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High Tech Treasure Hunting – Part 1

 

The hobby of Geocaching is described as high tech treasure hunting.   Using a GPS receiver you attempt to find a hide (known as a cache) that someone else hid.   It is also known as spending hundreds of dollars on equipment to find a $2 Tupperware container.   The last sentence isn’t entirely correct however, the hundreds of dollars portion is correct in some cases, but Tupperware isn’t typically used, more likely a lock-n-lock container or an old peanut butter jar!

To Geocache, you need a minimum of two things:

A way to know where the caches are.  
A GPSr to find the cache.

Number one is easy (and free), simply point your browser to www.geocaching.com, which lists millions of caches available around the world.   Number two requires spending some money to obtain a GPSr or you can use your iPhone.   The r is for receiver, everyone calls it a GPS, but if you leave off the r you are technically talking about the Globally Positioned Satellites that orbit the earth.   You can spend under a hundred for a GPSr or slightly less than $300 for the top of the line handheld GPSr (currently the title arguably goes to the Garmin GPS60CSX).   Since that is the model I have, I won’t argue with its reputation.  Also since everyone calls it a GPS anyway, I'll stick with that name.

Geocaches are all over the place.    There is even one just down the road from the MacGroup meeting place.   It is called “Twelve – Dozen” and the GPS coordinates are N 42° 29.944 W 083° 21.058.   Without getting into the science behind coordinates, you just need to know that you need to get from where you are to those coordinates to find the cache.   The caches range in size from micro (I’ve seen them the size of a 22 cal. bullet up to a garbage can.  Once you have your coordinates, you need to upload them to your GPSr.   The folks at geocaching.com have made it pretty easy, you can upload the information directly from their website, or you can download a large batch of multiple cache information in a GPX file to upload to your GPSr with a USB cable.  Please note that a premium membership is required to download a batch or GPX files, the free membership provides single files with a .loc extension.  

Uploading a single cache at a time can be done from a cache page.   Clicking on the button that says "Send to My GPS", will (if your GPS is supported) load the name and coordinates directly into your GPS.  There is a plugin required for your browser (both Firefox and Safari are supported), and most Garmin devices are supported.

 

That is great for one or two, but more typically you are going to load a batch of cache information for an area you are going to, and for that you need an application to send the GPX file to your GPS.   The one I use is called GPSBabel and it is found on www.gpsbabel.org.   GPSBabel is free and is used to convert waypoint data (the coordinates used by a GPS) between different formats and for transferring the data between your computer and your GPS.  The following screen shows GPSBabel at work, basically you provide the path to the file that you downloaded and the device you want to send it to.

Some models of GPS receivers can hold hundreds of Geocache records in its internal memory.   I'll skip over physical details of using your GPS (varies from model to model), but basically your GPS will list how many miles, yards, or feet you are from the cache and you have to take over when you get close.  They are only accurate to around 20 feet in most cases and you will have to rely on your hunting instincts, spider sense, or Jedi powers to complete the task.  I've seen caches that are only a few feet from where my GPS thinks they should be and I've seen them 60+ feet away.   Trees, hills, and accuracy of the two GPS units (hider and seeker) will keep things interesting.  Once you find the cache, you sign the log to prove you found it and then return to geocaching.com to electronically log your visit.

I've told you what you need to get started and I've told you what Geocaching is.  What I haven't mentioned is the why.

Here are several reasons:

  1. It is a hobby that is enjoyed by all ages and is something that families can do together.
  2. It can be good exercise.   I have done long hikes and bike rides while geocaching and the miles and time go much easier when the mind is focused on something else.  Anything that gets me out of the lazy boy can't be bad!
  3. It can take you to places you have never been before.  I've been to both Metro parks and State Parks that I've visited for years, and have discovered parts that I didn't even know existed.   I've also been taken down back roads to vistas that aren't well known that I would never have seen if it wasn't for the treasure hidden there.   Sometimes the cache was just the lure that the person that hid it used to show you this place.

In part 2 I'll explore how the iPhone can be used for Geocaching.

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