High-tech treasure hunt: Geocaching appeals with advanced hide-and-seek

Published: Sunday, July 25 2010 2:00 p.m. MDT

Travis, 13, left, and Jacob Mortensen, 8, open a geocache at Utah Lake State Park in Provo. There are almost 18,000 geocaches in Utah.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

A lot of Utahns would probably have a tough time describing or recognizing a geocache, but geocaching has become a popular activity for many individuals and families alike.

But other people's unfamiliarity with the game has caused trouble for Jacob Barlow, an expert geocacher from Springville who has hidden 1,700 caches. A cache he put inside an ammo box (a typical container used for caches) didn't look so typical to the neighbors. After hiding the cache in a field near his brother's house, he was later surprised to see a tiny robot driving around his cache, inspecting it closely.

"It was being checked out by a bomb squad," Barlow said. "The neighbors were concerned and called, not knowing what it really was. Luckily, they didn't end up taking the cache away. Instead, they just told me to mark it better next time."

That's impractical advice for him because he's serious about creative caches and often uses elaborate camouflage techniques when hiding them.

For nine years now, Barlow has been geocaching — a modern day game of technology-driven treasure hunting and hiding.

Geocachers use GPS or other high-tech tools to find and hide caches with items that usually have little monetary value but are meaningful to the hider. Sometimes, caches involve clues or complex puzzles. Once they find the cache, most geocachers record their names in a logbook inside it.

Geocachers also have to watch out for "muggles" — non-geocachers who may destroy a cache. Highly populated areas have more "muggles," but are also more appealing to those who enjoy the risk. It's all part of an advanced game of hide and seek that is played all around the world.

In Utah alone, there are almost 18,000 geocaches. It's a young game (or sport or hobby, depending who you ask) that started about 10 years ago.

"A joke among the caching community is that we use billion-dollar satellites to find Tupperware in the woods," said Justin Mortensen, a geocacher from Spanish Fork. "I guess that's how I'd describe it."

Mortensen, who has been geocaching for five years now, advises newcomers to spend time with long-time cachers to learn more about the game.

"Go to local events to learn from other geocachers," he said. "There's always someone who is experienced and willing to sit down and teach you."

And there are plenty of savvy cachers in the state. Barlow has found 11,600 geocaches total, and once located 114 in just one day.

"I tell people it's a treasure hunting game, but for me it's a way to get out and see places I would never see otherwise, especially historical sites or beautiful areas," Barlow said.

In Utah, geocaching is appealing to more types of people. Some even use a smart phone to hide caches. This adds a layer of those who may not be considered purists by traditional geocachers, because these newer methods can sometimes lack accuracy. However, geocaching isn't just for GPS enthusiasts anymore.

Businessmen on a lunch break search for caches nestled in Salt Lake City, families look for ones inside their hotel lobby, and outdoor adventurers seek them in the back country. As the game attracts more participants, cachers and caches are coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

One cache Barlow hid involved finding a secret door he'd created on the underside of a park bench. It was small and more difficult. However, there are some caches geared more toward children, such as a large one hidden by Mortensen. It was filled to the brim with eye patches, fake gold coins and necklaces, following a pirate theme.

Whether a cache is one ounce or 5 pounds, in Logan or Moab, or somewhere in between, there are different types for beginners up to seasoned geocachers.

For guidelines on how to find your first geocache, visit www.geocaching.com/about/finding.aspx.

e-mail: mlizon@desnews.com

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