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It started out as a travel game for gadget geeks. The gadget, in this case, is GPS, or Global Positioning System. Using several satellites, GPS allows you to pinpoint your location to within a few feet. When the government gave civilians access to the technology, some folks made a sport of it. A high-tech treasure hunt called Geocaching. Correspondent Jeff Tyler has this peek into a growing subculture.


By Jeff Tyler, 5/17/2002

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Nothing Charlie Craig likes better than an excuse to be outdoors on a day like today: 80 degrees, sunny, a clear view of Los Angeles from the trail head in the Hollywood Hills. His wife Donna didn't need to be pushed either.

Donna: "Beats cleaning the garage."

But the kids want something more -- an objective.

Charlie: "We've turned on the GPS unit, boys. It says we are only .28 miles from where we have to go."

Where do they have to go? Charlie already knows the exact longitude and latitude of their destination. He's plugged that info into his GPS unit.

Charlie: "So, once you had that level of accuracy, a couple of people came up with concept of seeing if they could mark a particular location, and other people could find their way their just using one of these. Leading them to interesting places. And the result was this sort of game began."

Now, players around the world can log on to Geocaching.com, and find the coordinates for caches hidden in 97 countries. Some fans really get off on the high-tech aspect of the game, but that's not Charlie.

Charlie: "I think this started out as a real geek sport. But I don't consider myself a geek. We're a fairly normal family out here hiking with our dog. There are a certain number of people who are really concerned with being the first person to find the cache, and the minute it comes up on the Web site, they're out there at daybreak the next day, rushing to be the first person to sign in."

Being first isn't a big motivation for this family. But another aspect of the game does provide a special incentive for the kids. Following the satellite signals to the point where the digital X marks the spot, geocachers will discover a bunch of cheap trinkets left especially for them. I ask the 11-year-old Jack what he expects to find.

Jack: "We're really hoping to just find a big box full of stuff."

Jack has always liked hiking, even without the gimmicks. But his 8-year-old brother Tom is a different story.

Charlie: "The greatest thing is that Tom, here, did not used to be a big fan of taking hikes. And we would always say, 'Let's take a hike.' And Tom would say 'Noooo.' But now, for some reason..."
Wife: "The big box."
Charlie: "The big box, exactly. You know, there's no complaints."

Now, hiking along in the sunshine, the family can't seem to get enough of this sport. This is their 22nd geocaching adventure in less than 2 months.

Charlie: "I'm in the currently obsessed phase."
Wife: "On vacation, we did what? Ten of 'em on vacation in one week."

During a recent trip to Northern California, they made geocaching side trips. Charlie remembers one particular excursion that helped break up a foggy 6-hour drive on Interstate 5.

Charlie: "That was called the 'I Hate I-5 Cache.'"

Almost 10,000 caches have been planted around the world. Some folks travel specifically to pursue this sport. Sometimes it's just the prizes that travel, as players move specially designated objects from cache to cache. But not all caches are created equal.

Charlie: "Some of them are at the end of 3-mile hikes, with a thousand-foot elevation gain. Other ones are just little walks on the beach. You have to do your research to find which is this one that the kids are really going to want to do."

The research comes from the Web site. Just plug in your zip code and the site lists directions to the starting point and the coordinates of the cache. You can even find out who placed it there and what's in it. Other than that, all you need to play is a $100 investment in a GPS unit.

Charlie: "500 feet that way."

Satellites guide our machine as we close in on the big box.

Charlie: "Ok, look, now it says we're getting further away from it. Now, it says we're at 94 feet."

Tom and Jack scurry off into the dry brush. The older brother normally has the better eye for this stuff -- but not this time.

Tom: "I found it."

With a little help from dad, Tom locates the white Tupperware container under a tree, just out of site from the trail.

Charlie: "Oh my gosh, this looks like an exciting one, doesn't it?'
Kids: "Sure does."
Charlie: "Oh, a dog bone. Sunglasses. Yaaay!"

I suggest that we take all the stuff, which is easily worth $5 on the street. But apparently, that's not how it's done.

Donna: "You take one thing, and you leave one. And you have to record what you took and what you left."

Mom and dad leave a tiny padlock and a toy car. In return, Tom keeps the pink key chain, and Jack walks away with a plastic ball. But for Charlie, that's not what geocaching is all about.

Charlie: "To us, the most successful one is you find yourself someplace that you've never been before, and you look around and you say, 'Man, I can't believe I've lived in this city for 20 years and I've never come to this park. This is really beautiful.' What you find, in addition to that, is sort of secondary as far as I'm concerned."

But this patch of wilderness in the middle of the city probably didn't seem all that beautiful to Jack just then. He found out the hard way that bees don't like having their hive attacked with a stick.

Jack: "Three bee stings. Ahh, it stung me. They're mad at me. They're stinging me all over."

The life of an intrepid geocaching explorer doesn't come without risks. In addition to the three bee stings, Jack has already survived poison oak on another outing. Tom got a tic once, and twice fell into some muck. But that's small price to pay for some odd trinkets that keep the kids happy. And for mom and dad, geocaching creates an excellent excuse to travel and get in a little hiking.

In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for The Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources:


Buxley's Geocaching Waypoint

Geocaching with NaviCache

Geocaching Worldwide

International Orienteering Federation

Orienteering Online

Orienteering Unlimited http://www.orienteeringunlimited.com/

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