It’s official! My 10 year old son and I have joined the ranks of geocachers worldwide! According to the current WikiPedia article for geocaching:
Geocaching is an outdoor treasure-hunting game in which the participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers (called “geocaches” or “caches”) anywhere in the world. A typical cache is a small waterproof container containing a logbook and “treasure,” usually toys or trinkets of little value. Today, well over 650,000 geocaches are registered on various websites devoted to the pastime. Geocaches are currently placed in over 100 countries around the world and on all seven continents, including Antarctica.
Treasure hunting is an exciting activity for a kid of any age, and geocaching not only captures that excitement but also combines it with cutting edge GPS technology as well as a good excuse to get outdoors and do some hiking. What fun!
I have known about geocaching for quite awhile and thought it would be fun to try as well as experience with my own kids. Last week’s presentation in Richardson, Texas, by Barbara Wilson of Allen ISD was my personal geocaching “tipping point,” however, and today at long last I purchased the tool which is empowering my geocaching aspirations: the Garmin eTrex Legend HCx. I ended up finding it at our local WalMart for just under $250 with tax. This is not a “low-end” base level GPS unit. It certainly IS possible to successfully go geocaching with a unit costing less than $100, but the one we purchased IS Macintosh compatible (with a USB connection and Mac software available directly from the manufacturer) and supports different features that I think we’d soon want if we bought a low-end unit.
Last summer at NECC in Atlanta, I interviewed Dr. Paul Clark of the University of Nebraska – Omaha about geocaching. Paul is not only a phenomenal expert on educational technology topics relating to cartography and mapping, but also an EXCEPTIONALLY enthusiastic geocacher. As an Eagle Scout and Scoutmaster, Paul has been “caching” for several years now. He is, in fact, leading an “extreme geocaching” activity at a cub scout camp near Omaha this summer. On Friday when I needed a recommendation for a good but reasonably priced GPS unit with Macintosh compatibility, Paul was the first person I called. The Garmin eTrex Legend HCx was his top recommendation. He currently has a set of about 16 GPS units for student and teacher use, and is obtaining grant funds for more units. If Paul says this is the best unit to start with, I needed to hear no more! So far, we have been thrilled with the unit’s performance and ease of use:
Following the advice of Barbara Wilson, I had visited the geocaching.com website last week and located a few caches near our house we could try and locate first. After bringing our unit home, our first step was installing the Garmin Communicator software. The software CD which came with the unit was Windows-only, so we downloaded the latest version (Garmin Communicator Plugin) to my wife’s Macbook and then restarted the Safari web browser. Using a standard USB cable (which came with the Garmin unit) the computer immediately recognized our GPS device:
With the software installed on our Macbook, we logged into geocaching.com and located the two nearby caches we wanted to try and find first. Since the Garmin Communicator Plugin was installed, when we chose to view the available caches in our area via Google Maps, we saw a convenient link was provided to send the details and coordinates of each cache directly to our Garmin unit:
After both units were loaded, we were ready to roll! I did bring my iPhone along, however, since I thought we might want or need to look up the caches again “in the field” to check coordinates and read the tips. From a geocaching “purist” perspective, it is NOT kosher to read many details and log notes about caches you are trying to find. Since these were our first caches to find, however, and “Finding your first Geocache” on geocaching.com advised us to use the hints our first trip out, we sought out and used all the assistance we could find!
Using the Quickstart guide which came with our Garmin unit and just exploring around with the buttons, Alexander figured out how to locate the geocaches we had loaded onto the unit from geocaching.com. He accidentally, however, clicked and dragged the location of the caches on our GPS unit. As a result, we were a little “off” and confused when we tried to find our first cache. The coordinates we followed led us to a field away from any fences, trees, or logical hiding places. As a result, I looked up the cache coordinates on my iPhone again and Alexander was able to manually correct the coordinates in our Garmin GPS unit. So… lesson #1 from today’s initial GPS outing was: Be careful to not to accidentally move geocaching locations you transfer over from your computer! If possible, have access (via a smartphone or a piece of paper) to the actual coordinates of the geocaches you are trying to locate.
This “mistake” actually was a great teachable moment, since it gave us a chance to discuss the longitude and latitude coordinates, and learn how manually enter them on our Garmin GPS unit. It was very easy to do, Alexander figured out how to do it quickly. We ended up needing to “fix” the coordinates on our 2nd geocache as well, since Alexander had accidentally moved it on our unit as well, but this was not difficult or time consuming to do.
Our Garmin GPS unit has a specific “geocaching” mode. When we were looking for the cache, it showed our distance from the cache location (first in miles and later in feet as we got closer) as well as the direction we needed to go. The Garmin eTrex Legend HCx has a built-in electronic compass, which is not only cool but VERY handy. It also told us our speed (whether we were walking or riding in the car) and our estimated time of arrival at our destination based on our current speed. After we found our first cache, we selected “found” on our GPS unit and were then able to immediately select the next saved geocache which was stored in the unit’s memory. We were off again to find our second cache!
All in all, this was a fun and exciting first afternoon of geocaching experiences! We signed the logbooks in both caches, and left a small treasure (inexpensive plastic lizards we bought at WalMart) in each one. I also logged back into my account on geocaching.com and “logged our visit” to each one, since we found both successfully. Whether or not you find the geocache you are looking for you can “log a visit,” and users can also report “maintenance needed” if desired. One of the logbooks in one of the geocaches we found today was a little damp, so we reported that via the geocaching.com website. A plastic bag would probably fix that situation!
Later this summer we’ll be taking a camping vacation to New Mexico, and we’re hoping to do a LOT more geocaching on the trip! We’re taking several other trips this summer too, however, and I’m thinking that whenever I travel somewhere new it will be fun to see what geocaches are available to find! It is also going to be fun at some point to create our own geocaches! (See the “Guide to Hiding a Geocache” for tips on this topic.) I’m also interested in creating our own family geocoins, and then tracking those as they travel (hopefully) around the world. We also discussed what a fun birthday party activity geocaching could be. Possibilities abound! 🙂
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