Discover the joys of geocaching: using a GPS device to find something stashed by someone else

Gear up: geocaching details

On an overcast afternoon, my wife, my 4-year-old son, and I,along with another family, find ourselves on a tiny rock island onthe edge of Washington's Puget Sound, staring into berry bramblesand chuckholes, picking up logs, and kicking leaf piles. We're on ahigh-tech treasure hunt, searching for a watertight plasticcontainer stuffed with toys, trinkets, and assorted tchotchkes. Ourhandheld, cell phone-size GPS unit tells us it should!

But we haven't found it yet.

We're indulging in the relatively new sport of geocaching: usinga GPS device to find a cache stashed by someone else. Enabled bythe U.S. Department of Defense's decision to discontinue scramblingGPS signals, geocaching has exploded in popularity. In just threeyears, enthusiasts stashed more than 58,000 caches in 177countries.

Geocaching appeals to people's instinct for exploration, saysJeremy Irish, who founded the pastime's popular website,, about fouryears ago. The site is the sport's bible, dictionary, and atlas allin one.

"We're all explorers who want to discover something new, andwhat has always frustrated me is that you can't really do thatanymore ― these days, people even climb Mt. Everest on theirvacations," Irish says. "What you have to do is create your ownadventures, and geocaching is a great way of doing that."

Hiking to find hot wheels

Every great adventure requires planning, and geocaching is noexception. With my friend's GPS unit in hand, we go to thegeocaching website and enter the zip code for the town nearestDeception Pass State Park, a scenic area close to home.

On the website we find clues as to exactly where we'll find thebooty we seek (under a log) and, most important, the exactcoordinates of the cache's longitude and latitude. These we pluginto my friend's GPS unit, which will pick up signals fromsatellites 12,500 miles overhead and lead us straight to theDeception cache.

Back on the overgrown, glacier-scrubbed rock island, beneath the180-foot steel trusses that support Deception Pass Bridge, we startto close in on the prize. After we've hiked about 1/2 mile, the GPSunit tells us we're within a yard of our goal.

My friend's wife Jessica spots it first: a corner of aRubbermaid container poking out from under a log tangled in somesalal. "Why don't you check under that log?" she says, deftlyguiding the boys so they can discover it themselves.

When they do, they scream and squeal with delight. Inside thecontainer, we find Hot Wheels cars, an oversize plastic penny, aminiature baseball, a yo-yo, a deck of cards, a cassette tape ofthe Police, and more.

We also find a Travel Bug, a small stuffed rabbit with atracking tag that enables geocachers to track its progress onlineas it makes its way from cache to cache. This one, called BaltimoreBunny, started in Maryland and, by the time we discover it,traveled throughout the Northeast before making its way toCalifornia and then Washington.

In keeping with geocaching's protocol ― which states thatfinders can be keepers as long as they leave one new object foreach one they take ― my son, Baker, takes a balloon andleaves a toy horse. His friend Kai takes the oversize penny andleaves a toy locomotive.

Finally, in a logbook that's also stashed in the cache, wedetail what we've seen, what we've taken, and what we've left. Thenwe seal up the container, place it back where we found it, andleave it for the next lucky seeker.

Gear up
All you need is access to the Internet, a map, and a GPSunit. Fancy units include internal electronic map databases and cancost as much as $500. A good entry-level one lacks map databasesbut displays coordinates that can be used in conjunction with papermaps. Try Garmin's Geko101 ($113; 800/ 800-1020).

Call the public park or private lands you plan to visit beforeheading out in order to obtain authorization to leave a cachethere. While the National Park Service does not allow geocaching onany of its lands, other parks have their own policies on this formof recreation. Washington's Deception Pass State Park stipulatesthat geocachers are not permitted to hide objects off-trail orbelow ground (no beating back of brush or digging is allowed).

Throughout the West, several geocaching clubs and organizationsare set up to help beginners learn the ropes. Visit foradditional resources.

Central Oregon Geocaching

Southern California Geocachers
Hawaii Geocachers and GPS Enthusiasts

Idaho Geocachers
Utah Cache Games

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