“We should’ve brought gloves,” said Lisa Mullen to her niece Larissa Olson as they poked their fingers through thorny bushes near a house on Gilmore Avenue in Winona, Minn. The two aren’t spending the day gardening; they are searching for hidden treasures.
The treasures Olson and Mullen search for are not gold and jewels, meant only for the hider to find again. They are looking for plastic toys, key chains, bottle caps or anything to make their collection complete. They are geocaching.
Geocaching began 12 years ago and is quickly gaining popularity. The phenomena started because of one man’s curiosity.
In May 2000, when GPS units around the world received a major upgrade the accuracy of GPS technology drastically improved, especially after the government released its selective availability hold. Dave Ulmer, of Oregon, hid a bucket containing several small items near his home and posted the coordinates online to see if anyone would try to find it. His only rule was simple: “take some stuff, leave some stuff.”
Within three days, two people had located Ulmer’s “stash”.
It didn’t take long for geocaching to become an outdoor epidemic that continues to grow in popularity.
The real-world treasure hunting game started with a single hidden stash, and only a couple of players. By fall 2000, it had increased to 75 caches. It is estimated that currently, in 2012, there are over 1.7 million caches hidden throughout the world, and over 5 million registered geocachers. It has become a global phenomenon.
“There’s so many people that really geek out on it,” said Eric Barnard, an outdoor education professor at Winona State University and Winona resident who enjoys geocaching with friends and family in his free time.
He said it can sometimes be difficult to get children moving outside but when his family goes geocaching, his kids don’t even realize they are engaging in physical activity.
His three young children take the bike ride around the lake like champs. Barnard said there is a hand-full of caches around Lake Winona and the treasure hunt keeps his children entertained as they find one cache and begin the search for another.
“It’s a great thing for a family to do,” said Barnard. “If my kids had their way, we’d go every other day. They love it.”
Barnard and his wife love to go hiking. But unlike his wife, Barnard dislikes hiking without a specific destination or reason to do it. He needs something to keep him motivated. Just as geocaching is a method to get his kids active outside, the mini destinations keep him interested in moving.
A GPS unit, such as those found on a cell phone, in a car or a standard hand-held unit, is used to locate caches by typing in specific latitude and longitude coordinates. A cache can be anything from an ice cream bucket to a microscopic magnet camouflaged in well-hidden locations. And they can be anywhere. They may be deep in the woods or they may be in a high-traffic area disguised as an every-day object.
In Winona, Minn., for example, Lisa Mullen, a 46-year-old geocacher and her 22-year-old niece, Larissa Olson, recently discovered a cache that was visible from a sidewalk used nearly everyday by dozens of students dragging themselves to class at Winona State University.
To the students, it looked like nothing more than a bumpy gray rock. But to Olson and Mullen, the rock quickly became a treasure chest as they flipped it over to discover what was inside the hollow decoration.
The caches are usually filled with trinkets or cheap toys as a fun reward for the search.
“It’s all stupid little stuff,” said Mullen referring to the prizes she’s found while geocaching.
When a cache is located, the treasure hunter can swap the prize inside with one from his or her own stash of found treasures.
“I always leave it,” said Olson. “Unless it’s money. Sometimes there’s a penny or a dollar.” But one time Olson found an inflatable hammer she couldn’t resist.
Geocaching.com, a free website used to find caches and share geocaching experiences, will list all the caches in the area after entering a zip code or an address.
This real world, modern treasure hunting game is completely player-based, and leaving a mark on the geocaching world is easy to do.
Anyone can hide a cache. All they have to do is add the new cache’s coordinates online for others to begin searching for it.
Geocaches are rated from beginner to expert, based on the difficulty of the terrain, the size of cache and the amount of people in the area. The difficulty level increases when the opportunity for a “muggle” to take the treasures high. A “muggle” is a non-geocacher that is in the area and could observe the treasure swap.
Mullen recently came across an empty cache that could have been the result of a “muggle” who snagged the toy. She refilled the cache with a fluorescent pink worm for the next hunter.
Some caches are unique. There are video caches, where you go to a certain location to get recorded on camera, or night caches where caches are found by shining a light on hidden reflectors.
“It was really scary,” said Olson referring to a time she got lost in the dark searching for a night cache.
She and Mullen, left the trail and when they turned around, the reflectors were positioned in a way they could not see, making it hard to find their way back.
While cheap toys are most common, some caches contain “travel bugs” or “travel coins” which are used to track where an item is currently located or where it has been.
Mullen said one her favorite caches contained a bride and groom figurine that was said to be traveling on their “honeymoon.” The directions were to move the travel bug to another cache to further the couple’s journey from the West Coast to the East Coast.
Geocaching can provide opportunities to learn the ins and outs of a community. Mullen has lived in Winona for 17 years and since she began geocaching five years ago, she has found over 70 caches. Through her searches, she discovered hiking trails in the bluffs that she didn’t know existed.
The thrill of the hunt appeals to people of all ages and physical abilities and caches are hidden on various terrains. Some accommodate those who seek a challenge, requiring extensive hiking, climbing or swimming, and some caches are located in a place where a wheelchair or stroller could access the path to the treasure. For those really dedicated seekers, some caches are even accessible in winter.
Learning to geocache can be easy because GPS units are becoming simpler to operate and most generations are increasingly more tech savvy and less intimidated by the equipment.
For those afraid to start the adventure on their own, there are “how to” books on geocaching at local bookstores, and free online tutorials about the world-wide hide-and-seek game.
The basics are simple: “If it’s hidden, you can find it; if you hide it, (other players) will seek it.”