Cache me if you can

I’ve been in a few conference presentations lately where the topic of geocaching has come up.  Usually, the presenter asks the question “who knows about geocaching?” and about three hands go up.  The presenter then tries to give a quick explanation about it for those who haven’t heard about it – “it’s like a treasure hunt”, or “it’s a game where people hide things for others to find”, or other similar explanations.  While these summaries are mostly accurate, they don’t really give enough information and many people seem interested to know more about it.

Thanks to a long involvement with 4WDing, I’ve been playing with GPS and digital mapping for a while now, and I’ve done quite a bit of geocaching over the last few years, including placing our own.  When I started I was using a Garmin GPS V, a great little GPS that can basically do it all – multiple datum switching, realtime path tracking, waypoint extrapolation – you name it, it does it.  Trouble is, it’s not connected to the web, so “going geocaching” had to be a preplanned activity.  I had to look up geocaches in advance on the official website at, print out all the information sheets, and then manually enter the GPS coordinates into the Garmin.  Once the cache was found, when I got back home I had to go back to the website to report the cache found.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun with a terrific little iPhone app called, simply, Geocaching.  On the 3G connected and GPS enabled iPhone, you can pull the device out of your pocket, press the Find Nearby Caches button and it will take your current GPS coordinates, go to the website and find all the nearby caches. Pick one, and the app will grab all the relevant data, draw a map, plot your position and the position of the cache, give you a compass to guide you, and it will lead you right to the cache. Once you find it, you have the ability to report the find directly in the app, making it a seamless end-to-end experience. Although the iPhone app lacks some of the more sophisticated features that a “real” GPS offers, the convenience factor that comes from being able to do the vast majority of geocaches anywhere, anytime, without any special preparation, makes up for these shortcomings.  It’s not free, but for me, has been well worth the $12.99 it cost me on the Apple app store.

Linda and I were out walking today so, geeks that we are, I pulled the iPhone out and did a quick search to find that there were two caches within 500 metres of where we were. We found them both of course, but on the second one, I made this short video that hopefully explains a little more about geocaching and how it works.

If you haven’t tried geocaching yet, give it a go.  It gets you out into the fresh air, is an interesting use of technology, and most of all it’s great fun.  I reckon it offers some terrific opportunities in education, and is a way to integrate technology in a really hands-on way that brings a whole lot of skills together – mapreading, fitness, resourcefulness, even a bit of maths. I’ve always had a hard time getting it introduced into schools because a class set of GPS units can be a bit expensive, but with the development of apps like Geocaching for the iPhone (and similar apps for other devices, such as Geocache Navigator on Nokia S60 phones) maybe it’s not such a stretch for kids to have these tools on their own phones instead.

What’s that? What do you mean your school bans phones!?

Placing our first Geocache

A while back, I went geocaching with my daughter Kate.  We spent quite a while hunting for an elusive cache not far from where we live but we thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being outdoors in the sunshine, using GPS technology to have a bit of real world fun. In fact we enjoyed it so much that after we signed the cache’s logbook and returned to the car to drive home, Kate asked if we could place our own cache some time for other people to find.

What a great idea.  I’ve been wanting to place a cache of my own for a while, but Katie was the impetus I needed to actually do it.  So, no time like the present, we took a detour on the way home and went via the local Dollar Store, picked out a suitable plastic container, a handful of inexpensive trinkets to include inside it, and a small notebook to use as the logbook… all this for less that $20 (and it could have been much less if we weren’t being extravagant with the trinkets)

We went home, printed out the official geocaching note to include in the cache, and packed it all into the box.  Now it was just a matter of finding a good place to stash it.

I had an inclination to stash the cache in a nearby park, somewhere I could keep an eye on it, but a few walks through the park didn’t turn up any really good hiding places.  Consequently, the cache sat on my shelf at home for several months while I got distracted by other things.

However, today was such a nice day that we decided to finally go hide the cache. After a last minute spray with some green paint (didn’t want to make it too easy to find!) we went to a lovely little park near our old house, in fact the same park where I used to play as a kid.  Sure enough, with a bit of hunting we found a perfect spot to hide it… not so obvious that it would be found by passers by, but not so impossible that a keen geocacher couldn’t find it.  We called our cache “Childhood Memories”… if you’re ever in the area, see if you can find it!

There is a real sense of fun and adventure when you go geocaching.  Making our own caused us to think hard about the placement of the box, where would be a good spot, how to find the right balance between making it too hard and too easy, not to mention the physical act of actually getting to the place where we hid it.  It was good fun…  here is a short video I shot on my phone just after we placed it.

I’m really pleased that Katie has taken on the role of being my geocaching buddy.  On the way home we had to drive past another cache, so we decided to stop and have a quick look for it.  Although I had my regular GPS with me (a Garmin GPS V) I thought I’d try finding this cache using only my new Nokia 95 phone’s built-in GPS.  I was a little doubtful that the GPS in a phone would be good enough for this sort of thing, but I was running Geocache Navigator and wanted to try it out.  As it turns out, it was spot on, and I mean exactly spot on.  A very impressive mobile app, and super easy to use.

If you haven’t tried geocaching yet, give it a go.  I can see it being a great activity for kids, as evidenced by Kate’s enthusiasm for it.  It manages to combine a bit of technology use, some outdoor adventure, resourcefulness and higher order thinking skills, physical fitness and just generally having some fun.

Having my own daughter as a geocaching buddy makes it even more special.