Geocachers turn hiking into a forest treasure hunt.
By Carrie Madren

Mom and daughter geocaching.

Mom and daughter geocaching. Credit: Geocaching.com

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Sunset is fading as I linger on a narrow forest trail in my neighborhood. I’m studying the glowing screen of my global positioning system (GPS), anxious to find the hidden cache before dusk sets in. I shuffle through dead leaves under ferns and peek around the bases of centenarian trees. The problem is, I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for.

But, then again, that’s part of the fun of geocaching.

A mobile geocaching app.

A mobile geocaching app. Credit: Geocaching.com

Geocaching is part hiking, part technology wrangling, and part treasure hunt. It’s an international game of hide-and-seek, in which geocachers use hand-held GPS units or a smart phone GPS to coordinates where a cache — usually a small treasure or treasures in a box or other container — is stashed. Today, more than 6 million people around the world search for more than 2 million caches. Forests — full of natural nooks and crannies such as fallen logs, tree roots, rocky outcrops, hollow stumps and winding streams — make ideal geocaching venues.

I narrow my search down to a room-sized patch of woods, looking for something out of place. I spy a fallen log about 15 feet from the trail. Slightly visible from the hollowed end is a brick-sized, weathered, blue plastic box: I’ve found the cache. Inside, I discover a collection of trinkets and I add my name to the tiny spiral-bound logbook filled with notes from the nearly four dozen people who’ve found this cache since its inception in 2011.

Like me, cache seekers find excitement in the hunt and along the way, enjoy the outdoor journey to someplace new.

This unique hobby has created a strong community of geocachers not only dedicated to the hiding and finding of caches, but also dedicated to the preservation of the lands where they hike.

Ammo box cache.

Ammo box cache. Credit: Carrie Madren

HIDE-AND-SEEK

Geocaching, originally known as the GPS Stash Hunt, was born in May 2000, after then-President Bill Clinton turned off selective availability — the scrambling of public GPS satellite signals for national security reasons — making them available to civilians for civil, commercial and scientific uses and investments around the world. The first geocache, a black bucket with some items, food and money, was placed the next day in Oregon, and the coordinates were posted online. The idea caught on like wildfire. In time, the term geocaching was coined, in part due to negative associations with the word stash and in part due to the more romantic connotations of the word cache, which conjures images of treasure hunts.

It works like this: Geocachers log on to the website Geocaching.com and search for a cache near them; each cache has its own webpage that lists coordinates — or clues to discover the coordinates — and often a short description of the immediate area.

Micro-cache.

Micro-cache. Credit: MeddyGarnet

Difficulty and terrain ratings, from one to five stars, help geocachers determine what they’re in for. While you may spot an easy one-star cache just off a trail by plugging in the provided longitude and latitude coordinates, four- or five-star caches may involve mathematical calculations or codes to get the correct coordinates, or the concealed cache may be considerably harder to recognize. Terrain ratings tell you if you’re in for an easy jaunt or a cliff-scaling weekend.

Those who placed the cache are its owners and must maintain and check on it every so often. Permits and permission are required to place a cache on most public lands to assure that caches avoid sensitive areas. Wilderness areas are typically off-limits. “You’re not allowed to store things within the wilderness,” says Nancy Feakes of Mark Twain National Forest. “It’s supposed to be primitive with as few signs as possible of man’s occupation.” Cache owners must also consider the particular risks of placing a cache in forests, where they can become casualties in prescribed burns, wildfires, floods or areas cut for timber sales.

EarthCache of Tate's Hell Forest dwarf cypress stand.

EarthCache of Tate’s Hell Forest dwarf cypress stand. Credit: Stefis Demetropoulos

While my trailside cache was a simple waterproof box, caches come in many forms. They can be ammo boxes, canisters or plastic containers. Caches can even be fake hide-a-key rocks or molded pinecones made to look real. Micro-caches, popular in cities, are no larger than a film canister and nano-caches can measure smaller than a coin. Other variations include multi-caches that require users to find a series of caches, each revealing the coordinates for the next. Night caches can only be found using tiny hidden reflectors visible by flashlights at night. EarthCaches don’t contain a physical cache container, but rather point seekers to a unique natural feature that can be seen from particular coordinates. Visitors may learn natural or cultural history about the feature on the cache webpage. In Florida, one EarthCache lures visitors to a unique stand of 150-year-old, 15-foothigh dwarf cypress trees in the wetlands.

Cache type can vary greatly even in one area: The Mark Twain National Forest, which covers some 1.5 million acres in Missouri, has around 60 caches that include micros, multi-caches and EarthCaches in addition to traditional caches, says Feakes. Some caches interpret the history of the area or offer details on local forest management, geology or natural features. Though some of the forest’s caches are so-called park-and-grab caches near parking lots, many require more than a two-mile walk — meaning cachers get more exercise and discover more of the forest. Feakes recalls one multi-cache, no longer active, with five different caches that required a 20- mile overnight wilderness backpacking trip, and one hint that could only be viewed at night by flashlight. “A lot of people have visited places that they never would have gone to had they not been chasing down a geocache,” she says.

Dave Prebeck.

Dave Prebeck. Credit: Carrie Madren.

BACK INTO NATURE

It’s not unusual to find Dave Prebeck, president of the Northern Virginia Geocaching Organization, roaming wooded areas around Northern Virginia with his trekking pole, barefoot sport shoes, and his hand-held GPS. Prebeck discovered geocaching only eight years ago but has since found more than 10,000 caches, averaging 20 a week when he goes out on weekends. He has hidden over 120 — including a series of caches where he hid a marker-capsized nano-cache called a bison tube within the lower branches of evergreen trees — but only 30 are currently active and available to find.

Becky Stephenson signs the logbook. Credit: Carrie Madren.

On Labor Day, he and fellow cacher Becky Stephenson, a middle school teacher who’s found a cache hidden on Antarctica, set out at a humid 9 a.m. in search of a Seneca Park, Va., cache called Drama Queen, which requires finders to look for coordinate numeral clues tucked within a short fictional story on the cache’s webpage.

They follow the arrow on their GPS devices to a fork in the trail, where they split up, eventually meeting up off-trail in the middle. As they get closer, a hole at the base of one tree looks promising, but Stephenson pulls the ammo box cache out of another tree base, 15 feet further.

Their next search takes them to a three-star-terrain and -difficulty cache hidden in a forested slope. “I’m thinking it’s this one,” Prebeck says, pointing to a rocky outcrop, the woody hillside getting steep. “The question is how do we get to it?” The pair figures out how to access the rocky outcrop by heading downhill first in order to bypass a steep patch of loose dirt and leaves before hiking back up, gingerly making their way. Stephenson ventures into the outcrop and triumphantly recovers a camouflage duct taped plastic box and signs the logbook.

On the hike back to the parking lot, Prebeck says, “I think the big thing is getting people away from the television, computers and video games — geocaching gets you back into nature.”

Kids in the Poplar Bluff District of Mark Twain National Forest.

Kids in the Poplar Bluff District of Mark Twain National Forest. Credit: Mechelle Taggart

A DRAW FOR VISITORS

Geocaching hasn’t had an easy path to acceptance. It was first met with caution by skeptical land managers across the country. For instance, when the Washington State Geocaching Association (WSGA) formed in 2002, the state parks wanted to ban geocaching. “It was still a pretty unknown activity, no one was sure what to make of it,” says Abby Wolfe, the association’s president. “[Geocachers in Washington] formed a club to promote geocaching as a family-friendly, positive activity and work with land managers.” Soon, the club negotiated with the state parks to create a permit system.

“Now, geocaching is really well known,” Wolfe says.

In addition, park managers realized that geocaching could draw in more visitors. As the Washington State park system planned its centennial celebration, they recognized that geocaching could convey local park history while attracting paying visitors.

To that end, as part of last year’s centennial celebration, Washington State Parks — among the oldest state park systems in the nation — and WSGA kicked off the Washington State Parks Centennial GeoTour, which features more than 100 new caches hidden in 100 state parks — including forested mountain parks, undeveloped wilderness, beaches, parks that highlight Native American culture and more. Geocachers use a passport booklet to record their finds and receive a correlating commemorative, trackable Geocoin: 50 caches earns a silver coin and 100 caches garners a gold coin.

Smokey Bear geocoin.

Smokey Bear geocoin. Credit: Roger Griffith

Their goal was simply to get people to visit a few state parks, but within just two and a half months, all 30 of the gold Geocoins they’d minted had been awarded to people who had found all 100 caches, with each of those cachers logging about 3,500 state-wide miles, Wolfe reports.

Likewise, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in Illinois — which owns or manages over 25,000 acres of land and about 125 active caches — also celebrated its 100th anniversary with a Geocaching Challenge Passport program last year. The geocaching passport had eight hidden caches that helped share the area’s cultural or natural history. These caches contained unique passport stickers; anyone who collected five or more different stickers earned a trackable Geocoin designed for the event. To promote the event, the district offered introductory geocaching classes. It also lends GPS units to cachers.

“We see it as a great way for families to explore our forest preserves,” says Dave Andrusyk, naturalist for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Abandoned Duck Blind on Finch Lake is an EarthCache in Haile, La.

Abandoned Duck Blind on Finch Lake is an EarthCache in Haile, La. Credit: FinchLake2000/Flickr

GOOD STEWARDS

While geocaching lures visitors to enjoy forest lands, it also brings more hands to help. It’s not unusual to see geocachers leave a park or forest with a plastic grocery bag full of trash picked up along the way. “That’s a routine occurrence,” says Prebeck.

Cache In Trash Out events — organized by parks and other groups in addition to Geocaching. com — often focus on more than trashpickups. Washington State Geocaching Association, for instance, sometimes focuses on removing invasive plants or replanting native vegetation. One such volunteer event held annually in King County, Wash., regularly draws 30 to 40 cachers. Wolfe recalls one park official raving that geocachers are the hardest working volunteers they have.

Cachers can also serve as a second pair of eyes for forest trails. By reading comments that cachers log online, Feakes can sometimes learn about trees that have fallen across paths or excessive litter in Mark Twain National Forest. She also keeps an eye out for people reporting ATV use where it’s prohibited — and asks cache owners to list the rules on the cache webpage.

To leave even less of a trace, geocachers are often instructed to leave areas exactly how they found them — even replacing rocks just as they found them.

“Geocachers, as a whole, have been respectful of the forests and appreciate the natural areas,” says Lorna Radcliff, recreation specialist at the Florida Forest Service, which oversees over a million acres of state forest.

“The geocaching community is environmentally conscious and we work with them pretty closely,” says Andrusyk, who reports that restoration workdays in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County often draw more than a couple dozen volunteers to fight invasive plants or tackle other projects. “I’m amazed at the distance that these folks will travel to go and help out for a couple hours and then they go geocaching for the rest of the day,” he says.

A geocacher finding a virtual cache and McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

A geocacher finding a virtual cache and McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Credit: Kappa Pi Sigma

IN SEARCH OF SOMETHING NEW

Among the best draws of geocaching is its call to explore new places. “I think there are a lot of people who wouldn’t get out into the forest if it weren’t for geocaches,” says Radcliff.

In addition, geocaching makes hikers more aware of their surroundings. “If you go out in the woods looking for something, you’re certainly going to notice more of the rocks, birds and trees, especially if you’re looking for something you expect to be the size of a film canister,” Feakes says.

Along the way, geocachers can learn about cultural history and geology, and view wildlife they wouldn’t normally see. For instance, Prebeck and Stephenson saw their first black bear last summer on a geocaching quest in the Shenandoah Mountains.

“Geocaching takes me to hidden waterfalls, beautiful views, cool historic things,” Wolfe says. “I see so much I would never have even known about — places like a pioneer cemetery with graves from the 1850s, near a ghost town in the middle of nowhere.”

It’s all because someone placed a cache nearby and said “check this out,” explains Wolfe. “If you read some of the logs, people write ‘I would never have stopped here if it wasn’t for this cache, and would have missed this beautiful waterfall or this beautiful dam.’”

Geocachers go out into the woods searching for a cache, but they end up finding so much more.

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia. Learn more about her work at www.carriemadren.com.

Ready to get started? Check out our page of champion tree geocaching coordinates.