Sitting at a glowing screen for hours on end, with little or no live human interaction - this is the typical Internet experience. But some areas of the Internet compel users to leave the keyboard, go outside, and interact with the real world. This category of Web sites, hugely popular and usually non-commercial, doesn't have a name yet. Because these sites promote an activity or hobby - even a lifestyle - beyond the Web, they're more of an online/offline phenomena. I've dubbed the aggregate of these Web sites "Internet-Guided Offline Recreation" (IGOR). IGOR is different from sites that merely discuss offline recreation, like sailing or knitting, because the activities are mediated and tracked by - and essentially inseparable from - their Web sites.
GPS Games -- On 01-May-00, the Clinton Administration ended the U.S. government's policy of Selective Availability, the intentional degradation of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals. The new availability of GPS to the civilian population had practical applications for telecommunications, emergency response, transportation, and industry. It also launched a new form of recreation.
Only two days after the end of Selective Availability, someone hid a logbook inside a container near Portland, OR and posted its GPS coordinates on the sci.geo.satellite-nav newsgroup. Just three days later, the container, called a "cache," was visited twice, the visits recorded in the logbook and online. From the immense curiosity, immediacy, and coolness factor that this generated, a high-tech hide-and-seek game was born: geocaching.
Geocaching.com, the first and most trafficked Web site devoted to geocaching, facilitates seeking and creating new caches. The caches are registered in the Geocaching.com database according to "waypoints," short names representing the identifications of specific caches. Each waypoint is associated with GPS coordinates that indicate the exact location of the cache.
The Geocaching.com site enables searches for any relevant data: zip code (within a user-defined radius), location, coordinates, keyword, area code, waypoint, or geocacher's username. For example, if you search for waypoint GC78A5, you'll find a geocache called "Stock Market CrACHE in Twin Peaks." The details page provides the coordinates, difficulty and terrain ratings, notes and encrypted clues (easily decrypted by the "cheater" link), zoomable map, and log entries and photos from other geocachers.
Most caches are hidden in parks, wilderness areas, and other public spaces. When hunting for a cache, it helps to have both GPS coordinates and clues in hand - but also look for the telltale path of trampled grass that often betrays the hiding place.
Some caches are so challenging that finding them might require more than one attempt. The coordinates are accurate to about 15 feet (4.6 m) at best - which, when multiplied by two (to account for the margin of error of both GPS units, the hider's and your own) is 30 feet (9.1 m) - and beyond that, you're on your own. I had to return to "Sounds of the Bay" after my first unsuccessful search because the cache could have been hidden in any of the myriad crevices of the loose-rock wharf, and even the "spoiler" photograph of the geocache owner pointing to the hiding spot didn't help.
A "Traditional Geocache" (marked by a generic icon) is an airtight, waterproof container that stores a logbook and pen for on-site comments, a disposable camera, and some goodies. The idea is for geocachers to sift through the goodies, take one, and add something new. Don't expect to find a wad of cash or valuable jewelry in a geocache; prizes usually comprise old toys, coins, seashells, and trade convention gewgaws. But getting stuff isn't the point of geocaching; the real prize is just finding the cache and admiring the view while you're there.
Another type of geocache is a "Multi-Cache," which contains a clue in the first cache that leads the geocacher to a second cache and possibly more after that. Sometimes these can be all-day affairs, involving clues, puzzles, or riddles, for which only hard-core geocachers have the necessary time and patience. (The Geocaching.com Web site, previously all non-commercial, recently launched a premium service for such serious geocaching.)
Sometimes you won't get a prize at all - at least not one you can take with you. A "Virtual Cache" has no hidden container: the location itself is the prize. (The details page may ask you to answer a specific question about the location or to perform a task.) An "Event Cache" involves both space and time; geocachers go to a certain location at a certain time to meet other geocachers. Avid geocachers frequently check the Events Calendar to see when an Event Cache is happening in their area.
Seek and Hide -- Of course, you're not limited to just seeking - you can create your own cache as well. I recommend finding at least one geocache before establishing your own to learn what works well and what the best caches offer. You're responsible for the caches you hide, which means visiting them occasionally, cleaning out debris, replacing cameras when film runs out, and adding new stuff. If you're lazy or don't have much time to visit your geocache, hide it close to your home to avoid traveling extensively to check it. And read the instructions carefully; I mistakenly hid a cache in Land's End, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and therefore federal land - a geocaching no-no. Since it's across town, I have yet to retrieve it. Further, use good judgment based on your knowledge of the area. I hid a geocache containing a beautiful handmade logbook and a bag of candy in what I thought was the perfect hiding place: the trunk of a large evergreen tree. But, because the tree is in San Francisco, a homeless person moved in underneath the branches, and my cache not-so-mysteriously disappeared.
I started with three hidden geocaches, and now have only one left, but I am quite happy with it. It's in a beautiful, easily accessible area, so it's visited often. I developed the film of its first disposable camera onto prints and a photo CD, whose images I uploaded to the geocache details page. Before I looked at the prints, I hadn't quite realized what a marvelous hobby geocaching is. No two photographs were alike. In several pictures, a man stood alone, sometimes staring off-center because he's taking his own picture. Other pictures showed couples and groups of friends, smiling or sticking out tongues. A young father posed with a baby in a backpack carrier, a dog shivered in the wind, a too-close wristwatch blurrily displayed the time, and a toy lay on the grass. Photos were taken from different directions and perspectives, at different times of day (including one wigged-out guy at night), during different seasons, and in different types of weather (sometimes clear and sunny; other days, foggy). I slid the prints into a cheap pocket-sized photo album, labeled it "See the geocachers who have come before you!", and added it to the cache.
Spin-offs -- A testament to the popularity of Geocaching.com is its spin-off sites. Navicache.com offers the same thing as Geocaching.com, but with a more amateurish site and fewer registered caches. Geocaching Worldwide began specifically for Australians and later expanded to include caches located around the globe. Geodashing turns geocache hunting into a race to find one cache after another (uploading photos as proof), and has appropriately renamed "waypoints" as "dashpoints." Befitting the patriotic times, CacheAcrossAmerica has successfully established a chain-link of geocaches across the continent, following the approximate path of Interstate 80. The burgeoning EcoScavenger encourages geocachers to "share places rather than stuff" - a nice idea but already covered by Geocaching.com's virtual caches. Inspired by the cheap plastic toys in Hasbro's classic Barrel of Monkeys, a couple of jokers created a very serious Web site that invites geocachers to Linn Run State Park in Pennsylvania to conduct "monkey research."
Geocaching aficionados appreciate Buxley's Geocaching Waypoint, a companion guide chock-full of interesting stuff. Buxley's world map of cache sites reveals the predictable pattern of a hobby for the techno-elite (that's us): the vast majority of caches are hidden in the United States (and southern Canada) and Western Europe; the rest are hidden in coastal areas of Australia, Central and South America, South Africa, major Asian cities, and Pacific islands. In other words, even though geocaching is a relatively inexpensive hobby, players live in and travel to "rich" areas and so obviously have enough food, shelter, and disposable income to afford GPS units and Internet-connected computers. Buxley's also keeps a log of geocaching news and unique caches that involve more than waypoints and containers.
Getting Started with Geocaching -- One of the major draws of geocaching is that it's a relatively inexpensive and easy hobby to participate in. A bare-bones handheld GPS unit, which you can buy for about $100, can read satellite signals and triangulate fairly accurate coordinates - all you need to get started on your first geocache. For around $350, a fancy GPS unit includes features like downloadable mapping, waypoint storage, an altimeter, and other geeky but useful stuff. Other units work specifically in cars, and some combine GPS capability with fish-finders and water-navigation tools.
GPS games are an innovative way to combine computer nerdism with outdoor adventuring. It costs next to nothing and inspires eager novices to join the "secret society" of geocachers. It's easy to get addicted (some geocachers seek hundreds of caches per year), but as vices go, this one's not so bad.
In the next installment of this article, I'll explore a few other variations of geocaching, such as tracking currency around the world, exchanging physical notebooks, and more. See you at the next waypoint!
[Mariva H. Aviram, author of several books and numerous articles, has a passion for the outdoors, art, books, film, culture, and satire. More information can be found at her Web site.]