By Starrla Cray
DELANO, 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, trails, and 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.
“It’s a great family-friendly game, and it’s addicting,” said Melissa Portz of Delano. “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.”
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,” explained 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.”
The element of surprise is always a highlight for geocachers. Players never know what type of treasure they will find.
“There are a lot of creative ones,” Portz 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.”
Portz and her two sons, Calvin, 13, and Ethan, 10, have had a few intriguing finds, as well.
“In Florida, we found an ammo can under a tree. When we opened it, there was a note that said to keep looking. It was a decoy,” Portz said. “Then, we saw a red arrow pointing to the real geocache, in a tree about 50 feet high.”
Portz and her sons discovered a pulley system attached to the geocache, which allowed them to lower it to the ground.
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 cold.
“I went yesterday, and my son waited in the car,” Portz laughed.
As of Dec. 27, Portz had found 979 geocaches since fall 2009.
“I’m hoping to make it an even 1,000 by Jan. 1,” she said.
Locating that many geocaches takes a fair amount of determination and perseverance.
“I’ve been known to go on my way to work and on my way home, but I do most of my geocaching on Saturdays,” Portz said.
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.