That 'discarded' piece of tupperware near your campsite might just have a logbook in it.

You might not be aware, but there could be a hidden treasure very close to you. And someone’s probably coming to find it. No, not gold bullion from a long lost pirate booty but more a treasure of trinkets long lost in someone’s attic. Geocaching is a decade-old game that combines the relatively new GPS technology with the age-old thrill of treasure hunting. In ten years, what started out as one person’s experiment has exploded into a hobby played by over five million people in over 100 countries and on all seven continents – yes, even Antarctica.

It was May 1st, 2000 when President Bill Clinton predestined a generation of the would-be geocachers. At the time GPS, a US Department of Defense creation, was thought of as a government tool primarily, and a civilian tool secondarily. The first GPS devices offered to civilians were intentionally scrambled to decrease their resolution. When President Clinton turned off the scrambling program – called Selective Availability – civilian GPS devices went from an accuracy of about 100 meters to about 10 meters. Two days later Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant of Beavercreek, Oregon, hid a bucket containing a few trinkets including a slingshot and, optimistically, a logbook. He posted the container’s location to a USENET newsgroup – coordinates 45°17.460´N 122°24.800´W – and called it “The Great American GPS Stash Hunt.” Then he sat back and waited to see if anyone would take the trouble. On the post he specified only one rule: “Get some Stuff, Leave some Stuff!!”

The stash was found within a day. A man by the name of Mike Teague from Vancouver, Washington had wasted no time in finding the Stuff and logging the find on the website. He further demonstrated his enthusiasm for the new game on May 8th by starting a cache logging website. Soon a mailing list was started that grew as the number of half-buried, trinket-storing containers grew. On May 30th the participants of The Great American GPS Stash Hunt decided that they weren’t comfortable romping through the woods looking for a “stash.” They started calling their hidden treasures geocaches.

Ten years after Ulmer’s first geocache 5 million geocachers around the world have logged more than 1.3 million caches on multiple websites. When the hobby celebrated its 10th anniversary last year there were nearly 600 separate commemorative events on six different continents – geocaching on Antarctica is one thing, partying there is another. More than 350 of those events were in the US. Geocaching has been covered by tons of local and online media and a few major ones. The Washington Post recently ran a TechCrunch article about the GeoMate Jr., a GPS device made simple so that five year olds with geocaching aspirations can join the fun. Much of the time, however, the hobby makes headlines because some non-geoacher mistook an oddly-placed ammo box of trinkets as something dangerous. Go figure.

So what’s so interesting about finding a slingshot? PRNewswire quotes Bryan Roth, one of the co-founders of geocaching.com, the global online headquarters: “People love treasure hunts. Just look at the popularity of the ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ movies. …we’re able to deliver treasure hunting to everyone in a way that combines technology, outdoor recreation and a global community.” And, with a one-time cost of the GPS at about $100 it’s about as cheap as hobbies come. Says Roth, “Geocaching is accessible to everyone.” It gets even cheaper if you have an iPhone and maybe even more fun. The Geocaching app costs just $10 and locates the nearest geocache wherever you are with the push of a button.

The following video is a great illustration of the passion of geocachers. As they explain, a key joy is to simply get out and explore where you live.

Curious to know how close you are right now to a geocache? I was, so I registered on geocaching.com (it’s free). I was a little dubious, given the fact that I live in downtown Baltimore. The place doesn’t exactly conjure images of people with backpacks and hiking boots playing GPS-based games. To my surprise I discovered that there are ten geocaches within a mile of my home! And the nearest one just happens to be hidden in the same building in which I defended my thesis: Davidge Hall. One of the really neat things about geocaching is that it’s not always a simple matter of finding the objects and signing the logbook. Whoever places the geocache there will often take the time to write a blurb about the location. Davidge Hall is an historic building. It was built in 1807 as the original University of Maryland Medical School. The blurb on geocaching.com describes some of its history, including the bit of folklore that us locals are familiar with: how early educators took to hiding cadavers in whiskey barrels so as to not anger the mobs who didn’t quite accept human dissection just yet. A log shows that 107 people have found the Davidge Hall geocache since it was hidden April of 2010 – twenty-four unlucky people could not. The geocachers post comments to the online site, mainly how long it took them to locate their target (one person snooped around for 90 minutes before finding it – that’s dedication to the sport!). Pictures are quite common too.

Virtual caches is about discovering a location – such as McMurdo Station in Antarctica – rather than a container.

In the time since that first hide geocaching has evolved to include over a dozen different geocache types. To spice things up, organizers have come up with a multi-cache that include a series of locations, the final one being the container with the trinkets. Another example is the mystery cache in which you have to solve a puzzle to get the coordinates. They even have a Project A.P.E. cache that was placed in 2001 to celebrate the “Planet of the Apes” movie release. “Each cache represented a fictional story in which scientists revealed an Alternative Primate Evolution.”

Um, okay.

My favorite are the Trackables. They’re tags that you attach to the geocache, which is now referred to as a “hitchhiker.” Each trackable tag has a goal set by its owner, such as to “visit every country in Europe or travel from coast to coast.” When they’re found the hitchhiker and its trackable are collected and, if it’s lucky, moved to another geocache location that’s closer to its goal. Kind of like the “Where is George?” tracking site for one dollar bills, geocachers can check back to see how far their little plastic friend has traveled.

Connecting people through technology is nothing new, but combining online and real world activities is a big part of why geocaching and other location-based social technologies such as Foursquare appeal to so many. It’s nice to have technology urge us outdoors for once rather than tie us to our computers. It’s clear after a decade of steady growth this less-known hobby won’t stay hidden for very long.

[image credits: gpspersonalnavigation.com and wikipedia]

image 1: geocacher
image 2: McMurdo
video: Language of Location

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.