The Sport Of (Cyber) Kings
GeoFerret. Bigdog & Crustacean. Brewmeister Hops & Smelly. Sound
like the band lineup at a nightclub? They're notthey're an example of
three groups that participate in what is arguably the only sport ever
spawned by the Internet and other digital technologies. (Online gaming does
not count, I don't care how great a warrior your character is.)
It's called geocaching, and it conjures up images of pale-skinned
techno-geeks emerging from their homes, blinking in the bright sunlight and
trying to figure out how to affix backpacks to their backs. The most
important requirement to participate in geocaching is possession of a GPS
(global positioning satellite) unit. Enthusiasts set up "caches"
all over the world and then share the coordinates with other interested
parties on Web sites devoted to the hobby. Geocachers tramp through the
woods (or mountains, or shoreline, or bus station, for that matter), and
using their handheld GPS units, locate the "cache" from the
coordinates they lifted off the Internet. The individual who locates the
cache usually removes something from the stash, but etiquette requires him
or her to leave something in return.
How popular is it? According to one of the sport's home pages, Geocaching.com,
"[T]here are 14,249 active caches in 111 countries. In the last 7 days,
there have been 9,415 new logs written by 3,054 account holders." If I
had to guess, I'd say that's more people geocaching than playing, for
It sounds easy, but the challenge is built into the game by placing the
caches in hard-to-reach places, which turns the hunt into a bona fide
outdoor adventure. (Those of you who spend hours a day online, do you
remember the big airy place with the blue overhead and the large fiery thing
in the sky? It's called the outdoors.) It's not unheard of for caches to be
located on the tops of mountains, on the sides of cliffs or even underwater.
Sites are usually ranked by their difficultyone that appeals to a family
with small children, for instance, probably wouldn't be particularly
attractive to a group of seasoned mountain climbers.
For a quick review of GPS technology, a global positioning satellite unit
is a small, often handheld device that can pinpoint a location anywhere on
the planet within a few feet. The device communicates with satellites bought
and paid for (and launched) by the U.S. Department of Defense. These 24
satellites, and their ground stations, form a global radio navigation
network that once existed exclusively for use by the U.S. government, but
has, as of May 2000, been made available to the rest of us (which is good,
since we picked up its $12 billion tab.)
Personal GPS units were expensive in the early days and were usually only
found on the boats of wealthy individuals, but nowadays you can buy a basic
one for $100. Like any consumer item, the more you spend, the more sexy
features you get, such as a built-in compass, mapping software, a car mount
kit, etc. In a nutshell, a global positioning satellite broadcasts its
position to your GPS unit, and the travel time of the radio signal allows
the unit to pinpoint your exact location (the process is referred to as
"triangulation"). If you plan on buying a unit for the purpose of
geocaching, it may be worth it to spend a little more money, as the cheaper
units reportedly don't work well in dense tree cover, which is where many
caches tend to be located.
In any case, a stash hunter enters the coordinates (the
"waypoint") of the cache into his or her unit, and then sets off
on a merry trek to find the hidden treasure. Once the hunter finds the stash
and removes an item and then leaves an item, he or she makes an entry into
the log book (the only mandatory item in the cache). Common items contained
in caches around the world are software, CDs, newspaper clippings, photos,
cash, trading cards and a million different kinds of small trinkets.
Variations in geocaching are cropping up for those individuals who are
not content with a day's hike and a quick payoff. The location of a final
cache might be provided one clue at a time, with each clue requiring a visit
to a teaser cache, in the manner of a scavenger hunt. The individuals who
set up the caches are quickly becoming more daring and sophisticated (and
eager to watch a bunch of techies scrambling all over the surface of the
Also becoming popular is "geodashing," in which coordinates are
randomly chosen, often by a computer, and a group of individuals race to be
the first to reach the spot, hoping it's not in the middle of a freeway,
inside a nuclear reactor or in the Queen of England's personal bathroom.
(The Dallas Morning News reported that one memorable geodashing event
culminated in participants arriving at their final destination to discover
it was a nude beach.)
I haven't tried it yet, though I intend to. I visited the Geocaching.com
Web site and entered my ZIP code, only to find that there are 609 caches
within easy driving distance of my home.
Who knows, some day we might discover that geocaching is a plot hatched
by the U.S. Department of Health and our HMOs to get us all off our butts,
away from our computers and out for some fresh air and exercise.
The author may be found at 41.125735 latitude and -73.440181
longitude, and contacted at email@example.com.