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Where Longitude and Latitude Mark the Spot

Van R. Reiner, President and CEO of the Maryland Science Center - Steve Ruark
Van R. Reiner, President and CEO of the Maryland Science Center - Steve Ruark

Call them treasure hunters or scavengers, but the image that comes to mind is a solitary guy sporting a t-shirt, shorts, the requisite long tube socks with sandals, carrying a metal detector and combing a beach or forest for other people's lost treasures. Swap out the metal detector for a global positioning system (GPS)  and replace the lone guy with the occasional family and now its an updated 21st century version of scavenger hunting, geocaching. 

Geocaching -- "geo" from the word geography and cache, a computer term meaning a place to store information -- started with hiking enthusiasts who would seek out hidden containers holding supplies or treasures. Before GPS devices became ubiquitous, geocachers used maps and well-placed, cleverly worded clues to ferret out loot hidden. However, the increase in the accuracy of satellite positioning systems in May 2000, technology that had previously been intentionally restricted for national security purposes, has enabled cache seekers to ho high tech. 

Geocachers no longer decipher clues, instead they use longitude and latitude coordinates to locate containers, or caches. The caches are typically hidden in both rural and urban areas. Sometimes they're secreted in buildings,and they have even been found underwater. In cities all across the world, geocaching has lead to an increase in family and group outdoor adventuring. It's become so popular that it was the inspiration for an interactive exhibit at the Maryland Science Center.

A growing trend

There are 1,001,001 active caches and an estimated 3 to 4 million geocachers worldwide. In the last 30 days, there have been 2,358,392 new logs submitted, according to Geocaching.com . Most caches can be found on public or private property.

That means that "most people walk by caches every day with out realizing it," says Chris Cropper, spokesman, the Maryland Science Center. The Science Center is currently hosting the "GPS Adventures" exhibit. It's intended to teach "Muggles" (people new to geocaching) about using GPS navigational satellites, how the technology is changing our lives, how to use GPS to find their way around the planet, and to teach kids and adults how to geocache while respecting the environment.

Visitors get lost in the 4,500 sq. ft. maze created by Seattle, Wa.-based Minotaur Mazes with help from the founder of Geocaching.com. They can simulate a GPS adventure using a unique stamp card that leads them to their own Treasure City. Visitors can use GPS devices provided by the Science Center to locate caches inside the exhibit with some caches scattered around the Inner Harbor.

"Interesting enough the Maryland/DC area is the largest geocaching community in the world. So we knew we already had a built in audience for the exhibit," notes Jo-Ann Bell Guest Service Manager at the Science Center. She says she was instantly hooked."I went through the maze immediately came out, got on my Blackberry phone and downloaded the application. Not only did I find the ones we put out but others put out by members of the Geocaching Society."

Family adventures

Steve and Diana Best visiting Baltimore with their son Tyler and daughter Khristen have been geocaching in Pennsylvania for the past two to three years. Spending the day at the Science Center, the family was looking forward to searching for caches in and around the Inner Harbor.

Steve Best found out about Geocaching from a friend. "I thought the kids would enjoy it since we like doing things outdoors and I'm in the Scouts and since the majority of the population is on the East coast this is the best place to look for Geocaches." For Tyler geocaching is fun because he "likes solving mysteries and clues."

Geocaching has become so popular that states and cities have begun using it as a way to lead visitors to different areas and historical sites. Shantee Daniels, education and outreach administrater at The Baltimore National Heritage Area says they're currently caches hidden in many historical sites throughout the city as part of its Heritage tour.

As with most cities, Baltimore has many historical sites and the city saw a golden opportunity for self-promotion, according to Daniels. In the fall of 2008, Baltimore City in association with the Maryland Municipal League (MML) joined the geocache craze. The MML wanted to promote Maryland's different regions.

"The City decided to do the geocache because we wanted to introduce people who come into Baltimore to areas other than the Inner Harbor. We also wanted to place the caches in areas that are known to people. And being an urban area we had to think of the safty of the explores and the possibility of transients taking off with the caches," she says.

Preparation is key

Geocaching involves more than just a smartphone or GPS device, a few coordinates and a jaunt out into the woods. Every adventure starts at home with geocachers first finding a cache and conducting research about the area in which the cache is hidden. Many different websites and groups are available that provide coordinates for geocaches.

Both experienced geocachers and newbies need to consider the difficulty of finding the cache. There are generally two rating categories, Difficulty and Terrain. The first category is gauges the mental challenge of finding a geocache, while the second relates to the difficulty of the terrain in which it is found. Each category gets a rating between one and five points. 

So, a difficulty rating of "1" would be an easy geocache to find, possibly located along a busy road or in a group of trees in a neighborhood park or wooded area. A rating of "5," on the other hand, would be the most difficult and could involve solving complicated mental puzzles or repelling off cliffs. Likewise, a "1" terrain rating could be a location that's on a flat unobstructed path or paved trail easily accessible by the very young or disabled. While a "5" rating may involve a multi-day hike or cross country adventure through rugged areas.

Researching maps of unfamiliar areas surrounding a cache is another essential step. Doing this will make it easier to plan the best route to the cache and help treasure hunters avoid obstacles like ridges or rivers and other areas that a GPS device will not recognize. Traditionally caches are usually placed in waterproof containers. The loot inside will include a logbook, a pen or pencil and trade items or other "treasures".

Trade items or treasures typically include things like coins, small toys, trinkets, inexpensive jewelry, and books. Geocachers sign the logbook and note whether or not they took an item from the geocache.  If an item is taken, the No. 1 rule is to replace it with another item of similar value. Most geocaches vary in size and shape which determines how difficult it will be to find. Nanos, the name for the smallest form of geocaches can contain just a log book while some caches could be found in 5 gallon barrels with many different objects inside.

In addition to trade items, some caches contain items that are intended to be moved from one location to another and are tracked online. Geocoins, special coins with a unique tracking number, can be logged on different websites so its owner can see where it has been -- think the "Where's George" dollar bills. A travelbug is another trackable object that's a tag attached to an item. It also has a tracking number that can be entered online allowing users to see it moved from geocache to geocache. After the hunt geocachers are encouraged to go to the Geocaching.com website and write synopses of their experiences.

While it's a totally legal and educational why for individuals and families to explore the environment, visit new parts of the state and city and too connect with the community and world around them, in this post-9/11 world, some care must and should be taken when placing and looking for caches. Some caches have been mistaken for bombs. GPS devices can be purchased, rented from the Maryland Geocaching Society or found on most smart phones.

James A. Carroll is a Baltimore born and breed freelancer.

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The GPS Adventures exhibit at The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, MD. - Photos by Steve Ruark

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