Seeking out the hi-tech treasure hunters

It’s affordable and all you need is a mobile phone with GPS, and a love of the outdoors. No wonder the geocaching craze is spreading. Nick Drainey went in search of a Tupperware box in the heart of Edinburgh and became addicted

THEY are on the top of Ben Nevis, in Antarctica and in the International Space Station. But for many, the millions of hidden stashes containing information and memorabilia in virtually every country on the planet are unseen and unheard of.

Geocaching is said to have begun in May 2000 when computer consultant Dave Ulmer hid a black plastic bucket containing videos, books, food and a slingshot in woods near Beavercreek, Oregon.

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He posted co-ordinates and information about the “Great American GPS Stash Hunt” on the internet and invited people to discover his bucket – which also contained a logbook – using the then new technology of publicly available Global Positioning Systems.

Since then, geocaching, as it has become known, has grown into a global phenomenon with 1.4 million geocachers searching for five million caches worldwide, including 100,000 in the UK and more than 400 in Edinburgh alone.

The caches are usually small plastic boxes with a logbook and pencil, as well as things such as small cuddly toys, badges and books. The idea is simple: find the box by tracking down its exact co-ordinates using a GPS device, write in the logbook and put it back in place – sometimes adding something to the contents.

Ulmer’s original rule of “take some stuff, leave some stuff” epitomises the ethos of geocaching but why do so many take part in this worldwide treasure hunt, marking off as many locations as possible?

Dave Love, from Edinburgh, who adopts the name “Haggis Hunter” when geocaching, says the attraction is getting outdoors, as well as hunting for something.

He says: “For me it was originally the secretiveness and the hidden treasure but it has grown into taking me places I might not have found otherwise.

“I have made quite a few friends through it – it can be solitary and I quite enjoy that part of it, but I also enjoy meeting up with people to find caches and doing a walk.”

Dave has been geocaching since 2003 when he went out with only a map and looked for a cache named Sleepy Hollow next to the Water of Leith. “I was hooked,” he says.

Armed with a GPS, he now enjoys nothing better than spending his spare time finding caches across the country. Among his favourites is one in Argyll named Paper Cave. He says: “I spent a whole day travelling there just to do the one cache in the pouring rain. You walk up a slippery slope and you climb down a rope to get into this cave. It is an open cave but you still need a torch to search for the cache.”

Love is speaking near one of the newest caches, below Edinburgh Castle. The way to find it is slightly different than traditional geocaching as it takes in a route of clues, or a multi-cache – the Glenlivet Legacy Trail. The purpose is to highlight some of the landmarks of Edinburgh such as the Castle, the Usher Hall and the Royal Mile as well as important figures ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson to Ian Rankin.

At the end of the trail is the main cache: a plastic box containing a logbook, pencil and some trinkets, which has been hidden under a pile of stones below the castle.

Love is a fan of the trail: “It gives you some history and a story to follow which is what a lot of multi-caches do.”

Despite being perfectly legal and open to all, secrecy is a large part of the lure of geocaching.

Love says: “You try to keep it hidden from what are known as ‘Muggles’ – people who don’t know about geocaching – and you do that so somebody does not go in afterwards and maliciously trash or remove the cache. So, you try your best not to draw attention to yourself when you are geocaching.”

But is it not all a bit geeky? Not at all: “It can be perceived as being geeky but it’s not, because it gets you out and takes you to places you may not have gone to – a city centre or on top of a mountain.”

Geocaching is a normally peaceful pastime but earlier this year in Wetherby, West Yorkshire police were called after a man was reportedly seen acting suspiciously.

He had a plastic box in his hand which was found under a flower box. Eventually, the street was sealed off and the bomb squad was called to carry out a controlled explosion.

There is etiquette to geocaching to avoid such situations. Permission is key, says Love: “Always seek permission of the landowner or land manager before placing a cache.”

And when you find a cache, always put it back, and log the finding in the book inside and on geocaching.com, the original and most popular website devoted to the activity. Love adds: “If you take something out of the cache, put something in and always try to trade equal (value) or trade up.”

Eric Schudiske from Seattle-based Groundspeak, which runs geocaching.com believes the popularity of the treasure hunt will keep growing.

He says: “As technology becomes increasingly accessible and affordable, we believe that more and more people will choose to participate.”

But why is it so popular? “The journey to a geocache and the experiences that people have with friends and family while geocaching are, to me, the most enjoyable aspects of the activity,” says Schudiske. “What I find exciting about it is that you can be right next to a geocache and not see it, as they are often very cleverly camouflaged.

“There is a victorious feeling when you finally see the geocache that was completely invisible to you a moment before. I am stunned by the creativity of the geocaching community.”

But really it is the simple concept that attracts people. Schudiske says: “Many enjoy geocaching because it is affordable, accessible to every type of person, and keeps people active and outdoors.”

And he really means every type of person: “What is so great about the activity of geocaching is that it is not confined to one type of person. There are all sorts of people who geocache – families, athletes, teenagers, children, grandparents, mountaineers, astronauts, computer scientists, etc. This is what makes the geocaching community so wonderfully diverse and eclectic.”

When it comes to boundaries, obvious locations such as private gardens, schools and wildlife-sensitive areas, are viewed as out of bounds. But most places are potentially fertile ground for a geocacher.

Schudiske says: “Another great thing about geocaching is that the activity can range from extremely easy to extremely challenging. And I mean ‘extreme’ in the strongest sense of the world. There are over 35 geocaches in Antarctica and there are also caches hidden underwater. Then, of course, there is this cache on the Space Station.”

Back on firm ground in Edinburgh Ian Logan, international brand ambassador at The Glenlivet, is in no doubt that the popularity of geocaching was a good thing to team up with.

He says: “Geocaching is a great way for people to get out and about and explore their own cities – we felt it was also a great way to discover a city’s history, heritage and remaining legacy.”

Logan says geocaching epitomises the spirit of George Smith who set up the first legitimate distillery in Glenlivet in 1824, hence the Glenlivet Legacy Trail. Smith was threatened by smugglers but set out on many adventures loading the whisky on ponies and crossing the River Livet under the cover of darkness.

When the trail launched in the summer, 30 so-called “geocoins” were released, each with a trackable serial number. Geocachers are encouraged to take a coin to the next cache they find, and one has already made it as far as Florida.

For Dave Love the point is not about being a “number-hunter” ticking off an ever-growing list of found caches, it is about finding a really good cache in a great location. He says: “The way I see it is that if you go somewhere and you like the place and it is interesting, that is desirable.”

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO GEOCACHING

• Get yourself a GPS device or a GPS-enabled mobile phone so that you can navigate to the cache.

• Search for a cache near your location on www.geocaching.com

• Enter the co-ordinates of the cache into your GPS device or GPS-enabled mobile phone and go out to find it.

• Caches are not hidden near schools, military bases or sites where wildlife might be disturbed.

• If the land where the cache is hidden is privately owned the owner should be asked for permission to go and find it.

• Caches are never buried, so digging is not necessary.

• Caches vary in size and appearance, from plastic containers or film canisters to fake rocks with secret compartments.

• Caches always contain a logbook, but other items are often left in them.

• Explosives, ammunition, knives, drugs and alcohol should not be placed in a cache and food or strong-smelling items are discouraged.

• Do not move a cache from its original location, even if you think it would be better somewhere else.

• If you take something from the cache, leave something of equal or greater value.

• Write about your find in the cache logbook.

• Log your experience at www.geocaching.com