Our region lights up the season with plenty of parades, light shows and Santa Claus appearances, and these six events remain truly unforgettable.
Are you walking past hidden treasures without knowing it? If you’re not already part of the geocaching community, the answer is probably yes!
Geocaching (or “caching,” as it’s sometimes called by its practitioners) is a game that combines technology and nature. It involves finding hidden trinkets and other items in parks, neighborhoods and other public areas. These items are known as caches.
“Geocaching is a real-life treasure hunt using GPS devices,” says Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter, marketing manager for McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD). “It’s a great way for all ages to learn geography, spend time outdoors together and explore new places.”
Thanks to smartphone technology that can lead you straight to the prize, it’s simple and fun to get started with caching. It’s an activity everyone can enjoy without any special knowledge or prior experience.
There’s an App for That
Geocachers use websites and apps to find caches close by. While some cachers make a day of it by planning a route full of cache sites, others look for caches as they go about their errands.
“The smartphone has made it more accessible to everyone and easier to use. You don’t have to buy a separate device (GPS) to participate,” says Stephanie Michael, IT systems administrator for McHenry County Conservation District. Michael, who began the District’s geocaching program in 2008, says phone apps are even easier to use than GPS units were 15 years ago. “I was terrible at it until I started using the smartphone app.”
Popular apps for geocaching include Geocaching, GeoCaches and Adventure Lab. These apps can show you where to find caches, and they typically include a description of the cache, the terrain or area where it’s hidden, the size of the cache, and how difficult it is to find. Users can also upload pictures of the cache when they find it so everyone else can see what was inside when it was last found. The people who hid the cache – known as hiders – may also provide clues or helpful hints to guide your search.
Usually, the items are stored inside small boxes to protect them from the elements. There’s also a logbook inside the box so you can add your name to the list of people who have successfully found the cache. It’s important to note, though, that each cache is a little different, and hiders are becoming more and more creative in their work. In addition to traditional caches, some hiders have set up multi-caches, mystery/puzzle caches, letterboxes and virtual caches. It pays to check the app for hints and other details before setting out so you know what to expect. Multi-caches, for example, involve more than one stage or waypoint where you must solve puzzles or gather information to find the final cache. With letterbox caches, there’s usually a container with a logbook and rubber stamp.
“The type of caches have changed a great deal,” Michael says. “In the beginning, it was basic, just a container hidden in the woods for people to find. Now, some of them can be quite elaborate and clever. I see caches getting more high-tech.”
While getting started is free and easy to learn, you’ll need some way to access a list of available caches in your area.
“To geocache, you need a GPS navigation device or smartphone with GPS and access to geocaching.com,” Martinez-McWhorter says. “For our geocache series, participants also need to print out the passport for the series and complete that as they go. It can be found on our website at MCCD.me/cache.”
After you visit the geocaching website or download one of the caching apps, you’ll notice a collection of common acronyms that are at first confusing. Cachers use several common acronyms among themselves: TFTC (thanks for the cache), SL (signed log), TFTH (thanks for the hide) and DNF (did not find). Cachers are happy to share their successes and failures with others to make the game even more fun and interactive.
A Vibrant Community
Geocaching abounds in the northwestern and western suburbs. The best place to start is by searching your caching app, but some county forest preserves have programs designed to guide participants. For example, MCCD hosts Cache Your Way Across McHenry County, a geocaching series that leads participants through some of the county’s most picturesque properties as they look for hidden objects. The series runs from the end of May until the end of October each year.
Hundreds of area residents have taken part in this program. Kathy Mikel, a retiree who participated in MCCD’s program and has been caching for over a year, says she enjoys finding caches wherever she is.
“Caching makes me happy,” she says. “The program prompted me to go to places I probably would have never thought of going and made me realize there are so many beautiful places in our area to hike.” She adds that caching is not limited to our area, though. “I could be anywhere. I’ve found caches in Spain and the Smoky Mountains. Wherever I am, I look for one.”
One of the great things about geocaching is that it attracts a broad variety of participants. From retirees like Mikel to families with young children and couples looking for something to do on the weekends, cachers find this hobby offers an opportunity to get outside and explore.
“We see a really wide range of people participating in our geocaching program,” says Michael of MCCD. “We have a lot of local geocachers, but we also sometimes have people come from out of town – even from other states and countries – to complete the series.”
Those looking to participate in MCCD’s program can also plug into the community online.
“We have a Facebook group for geocachers participating in our series where they can share tips and tricks, ask questions and more,” says Martinez-McWhorter.
To find the group, head to facebook.com/groups/MCCDCache.
“Geocachers are super-friendly people,” says Michael. “They love to get together and chat about their adventures. I’ve seen many friendships and relationships form from meeting people while caching. Sometimes, events are done formally through geocaching.com and other times they’re just informal meetups.”
The thrill of the hunt draws plenty of people to geocaching. Others are drawn to the feeling of accomplishment they get when they finally locate a hard-to-find cache.
“I think the sense of achievement helps motivate participants as they work toward completing our series,” says Martinez-McWhorter. “Additionally, we offer a collectible geocoin for each series that goes along with the theme of the series. For instance, this year’s coin featured a sandhill crane. Once the series is completed, participants can claim their coin.”
Everyone has their own motivators. Some just love to get out and explore.
“Geocaching got me outside and moving,” says Michael. “It made hiking and walking more interesting.” Not only did she get out, but she found herself in unfamiliar places. “It brings people to places they didn’t know existed. I had so many people comment about certain District sites they never knew existed. This also applies personally; I visited so many places I’d never been to when geocaching. It takes you to unique locations you might never have visited.”
Martinez-McWhorter says the program at MCCD is remarkable because of how it’s designed.
“What makes geocaching unique in our area is that most caches – or all caches in the case of our series – are hidden in natural areas,” she says. “Our caches also cover a lot more area than the average series, which may all take place within one park or town. Our series is county-wide. Each annual series follows an environmental theme and requires participants to find the answers to themed questions in the caches, so it requires a bit of learning about nature, wildlife and the conservation district along the way.”
Know Before You Go
While geocaching is a fun and free activity for all ages, there are some things to keep in mind.
“As to be expected with time spent in any natural area, encountering mosquitoes and ticks is a possibility,” warns Martinez-McWhorter. “We recommend geocachers use insect repellents, wear long sleeves, all those things, to prevent unwanted bites.”
Martinez-McWhorter also reminds everyone to be mindful of the rules in parks and recreation areas.
“All conservation district ordinances apply,” she says. “Caches are required to be 12 feet or less from the designated trail, and participants can leave the trail for the cache but must not travel farther than 12 feet from the trail and must otherwise remain on the trail.”
Mikel says one thing she wishes she’d known when she started geocaching is that the app tells how far away the cache is in absolute distance. Because it uses physical distance only, it doesn’t take into account the path you’ll need to take to reach it. Mikel remembers feeling confused when she thought she was getting closer to an item, only to find she was actually getting farther away because the path was a loop.
There’s also some etiquette to follow while caching. Here are a few basic guidelines:
- Leave no trace. Respect the environment and leave things as you find them.
- Trade fairly. If you take something from a geocache, leave something of equal or greater value.
- Respect private property. Make sure you have permission to access the area you want to search.
- Rehide the cache. Conceal caches as you find them so others get the same experience exploring as you had.
If you plan on hiding a cache for others to find, it’s a good idea to check with city or county authorities to make sure you follow the proper process. Many areas require geocaches to be pre-approved before placement, including McHenry County forest preserves. In Kane County’s public preserves, you may need to add a pre-approved sticker, limit your caches to certain preserves, and agree not to affix your cache within a natural or manmade structure.
Mikel says she’s currently working on her second hide. “We’re so grateful for people who take the time to hide them. We want to give back.
Ask any geocacher about their favorite find, and they’re eager to share. Mikel vividly recalls the most creative one she’s encountered.
“My phone buzzed at 30 feet, then 3 feet, and then 1 foot. I was looking all over, but it was nowhere to be found. Suddenly, I saw a tree stump where the bark didn’t line up, and then I realized the stump swiveled! Somebody drilled a hole in the tree stump and hid something inside. It was so clever.”
Geocaching in this region offers an exciting and rewarding way to explore the area. Embarking on this adventure will take you to hidden gems, historical sites and beautiful natural landscapes while connecting you to a spirited community of adventure seekers.
“You’ll make really good memories. I look back at my pictures and think: Remember when we did this? It was so fun,” Mikel says. “If you like puzzles, if you like riddles, if you like a challenge, then geocaching is for you.”