Geocaching is a leisure activity in which participants use a global positioning system (GPS) mobile device to locate a hidden ‘cache’. The cache is usually a physical container concealed somewhere in the landscape. Participants are given a starting location (a car park or other easily identifiable spot) and then use the GPS coordinates to guide them to the cache. Geocaching involves exercise and getting about outdoors.
Details of the geocaches nearest your chosen location can be found by going to one of the geocaching websites, such as Geocaching.com ,and entering a zip or post code. The nearest geocaches display on the screen along with the distance they are from the zip or post code you entered. You click on a geocache listing to display information about how difficult the terrain is, what type of cache it is, what the location is like and the GPS coordinates. Having chosen a cache, you load the GPS coordinates into your device, print out the description and head for the start location.
There are different types of cache. A traditional cache is a container of some sort that holds a selection of objects or tokens and a log book for people to sign and date when they discover the geocache. The container can be large, for example an old ammunition box, or small, for example a plastic food container or jam jar. Other cache types include multi-caches, puzzle caches, virtual caches and earth caches. Geocaching.com has a comprehensive description of the different types of cache.
Tokens in geocaches are generally inexpensive trinkets. You may take away a token provided you replace it with something of equal or greater value. Some tokens have specific properties. Travel-bugs have their own web page and come with instructions; for example, to visit as many coastal caches as possible, collecting stories on the way. Geocoins are another trackable token.
Who’s doing it?
Geocaching started around 2000 and its popularity is growing. Anyone with a reasonable level of physical mobility can do it. You need two things to geocache: access to the internet in order to view and download details of where the geocache is hidden and a mobile device with GPS to guide you to the cache.
How does it work?
You register with a geocaching website, say www.geocaching.com . Membership is free, but for a small monthly fee you can take out premium membership, which comes with additional benefits.
Having chosen a geocaching identity and a password, you provide some details about your home location. This enables Geocaching.com to display the coordinates of all the geocaches near your home location. You can also enter a zip or post code into a search box to display geocaches near that location; useful if you’re going on holiday or planning a day trip.
Now click on a geocache in the list to display its web page. This web page is created by the person who hid the geocache. It contains the coordinates of the geocache, a short description of the cache, an encrypted hint and other useful details, such as level of difficulty, size of cache or terrain. There is a converter to display the coordinates in other formats, and usually a .loc location file that can be loaded into some GPS units. This saves typing the coordinates into the device.
You load the coordinates into your GPS device, either by keying them in or by loading in the .loc file. You take a copy of the cache description and hints, either by printing out a paper copy of the web page or loading it into your personal digital assistant (PDA), and you head off to find the cache.
When you find a cache, you open the container, take a look at the contents, sign and date the log book and re-hide it, taking care that no non-geocachers or ‘muggles’ see you doing this. Usually, you may take some photos of the location or the experience. When you return, you go back to the geocaching website, access the cache web page and log your find. This ‘logged’ find appears against your geocaching identity. Many geocachers have logged thousands of finds.
You can also upload photos you’ve taken and you can leave a short paragraph describing your experiences of the geocache – funny encounters, surprises, the state of the cache if, say, it needs attention because it is deteriorating. Photos that give away the location are called ‘spoilers’. They are permitted, but they need to be noted as such so others do not accidentally see them and spoil their geocaching fun.
To get started, you could try Patrick McAndrew’s geocaching challenge – a virtual geocache located on the OU campus and starting from the coordinates N 52° 01.405 W 000° 42.769. To find this geocache, follow the link above and print out the instructions. This cache requires that you solve a series of clues that lead you from one set of coordinates to the next. Eventually, you come to the final set of coordinates and solve the final riddle. There is no physical container associated with this geocache.
Another form of virtual geocache is the earthcache. These are coordinated through the earthcaching website, which was created to provide an exciting way for geocachers to learn how the earth has been shaped by geological processes. Earthcaches are created by geocachers with knowledge about geosciences that they would like to share. All earthcaches are verified by the Geological Society of America before they are posted on the website.
Why is it significant?
Geocaching is an innovative way to use location awareness made available by global satellites in a way that was not originally intended, and to explore geocaching’s potential to combine leisure and educational activities. It seems to act as a catalyst for getting people outdoors, exercising and engaging with their physical environment.
What are the downsides?
Technology costs could be a disadvantage. The cheapest geocaching device at the moment (July 2007) is the Garmin Geko, which retails at about £82. However, the limited functionality of this device could easily become frustrating. Devices that will connect to a computer in order to download maps and .loc location files for geocaches are more expensive. Geocaching.com offer advice on choosing a device for geocaching. Examples of the different models of dedicated GPS device can easily be found on the web, for example: Garmin GPS eTrex Legend , Garmin eTrex Vista Cx or the HP iPAQ hw6915 Mobile Messenger .
Where is it going?
The sport of geocaching is becoming more popular and geocachers are devising ever more interesting types of geocache and ways to use GPS. Earthcaches are virtual caches designed to highlight a particular geological process and have a strong learning thread running through them. Mugeums were a concept whereby exhibits were identified by their GPS coordinates, so rather than displacing the artefacts and removing them to a single physical location or museum, the visitor moved between the artefacts guided by the GPS. The mugeum website has been discontinued, but the concept could be further developed. The OU Library team are considering putting together a GPS-guided induction tour of the Open University for new members of staff as an orientation activity that would be both fun and informative.
What are the implications for teaching and learning?
The postings and comments on the geocaching websites and forums suggest that many geocachers are actively participating in informal learning activities, both through their interaction with their physical context, and through their social interactions with each other. As more mobile devices come on the market with embedded GPS functionality, the potential for its use in teaching and learning is expanding, and the geocaching activities may offer some useful models for ways in which this potential could be developed.
The strength of the geocaching community is an interesting phenomenon. Formal learning communities created by institutions can wither through lack of use, with the students choosing to maintain their social networks through other media. However, the informal community of geocachers is dynamic and active. The enthusiasm is evident even from relative newcomers to the sport. An analysis of the factors that sustain this community might provide useful guidelines that could help the creation of effective formal learning communities, particularly for learners who are geographically disparate, such as distance learners.
GPS is already used by earthscience departments. For example, the status of active volcanoes is monitored by using GPS to plot the change in land level as the magma chamber fills. However, the treasure hunt and puzzle-solving approaches of geocaching and earthcaching could also be used to help engage students with other location-related learning in geography, history, archaeology.
It is not always possible to go out and geocache, especially with a class of young children. However, one elementary school in the USA has demonstrated how geocaching can support learning without necessarily having access to a GPS device. They released a travel bug into the wild with the goal of reaching Alaska in time for the Alaska sled dog race. The school children avidly tracked the bug’s progress across America as it was picked up and transported on its way by geocacher after geocacher.
After two years, the travel-bug arrived at the Alaska sled dog race, where it completed the race attached to the neck of one of the huskies. Meanwhile, over the two-year period of its voyages, the teachers used the travel bug to engage the children with a variety of disciplines including geography, maths and literacy.
Further reading and resources
Wikipedia entry about geocaching: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geocaching
What the Heck is Geocaching? A Beginner’s Guide: http://factsfacts.com/geocacher.htm