Tupperware. In the woods.

Who wouldn’t want to find that?  Well if you do, you’re probably a geocacher, or else you’d make a good one.

A brief primer: What’s Geocaching?

Geocaching (pronounced gee-oh-cash-ing, or gee-oh-kay-shing to some) is a relatively new hobby that began in 2000 when selective availability, the government regulation that degraded GPS satellite accuracy to the public, was discontinued. GPS devices – handhelds and navigational tools among them – became all the rage, and far more useful and practical!

Not one day later, Dave Ullmer of Beavercreek, Oregon thought “Hey, this might be fun!” and he hid what would now be revered as the world’s first geocache (now commemorated by a plaque). Back then he called it a ‘GPS stash hunt’, and his little scavenger hunt spawned a hobby that now covers the world, literally.

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Since then, the process of using a GPS device to hide and locate containers of any shape or size in any publicly accessible location has been labeled Geocaching, with its own website (www.geocaching.com) and massive database of over 1,000,000 geocaches world-wide. It’s grown into a pasttime that’s family-friendly, takes place outdoors, away from the computer, it can be competitive or challenging, it’s nature-respecting, relaxing, adventurous, and for people of all ages all around the globe.

Evolution of the geocache

In the ARG world, we make use of a method of exchange called the dead drop, which is used to exchange information or items covertly between two parties at a given location without them meeting face to face. A geocache is essentially an independent dead drop. It, however, remains in place, whoever finds it leaves it there (re-hidden) for the next person, and it contains at the very least some form of log sheet for the finder to sign and date as a record of their visit.

Geocaching, since its inception, has also evolved to incorporate a far wider range of cache styles and types.

As its popularity increased, people soon began placing containers that could only be located after solving puzzles to determine its coordinates. Sometimes you’d have to visit multiple GPS waypoints, picking up clues at each, in order to locate the final container. Some were simply tasks you had to accomplish at a specific location to be successful.

Arguably the most educational and interesting type of geocache, however, is the Earthcache. These are geocaches the details and accuracy of which are heavily scrutinized before publishing, and which explain or teach about natural landmarks, geological history and the like. In order for a player to legitimately log an Earthcache as found, the player must answer a few questions (like a little exam) about the subject matter, sometimes only solvable on-site, and generally they have to at least visit the location and share a photo as evidence of having been there.

Telling stories and creating experiences

What’s great about geocaching is its flexibility to be used as a story-telling tool, incorporating real-world tasks and rewarding players. While dead drops are typically a single task or event belonging to an overarching story, a geocache (or a series of geocaches) must be entirely self-contained. They must also be placed in such a way as to be able to last and be maintained for an indefinite amount of time.

In 2001, while still in its infancy, geocaching took on a unique promotional project. Paramount approached the webmasters of the site at the time, and partnered with them to produce a geocache series called “Project APE“. These 14 caches located worldwide were part of a promotional campaign for the film Planet Of The Apes.

Much like ARG dead drops, clues were released about the drops before they were published, and geocachers were among those in the hinted locations who were on their toes. These caches were very time sensitive. They were published as sequential missions around the world, telling events within the film’s universe, yet fictionally independent from the film. The missions were to retrieve highly sensitive items from caches placed by field agents fighting against a government coverup, while avoiding being detected by federal agents.

The caches themselves were specially labeled, and generally contained collectible items like props from the film as prizes for the first to find. The final cache, a special bonus cache, even contained coveted tickets to the film’s premiere for the first finders.

For all intents and purposes, these were legitimate geocaches. However, being placed by local geocachers on behalf of the marketers, over the years they began disappearing as they were either collected, stolen, or simply archived or retired for lack of maintenance. Currently, only two original Project APE caches remain active. One is still available in Brazil, and the other in Washington. The latter is maintained by Geocaching.com staff as the one and only remaining APE cache in the United States. Players who find these geocaches are rewarded a unique and rare icon for their finds collection. Three other APE caches have also been adopted, but were converted to traditional geocaches.

Since Project APE, however, geocaching has continued to be refined and made more self-supportive and independent. It’s been receiving more media attention recently as the GPS buzz spreads, and as mobile devices become cheaper and more consumer friendly – especially handheld phones, now packaged with GPS capabilities. It’s a hobby that’s sure to continue attracting people from all countries and walks of life for years to come.

Geocaching stories post-APE-pocalypse

With more and more tools and technology being made available, the potential to create more involved story-based geocaching experiences is enticing.

Another series inspired by Project APE is Forbidden Zone Geocaches. This is a series of caches designed to expand on the mythos of the APE caches, and provides an independent website for players to keep track of their progress and discoveries until they’ve found all the necessary tips to unlock the secret final mission and locate its cache.

More local to myself, there’s a geocache named LAARU BRAVO which takes on another mission-based theme, creating a story and self-contained experience with tasks that must be accomplished in order to locate the cache container. Reading past logs, many geocachers have even described their experience while still remaining effectively in character.

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Another adventurous geocache with a small story based on an existing franchise is called Tomb Raider, located near San Diego. The story itself is minor and contained to the initial puzzle, however the journey to locate and find the cache is the player’s extension to the story, and that is where the real adventure lies.  More than simply finding a tupperware container in the woods, as it were, many geocaches prompt the player to embark on real-world hikes and experiences they otherwise may never have thought they’d ever be doing. This is one of the main attractions to the hobby, and wherein lies some of the best opportunities to tell stories and create experiences.

While many still view geocaching as a hobby that should remain simplistic and easy for laypeople to pick up and go, there’s no reason why it should be limited to such a view. These sorts of experiential geocaches are what attract the attention of visitors from around the world. There are many geocache series and unique caches that make headlines. A quick google shows a sample list of bookmarked “must do” geocaches, many quite distant from the geocacher’s home town. People love memorable geocaches, and elaborate story-based geocaches are a rare commodity; especially well created ones.

Geocaching 2.0: the Wherigo

Wherigo Geocache LogoCreating extensive stories for geocaches is not a simple task, given the rules and guidelines now in place for publishing at Geocaching.com. There is another new type of geocache, however, that promises to provide a method for generating even more interactive experiences. This is the Wherigo. It’s a form of executable application that runs as a “cartridge” on a currently very limited number of GPS devices, including Garmins and some Pocket PCs. Wherigo caches are more complex to create, but afford a lot more flexibility for storytelling, tasks and scripted actions.

While generic geocaches are primarily coordinate-based with optional calculations or separate puzzle solving required, the Wherigo makes use of the GPS device and provides live interaction with a script based on your physical location. This means stories can be told in segments on the field, and different types of puzzles and missions can be created to be executed, and solved while outside.

From Wherigo.com:

Wherigo is a platform that allows you to build location based GPS experiences on your computer and play them in the real world. Think Zork, Secret of Monkey Island or Myst, but in the park around the corner, or on the beach during your family vacation. Rather than clicking the mouse and selecting a location to move your character, you actually walk from one location to the next to advance the story.

Support for Wherigo cartridges is still fairly thin, but it should only be a matter of time before Android*, iPhone, Blackberry, or other smartphone app versions appear. Additionally, while not officially Geocaching activities, there are other organizations that provide location-based gaming experiences similar to this, such as GPS Mission or SCVNGR.

Bushwacking to the future

Geocaching is still in its infancy, with so much untapped potential as a story-telling method. As time goes on, hopefully we’ll see more innovative use of this pastime to provide memorable and entertaining experiences that span more than words on a screen or numbers in your hand, but engage players through multiple media. Who will create the first truly transmedia geocache? Has it already been done?

If you’re a geocacher, I’d recommend checking out the geocaches mentioned above next time you’re in their areas. If you’re hiding geocaches, I challenge you to do more than just hide tupperware in the woods (or magnets in the city) – create an experience to remember! Write a story, an adventure! Even if the container is easy to find, the journey to get there is what people will remember most.

Do you know of other notable geocaches that have given you memorable experiences?
Do you know of any that tell amazing stories?
Please share in the comments below!

And if you haven’t already, buy a GPS or GPS enabled smartphone, and sign up at geocaching.com!

* Update: The official Android port of the Geocaching app is now available, see Geocaching.com/Android

Some Geocaches to add to the To-Do list: