Treasure of a hunt with thrill of GPS guidance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:00am

Which is the key invention of all time. Fire? The wheel? The internet? True, each of these ideas was handy but, surely, none made such an impact as GPS.

In case you have been living on Mars, GPS stands for Global Positioning System and means a middle-earth orbit global satellite navigational system formed by 24 satellites spinning round the Earth and their matching terrestrial receivers.

The reason GPS deserves to be elevated above any other discovery in the tech pantheon is its contribution to social harmony. No longer need car-bound couples vainly bicker and fume in suppressed road rage when they lose their way. All they have to do is call on the GPS fairy godmother who will tell them exactly where to go.

GPS, as the Americans say, rocks. This is even more true now because, as well as ensuring that the battle of the sexes does not end in road rage, GPS has spawned a craze for those of us too tired or tame to go Toothing (flirting with strangers via Bluetooth). The craze is called geocaching. The term sounds techy but its meaning is simple. Erik Sherman, the author of the first book on the subject, sums it up pretty well in the title: Geocaching: Hike and Seek with your GPS.

Talking to Technopedia, he described it as 'an outdoor crossword puzzle'.

Patrick Ross, an associate professor of biology at Southwestern College in the United States and a practising geocacher, called the trend 'a hi-tech game of 'colder, hotter', 'hi-tech hiking with a purpose' and 'a 21st century treasure hunt'.

The difference between geocaching and the old-fashioned treasure hunt is that even the most directionally challenged have a good chance of finding their quarry.

Geocaching works like this: one participant places the cache ('treasure') and records its co-ordinates. These co-ordinates, along with other details of the location, are posted online. Other players grab the co-ordinates from the internet and, armed with handheld GPS receivers, search for the stashes.

The sport gives you one heck of a buzz because, according to Mr Sherman, it marries the best outdoor activity with fun technology and the thrill of the chase.

Mr Ross, who goes geocaching with his young son Sam, said the pleasures of a simple walk in the prairie are lost on the average four-year-old boy, but a treasure hunt is a different matter altogether.

On their hunts, his son happily holds the GPS unit and follows the arrow to the cache.

There are quite a few around these days. Carly Martin, an Ohio-based professional geocaching co-ordinator, said that when she discovered the sport in 2001, a year after its inception, there were only about 6,000 caches in the world. Today there are more than 80,000.

The typical cache is the size of a margarine carton but can be as big as a five-gallon bucket. The contents are as unpredictable as the imagination of the organisers. Offerings run from maple syrup to CDs and trinkets.

Actually, that is not much of a gamut. I would like to see a free GPS unit or a laptop that lasts longer than the time it takes to get acquainted (my latest broke down after three months and is now useless except as a novelty drinks tray).

The treasures usually dished out in geocache contests may seem a bit bland, but that said, 'travelbugs' are interesting, if acquisition is not an issue. A travelbug is an object shaped like a dog tag that can be bought through the website (

Travelbugs are not meant to be found and kept. If a geocacher finds a travelbug, they should grab it and stick it in the next cache they find. Each travelbug has a unique number that allows its journey to be tracked online. (Often bugs have particular agendas, such as visiting all 50 states in the US).

Geocaching's greatest contribution to humankind application may be the fact that it entices geeks to get out more.

Indeed, according to Mr Ross, the treasure is secondary.

'The most enjoyable part has been the thrill of the hunt and thrashing through underbrush.'

Confused by computer jargon? E-mail with your questions