Geocaching: The Thrill of the Hunt
By Eric Mohrman
Florida has lured hopeful treasure hunters for a long time, thanks mostly to 250 years of Spanish rule spanning the early 16th to mid-18th centuries. Back then treasure-laden ships sailed the surrounding waters and had an unfortunate habit of sinking, leaving their booty on the ocean floor not too far from shore.
While treasure hunting is a romanticized pursuit, it’s not particularly practical for most families. But for those willing to put aside fantasies of riches beyond their wildest dreams and settle for the thrill of the hunt, there’s geocaching.
Geocaching has been a worldwide phenomenon since 2000, when the accuracy of publicly available GPS greatly improved. People use GPS and mobile apps to locate hidden containers, known as caches (pronounced “cashes” and short for geocaches), which are positioned and maintained by other participants.
Many caches are placed in the woods, parks and other natural areas, though urban sites exist, too. Caches are typically partially obscured by natural materials. For example, they’re often tucked into a log or tree hollow, nestled between large roots, stashed behind rocks, or covered up with stones or twigs and leaves. Others are hidden under bridges, in well buckets, behind ruins, or in and around other manmade structures.
“It’s a lot of fun. If you have kids, you can’t beat it. It’s quality family time when you get out in the woods or get out on the trail and find the hidden treasure,” says Don Hillman, a Lakeland resident and president of the Florida Geocaching Association. The hobbyist group has 1,600 to 1,700 members and regional representatives from all around the state.
Geocaching is a true out-of-doors activity. It provides adventure, intrigue, stimulation, escape, fresh air and exercise for the solo trekker, a couple or the entire family.
Elaine Erickson, owner of the Tampa Bay Geocaching Store in nearby Land O’ Lakes, says, “I think the best part about geocaching is getting out with your family and enjoying the outdoors. It gives us the chance to find new and unusual places we didn’t know existed.”
For Erickson—and for countless others—seeking caches offers “the excitement of the hunt and the thrill of the find, and getting to yell, ‘I found it!’”
But what exactly is “it”?
Caches come in all shapes and sizes. They’re usually in secure, weatherproof containers, such as military ammunition boxes or airtight plastic containers. Sometimes they’re in fake rocks or film canisters or paint buckets. Their contents vary, but always include a log in which successful seekers record their find (caches aren’t removed from their location). Some caches also hold personal items left by other participants, which may be taken as long as they are replaced with another item of equal or greater value. The items inside caches are known as “swag,” which stands for “stuff we all get.”
In addition, many caches contain items that can be tracked on geocaching websites like Geocaching.com and OpenCaching.com. Individual sites have their own specific items; the former offers trackable Geocoins and Travel Bugs, for example. These items are relocated from cache to cache as they’re found by participants, and each has an ID number used to register and follow its movements, be they local, national or international.
Signing up with a geocaching website provides access to a list cache locations. Generally, the sites also allow members to publish profiles and register their discoveries, offer discussion forums, sell various apps and goods, and more.
Hillman says a $10 app from Geocaching.com is all anyone needs to get started. Like a lot of geocachers, he’s retired military. He was first involved in orienteering, which involves reaching control points using the old-school method of following maps and a compass. After geocaching came to his attention in 2004, Hillman was quickly hooked. He’s since logged just under 11,000 cache finds and estimates there are at least 2,500 caches hidden in Polk County alone.
Hillman also places caches for Trek Ten Trails, a program sponsored by the Friends of the Parks Foundation, and creates “letterbox” instructions (clues for those who don’t use GPS) for finding them.
Trek Ten Trails is a nonprofit founded in 1993 to support and promote parks and outdoor recreation in Polk County. The goal is for participants to hike at least 10 of 16 trails around the county and locate the cache at the end of each one. The caches contain a stamp used to verify trail completion; hikers can pick up a stamp card at any Magnify Credit Union, Polk County Public Library, Polk County Parks and Recreation office, Circle B Bar Reserve, or Polk Outpost 27.
Marian Ryan, president of the Friends of the Parks Foundation, explains that Trek Ten Trails was started to encourage area residents to get off the couch and outside to appreciate nature, and that it was partially inspired by Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods.
“Polk County has such fabulously diverse natural areas in conservation, and we have terrific municipal parks that are appropriate for geocaching-type activities. We decided to create a program to showcase all that,” Ryan says.
Trails used in the program range from approximately 0.5 to 2 miles. “We want people to get a good flavor for the properties we’re featuring,” Ryan adds.
There’s even a trail at Bok Tower Gardens. Anyone presenting a card with at least four stamps gets free admission.
Ryan says people from all over Polk County and the world take part in Trek Ten Trails. She’s aware of participants from many states, all over Canada and at least twenty other countries.
Trails may be hiked any time of year, or people can go on scheduled, guided hikes offered by Ryan, usually with her husband, and Hillman. These are recommended for single hikers and those with physical limitations who need assistance for safe completion of the trails.
Ryan sees a lot of couples, families, and veterans taking part, and says the program is popular with snowbirds, too. Large groups, including scout troops and neighborhood associations, often hit the trails as well.
Every November, an annual celebration winds up one season and kicks off the next. Those who accumulated ten or more stamps over the past year attend a potluck breakfast at which commemorative geocoins and certificates of completion are given out.
Geocaching events are common, as the activity fosters a highly active and interactive community.
“We all know each other,” says Hillman of local geocachers. He attends a number of events throughout the year, where “we just get together and talk geocaching.”
Erickson adds that attending events and meeting new people is another of geocaching’s primary draws. She says there’s usually at least one geocaching event in the region every weekend throughout the year, and that there are approximately 4,000 caches and at least as many geocachers in the Tampa Bay area.
“I’ve been geocaching since 2008, when I saw a newspaper article about it and thought it sounded fun to do, which it is!” Erickson recounts.
As for the people who find their way into her retail establishment, “I’ve gotten customers from all over the U.S., plus other countries including Norway, Germany, and Spain. That’s what I enjoy about geocaching—it’s the universal hobby!”
Her Tampa Bay Geocaching Store offers all sorts of merchandise and accessories for participants. Geocoins are best sellers there, as they are popular as collectibles and for placing in caches and tracking as they make their way around the state, country and the globe.
Geocaching is unique way to don the adventurer’s cap, engage with the environment and take a breather from everyday life, whether participating locally, as a world traveler or anywhere in between. It’s a fun way to get physical activity and bond with loved ones. And, as Hillman puts it, geocaching “gets the kids away from the TV and gets them outside into nature to explore the world.”