Geocaching: 21st-Century Treasure Hunting

Jul 4, 2011

Brad Wing is speeding south in his four-door Jeep Wrangler. A few hours ago, he got a message on his phone. Someone had just hidden a new geocache near a stream a few miles south of Bangor, Maine. This treasure won't make anyone rich, but for geocachers like Wing, it's all about the hunt.

"I'm actually going to use my smartphone to get us down in the neighborhood, because I haven't even loaded it into my GPS. But we can do that along the way," Wing says.

He plugs a series of latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates into his phone. To play, cachers sign up for a membership on the sport's website, That allows them to search for the coordinates of caches stashed all over the world.

"I'll go out on a weekend and perhaps find 20 or 30 or 50 of them, and I've done as many as 140 in a day. I'm one of the higher finders in the state," Wing says.

There are more than 5 million geocachers worldwide, stalking more than a million hidden caches. The sport draws in people of all ages: from older retirees geocaching their way across the country in RVs, to fitness fanatics who hike, kayak and climb mountains in search of caches.

Geocaching took off in the spring of 2000, shortly after the government officially lifted the restrictions on civilian access to the same highly accurate satellite signals being used by the U.S. military.

Wing checks his GPS device and turns onto a road leading into the woods.

"It's at somebody's favorite fishing spot, is what the description of the cache says," Wing says.

He stops by a stream in front of a culvert. He checks crevices between the rocks on one side of the stream. Nothing. He heads across the road, where finally he sees it, hidden between two rocks. Wing unscrews the top of a green canister about the size of a pint of ice cream.

"We're going to open it up and see if there's a name on the log sheet yet," he says. "Somebody's been here. Two people have been here today."

Most caches, Wing says, are small- to medium-sized containers like this one with a logbook inside, and sometimes little doodads.

In this particular cache, Wing found a shell and a sticker. Cachers are free to take what's inside, on one condition: "You're supposed to replace it with something of kind of equal or greater value," he says. "Trade up, don't trade down. Don't take out a toy truck and put in a rock."

Wing also likes to hike, camp, snowshoe and kayak — activities that he admits frequently lead him back to geocaching.

"I don't think I'm totally obsessed with it. Some may disagree, including my wife," he says.

When the two were first dating, Wing's wife didn't understand why he spent so much time stashing and searching for booty that's a far cry from a sack of gold doubloons. But by the time they married, several years ago, Wing's wife had succumbed herself.

"One of our other friends had placed a cache outside of the reception hall, a little micro-cache out back. You look at some of the videos that were shot of our wedding and you see the bride, the groom and half the reception flying out the back door. It does make for interesting conversation," he says.

For the record, the bride and groom found the cache first.

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