If you’re looking for the perfect hobby to get you out of the house and take your mind off the COVID-19 pandemic, you might want to consider geocaching.
It’s part scavenger hunt, part nature hike, part map challenge – leavened with a healthy portion of plain old curiosity. It combines sports, nature and technology in a way that would have been impossible until just a few years ago.
Jefferson County resident Kevin Mahue, a geocaching enthusiast, says the game is a lot of fun and recommends it to others.
“There’s still a lot you can’t do right now,” said Mahue of Festus. “But this is something you can do, alone or with someone. It gets you outside, lets you get your steps in. And caches are everywhere; no matter where you go, there’ll be one somewhere close.
“I just picked up my 700th find, and I absolutely love it.”
Here’s how geocaching works.
Players download one of the smart phone apps available from sites like geocaching.com and create a user account. (The basic app is free, but a premium version is available for about $10.)
Geocachers find a good spot to place a waterproof container holding a logbook and pen, and sometimes small, inexpensive items for finders to keep or trade. They record the GPS coordinates for the container on the app, and players use those coordinates to find it. They record their “find” in the logbook and replace the container for the next player to find. Players then add the find to their player profile online.
Geocaching is relatively new – the first cache was hidden in 2000 – but has exploded in popularity and participation. Geocaching.com estimates there are more than 7 million players worldwide.
Every cache has a story
Kay Hayes, 64, of Festus started geocaching in 2007 and has logged more than 2,000 finds along with her daughter, Cami.
Back then, it was a more complex and laborious process, Hayes said.
“You had to go to the website, print out all the information, then upload it to a handheld GPS device,” she said. “That could get pricey, and it was clunky and time-consuming.
“Smart phones with GPS have opened the hobby up to a whole new group of people, made it so much easier.”
Containers can be any size, from a large box to a tiny pill bottle. They can be home-made or purchased. Websites offer fancy camouflage ones made to look like bricks, rocks, logs, bugs, even a piece of already-chewed gum.
The listing for the cache can be straightforward or complex, depending on the hider’s imagination.
“I like to do more challenging hides,” Mahue said. “The plain old, ‘Here’s where it is; come and get it’ ones are a little boring. Ideally, it should have a story to tell, or bring people to see something your town or your area features. I’m working on a train-themed one to place in De Soto, and I’d like to do one at someplace like Gordon’s Stoplight.”
Mahue already has done several Jefferson County hides, in parks like the Andy Habsieger Memorial in Festus, Walther Park in De Soto, and both West City and Sunset parks in Festus. His latest just went live at Leader World Headquarters in Festus.
“It’s an alien theme,” he said. “Little green men, ‘take me to your leader’ – get it?”
Some caches are set up as puzzles or riddles that must be solved to obtain the coordinates. Sometimes the container itself is a puzzle.
Many hides include what players call “swag” – small items left for finders to take as mementos. Finders are welcome to leave a token to replace the one they take.
“For a while, my daughter and I took and left dice,” Hayes said. “When there’s a new cache, everybody always wants to be FTF – First to Find – and sometimes there’s a special prize in there for that person, like a $5 bill or a gift card.”
Mahue said some players even have calling card swag.
“There’s a player from Herculaneum, and she always leaves a little wooden cube with an H on it,” Mahue said.
Hayes said geocaching is an easy hobby to take up because it’s inexpensive and anybody can play.
“Cami took my granddaughter Delaney caching,” Hayes said. “She put her in the stroller and off they’d go. There are some (caches) that are wheelchair-accessible. I’ve taken every one of my four kids and two of my three grandkids.”
Mahue, 42, includes his three children, ages 20, 17, and 12, in the hobby.
“My youngest is 100 percent on board, and the oldest wants nothing to do with it,” he said. “My middle one, she wants to help with the hiding more than the finding.”
The sport has health benefits, both physical and mental.
“It’s a sort of a painless way to get in a long hike,” Hayes said. “A lot of times, we park at Point A, then hit a bunch of points along a trail or in a park or in a town before we circle back to the car. It exercises both your brain and your body.”
Many players are CITO – “Cache In, Trash Out” – enthusiasts.
“The idea is, if you go into someplace, you’re supposed to leave it better than you found it,” Mahue said. “I take gloves along and pick up and throw away trash. It sends a message to my kids, too, about taking care of our environment.”
For many players, it’s the intangibles that are most satisfying.
“It can take you places you might not otherwise go,” Hayes said. “These little bitty tucked-in parks in communities that you’d never know were there.
A few caveats
There are a few minor downsides to geocaching. Players’ efforts to locate a cache have been mistaken for criminal activity.
“You can see how it might look a little suspicious,” Mahue said. “But if they are wandering around confused, looking down at their phone, you can kind of figure they’re not up to no good.”
Security and safety are other issues that must be considered.
“If I’m going to a remote area, as I’ve gotten older and more cautious, I tend to want to take someone along,” Hayes said. “I’m not crazy about being in the woods a mile away from everything, all by myself.”
Mahue says the effort is definitely worth the trouble.
“A couple of people, one of mine was their very first find,” he said. “I am grateful I got to be the one to introduce them to the game I love. It’s a fantastic hobby.”