The blue arrow on the compass of Larry Vannata’s handheld GPS pointed north, but a small red arrow on the compass’ rim indicated that it wanted us to head southwest. Vannata, his 10-year-old son Ethan and I then climbed a small hill in the Long Marsh Preserve in Durham. The GPS showed that we were only 20 feet from our treasure, but at first glance it was nowhere to be found. We climbed over rocks and logs and squeezed between a downed tree and an upright one to find what was hidden for us at N 43 06.852 W 70 53.290. Vannata and his son both subtly let me know that they had spotted our prize but let me find it for myself.
Then I saw it, sitting inside a log, peeking out from a small pile of logs that had been stacked upon it.
Our prize? An old green ammunition box filled with dog treats, dog toys, a notebook and a pencil, complete with sharpener.
But from the smile on Ethan’s face, you would think we had struck gold.
How geocaching got started
Originally, the Global Positioning System (GPS) was designed for military use only, and the government intentionally introduced a scramble into the signal for security purposes. The scramble would put non-military GPS users off their destination by 200 feet in any given direction, said Shane Bradt, extension specialist in geospatial technology at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.
When the Clinton administration turned off the GPS scramble in 2000, it “made a tremendous difference in the utility of GPS for the average user,” Bradt said.
A normal GPS signal can get users within 25 feet of their destination on average, Bradt said. “Some people get angry that it is only 25 feet, but it is 25 feet on the face of the planet — people lose track of that,” he noted. “They say ‘I have to bend down and look around for what I’m trying to find?’ Yes, you do, but you are at least within 20 feet of it.”
When GPS became fully accessible by the public, someone decided to hide something and published its coordinates online and said “If you find it let me know,” Vannata said. “And [geocaching] grew from there.”
There are now more than one million geocaches worldwide and five million people looking for them.
How you can get started
The first step to finding the hidden treasure is creating a (free or paid) account at www.geocaching.com, a site that Vannata likened to an online community like most social networks. By typing in the coordinates of your location, you can see where geocaches are located nearby. There are 468 caches within a 10-mile radius of Vannata’s Durham home.
A page is dedicated to each cache (container) hidden by a cache owner. The page includes such information as the cache’s coordinates, a description of what it looks like and what might be inside and where to park to start your journey. A premium membership will give more detailed maps of where the cache is located. Also on the page is a hint written in code with a decryption key to solve it.
“You use that as a last resort,” Vannata said.
The caches, each of which is named by the owner, are ranked by difficulty and terrain. If the terrain is rated one or two stars, Vannata said the geocacher should expect a fairly flat surface. A four-star geocache would likely be on top of a mountain, he said. For some more difficult caches, puzzles need to be solved to determine their coordinates. The size of the cache is also noted on the page and can range from micro to large. Micro caches are the size of two buttons stacked on top of each other.
Users of the site can sign up for notifications of new caches added so they might have a chance to be the “First to Find” or FTF. Many cache owners will list on the site that they put a special prize, such as a $2 bill, in their cache for the FTF. When notified of a new cache nearby, Vannata said some people will go out and try to find it no matter what time it is so they can be the FTF.
Finders of the geocaches also leave comments (and some spoilers) on the page, signing each with TFTC (thanks for the cache) or TFTH (thanks for the hide).
Because Vannata has a special geocaching GPS (a Magellan Explorist GC) he is able to click a button on the site that automatically uploads the cache’s coordinates into the device.
“In the old days, you would put the coordinates in, print out the notes and hints,” Vannata said. “Now it’s paperless.”
For as long as Vannata has been geocaching, he has only used Geocaching.com as his source of finding the coordinates for new caches. “It’s the one you always hear about, read about … I was not aware that other sites had that,” he said.
While geocaching.com is the most popular, there are other sites out there. NaviCache.com is an all free, easy to navigate geocaching website and allows users to both search for and add hidden caches. OpenCaching.com is another free site that allows users to type in their location and find caches based on difficulty, terrain, size and “awesomeness.” To join TerraCaching.com, a site that admits in bold letters that it does not have as many cache listings as other sites, you must first register for a starter account. To qualify for a full account and have full access of the site, you must have two current members sign on as sponsors. If you do not know any current members, the site allows your to “plead your case” to the “Applications for Sponsorship” forum.
The rules of hiding a cache
“There are a lot of criteria that need to be passed to accept an official geocache,” said Bill James, an avid geocacher from Nashua.
Caches must be hidden in a spot that is publicly accessible, said James, who works at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass.
“I can’t put one here but, man, I’d love to,” he said. “Only a limited amount of people would be able to get it.”
Caches should be durable and weatherproof, he added, noting ammunition cans as a good choice to hold a cache because they are “literally bulletproof.”
Caches cannot be hidden anywhere that would put someone in danger, James said.
Mark Curtin, a geocacher and public safety employee from Manchester, said cache owners need to be careful with the way they make their caches, as many end up looking like pipe bombs and result in a number of bomb scares nationwide. Some magnetic caches that are stuck to bridges cause concern, he said.
“There are rules to [geocaching] and people need to follow them,” Curtin said. “They’re not supposed to be in common meeting places, like the Verizon [Wireless Arena], or on active railroads. If that keeps happening, places will start to make ordinances that
‘You can’t go geocaching in this park.’”
When hiding a cache on business premises, cache owners are supposed to get permission, Curtin added.
A volunteer from geocaching.com is supposed to be the authority on approving spots where the caches are hidden and will not post caches that do not meet the criteria, Curtain said.
“Just in the back of your mind, if you’re hiding these things, you’ve got to not put them in a way that someone could get hurt looking for them,” he said. “Safety first.”
The rules of finding a cache
When you locate a cache, you are not supposed to be observed finding it in fear that you might be spotted by a “muggle” or someone not involved in the game.
“You don’t want to be observed touching the cache or finding it because a lot of times someone will be curious, see what you’re doing and not realize that caches shouldn’t be taken. Caches are then found emptied out or vandalized,” James said. “Keeping people unaware of [the finding of a cache] is the rule … you need to enjoy trying to find it and sneak it out of its hiding place without being caught.”
James noted it is not unusual for a cache to be picked up 100 times a season.
Curtin said he has found (or not found) a few caches that have been stolen or destroyed.
If people are seen discovering caches, Curtin noted there is a “fear that a proverbial teenager would just wreck the thing.”
A cache was once found inside a hollow tree in Manchester’s Livingston Park but the tree was later lit on fire, Curtin said. “The idea is, if you don’t let people see what you’re up to maybe the cache won’t get vandalized or disappear,” he said.
In the center of Nashua, there is a “high-exposure” cache hidden in a monument that has three cannons. “There are about three dozen cars looking at you as you try to find the cache while not being watched, get it out of its spot, find and sign the log and put it back where it’s hidden,” James said. “It’s not an easy task.”
James noted pretending to tie your shoe or take a picture as good ways to cover up your geocaching mission.
“That hiding spot is pretty much right in the open,” he said. “You’re going to be seen doing whatever you’re doing so you’ve just got to kind of disguise what you’re up to.”
Geocaching can even get the most careful seeker in trouble, Curtain said.
“If you’re looking around near the Best Buy guardrail at 9 p.m. and the cops show up, you will kind of have to explain what you’re doing — but that hasn’t happened to me yet,” he said. “You also definitely get some strange looks if you are walking through a park at night looking at trees.”
Geocaches and the people who love to find them
On the back windshield of Vannata’s van are four stickers: a family of four, each holding a handheld GPS and wearing backpacks. Vannata began geocaching three years ago and has since found nearly 100 caches.
When out searching for a cache, Vannata straps around his waist a blue and purple fanny pack filled with plastic army men, plastic medals and necklaces and toy cars for trade — if you take something from a cache, you leave something.
In his short time geocaching, Vannata has gained recognition statewide and has been asked to give lectures and arrange programs about the activity at local schools and libraries and conduct workshops for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. He recently started Geotrails.com, on which he offers his cache-hiding and -finding skills to campgrounds and resorts.
Vannata recently found a travel bug — an item that looks similar to a dog tag — while geocaching, which cache owners encourage finders to take and move to other caches. Some cache owners, he said, have such goals for the bugs as making the journey from New Hampshire to California. The owners of the ladybug travel bug found by Vannata want its finders to bring it to good places to retire — mainly beaches. The travel bugs are assigned codes and their finders are asked to input the codes onto the geocaching website to allow for accurate tracking. The website will then draw up a map of the bug’s travels.
Curtin found a travel bug in Florida that had been to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and France and brought it to New Hampshire. He now receives e-mails about the bug’s travels (it was most recently found in the Exeter area). “I have found a few travel bugs, but that one by far has traveled the farthest,” he said.
In Portsmouth, there is a photo cache that requires the geocacher to determine the dates of the building pictured in the clue and use that number to decipher the coordinates of the cache, Vannata said.
“I must have got the numbers wrong because I ended up in someone’s back yard,” he said.
Virtual caches are more rare than most but Bradt said one can be found on the UNH campus. The virtual cache is actually a webcam inside a building that points at the listed coordinates. Finders are expected to stand in front of the webcam and have someone use a computer or smartphone to force the webcam to capture their picture as proof that they were there, he said.
James, who was introduced to the activity last July by someone on a kayaking trip on Cape Porpoise in Maine, noted that he enjoys geocaching because it takes him to places he normally would not see — and of course because of the competitive aspect.
“It’s about wanting to go out there and keep finding things, it’s a little competition among friends,” he said. James leaves kayaking stickers in each cache he finds if the cache is big enough for something to be left in it.
Among his favorite caches are one he found filled with Chinese toys with both English and Chinese words on them hidden along a bike trail in Chelmsford, Mass., and an ammunition container he found on Interstate 84 in Connecticut painted like a wooden chest and filled with gold coins and other pirate treasures. “It was neat,” James said.
As James enjoys geocaching by snowshoe, mountain bike or kayak, he has found caches hidden away on islands and one underneath a lighthouse on Lake Sunapee.
Curtin began geocaching in December when he got his first handheld GPS as a Christmas present. He has already found 60 caches and hidden five, including one behind the signpost across the street from his house. “Every once in a while I will see people trying to sneak in there and grab it without being seen,” Curtin said, adding that he wants to hide one underwater at a lake this summer. “I would have to put it low enough that a boat won’t take it out but not so deep that you need scuba gear,” he said.
James also favors puzzle caches that involve number sequences and trivia. He said there is a cache on the Minuteman Trail in Bedford, Mass., that requires the seeker to answer questions about signs along the way to pick up digits of the coordinates. A cache in Nashua has a Red Sox theme and requires the seeker to pull the coordinates from a long narrative. That one has eluded James.
“I am somehow just not catching where to put a handle on it, maybe it’s the numbers, the averages, the dates of the games — it comes down to sitting down and doing detective work,” he said. “Nothing has jumped out at me and it’s a pain in the tail because it’s five miles from my house and I’ve been a Red Sox fan since 1974, so I really have no excuse.”
Take your children on a treasure hunt
Geocaching is promoted as a great way to get children off the couch and into nature.
“We live in a much more technological age and kids are growing up with these tools, they use GPS, cell phones and computers on a regular basis, so while it’s appealing to think we could just unplug kids and send them outside, especially for youth, adolescents and younger teens, having those tools as a motivator to get them outside is a great thing,” said Marilyn Wyzga, New Hampshire Fish & Game wildlife educator and coordinator of the New Hampshire Children in Nature Coalition. The Coalition, whose tagline is
“Opening Doors to Happier, Healthier Lives,” is dedicated to reconnecting children and their families with nature.
Wyzga noted geocaching as an activity that gets families into places they might not explore otherwise.
“One of the key things with kids is that you can’t just say ‘go out and play’ anymore and it doesn’t generally work to say let’s go for a walk, but if there’s a ‘to do’ with it … ‘Let’s go geocaching,’ ‘Let’s go find this place somebody else sent us on a treasure hunt to find,’ along the way they will see a new place, be outdoors and discover something else,” she said.
The Great Bay Discovery Center in Greenland promotes geocaching in its “Passport to Great Bay” booklet available at the center. Each page of the booklet is dedicated to a property of the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and lists its natural history, directions, what visitors could see, pictures of trails and coordinates for geocaches.
Inside the geocaches hidden among the Great Bay properties are hole-punchers, each bearing a different shape, so cache finders can punch their passport pages as they go. Geocachers who have collected all 10 punches can turn their passport in at the center year-round for a water bottle that says “I Punched My Way Around Great Bay.”
“I think it was a way to get a whole other audience onto our properties,” said Beth Heckman, Great Bay Discovery Center assistant education coordinator. “We were hoping that the geocaching community, once they went and found the caches, would share the experiences they had on the property with other people.”
Heckman geocaches with her husband and three sons, ages 6 to 12.
“I thought it was a neat activity because all of the places that geocaches are found,” she said. “Some of them are special in some way to the person who hid them there. It is either a special destination for them or a really interesting natural history place … and they’re all outside, so it is a great way to get outside.”
“There is such a movement to get kids outside because of how people are more inside than not now … my kids are hard to get outside, but this is a good way,” Heckman said.
Last winter Heckman put together a geocaching program at the Center that was billed as “Let’s go look for animal tracks in the snow and along the way we can find geocaches hidden on the property.”
The role of gadgetry
“I think geocaching is interesting because it allows the fusion of technology and outdoor activities that really cuts across all age ranges,” Bradt said. “It’s also interesting from an educational standpoint because it makes people think a little more about their place in the world, which people don’t often do on a daily basis.”
Bradt, who conducts GPS workshops for the UNH Cooperative Extension, noted GPS is a wonderful technology but that you still have to be aware of what is going on around you and know that “GPS could tell you a point 180 feet in that direction but it doesn’t necessarily know what is between you and that point.”
“You do have that responsibility, as a user of technology, to be aware of those limitations,” he said.
The only difference between a GPS for hiking and the device found in vehicles is what the manufacturer decided to package it with, Bradt said.
“If you went onto the trails with a car GPS it will still be figuring out where you are because that manufacturer bundled it with road data,” he said. “Trails data doesn’t care where roads are and doesn’t know where roads are depending on the units. [Trail] GPS devices just say ‘Here I am and here is some background and a context map for you.’”
All smartphones have a built in GPS and there is a geocaching app (from free to $9.99) that will show users what caches are around them.
“For those with little or no geocaching experience, [the geocaching app] is a good way to start,” Vannata said. Vannata’s Magellan Explorist GC, a handheld GPS made specifically for geocaching, goes for $150 but he said the basic model usually costs around $80. Geocachers who are into hiking might opt for a topography GPS, which runs from $300 to $400, he said.
“There is no difference in the devices except that some are specifically designed for geocaching,” he said.
Curtin noted that a GPS does more than get you to the cache — it can also get you home.
“Most GPS you can set when you get out of the car and use the parking area as your homing point so if you get lost, you can hit ‘home’ and it will take you back to your car,” he said.