I didn’t know any of the jargon like “TFTC”, micro, ammo can, way point or travel bug.
I was just a stay-at-home mom with two children under five desperate to find fun and engaging activities to keep my kids entertained while also getting us all outdoors and away from the television.
That’s when I discovered geocaching from a Facebook friend and was instantly taken with the experience.
“Geocaching is a world-wide treasure hunt using a GPS device or smart phone application,” said Tyler Bonus, avid traveler and Geocaching.com lackey. “We have over 2.5 million geocaches around the world and with those devices, geocachers can locate a hidden container that can be slightly bigger than a thumbtack or the size of a car.”
In the three years since I entered the geocaching world I’ve only found 61 geocaches in two countries, including only three U.S. states and one Canadian province.
This isn’t too impressive as geocaching globetrotters go. But since our children are finally old enough, our family has begun planning family vacations abroad, which led me to question what geocaching is like in other countries.
“Geocaching from it’s very beginning has been an international activity,” said Eric Schudiske, public relations coordinator at Geocaching.com. “We are translated into approximately 20 languages on the website and there geocaches in more than 125 countries around the world. Where ever you go there is an adventure waiting to be found.”
Bonus had recently returned from a European trip where he cached through the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands so I asked him how European caching differed from caching in the U.S.
“There is a lot more history,” he said. “Everything there is so much older, Seattle is such a young city, relatively speaking. They have something called church micros over there, which everyone in the U.K. are always super pumped about because there are old churches everywhere in England and you get to learn something new.”
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Vigil stationed at a U.S. military base in Europe agrees.
“You never know what you will get,” he said. “The British quirkiness shows in a lot of their caches, the Spanish wrap some culture and history into their caches and the Irish have some unique caches that play on luck and charms. Geocaching abroad really helps you understand and share each other’s culture with the world.”
In addition to the history and culture lessons, Bonus explains that laws are different in Europe.
“You are finding geocaches on what feels like someone’s private property,” he said. “You are climbing over fences and walking in someone’s field, I would definitely feel like I was trespassing if I did some of what I did over there, here in the U.S.“
With all of the differences between caching at home and caching abroad I was concerned about a language barrier but Bonus shrugged it off and put my mind at ease.
“In Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands they all know enough English to get by so the cache descriptions are translated into English,” he said. “If they weren’t translated, using Google Translator was the easiest thing for me, it was enough so that I could understand most of the cache description.”
Bonus says the hardest part of caching abroad can be narrowed down to one word, data. A hand-held GPS device can work anywhere in the world, but these days most geocachers use the Geocaching.com smartphone application to access the geocache database. This can leave users in a lurch when trying to find a cache abroad.
“It’s super expensive using data if it works at all,” he said. “There is a lot of planning involved — I’d have to either use a GPS or I’d have to download [the cache descriptions] to my geocaching app — data works differently in Europe because most people in that region don’t use their phones for geocaching.”
As much as American geocachers like myself want to travel abroad to explore European geocaches, I was surprised to find just how many foreigners travel to Seattle to visit the Geocaching headquarters, under the gaze of the stoic Fremont Troll.
“We have such a place of privilege and honor to be able to welcome people from around the world who want to come to where we work because of what we add to their non-working hours,” said Schudiske. “To see people united across cultural, religious and political lines in an adventure that takes them outside is really something special, at least one person has even kissed the ground here.”
There is a lot of fanfare when visiting “HQ” as the lackeys call it. When guests walk into their foyer they are greeted by a forest on the third floor of the Fremont-based office building, and in the center, a large pirate-worthy geocache chest sits waiting for visitors to discover it.
I push open the lid and hear the medal and wood creak as I look into the depths of the largest geocache I’ve seen to date. Like all geocaches it contains geocoins and travel tags that are trackable on geocaching.com and a logbook. I slowly page through the leather-bound log and read the entries.
“Greetings from Germany!”
“Came from Switzerland by way of Cali, thanks for the cache!”
“Finally made it to Geocaching Mecca from Denmark!”
“Came to Seattle from the U.K. just for the geocaching pilgrimage, woot!”
Page after page, logbook after logbook of similar, enthusiastic yet geographically diverse entries like that.
“A lot of people plan their vacation around stopping by Geocaching headquarters,” said Bonus. “They integrate it into their trip, it might not be the only reason they come here but they definitely make sure that it becomes part of their vacation.”
My trip to “Geo-Mecca” has certainly given me a lot to think about. I spend a great deal of time asking many of the Lackeys where they’d go traveling abroad. I get lots of great answers: Germany, New Zealand, Italy, Australia and the U.K. But I think Schudiske has given me the most to think about.
“I think with 2.5 million geocaches around the world it really is ‘choose your own adventure’,” he said. “You just have to get outside and the see the world how you’d like to define it. Wherever you go, head out and have a robust adventure and be led to a new destination by geocaching.”