From the History of Geocaching:
On May 3, one such enthusiast, Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant, wanted to test the accuracy by hiding a navigational target in the woods. He called the idea the "Great American GPS Stash Hunt" and posted it in an internet GPS users' group. The idea was simple: Hide a container out in the woods and note the coordinates with a GPS unit.
The finder would then have to locate the container with only the use of his or her GPS receiver. The rules for the finder were simple: "Take some stuff, leave some stuff."
On May 3rd he placed his own container, a black bucket, in the woods near Beaver Creek, Oregon, near Portland. Along with a logbook and pencil, he left various prize items including videos, books, software, and a slingshot. He shared the waypoint of his "stash" with the online community on sci.geo.satellite-nav:
N 45 17.460 W 122 24.800
Within three days, two different readers read about his stash on the Internet, used their own GPS receivers to find the container, and shared their experiences online.
There's more to it but as with any geek hobby, you can probably guess it was a core group of enthusiasts on usenet which actually got the whole thing started.
Arguably geocaching really has its roots in hunting and similar off-trail hiking type activities. The other geek outdoors simulator - Oregon Trail (requires IE) - highlighted the problem. "You have shot 768lbs of meat, but you could only carry 100lbs back to the wagon". While the official announcement on Selective Availability (a process by which GPS signals are degraded for civilian applications) implies that the motivation was commercial, most people who could afford a GPS system also had the requisite license to use non-degraded signals. Aircraft, large boats, trains and large commercial transportation fleets were already using the GPS system. But what if you were a hunter? Or perhaps you really enjoyed camping far off trail? In a flat area, topographical maps are hard to use because of a lack of geographical landmarks. In a hilly area, things are better unless the hills are obstructed by deep woods. The solution was GPS, and by the year 2000, over 4 million units had been sold to noncommercial users.
Even before that, GPS was no stranger to people who had to be in virtually unmapped places with poor visibility. The US implemented a system of radio beacons with clock syncronization called LORAN in the early 1940s. It is still in use in its third form called LORAN-C today by the US Coast Guard. Typically the radio operator in a unit of soldiers would carry the LORAN unit which had a run time of 15 minutes total and weighed over 100lbs. Thankfully, things have been evolving since then and a typical GPS unit has a battery life of about 20 hours and weighs under 1 lbs. GPS also has made the jump to Europe. While LORAN is known in Europe thanks to World War 2, European GPS satellites work the same way the American system does. The key difference is the frequency the system operates on. In America, look for a GPS unit with WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) and in Europe, the same functionality is called EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service). From a user perspective, they are the same thing and the only important thing to note is that a GPS unit from one corner of the world will not work in the other unless labeled as such.
Types of Caches
You can browse the offical list if you would like but I have my own take on the local flavor here.
Traditional Cache: Almost always an ammo can. You can buy these at any military surplus shop and there are quite a few in the Philadelphia area. It is customary to place stickers over the original ammo designation so it can be recognized as a cache. Generally bad things happen when non-cachers ("muggles") run across caches in places they don't expect to find them. Traditional caches also come in the form of plastic film containers which only hold a log book. These generally stay out of the way and rarely generate trouble although they get cleaned up fairly often by the muggles.
This is usually the most fun and the most challenging. It is a series of Traditional Caches (usually the film canister or "micro" type) which leads to an ammo can. The hardest Multi-Cache in Pennsylvania is called Dr Strangelove and is held in high regard for its unusual tour of the state park and innovative hides. The first and only clue will bring you to a phone pole with a serial number plate on it. Behind the serial number plate (affixed with velcro) is a printed and laminated label with the next set of co-ords. This is considered the easiest of the Strangelove hides.
This is not a geocache. While GeoCaching.com lists letterboxes, this is really an import from LetterBoxing.org and not something GroundSpeak came up with. I have tried a few of the letterboxes on GC.com and they are generally a traditional cache with a rubber stamp added to it. This is a point of contention among the older cachers who came into the sport before the different cache-types. The original spirit of Geocaching.com was to find caches with GPSs. There was nothing wrong with using topographical maps, but letterboxing is much more about clues and general locations instead of finding a specific set of co-ordinates. As such, letterboxers generally hate geocachers and geocachers generally hate letterboxers. If you want to try the sport but would rather not buy a GPS just yet, try letterboxing over at Letterboxing.org and use their community. Letterboxes are a decidedly different flavor and require localized knowledge of an area whereas geocaches are better for finding new areas or large parks.
Usually this is a BBQ. I steer clear of these as the discussion in the local groups tends to be environmentally oriented or how we killed the Native Americans. People sometimes bring along their Earth Based Religion tracts and other wacky stuff. There is a sub-type here called a Mega Event which is the same thing. Quite frankly I don't give a damn.
Cache In Trash Out Event
This usually does not require a GPS to find and is a form of environmental activism. As the name implies, the event is clean-up oriented and popular in more urban areas where people are more prone to litter. When used effectively, it strengthens relationships between the local park authority and raises awareness of the sport. Many geocaches have been placed after CITO events which cast the group in a positive light with the local park service. When used improperly, this event has proven a burden to the regular users of the park who may be trying to get away from people in general and are wary of large groups of strangers walking along the trails. Your mileage may vary, but the same fruitcakes handing out the tracts on the Kyoto Treaty at the Event Caches may also leave a bad taste in people's mouths at the CITO events.
Mystery or Puzzle Cache
Really this is another nod towards letterboxing. The letterbox-style mystery caches involve history. A local mystery cache in PA involved finding a house built during the colonial era of America which was recently moved for the construction of a highway and had me at the local library reading microfiche for hours on end. The geocaching flavor of a mystery cache involves either being at a location during a certain time ("Where does the beam of sunshine shown through the Holy Crystal of Jesus land to find the Ark of the Covenant hidden in the abandoned rail stations") which requires a fairly robust GPS or involves math games with latitude and longitude. If you enjoy cryptography, you will probably enjoy this type of geocache.
Virtual Cache (obsolete)
This type of cache required users to take a photo of something at a specific place. Virtual Caches original intent was to get people to interesting places which would not accommodate a geocache. Back when I was living in Philadelphia, I had a virtual cache at an underground Asian market. Obviously the GPS doesn't work underground so it provided an ideal virtual. To claim it, you had to take a picture of the market. These type of caches have been moved to WayMarking.com which is also owned by Ground Speak. A good example of a waymark is Artillery Battery 223 which I placed as a waymark since the structure is too unsound to support a geocache.
There is nothing to find minus the webcam. It is a waymark for people too lazy to bring along their own camera.
Locationless (Reverse) Cache (obsolete)
Yet another sore spot among the older geocachers, Reverse Caches evolved out of benchmark hunting. More innovative uses involve tracking species at a wildlife park or finding certain makes and models of rare cars. The first locationless cache which I can recall was finding abandoned telegraph stations.
Earth Cache (obsolete)
Waymarking with a eco-theme. Make Captain Planet proud.
Buying a GPS
The first and most important suggestion I have is to actually go to the store and pick up a GPS. If you cannot figure out the interface quickly and easily, or the unit feels strange in your hands or heavy to your grasp, look at a different unit. The last thing you need is a unit you would really rather leave in the car or you would have to sit in the park and read a manual to use. Garmin makes a nice interface which people can pick up on quickly. Magellan's units are generally more feature-rich and the software is more robust, but have a higher learning curve. If you want to spend once, buy a Magellan. If you want to buy an "intro unit" or have separate GPS units for your car and hiking, I suggest the Garmin brand.
The second thing to look at is the licensing of the maps. Neither Garmin nor Magellan units are particularly useful in their base state. Garmin sells addons via "map keys" which you plug into their software or the unit. Magellan simply sells map CDs (and there are a few third-party vendors you can purchase maps from). If you think you want more detail, grab the Magellan. If you think you just want no-frills quick-and-dirty, grab the Garmin. The Magellan units have the added bonus that their firmware can be flashed to different functions. The air-nav firmware can be used in place of the land or water nav firmware to convert the GPS to a totally different function. The Magellan units also offer "straight line" navigation for hiking or "turn by turn" for driving without reflashing the unit or changing the map.
Finally, look at the expandable media port. Geocaching generally requires lots of memory to keep all those waypoints in memory and you are going to want to have upgradeable memory. Find a unit which accepts memory you already own such as SD or CF.
There are two types of GPS antennas. At this point the firmware is good enough in the units that the antenna is really no concern. It used to be that helix antennas were better at keeping the signal through the trees and patch antennas were better at locking on quickly and not as quirky about how you held the unit, but at this point the units are designed so well that it makes little difference. If you want to have the best of both, buy a GPS with an internal patch antenna and buy an external helix antenna to plug in or visa versa. With WAAS or EGNOS, you probably will not notice the difference.
Do not buy a PDA or car-GPS unit for geocaching, these units do not have any method of entering a waypoint.
Other Considerations for Deep Woods Caching
You can skip these if you plan on staying fairly close to home. For people planning long caches, here is what I carry.
Pack extra batteries. Some GPS units also offer solar chargers you can sling over your back but do keep in mind most hiking and caching is done under the cover of trees. Pack enough batteries to be lost for a week.
Pack a first aid kit. This should include a way to build a fire, a way to purify water, a snake-bite kit and a topical rub for thorns and poison plants. You also want to tuck a gun in here if your jurisdiction allows it and you are comfortable with it. In Pennsylvania, we have coyotes, wild dogs, hogs, bears and big cats. You are delicious to all of these and you are in their back yard when you are out hiking the deep woods. It is also much easier to shoot snakes compared to beating them to death and possibly wondering if you have the right anti-venom. In a real emergency miles into the woods, you can also hunt with it.
Wear blaze-orange. This makes you visible to hunters and makes it easy for rescue workers to find you should you need them. Resist wearing military surplus or pack a spraypaint can of blaze orange paint to mark the ground near you. The paint is much smaller than a tarp and it also is flammable.
Carry a Radio. Resist the urge to buy a radio which gets TV stations and NOAA weather alerts and such nonsense, buy a radio which will help you establish contact if you get hurt in the woods. Cell phones generally do not work where most of the real tough caches hide. There are two features to have in a radio: FRS (which does not require a license) frequencies and GRMS (longer range, requires a license) frequencies. GRMS has an emergency channel which allows you to communicate to the local wildlife service and FRS is a short range, unlicensed series of frequencies which allow you to talk to your caching buddies or just other people in the woods. Avoid CB radios as these require licenses and portable HAM radios which usually have too long of a range to be useful for a local emergency. The radio should have at least an 8 mile range for GRMS and should take the same batteries as your GPS. Motorola TalkAbouts can be had on the cheap from eBay.
Halloween: A Crum in My Cache
Neat little adventure when geocaching. Normally I don't have a problem being out in the woods or on the trail after dark. We've had a few good laughs from playful foxes stalking us but beyond that, nothing weird.
That all changed when we went to "crumbhenge" on geocaching.com. It's a short walk across some train tracks onto questionably legal territory. I'm not entirely sure about the legality or the safety of running across a train bridge in the dead of night.
On the drive up there, we encountered patches of strong ground fog and the cars thermometer was giving me readings all over the place. It's rare due to the trans-cooler being right next to the temp sensor and normally it deadens the entire thing, especially after the engine/trans gets warm. As my partner (LawnGnomeHitman on geocaching.com) watched the GPS, I saw what I thought was someone crossing the road and had to haul on the brakes. I had thought some drunken college kid was crossing the road (if we're any indication, that's not a reach) and was about to plaster themselves all over my hood. Turned out to be fog; The image disappeared as we crossed by it, swerving and cursing.
On the trail, the GPS was just acting strangely the closer we got. It was working, then it wasn't. You get near the river and it entirely bugs out. I can understand the compass having problems near the bridge as it's probably slightly magnetic from the earth itself, but the GPS would have 6 birds in view and still be pointing straight away from the cache.
At the cache site, it looked interesting enough. I had initially mistook it for a colonial graveyard due to the tall, thin worn stones and their seemingly unkempt arrangement. You can just imagine the horror of walking out of the woods, into a clearing, and seeing what appears to be an unkempt graveyard. To top it off, there's a long stone bench in the middle which looks like it's the perfect size for an adult to lay in. (It's clearly a bench if you bother to push the brush away). I checked all the stones and there is no obvious writing on them. However, me and Gnomey separated to try and find the cache (the GPS was too bugged out to be useful at this point despite clear view of the sky and we quit trying). Immediately a thick ground fog moved in and the temp dropped quickly enough I was seeing my breath. It was cold enough to shiver if you quit moving. My light -- a 10 LED tac style lamp -- refused to push through it. We lost the river, which we knew split in several places around there, despite knowing it should just be over the hill. In short, we're lost, trapped in thick fog, separated, and we've both confirmed the place feels uneasy. That's a first for our many night caches. I've played a lot of paintball games at night in the woods and other stupid after-hours hiking on hunting trips, and it was different from the normal paranoia. It was just a feeling of 'wrong'.
Gnomey actually went back up the hill to go bang the GPS against some rocks (read: "talk some sense into it") and try to get a signal from the top of the hill or something. As it was impromptu, we didn't have our radios along, and I didn't know he was headed back up the hill. I distinctly saw someone run in front of me and, assuming Gnomey had lost his lamp and was trying to find me by mine, I yelled "Trav!" No response. "TRAV". No response. "TRAVIS. WHERE'S YOUR FUCKING LIGHT". I figured I would try to tip him off before he located that creek the hard way. Gnome continued running full tilt into the fog and I waited to hear the inevitable splash "GOD DAMNIT".
Except, from my left I hear, "Josh, I'm over here." Sure enough, he's halfway up the hill with his light on wondering why the heck I'm yelling at him to turn on his lamp. Incidentally, he got a signal and the fog cleared and we figured out he was standing almost on top of the cache. We felt OK around the cache, and all our gear worked and the fog cleared, but stepping back into the circle got the feeling back...
For members only: Wildman Creek
Pulpit Rock Cache
We made plans to go camping and hike to both peaks Friday night into Sunday afternoon. It would be cold as heck but the AT lets you camp so long as you're not visible about the trail and keep your fires small. That idea got killed with Friday's rain, so we rescheduled for Sat. The plan was to lug the tent from Blue Rocks up the blue trail, pitch it up there wherever we could find some ground, and use that as our camp for doing these caches.
We hit a problem when the Blue Rocks site said they would charge us for hiking passes. The Camp Guy was quite helpful in saying we could park at the reservoir up the road and leave the car to hike in. He gave us directions, he's a pretty nice guy. We get to the reservoir and there's a sign that says no overnight parking without a passes, so we book it back to Blue Rocks. He says they're trying to scare people, but I don't feel like dealing with it and we plunk down for hiking passes and we're told that if we're camping somewhere inappropriate, they'll ask us to move.
We get to the bottom of the blue trail and my SO is saying she's already tired. After some deliberation, we decide to get a camp site. We throw down the tent, and I toss my not-trail-items in the tent which leave me with essentials. LawnGnome does the same, and keeps his light and batteries in his camelback.
Sprite says she's ready, and we cross the rock-field. It was actually pretty cool and I enjoyed the walk across and over it. I took some pictures we'll post later when I get them developed. We made our way up the blue trail to the AT. Sprite finally says she needs a rest and feels ill about 2/3rds of the way up the mountain. After some back-and-forth about that, I finally figure out its because she didn't drop off the canned food at camp and I took the food out of her pack and transferred it into mine. I assign Gnome to carrying the rest of it (sorry man, but thanks again), and we proceed up the rock.
The other side of the mountain proved a lot less windy and a lot easier to travel, so we stopped a bunch. We got to the first rocky outcropping where Sprite decided to take a breather between two of the rocks while me and lawngnome looked for the cache. I went off to snap some photos which I will be posting at some point, and LawnGnome tore up the mountain looking for the cache. Sprite eventually caught up.
LawnGnome found it, and we signed the logs real quick and did an exchange. I didn't get a chance to drop off the travelbug, but I'm saving that for the other mountain. We went back down and by this time, it was getting dark. By the time we hit the rock-field, the sun had set. We tried crossing the rock field twice at night to shortcut our way back to camp but it didn't turn out right. Here's a hint: If you can't cross the rock-field, look for the blue blazes which run next to it. Walk straight away from the rock field. You'll hit the dirt road and you can walk that back to camp.
We got back and started a fire. Tossed some cans of soup in the fire and added cheez-its to the broth. We settled back down into the tent, and I'm thanking Maiden, Mother, and Crone that I got my combat boots back after those rocks, and tried to sleep. No sooner did I finish setting in then Gnome has his sleeping back zippered over his head and he's having worm-wars with me and Sprite.
We settled down, and they complained they couldn't sleep in the 20F, I seemed to sleep OK except I kept finding rocks with my back and rolled over every hour or so. Morning came. We compared notes on sleeping and energy levels and they both told me they weren't ever going camping with me again in the winter and they were in no condition to do the other cache. They used words like "insane" and "trying to get us killed", so I'm going to assume they were having fun.