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Geocaching: worldwide, nurtured in Seattle

A geocache: Finding one through the use of a GPS has become the object of a popular leisure activity. Credit: Solitude/Wikimedia Commons

Jews in Philadelphia do it. So do troops in Afghanistan and cruise line afficionados.  It recently saved lives in Colorado.  Boy Scouts have a badge for it.  Over 4,000 people crowded into Carnation this summer to get a piece of it.

And a Seattle-based company is both its top dog and, arguably, its fiercest protector.

“It” is geocaching, a popular activity with millions of adherents all over the world that combines a treasure hunt with GPS technology.  The company most prominent in the geocaching world, Groundspeak, Inc., is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month: a benchmark for a company run by three men who turned their personal pleasure into a mini-empire. 

“We didn’t invent geocaching but we certainly built a business around the activity,” said Groundspeak VP Bryan Roth in a recent interview.  “We formed the company so we could create the geocaching.com website and build this business based around geocaching.”

Nobody owns geocaching per se, he added: “Nobody owns the activity; however, like within baseball you have the major leagues with their own brands, trademarks and copyrights over content.  That’s a similar role to what we play within the geocaching community.”

So what exactly is geocaching?  A treasure hunt is a perfect analogy; however, GPS devices and moderate computer skills are the secret sauces that make it work.

Simply put, someone hides a cache — a toy or trinket plus a log book in some container (ammo cases are popular containers).  The precise navigational coordinates are posted on the Geocaching.com website.  Once a container is found, an entry is placed in the log book, another trinket substituted, and the find is also recorded on the Geocaching website.

People can use a stand-alone GPS receiver, or can buy a Geocaching app for either iPhones or Android smartphones for about $10. There are free apps, such as C:geo for Android, but Roth labels it “unauthorized” and a terms of service violator. Membership in Geocaching.com is free; however, a full-service premium package is available for $30 a year.

Groundspeak has registered over 5 million members worldwide, a figure that Roth believes is conservative because many of those memberships are for families.  He happily reels off a variety of statistics, outlining a broad, evenly distributed diversity of ages from young adults to seniors, as well as education and gender.  Of all countries other than the U.S., Germany is particularly geo-active: nearly 14 percent of all geocachers.  

As of about four weeks ago, 1.2 million trackable caches worldwide were listed on the site. The website had well over 10 million visitors in August.

What is now called geocaching was born a decade ago as a byproduct of the nation’s defense-oriented Global Positioning System (GPS).  Today, between 24 and 32 satellites are in permament orbit transmitting microwave signals that let GPS receivers precisely map out their location, speed, direction, and time. 

In 2000, however, GPS was still restricted for civilian use. The publicly available signals were deliberately downgraded by the government until President Clinton ordered “selective availability” turned off at midnight on May 1, 2000.  The government had found a work-around to deny hostile forces the use of GPS signals on a regional basis, and civilians now had the opportunity to enjoy the full benefits of GPS, including the ability to pinpoint movement within 65 feet.

Two days later, GPS enthusiast Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant, tested the accuracy of the system with the placement of a container near the town of Beavercreek, Ore.  He noted the coordinates, posted the results on the Internet.  A couple of enthusiasts left their computers, tromped onto the woods with their GPS receivers, located the caches and posted their results.  Geocaching was born.

One of the early adopters was Seattle resident Jeremy Irish, then a web developer for Sunrise Indentity, a local company, who decided to marry his twin loves of treasure hunting and techno gadgets by starting a website for his hobby.  The site was geocaching.com, which he launched on Sept. 2, 2000. Shortly thereafter, stories in Slashdot, the influential online site, and in the New York Times sent the site into orbit.

Initially the site was strictly a hobby.  But the hobby metastasized into a full-time career for Irish and two colleagues, Elias Alvord and Roth, two coworkers at Sunrise Identity.  The sale of 144 geocaching T-shirts gave them the revenue to start what is now Groundspeak, but it took the better part of five years for the three to build the company into their full-time employment.

Today, Groundspeak headquarters is located in a modest 3-story office building in Ballard.  There are 47 full-time employees, and over 200 volunteers worldwide for reviewing the placement and appropriateness of caches.  Roth notes proudly that the company has bootstrapped its finances since the beginning, has taken no outside funding, and has no debt.  The value of the company was not disclosed.

Managing the site includes setting up policies for hiding caches, Roth noted.  Among them: no geocaches are to be placed by popular monuments, historical sites, police stations, post offices, schools, or public buildings. “Unfortunately,” he noted, “we live in a world where suspicion is higher than it used to be.  These days, even if it’s a box in the woods, on occasion someone says, ‘I saw someone doing something sneaky in this park ‘and you can have the bomb squad called.

“It has absolutely happened.  Fortunately it doesn’t happen frequently. In the nine-plus years that we’ve been doing this, we have never had an incident where a geocache was something harmful.”

It would be unfair to describe geocaching as a sport for geeks, even though some geekiness is involved.  Brian Hoskins of Everett, a residential service plumbing and heating tech, sees it as family fun:  “It’s like a treasure hunt that everybody does individually,” he said.  “It’s a neat hour or two to spend with the family.” 

Hoskins and his three children, ages 9 through 15, go out two or three times a month.  “It’s the experience of going out with the kids as a family and with a specific goal in mind.  We get to explore the world we drive by every day and just don’t even see it in a blur.”

For adults, Hoskins said, the joy of geocaching is in identifying how to finding and get to a cache.  For kids, he said, “It’s exciting not just to find the geocaches but to explore the wilderness and knowing they’re going to get a new toy.  That gives them kind of a kicker to stay involved and stay focused and be involved.”

Geocaching has become more than just a sport for families, however.

Around the world, geocaching is making contributions to many aspects of everyday life. It may also act as a boon to local economies through hotel room occupancy, car rentals, and increased local dining at restaurants. 

Some examples:

Groundspeak sanctions annual worldwide geocaching celebrations, the latest of which was held last July in Carnation east of Seattle: “Geowoodstock VIII”  with over 4,100 people attending.  According to avid geocacher and event organizer Jackie Vaughn, the event attracted people from throughout the U.S., “quite a few from Canada,” and visitors from China, Japan, Germany, Africa, and South America.  “A lot of geocachers use that event as their vacation,” she said.  “As soom as the next event is announced, that’s where they’re going on vacation.” The 2011 event will be in Warren, Pa.

Event registration was free, but money was charged for food, T-shirt sales and similar activities.  Any profit left over from paying event expenses — an estimated $5,000 — will be donated to charity, Vaughn said.

The event did not include geocaching on site: a private farm was rented for the occasion and the owner had little interest in people being less than careful when visiting the farm, or coming at all hours of the day and night looking for treasure.

The company says it has firmly ruled out the potential for over-commercializing geocaching.  There have been some activities with commercial tie-ins, notably a global event with 20th Century Fox Studios coinciding with the release of director Tim Burton’s version of “Planet of The Apes.” Geocaches were hidden in 12 locations around the world: props used in the actual movie.  “So while there was a commercial entity involved,” Roth said, “there was something we thought would not be commercialism.  It was more about this fun, exciting promotion where people could go out and win prizes.

“We consider ourselves the stewards of geocaching activity. Our goal not just to build a profit off this activity.  We want to make sure this activity is around for our children-grandchildren.  We try to keep it relatively pure.”

 

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