By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
Geocaching: Geography in the Hunt
A new kind of hunter is lurking in our woods and parks, in our parking lots and shopping malls. This hunter is called a geocacher and is usually part of a team (most likely his or her own family) using a hand-held global positioning system (GPS) unit to locate a hidden stash or cache.
This hunter isn’t trying to put food on the table, but is having fun playing a game filled with technology and some good old-fashioned “treasure” hunts. It’s called geocaching (pronounced “geo-cashing”) and it is intriguing many throughout the country and around the world.
Geocaching is an entertaining adventure game for GPS users. The basic idea of geocaching is that individuals or organizations set up caches (hidden “treasures”) all over the world and then post their geographic coordinates on the Internet. GPS users can then use the location coordinates to find the caches. Once found, a cache may provide the geocacher with a wide variety of rewards. If the visitor receives a reward from the cache, he is asked to leave something in return. It’s that simple–or is it?
Geocaching sounds deceptively easy. However, geocachers claim that it’s one thing to see the coordinates locating a cache, but it’s another thing altogether to actually get there and find it.
The United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) is the most widely accepted fully functional Global Navigation Satellite System in existence at this time. The GPS system is made up of at least 24 medium earth orbit satellites that transmit precise microwave signals allowing a GPS receiver to determine its location, speed, direction and time. Other similar systems are the Russian GLONASS (global coverage completed in 2011), the upcoming European Galileo positioning system (partially operational), the proposed COMPASS navigation system of China (fully operational by 2020) and the IRNSS of India (functional over India by 2015).
Developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, GPS is actually called NAVSTAR GPS. The satellite constellation is managed by the Air Force with a cost of about $750 million a year, mostly for the replacement of aging satellites and research and development.
While the Department of Defense has been experimentally using satellites since 1960, use by civilians was restricted until 1983. In that year, a Korean Airlines flight strayed off course and was shot down for entering restricted Soviet airspace. All 269 people on board were killed. It was thought that the incident could have been avoided if the Korean pilots had better navigational tools.
After the incident, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making the GPS available for free commercial and civilian use for the common good of the world.
Since then, GPS has become a widely used aid to navigation worldwide and a useful tool for map-making, land surveying, commerce and scientific uses. GPS also provides a precise time reference used in many applications including scientific study of earthquakes and synchronization of telecommunications networks.
A simple GPS unit can determine approximate location, within around 6-20 feet, (1.8-6 m) almost anywhere on the planet. Coordinates are normally given in latitude and longitude, for example N 36° 05.276, W 080° 12.565.
A typical game of geocaching begins with the coordinates given on a Web site, such as www.geocaching.com. Then the geocacher uses his GPS unit to navigate from his current location to the location of the coordinates. While a simple GPS unit costs less than $100, more expensive GPS units have their own maps, built-in electric compasses or voice navigation.
Gecocaching participants can be competitive, vying to be the first to find a cache. But mostly they are made up of families or groups of friends who both hide and locate caches.
Some caches contain notes, while others have trinkets called geoswag. Children particularly enjoy taking geoswag from the containers they find and replacing it with other trinkets. Some of the items may have notes attached asking for them to be transported from one cache to the next. Some trinkets have made it all the way from the United States to Australia.
What is in the cache container is not usually that important. The geocachers just enjoy the search. According to a recent article in the Winston-Salem Journal, geocacher Mike Cooper, has a T-shirt that seems to sum up the game, “Geocaching: I Use Multi-Billion Dollar Military Satellites to Find Tupperware Hidden in the Woods.”
Geocaching is great fun. It entices kids (young and old) to get some fresh air and exercise while enjoying some fundamental geography lessons! It’s the thrill of the search!
And that is Geography in the News.
Sources: GITN 932, “Geocaching,” Maps.com, Apr. 11, 2008; http://www2.journalnow.com/content/2008/mar/17/geocachers-their-trusty-gpss-in-hand-heed-the-call/; http://www.geocaching.com/faq/; and GITN #771, “Is North really North—Where’s the compass?”, Maps.com, March 11, 2005.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.