Geography in the News: Geocaching

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

GEOGRAPHY IN THE NEWS (1118)  Neal G. Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner Appalachian State University

A new kind of hunter is lurking in our woods and parks, in our parking lots and shopping malls. This hunter is called a geocacher and is usually part of a team (most likely his or her own family) using a hand-held global positioning system (GPS) unit to locate a hidden stash or cache.

This hunter isn’t trying to put food on the table, but is having fun playing a game filled with technology and some good old-fashioned “treasure” hunts. It’s called geocaching (pronounced “geo-cashing”) and it is intriguing many families throughout the country.

Geocaching is an entertaining adventure game. The basic idea is that individuals or organizations set up caches (hidden “treasures”) and post their geographic coordinates on the Internet. GPS users can then use the location coordinates to find the caches. Once found, a cache may provide the geocacher with a wide variety of rewards. If the visitor receives a reward from the cache, he is asked to leave something in return. It’s that simple–or is it?

A young American uses a GPS device to navigate the city of London, England. A GPS (global positioning system) unit uses information from United States satellites to provide an accurate location almost anywhere on Earth.
A young American uses a GPS device to navigate the city of London, England. A GPS (global positioning system) unit uses information from United States satellites to provide an accurate location almost anywhere on Earth.

Geocaching sounds deceptively easy. However, geocachers claim that it’s one thing to see the coordinates locating a cache, but it’s another thing altogether to actually get there and find it.

Soviets shot down a Korean Airlines plane in 1983 when it accidentally strayed over Soviet air space, killing all 269 people on board. Up until then, GPS was available only for military purposes. Subsequently, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making the GPS, developed by the U.S. Department of Defense, available for free commercial and civilian use.

Since then, GPS has become a widely used aid to navigation worldwide and a useful tool for map-making, land surveying, commerce and scientific uses. A simple GPS unit can determine approximate location, within around 6 to 20 feet, (1.8-6.0 m) almost anywhere on the planet. Coordinates are normally given in latitude and longitude degrees and minutes, for example, N 36° 05.276, W 080° 12.565.

A typical game of geocaching begins with the coordinates given on a Web site, such as Then the geocacher uses his GPS unit to navigate from his current location to the location of the coordinates. A simple GPS unit costs less than $100, but more expensive GPS units have their own maps, built-in electric compasses or voice navigation. There are even GPS applications for use on some cell phones.

Geography in the News_932_NGS_geocache (2)

Geocaching participants can be competitive, vying to be the first to find a cache. But mostly they are made up of families or groups of friends who both hide and locate caches.

Some caches contain notes, while others have trinkets called geoswag. Children particularly enjoy taking geoswag from the containers they find and replacing it with other trinkets. Some of the items may have notes attached asking for them to be transported from one cache to the next. Some trinkets have made it all the way from the United States to Australia.

What is in the cache container is not usually that important. The geocachers just enjoy the search. According to a 2008 article in the Winston-Salem Journal, geocacher Mike Cooper, had a T-shirt that seems to sum up the game, “Geocaching: I Use Multi-Billion Dollar Military Satellites to Find Tupperware Hidden in the Woods.”

Geocaching is great fun. It entices kids (young and old) to get some fresh air and exercise while enjoying some fundamental geography lessons! It’s the thrill of the search!

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 932, “Geocaching,”, Apr. 11, 2008;;; and GITN #771, “Is North really North—Where’s the compass?”, March 11, 2005.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.



More related resources from National Geographic Education

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Article: First Geocache Hidden on May 3, 2000

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Encyclopedic Entry: GPS

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