discover geocaching

🕔Sep 07, 2005

They’re here, and you may have seen them.

Initially, these people look harmless, even a bit geeky pouring over hand-held devices that could be taken for cell phones. But their surreptitious movements catch your eye: scanning the landscape before positioning themselves in front of a public webcam…crawling around highway-side brush… examining 20 square metres of park swamp for hours. Digging, even.

Go ahead, ask them what they’re doing, but careful—because you could get swept up in a satellite-mediated game spreading rapidly around the world and recently emerging in B.C.’s north. It’s called geocaching, pronounced “geo-cashing,” which is a hybrid word of “geography” and “cache.”

Geocachers hide weatherproof treasure-filled containers, or caches, in clever locations. They use a GPS unit to determine the site’s co-ordinates, and post them on with clues. Other players use these to locate the bounty, and post their finds on the website.

“It’s a global game of hide-and-seek,” explains Ed Tandy, a 42-year-old geocaching computer programmer from Prince George.

Other than the obligatory logbook, and a written explanation of what geocaching is in case non-geocachers unearth it, a cache could contain anything. Items like tools, pens, flashlights, and small toys are most common, but creative, interactive gifts are also found.

Rob Rompen, a 46-year-old high school teacher from Burns Lake, has found about 30 geocaches in the past two years. His favourite finds include a disposable camera, with a note inviting him to leave his own image behind for the owner, and a CD of original “esoteric” music and commentary.

Some caches are virtual, offering experiential gifts like a great view. There are also webcam caches, which require you to register your image on camera, “offset” caches, which direct you to other caches, and “event caches,” where you might meet other geocachers.

Caches may also contain “travel bugs”: items with a tracking code, meant for transport by geocachers from one cache to another. Garry and Sylvia Hartnell, a Houston couple in their late 40s, set a keychain loose as a travel bug, and it’s now headed to Vancouver Island.

Some owners give their travel bugs missions, which travelling geocachers help them accomplish. Ed gave a lift to a rubber ducky on its way to Stanley Park, and a plastic moose named Tuke, who was last seen heading towards the U.S. Rob spoke of a plastic alien golfer, tasked with visiting as many golf courses as possible, and a cache on a Vancouver Airport runway, which helps travel bugs jump to other continents via their human vehicles.

So who, collectively, are northern B.C. geocachers?

It’s hard to say, because geocachers don’t usually encounter each other in person and are known online only by login names and profiles. Our sample suggests they’re people who like maps, the Internet, and the outdoors. They may or may not use GPS for other purposes, and they’ve come to geocaching in a number of ways.

Rob stumbled on geocaching on the Web, while Ed unearthed it—literally—after watching a man comb a brushy area in Ferguson Lake park. It turned out the man was geocaching, and so were two others who arrived in the next hour.

Sylvia and Garry first heard about it on a documentary. They told Telkwa residents Charla Gingrich, a 27-year-old computer tech and Matt Kilbach, a 30-year-old forestry worker, who were hooked that evening when they learned a cache was 10 minutes from their Tyee Lake home.

“We spent two hours looking for it in the dark, with flashlights, with no luck,” remembers Charla. “So we got up at 6 a.m. the next morning before work to find it.”

The game’s most obvious appeal is an excuse to get out and explore.

“When we drive to Vancouver, we stop for a geocache instead of a coffee,” says Sylvia, who incorporates the game into vacations in Canada and Mexico.

Geocachers say it’s harder than locating co-ordinates on a map, and not only because GPS technology can only pinpoint within 10 metres. Caches are painstakingly camouflaged and you may be required to complete a brainteaser, hike, bushwhack, rock-climb or even dive to get them.

Some enjoy its competitive aspect, and compare their own coups to others’ on

“This one guy in Prince George kept finding caches a few days before me,” relates Ed, who’s found 35 caches—mostly in urban areas—since his family chipped in for a GPS unit last Christmas. “I started thinking: I have to find caches that he hasn’t.”

It’s also enjoyed as a game where teamwork nets wins for everybody. Families love it, and so do many couples.

“We decided to make this something we would just do together,” say Matt and Charla. Last year, they got engaged at a geocache location—some hidden waterfalls off Highway 37.

Everyone agrees that geocaching unlocks secret local gems, such as historic sites, swimming holes, or in one Vancouver Island cache found by Rob, a recommendation to a great local restaurant where every 10th geocacher dines on the bill of the cache owner.

But geocaching also appeals on headier levels. While Ed relishes the thought of communicating with six or more satellites simultaneously, it’s not just technophilia. This high-tech treasure hunt recalls childhood intrigues of hide-and-seek, time capsules, Tom Sawyeresque quests for pirates’ gold, and secret clubs.

“Geocachers tell their friends they’re doing it for the kids, or to hone their GPS skills,” Rob laughs. “Maybe we’re downplaying the ‘play’ aspect of it.”

It’s a little bit Spy Versus Spy, as players track each others’ progress online. “There’s a bit of a mystique around the fact of using login IDs only,” he adds.

“It’s kind of sci-fi,” admits Ed. “You know there’s a cache out there, but no one around you does.”

He found himself confounded by one geocacher, known online as Goldwing, who accomplished ingenious hides. “I had to figure out how this guy thinks,” says Ed.

More than one person observed that by placing something in a cache, you “leave a little piece of yourself behind.”

Time will tell if geocaching is just a fad, but right now, it’s spreading rapidly. On the site, more than 19,000 members geocache in 214 countries. There are 2,340 active caches in B.C.; 16 new caches were placed in the past week alone.

Sylvia and Garry suspect they were the first geocachers in the western Highway 16 communities. They count about 35 in this region now, and estimate more than 100 geocachers in Prince George. And Ed Tandy, who started only three months ago, told two friends, and so on. His colleague recently drew up a flow chart, which showed 10 new initiates as a result of Ed’s contacts alone.

There’s nothing new about people putting new information technology, developed for industrial or political purposes, to use for social ends. As Rob points out, our use of telephones probably evolved the same way. What is new, he continues, is that “people are using billions of dollars worth of technology to hide dollar-store trinkets”—whose real value depends on meaning and context.

Ironically, the game is not really about getting stuff. Token gifts are being offered to strangers, who will likely never meet. Gifts are replaced with items of comparable value, or passed around to other caches.

Geocaching seems to appeal to our need for community, while travel bugs entertain curiosity about how inanimate objects pass through our lives by chance, design or divine intervention.

“It’s like you’re part of the big machine—a group working to achieve a common goal,” says Ed. “And you can watch the results.”

About geocaching

The geocaching community emphasizes environmental stewardship: rules forbid people from placing caches they can’t maintain, and geocachers are encouraged to pick up trash en route.

Basic memberships on are free. Sign up, punch in your postal code and you’ll probably find a cache near you.

GPS units start at about $200.

©Larissa Ardis