistance, and built-in maps, a GPS can cost less than $100, or more than $500.
All that’s really needed to geocache, however, is an inexpensive model that can navigate a set of coordinates (instead of a street address.)
Some people even use the same GPS they use for driving.
Typically, there is no monthly fee for a GPS device, unless the system is tied to a mobile phone service.
In addition to a GPS, it is helpful to have Internet access in order to find geocache site coordinates, track your progress, and get to know other geocachers.
Most players create a fun username, like “Captain_Jac_Sparrow” or “team_geomonkey” for their account at www.geocaching.com.
More information about geocaching and GPS devices is also available at www.gpsmagazine.com.