If it feels like you’ve already explored every corner of your cramped lockdown life, this is what you know: Right under your nose is a hidden world that is completely out of sight.
This world is geocaching, a touchless game of hide and seek between hundreds of thousands of strangers. Players hide caches – waterproof containers, usually small plastic boxes – in invisible places that others can discover using GPS technology.
How did this world stay completely hidden from you? The first rule in geocaching is that you try to keep your search a secret. When a runner runs by, players can pretend they’re deeply engrossed in plant identification. (If you are familiar with geocaching, you may find how many other people pretend to be intrigued by this ivy stain.)
Geocaching started in earnest in 2000 when the US military adjusted its GPS satellites to improve accuracy for recreational GPS users. An Oregon enthusiast hid the first cache, said Bryan Roth, president and co-founder of Geocaching HQ, which runs Geocaching.com. Since then, the community has grown steadily, and the pandemic has resulted in a significant increase in participation.
“At a time when people are looking for distraction, going outside works really well,” said Roth, who found that logins for the geocaching app are up 70 percent year over year.
First, download an app like Geocaching HQ on your phone (free download and some free caches, but the $ 30 annual membership unlocks more). Cachly ($ 4.99 and free caches, iPhone only); or c: geo (free download and free caches, only for Android). You can also geocache with a portable GPS device and use online databases like NaviCache.com to find cache coordinates.
Caches are rated 1 to 5 based on their difficulty. Beginners may want to start with a 1 and work from there. GPS will usually get you within 30 feet of the cache, and instructions like “look north at the street” can point you exactly where to look.
Then the real hunt begins.
If you find the cache – be it hidden under a tree, hidden in a pile of wood, or glued to the back of a sign – you can check it off in the app. Most caches have hidden a logbook Inside you can see everyone who was there before you, while others contain a piece of jewelry as a treasure. (If you put a few tiny items in your bag before you set off, you have the option to trade with the jewelry inside.)
A particularly nice benefit of geocaching is that it brings screen-dependent children outside. And while geocaching is outdoors, you don’t have to be outdoors.
When a friend suggested that Katie Sweeney and her husband try geocaching for the first time in 2007, she said, “I thought I didn’t really like hiking”. Ms. Sweeney, a Dutch copywriter, soon found many caches within a few blocks of her Philadelphia home. Today she takes her 6 year old daughter to the geocache on her way to or from the grocery store or other errands.
“We are always discovering new places near where we live,” said Ms. Sweeney, adding that children can really be beneficial. Their different perspectives often help them see things that adults may overlook.
Nick Geidner, a professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee, doesn’t mind if a hunt is broke.
“We don’t always find them,” he said. “But if we fail, we can come back and try again.” Henry, his 7 year old son, wasn’t quite so sure. When asked how he was feeling after recently giving up a hunt, he said, “I’m not angry, but I’m not happy.”
However, the thrill of finding a tricky or unique cache far outweighs the unhappy moments. In September, Ms. Sweeney and her daughter found a unique cache that had a playful opening with a maze, a magnetic ball and a secret code.
“It was that little joy,” Ms. Sweeney said, remembering opening the cache. “We’re all just looking for little moments of joy.”