Cache Me if You Can

Many Charlotte families are discovering that this city is full of treasures — literally.
The sport of geocaching, which involves using a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) to find small containers of toys that people have hidden on publicly accessible lands all over the world, is becoming increasingly popular among Charlotte families.

Charlotte is home to hundreds of “geocaches,” which can range in size from a pillbox to a quart jug. Larger geocaches are filled with small toys, and many geocachers bring their own tiny treasures to swap out with one in the cache. Caches are frequently hidden in public parks, and geocachers say one of the joys of the sport is discovering new places.

Area parents say geocaching is great for getting kids outdoors and promoting family time. And what kid can resist a treasure hunt in the woods?
Rhonda Boyce of Charlotte said she recently snuck off during a gathering of moms at a park to find a geocache with her children, ages 5 and 2. A few of her friends’ children tagged along.
“They were just bouncing up and down and they were thrilled,” said Boyce. “Then they got new toys. What’s better than that?”

An International Phenomenon
Geocaching began in mid-2000 after the U.S. Department of Defense unscrambled signals from its satellite navigation system, allowing civilians to pinpoint locations within about 30 feet using a GPS. Within days, an Oregon man hid a bucket of trinkets in the woods and posted the coordinates on the Internet. Geocaching was invented. Soon the Web site was created, and it now tracks more than 555,000 geocaches worldwide. The site also serves as a log book, where members can log their finds and plan their next hunt.

Bob Palmer of Matthews has found more than 500 caches and has hidden many in the Charlotte area himself. “I think the geocaching environment in Charlotte is very active,” he said. “Whenever there’s a new cache in the Matthews area it seems like we are racing to find it first.”
A search on lists more than 1,200 caches in Charlotte, and that number is growing as more geocachers hide new ones.

“Charlotte is a great place to cache, because of the history to be discovered, the little neighborhood parks, the greenways and uptown, which give a wide variety of cache experiences,” said Cameron Thorstad of Charlotte, who geocaches with his wife and young daughter.

Family Fun
Sharon and David Chappelle of Charlotte began geocaching when their son Camden was only a few weeks old. Sharon found the idea of a treasure hunt “fascinating,” and she also liked that it would get her kids outside more.
Now Camden, 2, and his sister Chloe, 5, love when the family goes on a “treasure hunt.” Camden carries a toy in his pocket, and when the family finds the caches he goes through the loot to pick one to trade.

“It really gets our family out, and it gives us time away from technology,” Sharon Chappelle said. “We’ve seen lots of great things, like turtles, caterpillars and frogs. The kids see those and it’s like that’s as big of a treasure as the treasure hunt itself.”

Another Charlotte geocacher, who asked to be referred to by his geocache name, “Therapaint,” said he and his son, who’s 8, enjoy the more challenging caches that could involve “crossing the creeks and fighting the briars.” Often, he said, geocaching will turn into a fun family day outside.

“With kids, not only is it a good way to get them outside, but I don’t know what kid doesn’t like finding a treasure in the woods,” he said. “That’s a little incentive to get out there and get some exercise and enjoy a day in the park.”

Rediscovering Your City
Geocaching almost always leads you new places — both in your home city and on vacations.
Palmer learned about Squirrel Park in Matthews, which is about a mile from his house, after finding a geocache there. He also discovered a stunning view from the top of a parking garage. “It’s one of my favorite spots to go look at the downtown skyline,” he said. “Why would I have gone to the top of a parking garage except to look for a cache?”

Taking your handheld GPS and a few geocache coordinates on family vacations can lead you to spots off the tourist track. Boyce said her family has geocached with grandparents and sisters-in-law in several states.
“Therapaint” said vacation geocaching has showed his family “things an ordinary tourist wouldn’t see,” including parts of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., and a lookout tower on Bald Head Island. “It really enhances the experience,” he said. “We wouldn’t have known (the lookout tower) was there if it wasn’t for that cache.”

Getting Started
The only equipment required for geocaching is a handheld GPS. Units range from about $150 to $600, but geocachers only need a low-end model without the fancy features.

REI in Pineville and other big box sports stores will carry a range of GPS’s, and store staff can answer questions about features and show you how to use the device. REI will offer a free, one-hour course in June on buying and using a GPS.
If you want to try geocaching before you make the financial commitment, the U.S. National Whitewater Center Eco Caching program rents GPS’s and provides coordinates for educational caches hidden on the center’s grounds.

First-time geocaches may want to start simply, joining and picking a few caches close to home or some that look easy. Searching for a well-hidden or small cache can be frustrating, and you’ll want to start your geocaching adventure on a high note.
And remember that geocaching isn’t all about the treasure at the end.
“Learn about nature as you go,” said Boyce. “Enjoy beauty of the world.”

Marty Minchin is a Charlotte-based freelance writer and the mother of two young children.