Rural Missouri Magazine

High Tech Hide and Seek
Geocachers use hand-held GPS devices
to pursue hidden "treasures"

by Bob McEowen

Geocachers use hand-held GPS devices to guide them to hidden containers, or caches, in state forests, parks and other public places. The devices use radio signals from satellites to pinpoint a location within about 20 feet.

Steve Paul parks his truck by a trail head at Henning Conservation Area near Branson and heads into the woods. As he walks he stops from time to time to check his progress on a hand-held GPS receiver. The device locks onto satellites above the Earth to tell him his exact position and lead him to his destination.

After walking well over a mile and climbing 400 feet Paul reaches the coordinates he’s programmed into his GPS. From there he searches the woods for something out of place. Within a few minutes he spots a beat-up olive drab ammo box partially hidden by rocks piled near an old building foundation.

Paul has located the Henning Homesteaders Cache, one of more than 600 such hidden “treasures” in Missouri.

The box, placed there as part of a high-tech hide and seek game called geocaching, contains a small log book and an assortment of trinkets. Paul examines the contents, decides to add nothing to it and writes his name in the log. When he returns home he’ll go to an Internet Web site and write the following:

“Quite a little hike for a fat boy, especially on a warm day like today. Found with no problem . . . Took nothing & left nothing. Thanks.”

Geocaching — pronounced “gee-oh-cash-ing” — challenges participants to locate hidden ammo boxes and Tupperware containers using a hand-held GPS, or global positioning system, device. The exact coordinates of these caches are posted on the Internet and geocachers spend evenings, weekends and family vacations searching for them.

Dan Henke of Rolla checks his GPS while his son, Jonathan, searches a brush pile for a geocache near Jefferson City.

Although few caches contain anything of value the allure of finding the unknown has attracted thousands of players. The game is little more than two years old and already there are nearly 40,000 caches hidden in more than 160 countries.

“It just kind of snowballed,” says Paul, an Ozark Electric Cooperative member from Battlefield, who began geocaching in October. Paul already owned a GPS device that he used to record prime fishing spots when he decided to look at the Web site.

“One evening I was sitting around and went into that site and looked at it. There were some caches right close to my house,” Paul says. “I went out and found one and I thought, well, this is kind of fun.”

The key to geocaching is the GPS device, which receives signals from the U.S. government’s 24 navigational satellites and displays the longitude and latitude position of any spot on Earth.

Geocachers use the devices, which cost from $100 to about $300, to both determine the location of caches they hide and to guide them in their search for others.

This cache contained trinkets, a log book and a disposable camera that geocachers are invited to record their conquest with. The owner of the cache later posts the photos on the Internet. The dollar bill is a “Where’s George?” dollar, a common item in geocaches. The bill’s travels can be tracked on an Internet site.

In May of 2000 President Clinton signed an order which granted civilians access to the same clear signal the military and other government agencies used. While once the GPS units used by fishermen and hikers would get them within a football field’s length of a coordinate, overnight they became accurate to 20 feet or less.

Taking advantage of the improved civilian satellite access, GPS enthusiasts in the Pacific northwest begin hiding containers of toys and trinkets along trails and in parks and challenging others to find them. Two months after Clinton’s order the Web site was in place and a new pastime was born.

The rules are simple: Find the cache. If you take something out, leave something in its place. Record your name and any swaps you make in the logbook in the cache. Go back to and enter your find on the page that describes the cache.

Most caches contain little more than keychains, small toys and other souvenirs. Some also contain a “travel bug,” which is an item attached to a special tag bearing a serial number. Travel bugs travel from cache to cache, usually with an intended destination, and their progress can be tracked on the Internet.

Virtual caches guide geocachers to a monument, tombstone or other landmark to answer a question posed on the Web site. Other variations involve offset- and multi-caches, in which the coordinates provided lead the searcher to more clues. A new aspect of the game has geocachers searching for survey benchmarks.

Charles Britton logs onto the Web site from his home near Cassville. The Barry County Electric Cooperative member hunts survey benchmarks, the newest area of the geocaching hobby.

Charles Britton has been using a GPS device to record the benchmarks in Barry County for the past six years. When benchmarking became part of geocaching he bought a computer and joined the game.

“What allures me is what has allured every man, the thought of a hidden treasure,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what the treasure is. It’s a treasure.”

Clearly, though, there is more to this game than just finding a box or a spot on a map.

For Paul, a retired computer technician, geocaching offers an excuse to get outdoors and be active. “It’s a way for me to get out of the house, to get a little exercise. I have a tendency to sit behind that computer way too much.”

Besides, he says, he enjoys the challenge.

“They give you the coordinates and you say, ‘By golly, I can find this.’ Well, sometimes it’s a little harder than you think.”

Steve Paul of Battlefield checks the contents of a geocache near Springfield Lake. Often found in an ammo box or plastic container, the caches rarely contain anything of value.

Indeed, despite the accuracy of GPS, the devices only get geocachers to the general area. They still must find the cache. The online logs reveal that sometimes players hunt for hours without finding anything. Whether they find the cache or not, geocachers say there is a joy to the hobby that surpasses bragging rights or keychains exchanged.

“I know there’s never going to be anything in that box that’s going to be valuable. But what am I going to see on the way?” asks Dan Henke, a mapmaker with the U.S. Geological Survey in Rolla who took up geocaching more than a year ago.

“One of the caches I went to is on a Conservation area way back in the sticks. About three quarters of the way back to the cache a red fox came out in front of me and stopped and looked at me. That’s neat,” the Intercounty Electric Cooperative member says.

“And when you got to the cache it was sitting right over the top of this huge bluff that overlooked this valley and this great view. I went to one near a natural arch that I had no idea was even there and it’s only about 10 or 15 miles from my house.”

While geocaching has led untold numbers of people to visit public lands they otherwise would never have seen, the pastime has some officials a bit worried. The National Park Service forbids geocaching and both the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Department are unsure what to do about people hiding things on the land they manage.

“It snuck up on us. And it’s everywhere,” says Sue Holst, a spokesperson for DNR. “At this point we are a bit concerned that they are doing this on our property without our permission. Our concern isn’t for the activity itself. It’s that people might be hiding items in sensitive areas that they may not even be aware are sensitive.

Paul hikes through Henning Conservation Area near Branson in search of a geocache.

“We have some rare and endangered plants in certain areas that we do not want people walking over. We have archeological sites that we don’t want people digging in,” she says.

But geocachers say they know enough not to disturb the environment any more than necessary placing and finding their cleverly hidden caches.

“Most of the cachers I’ve come across want to preserve the wilderness,” says Nick Sage of Springfield, an avid hiker who says she’s walked as far as 10 miles round trip searching for a cache. “Whenever I go in I pick up litter and carry it out. Most of the cachers I know do that. They cache in and trash out.”

Still, there have been problems. One cache hidden on Conservation Department land had a castaway theme. A hunter stumbled across it and mistook the “Help, I’m lost!” message written on the outside as a genuine distress signal. The confusion prompted a brief manhunt and a new department policy requiring special use permits for geocaches.

The Conservation Department is so concerned about the new game that some land managers say, soon, geocachers will not be the only people scouring the woods with a GPS unit in hand. John Vogel, a wildlife management biologist who oversees Busch Wildlife Area and other Conservation land in the St. Louis region, says he plans to find and confiscate non-permitted caches.

Finding your way in the GPS world

To participate in geocaching you’ll need two things: a hand-held GPS device and access to a computer with an Internet connection. To get started, go to and set up an account. There is no charge to register, access the caches, announce a cache or post your finds.

GPS units are available at sporting goods retailers (Wal-Mart carries a few). A basic unit costs about $120 but may not include the cord to attach it to your computer. More sophisticated units that display maps cost about $300. A number of Internet retailers, including and GPS City Garmin offer a wide selection and reduced prices.

To date, GPS units are designed to connect to Windows-based computers. There are a few Macintosh programs available, including those from and

But despite growing pains that come with a new activity on public land Conservation and DNR officials say they are adopting a wait and see attitude in hopes that geocaching brings new visitors to Missouri’s outdoors.

“I would have a hard time arguing that they’re much different from somebody who wants to come out here and go hiking or bird watching. They’re using our property for an outdoor recreational use,” says Vogel. “It gets people out in the woods and it gets people out hiking.”

And that, geocachers say, is the reason the hobby is growing so quickly.

“People don’t get outside anymore. All of a sudden you’ve got a reason to go outside, even if it’s only for an hour or two,” says Henke.

“But there’s something to find other than what’s at the cache. You’re getting back in touch with nature. You’re getting back in touch with the outdoors.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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