Trails for everyone, forever

Home Go Outside Trail Smarts How To Geocaching: An On-Trail Treasure Hunt

Geocaching: An On-Trail Treasure Hunt

Turn hiking into a treasure hunt with geocaching -- an activity that's fun for hikers of all ages.


by Abby Wolfe (Geocaching username hydnsek) with additions from Tomoe Wilfong (Geocaching username Kiborin)

In May of 2000, the federal government repealed “selective availability,” the intentional degradation of the GPS (Global Positioning System) signal available to civilians. That day, an Oregon man tested the new capabilities of his GPS unit by hiding a container in the woods outside of Portland. He posted the coordinates on an Internet newsgroup and challenged others to find his “GPS stash.” Within a year, hundreds of geocaches appeared around the world. Now, geocaching is one of the fastest-growing recreational activities around, far outpacing its older cousin, letterboxing.

Today there are millions of active geocaches worldwide. The first caches were placed by hard-core hikers, who shared favorite locations and hidden wonders. While geo-hiking remains a key draw, especially here in Washington, geocaches can be found just about anywhere, from local parks to remote fire lookouts. There are caches for city slickers and mountain climbers, for boaters and scuba divers, for bicyclists and snowshoers. There’s even a special designation for accessible caches. So how does it work?

Hide-and-seek, globally

Like the man in Oregon, players hide containers and post the coordinates on a geocaching website. Then other players use a GPS-enabled device to navigate to a selected set of GPS coordinates and attempt to find the geocache hidden at that location. Geocachers locate the caches, sign the logbook, trade trinkets, and log their experiences online.

And, as with so much else in this smartphone-riddled worlds, there's an app for it, too. With the Geocaching app you can find a list of caches, or you can look up lists of caches on Geocaching's website, and transfer the coordinates of the geocache into your GPS device. Many veteran cachers prefer doing it this way.

smartphone and GPS kathy bogaards
A smartphone and the Geocaching app help cachers meet their goals. Photo by Kathy Bogaards.

The site does more than simply list caches, however. It governs the activity through a set of guidelines and volunteer reviewers, which together encourage responsible participation and prevent cache placements in off-limits areas.

A cache for every interest

There are several types of caches. Depending on what sort of treasure you are looking for, you can pursue the one you like best.

Did You Know?

  • Some of the best earthcaches are Ice Age floods caches by renowned geologist (and WTA Hike the State Expert) Bruce Bjornstad. They describe specific features carved out by the massive floods.
  • A selection of Cougar Mountain caches highlights the mining, railroad and logging history of the park. This is information not available on park signs.

Traditional: A traditional Geocache is a container whose size and contents may vary. At minimum, all traditional caches will have a logbook to sign. Larger caches may contain items for trade and trackables -- special objects found within geocaches that contain a unique tracking code.

Each trackable has a goal, such as “visit as many places as possible” or “Go to Fiji Island.” You don’t have to do anything with the trackable, but if you choose to, you can move the trackables to another cache to help achieve the goal.

Letterbox Hybrid: Letterboxing is another form of treasure hunting that uses clues instead of coordinates. In some cases, the letterbox owner has made their container both a letterbox and a geocache and posted its coordinates on the Geocaching website. These types of geocaches contain a stamp, which remains in the box and is used by letterboxers to record their visit.

EarthCache: An EarthCache is a special category supported by the Geological Society of America. These are geological locations people can visit to learn about a unique natural feature in the area. To log an EarthCache, you will have to provide answers to questions by observing the geological location, making it a great way to learn a little more about the place you are exploring.

geocaching tools on the ground kathy bogaards
The tools of the geocaching trade are basic, but simple items like these can give you a big advantage. Photo by Kathy Bogaards.

Join the world's largest treasure hunt, responsibly

The greatest thing about geocaching is that anyone can do it, regardless of age or physical ability. It’s a fun family activity -- kids often love trinkets and treasure hunts, so what better way to get them unplugged and outdoors? While many aficionados may be hikers, geocaching has encouraged folks who’ve never explored nature to venture off the pavement.

Despite being described as a “treasure hunt,” one of Geocaching's cardinal rules is that a cache cannot be buried (and the trinkets have no real value). No disturbance or defacement of natural or manmade objects is allowed, and caches cannot be placed on private property or without permission. Restricted areas include schools, railroads and national parks (with some exceptions; keep reading to find out about Washington's national park caches).

It’s also important to keep your search casual so you don’t alert Muggles (non-cachers -- yep, it's inspired by the word for a non-magic person in the Harry Potter series) to what you are doing.

This means not only ensuring your search goes unnoticed, but also treading lightly if you head off trail so no one suspects anything in the area. Don’t worry, land managers are in on the fun and must approve the placement of caches on their land. Different agencies have different policies about where and how caches can be stored.

Preserving environment first

When geocaching first appeared, land managers were concerned about its potential impact. Some park systems banned it outright (federal), others created a permit process (state), and many took a wait-and-see approach (city, county). But parks at all levels soon discovered that geocaching was bringing in more visitors, and the impact was no greater than hiking and less than mountain biking or camping.

Land managers began to see geocaching as an educational tool and potential revenue source. Geocachers also built positive relationships through the Cache In Trash Out (CITO) program, an environmental initiative supported by the worldwide geocaching community as a way to give back to the parks.

A CITO event can be trash pickup, invasive plant removal, trail building -- whatever the park needs.

“Geocachers are, without a doubt, some of the hardest-working volunteers we get,” said Niki McBride, resource coordinator at Cougar Mountain, part of King County Parks in 2012.

Tomoe grins at the start of a geocaching hunt. Photo by Kathy Bogaards.

King County was an early supporter of geocaching, but today, many land managers embrace geocaching and even offer geocaching classes and activities. Richland City Parks has ongoing geocaching classes and challenges, and the National Park Service has revised its geocaching policy to allow geocaching at the discretion of park superintendents.

In 2010, Chip Jenkins, superintendent of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, permitted the first two caches in a western national park. At Mount Rainier, Ranger Kevin Bacher became an avid geocacher and has placed earthcaches highlighting his favorite mountain.

Get involved

Today, Washington State Geocaching Association (WSGA) represents geocachers across the state. Through their Park Liaison Program, WSGA works closely with park systems to educate them about geocaching, provide caching activities, address issues and create mutually beneficial relationships.

Get inspired by an avid geocacher and WTA member Tomoe Wilfong in our Meet the Trail Community project.