There you are.
A thin ribbon of dirt unraveling from under your feet. Green-crowned trees towering over you. A small, mobile phone-sized device in your hand. The tang of wet soil in your nose. The song of a nearby creek in your ears.
There you are, the device seems to whisper. Of course, it would say that, as it is a global positioning system (GPS) unit. The unit is designed to tell you exactly where you are anywhere on the planet, with an accuracy of up to seven feet.
But what are you doing out there?
Searching for hidden treasure.
You are participating in a very popular outdoor recreation activity called geocaching. Geocaching is an outdoor activity in which participants use a GPS unit, a provided set of coordinates and other navigational techniques to find caches.
A cache is a container that can be filled with trade items, or “treasure.” These trade items can be informational cards, chips, little toys or even cheap jewelry. Once a cache has been found, the participant can trade an item of equal or greater value if they want to take something from the cache, and then sign a provided logbook.
This activity started in 2000 and has only become more popular since then. There are more than three million caches hidden on all seven continents (Yes, even Antarctica! Antarctica has 51 caches at this time.) and in 191 out of 193 countries. There have been more than half a billion “Found it!” logs recorded since the game started in 2000, and the number is rising.
There are more than a thousand caches hidden throughout Fairfax County. Any caches hidden on Park Authority property require approval from the Park Authority, and the cache owner is responsible for maintaining the cache and eventually removing/replacing it if it is no longer in good condition. Most caches shouldn’t be located too far off the trail, and may be hidden in logical places, such as under a log or inside of a hollow stump.
How do I get started? you seem to ask.
First, sign up for a free account on the geocaching website. The website provides updates from cache owners, nearby caches, coordinates and hints on how to find the cache. You can also download various geocaching apps to help you navigate to a cache, although be warned that many apps require you to pay first. An alternative would be to get a GPS unit from a sporting goods store or online. You can buy these devices used or brand new, and they offer up to seven feet accuracy.
It is recommended to use the geocaching website, at least in the beginning, because the website will also provide you with ratings on the terrain and difficulty of the cache. For geocaching classes at Park Authority sites, caches with one or two-star difficulty ratings are typically used to ensure that the caches can be easily found by beginners.
There you are.
Walking in the forest, spring peepers’ songs in your ears, head turning this way and that way, your feet softly sinking in the dirt.
There, just over there.
You veer slightly off the trail, toward a log that has been there for years. And just beyond it…
There you are. And there it is. Found it!
Want to learn more about geocaching in Fairfax County Park Authority parks or maybe set up a cache of your own? Visit the Park Authority geocaching webpage.
Author Gina Sando is a naturalist at Lake Fairfax Park.