Tales from a virgin geocacher

This geocache consists of a logbook and a pencil inside of an old prescription bottle. Photo by Skyler Brandt/Arizona Sonora News
This geocache consists of a logbook and a pencil inside of an old prescription bottle. Photo by Skyler Brandt/Arizona Sonora News

I lost my geocaching virginity a recent Sunday afternoon at Southern Arizona’s Catalina State Park.

To be quite frank, up until a month ago, I had no idea what geocaching even was.

Geocaching is essentially a worldwide scavenger hunt that takes place all around.

The term is properly defined as the outdoor sport or game of searching for hidden objects by using GPS coordinated posted on the Internet.

In other words, people create a cache – a container and finder’s log – of various sizes and hide them wherever they find suitable, then post the coordinates of the location for other cachers to find.

On May 2, 2000, the United States granted widespread access to 24 satellites around the world, instantly improving every GPS receiver that existed.

The very next day, Dave Ulmer, a GPS enthusiast, hid the first ever cache in Portland, Oregon.

Now, 15 years later, there are more than 2.7 million caches across the world being hidden and found by 6 million geocachers.

Graphed by Skyler Brandt/Arizona Sonora News

At least 20,000 caches have been hidden across Arizona. There are nearly 7,000 caches within 30 miles of Phoenix, almost 4,000 in and around Tucson and 3,200 around Yuma.

One might think, as I did, if they are sharing the location of the item, how is it a scavenger hunt? Where is the challenge?

Rest assured, the challenge is there.

The GPS coordinates of a cache only take the seeker within 30 feet of the hidden object.

Other seekers post clues with the coordinates to make the process a little easier.

One of the clues read, “don’t forget your gloves.” With the help of that clue, I knew I’d be digging around on the ground rather than looking up in trees.

To put it into perspective, I spent at least 45 minutes (an up to 1.5 hours) searching for each cache.

By then end of my five-hour geocaching adventure, I had found three of the five catches that I sought.

The three caches I found all contained a logbook (folded up piece of paper) and two of them contained a pencil.

Although, none of the caches I found provided a keepsake, many contain mementos and souvenirs to take and replace. The trinkets are often small and have more sentimental value than monetary value.

Three things to know before you begin:

Size Does Matter

The geocaching app provides information about each cache such as the size of the container, the terrain it’s hidden in and the difficulty of the find.

The size tool proved to be more of a hinder than it was a help.

Of the five caches I sought, all five were labeled either small or extra-small.

All three caches that I found were extra-small according to whoever hid them but the three “extra-small” caches I found varied in size significantly.

First was a relatively large black-painted pill bottle. The second was a rusted empty can of spearmint Altoids and the third was a purple keychain pillbox.

The bottle was nearly twice as large as the can and more than 10 times the size of the keychain.

That being said, do not rely too heavily on the labeled size of the cache and be open minded when it comes to what is being sought.

The three caches I was able to find were all hidden very well, with little to no visual exposure. One was lodged between two rocks and a tree, another was buried under a pile of brush and the third was stuffed into an old PVC pipe.

This rusted Altoids can serves as a cache in Southern Arizona's Catalina State Park. Photo by: Skyler Brandt/Arizona Sonora News
This rusted Altoids can serves as a cache in Southern Arizona’s Catalina State Park. Photo by: Skyler Brandt/Arizona Sonora News

  Dress appropriately

Geocaching takes place outdoors and more often than not, it takes place in a natural environment.

As with most outdoor activities, having the appropriate attire could make or break one’s caching experience.

It is crucial to understand the terrain of the cache being scavenged and to dress accordingly.

I anticipated having to hike between the caches I planned to seek, so I wore my high-top sneakers to protect my ankles.

What I did not anticipate were the countless thorn bushes that I trekked through from cache to cache. It’s safe to say that by the end of my first geocaching experience, I had at least 50 thorns stuck in my socks and shoes, poking at my ankles.

Lets just say that my experience would have been much more enjoyable if I would have worn jeans rather than the shorts.

            Better Safe Than Sorry

Dressing appropriately goes hand-and-hand with my last suggestion, which is to take as many precautions as possible, especially when caching alone.

I planned to scavenge the state park for three hours but before I knew it, I had already been there for five and wanted to stay longer.

Take extra water, snacks and most importantly a portable cell-phone charger; especially if one plans to use their phone as a GPS device.

 I found that losing my sense of place was much easier than I anticipated and I was fortunate to have my powerbank for my cellphone.

Skyler Brandt is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at skylerbrandt@email.arizona.edu. 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

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