By Michele S. Byers
Technology has taken over our lives. It has turned many of us into couch potatoes. But technology can also entice us off the couch and into the great outdoors.
One great example is geocaching, which pairs hiking and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to create a modern day treasure hunt. All you need is a smartphone, a GPS app and a sense of adventure.
The goal of geocaching is to use GPS coordinates and clues to find “caches” – essentially, little treasure chests – hidden in parks, preserves and other public places. Caches might be stashed in a rock cleft, buried under a log or hidden behind a bush near a hiking trail.
Geocache containers can be as large as a food storage box or as small as a film canister. Larger caches often contain log books for signing in. Some caches may contain small toys and trinkets that finders can take home as a souvenir. Other caches may contain “trackables,” or special tokens or tags meant to travel from place to place, and whose movements can be tracked on websites with unique ID numbers.
But beware of geocache etiquette. If you take something from a cache, you must replace it with something of equal or greater value. This keeps things interesting, because you never know what you will find! And don’t hold onto trackables; if you see a tracking number, either help the object get to its destination (and log it on its webpage) or leave it for another geocacher.
Geocaching began in 2000 when GPS coordinates for the first documented cache location in Oregon were posted online. Nearly two decades later, more than three million active geocaches are hidden around the world and published on websites.
New Jersey alone has thousands. Some parks even have dedicated geocache trails, like the one created by the Northern New Jersey Cachers club at the Whittemore Wildlife Sanctuary and Arts Center in Tewksbury Township.
Duke Farms in Hillsborough has two geocache trails. The TALON GeoTrail is the easiest and is great for first-time geocachers. The Duke Farms GeoTrail contains three puzzle caches and appeals to more experienced cachers. Another popular geocache trail is at New Jersey Audubon’s Plainsboro Preserve in Cranbury.
Many parks do not have designated geocache trails, but there are still plenty of caches to be found. The South Mountain Reservation in urban Essex County, for example, is dotted with more than 50 hidden caches.
Geocaching can also add a fun twist on your travels, since these treasures can be found in more than 100 countries and on all seven continents, including Antarctica.
Want to geocache? Here’s how:
• Register at a geocache website like www.geocaching.com;
• Search the site’s online database for caches at your favorite park, or pick a hike based on the caches that appeal to you. For instance, some caches are hidden near historic landmarks or unique geological formations to make the experience educational as well as fun. Caches are rated for level of difficulty;
• Enter the geocache coordinates into your GPS. Smartphone apps are very good, although some hardcore geocache enthusiasts prefer to use dedicated GPS devices. Before you hit the trail, don’t forget to pack some cool trinkets to leave behind;
• Search for that cache. Sometimes you will have to solve a puzzle, such as a scrambled-word clue, to find the prize. Some geocache containers can be tricky to spot, like a fake rock with a secret compartment;
• Once you have discovered your cache, sign the logbook, make your trades of trinkets, and return the geocache container to its original hiding spot;
• Share your geocaching stories and photos online.
So forget the old-fashioned “X marks the spot” treasure maps. Charge up your smartphone, pick a park or trail and enjoy a tech-enabled hike and treasure hunt.
To learn more about geocaching, go to https://www.geocaching.com/guide/
To join the Northern New Jersey Cachers or to find out more about their activities, go to www.nnjc.org/
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at email@example.com