Geocaching is perfect for mobile tech, but is handicapped by outdated rules

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Several years ago, I started doing something called Geocaching. In a nutshell, you use a GPS receiver to track down hidden “caches” that other geocachers have placed all around the world, log your visit, and then move on to the next. Aside from the treasure hunting aspect, it’s a way to discover new and unique locations, and each cache often comes with a lot of back story created by the person who placed it. I’ve enjoyed this hobby, but the increasingly outdated nature of the rules for publishing caches in the official Geocaching database has made me lose interest.

Geocaching started more than a decade ago, and has always been a hobby primarily for proper, standalone GPS receivers. Since the introduction of GPS receivers in practically every mobile device, however, Geocaching has at least tried to embrace the new technology, with apps for different platforms (Android – iOS). Those apps aren’t bad, and I’ve personally moved to using only those and not a standalone GPS, but the problem lies with the back end system still being highly made for the old generation of geocachers.

The rules for placing a geocache are quite extensive. One of the rules state:

[…] caches that require the installing or running of data and/or executables will likely not be published. The use of memory sticks and similar devices is not permitted.

With my Tasker capabilities, I could easily create a dedicated Android app specifically for a multi-stage geocache, creating something truly unique with spoken narration using text-to-speech, include images, video, and so on. In a day and age where more and more geocaches are tiny magnetic containers with nothing but a log book, that capability would have allowed me to create caches that people would actually have fun with, in the true spirit of geocaching. Too bad that’s not allowed.

I understand the basic logic behind not allowing something like this, but frankly, geocaching is a hobby where people can easily trick other people to trespass, go near restricted areas, open up containers of bees or worse, and all sorts of other malicious actions. It seems like potentially dangerous software should fall into the same “at your own risk” category as actual physical danger, but then again what do I know.

Then you have the ban on commercial caches. While I understand the logic behind it, it doesn’t- in my opinion- work in practice. Geocaches are often placed near museums, historical locations, and other places worth visiting, and that’s fine as long as the person placing the cache is not affiliated with any related business. As such, a museum can’t place a geocache on its property, which for me is completely and utterly ridiculous. If the purpose is to highlight places worth visiting and provide information about those places, it seems to me that the benefits of having that done professionally far outweighs the potential danger of having a geocache pop up next to a MacDonald’s for the sake of selling cheeseburgers. Just yesterday I was at a museum that had a orienteering course for children inside the museum area, and all I could think was how ridiculous it was that I didn’t have a geocache to log at that location, potentially because of said rule.

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The bigger problem with Geocaching right not is the implications of the minimum cache distance rule. Each geocache needs to be at least 161 meters from any other geocache, no matter what. The idea behind the rule is to prevent 100 caches be placed on the same spot, but it also has very serious consequences for evolving the hobby. Despite the above rules, you do have the ability to create some creative caches, using things like QR codes, openly available websites, NFC tags, and other interactive elements.

The problem is that if you create a geocache that requires special tools to find, those who don’t have those tools will immediately start whining about it. They will claim that you’re using up a potentially good cache location on something that not everyone can find, and they’d be right in doing so, because of the proximity rule. If not for that rule, it wouldn’t matter if there were geocaches out there that not everyone had the tools required to find, because they wouldn’t be in the way of anyone. Since they’re placed and maintained by other geocachers, it doesn’t affect those who can’t find it in any way that it’s there. However, because of that rule, any cache takes up any spot in a 161 meter radius, meaning that doing something like that in actually interesting places is likely not going to be popular.

You may then ask why I’m so obsessed with interactive caches. Well, the simple answer is that creating physical caches with any substance is hard, expensive, and requires a lot of maintenance. The bigger the cache container, the higher the chance it will be found and destroyed by someone who doesn’t know what it is. The more work goes into it (I’ve previously created a treasure chest, cryptex, etc), the higher the chance it will be stolen by geocachers themselves (it happens). Large caches on exposed locations are hard to get to with people around, weather can destroy caches, and perhaps most importantly: you cannot put things like video, audio, or a whole bunch of images in a physical geocache.

Interactive caches would in my opinion evolve the hobby a lot. Smartphone users could do a multicache around the city by simply following QR codes attached to billboards, rather than look like suspicious people digging suspicious-looking boxes out from behind a fence (bomb scares is actually a problem in geocaching).  Apps for caches, video content as part of a cache, and so on are just some examples of what geocaching could evolve into if not for these outdated rules.

Seeing how smartphones have been out for a while, it doesn’t seem like geocaching is going to change any time soon. That’s a pity, as it’s a lot of fun that I think a lot of smartphone users would enjoy, but right now it’s being restricted to using outdated technology that I think is a big part of why every other geocache is now a tiny magnetic container with nothing but a tiny log sheet in it.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.