Wednesday 25 May 2016

Geocaching: Playful Navigation in Everyday Spaces

If you knew that there were secret worlds within our everyday, mundane surroundings, would you search for them?
Aided by a smartphone or other GPS-enabled device, this is essentially what geocaching asks you to do. In an outdoor treasure-hunting game played across the world, over 2.8 million containers are waiting to be found, the coordinates to their whereabouts posted online alongside hints and other information.
Inside these containers called ‘caches’ – whose size varies from ‘nanocaches’ less than a centimetre long to large boxes – you’ll find a logbook to record your visit, alongside any items left by previous geocachers, which you can trade for an item of your own. Inscribed with the traces of past visitors, the physical logbooks correspond to virtual logbooks at, where people tell the personal stories that accompany their successful or unsuccessful attempts to find the caches.
As these stories attest, the most valuable thing about geocaching isn’t even finding the ‘treasure’ – it is the journey you take to get there. Geocaching is a different way of navigating space. Through the format of a treasure-hunting game, and the use of mediating technology, it ultimately makes us care more about our surroundings. Both learning about places and actively creating new memories there, you become both witness to and participant within the drama of everyday life.
This post will share some of my thoughts and experiences when undertaking geocaching over the past two months.
Re-programming the landscape
From the moment you load up the geocaching app or website, and see the waypoints of geocaches appear on the digital map of your local area, you enter into a new form of navigation. In the search for hidden treasure, the game takes you not only to places you wouldn’t go normally, but crucially enables you to see places you do visit regularly in a new light.
It’s surprising how rarely we wander off a small set of ‘usual’ routes in our daily lives. For me, this tends to be the walk to the train station, the walk through town to the public library, the train route I take up to London for university, the walk from the tube station to campus. But even deviating the slightest amount from these paths can lead you to vastly different experiences than those you would have on an average day. In some cases, these deviations can radically alter your perception of place.
Canterbury is a place I am very familiar with, having lived in the area my whole life, gone to school there, and now as a place I travel to nearly every day. Yet several times in the last couple of months, when geocaching away from my usual routes, I’ve encountered places I never even knew existed. The best example I can think of is my discovery of the world’s smallest chapel (according to the Guinness Book of Records) in the Hales Place area of the city. How had I never come across this before?

My perception of Canterbury changed perhaps most significantly, though, when on the trail of a cache in the Westgate Gardens. It’s a place I’ve walked through plenty of times before. But when I moved slightly off the beaten path, I came across a sign that marked the very spot where the London Gate – one of the old Roman gates that dotted the old city wall – used to stand. Through this gate ran Watling Street, the Roman road linking Dover and London that passed through Canterbury. All that remains now are two stones that mark either side of the old gate. The rest is up to your imagination – to try to visualise a road running through what is now a grassy, walled garden bisected by the River Stour. By seeking the geocache in a spot previously unknown to me, I’d become newly aware of the geography of Roman Canterbury, and how it corresponds to the present city.
However, not all of the geocaches I’ve found are in previously unvisited locations. Many have been in spots I walk past fairly regularly, which means I’ve had to abandon my usual, uncritical way of moving through these places and adopt the ‘geo-sense’ needed to find the caches. This typically involves being more sensitive to the details of your surroundings, including looking closer at objects in the vicinity; feeling around in places that aren’t exposed to the eye; or thinking carefully about the ‘hint’ given in the geocache description, and how it might relate to the place you’re searching.
For example, the cache pictured below is quite exposed as it juts out of a hole in a tree. But because the hole is just above eye level, and the cache is camouflaged, it took about 20 minutes of thorough searching to find.

Here are some more caches that required heightened awareness to find.
A microcache hidden on the back of a lamppost:

A cache hidden in a drawer built into a footbridge:

A magnetic cache hidden on the back of a railing:

All of these caches were in places I knew well. It was only through geocaching’s playful form of navigation that these ‘ordinary’ places became extraordinary, and my perception of these places was transformed. This is partly why Maja Klausen writes in her fantastic article that geocaching ‘re-enchants’ the city.
Of course, as you might expect when using digital technology, navigating in geocaching isn’t without its problems. The one I’ve encountered most often is poor mobile data signal, which prevents you from opening cache descriptions on the geocaching app. There is nothing more frustrating than wasting time pacing around to find a spot with good enough signal.
The GPS can also be troublesome due to its lack of precision at times. In the hunt for a ‘multi-cache’ at St. Martin’s Church in Canterbury, I had to gather numerical information from multiple gravestones in the graveyard, using it to complete the coordinates of the final cache location. However, because the gravestones were so close together, it became difficult to pinpoint exactly where I should be looking when using the app’s GPS compass. This made the search much more time-consuming than I expected.

The final technological issue was the life of my phone battery. I usually make sure it’s fully charged if I know I’m going to be geocaching for a long time. But because of the combination of using the app, mobile data, location settings and higher screen brightness when outside, geocaching can be a particularly sapping activity for batteries as well as legs.
So, when I say that geocaching ‘re-programmes’ the landscape, I mean to say that the new perspective it affords is dependent on a nexus of technologies that aren’t always reliable. Nonetheless, the playful navigation that this technology facilitates is one that can redraw your mental maps and reorganise the perception of your surroundings, transforming the environment into a game – something fun, challenging, and contingent – but ultimately more meaningful.
The secret society
While this game is now enjoyed by over 10 million players worldwide, geocaching is still an unknown quantity for the vast majority of people. When they walk outside, they almost certainly won’t be thinking that there are hidden objects in their surroundings. They’ll be occupied by the more mundane tasks of everyday life. As such – rather appropriately, in my view – geocachers call non-players ‘muggles’, after the term for non-magical beings in the Harry Potter universe.
However, even though muggles are unaware of the game, they still have a stake in it. If a muggle unknowingly discovers a cache – which can and does happen – there is a risk that it will be misplaced, damaged or stolen (‘muggled’). It’s also possible that the abnormal behaviour of players, both in hiding containers and searching for them in public spaces, will arouse suspicion and lead to security alerts and/or legal issues. This creates an additional challenge for players to negotiate, which requires care during both stages of the game: hiding and seeking.
During the hiding stage, geocachers must try to ensure that the cache can only found by those looking for it. This is especially the case in urban areas, where larger numbers of passersby make it difficult to be discreet. As a result, many geocachers have turned to increasingly elaborate ways of hiding caches, which have the additional benefit of providing a more interesting and fun play experience.
Although I’ve found many caches that are cleverly hidden (some of which you’ve already seen), my favourite example of an elaborate cache is one I found in Canterbury in April. After about 20 minutes of searching, I finally found a camouflaged flask which I thought was the cache. As it turned out, this was only half of it. Inside the flask was a set of keys, with instructions to press an electronic buzzer that was also included in the flask. When I pressed the buzzer, I heard a birdcall sound that led me to a fake birdbox attached to a tree. Using the keys to unlock the birdbox, the bottom opened out to reveal the final logbook for me to sign.

These kinds of caches are always the best to find, leaving you with a mixture of satisfaction, after the effort needed to find the cache; and admiration, at the effort and creativity of the cache owner to create such a fun experience.
Creativity is also often deployed when seeking geocaches. This is because geocachers have to somehow avoid drawing the attention of muggles, which unsurprisingly can be difficult when you are crawling head-first into a bush, for example (this actually happened). On the whole, using public spaces for anything other than moving from one place to another, or buying/consuming something, tends to come across as somewhat abnormal – hence why it is very easy to spot tourists when they stand still and look up wide-eyed at old buildings. To evade this kind of attention, geocachers therefore have to perform acts of ‘stealth’ as they search for caches.
I was caught in a particularly tricky predicament in April when geocaching by a pub in Canterbury. Because the weather was so nice, there were quite a few onlookers who were sitting at tables outside the pub. I knew that the cache was hidden on the underside of the bench I was sitting on, but I struggled to find a way to look for it without drawing attention to myself.
After briefly considering abandoning my attempt, I managed to devise a tactic where I bent down to pick up a pen I’d ‘accidentally’ dropped beforehand, using the opportunity to swiftly grab the small magnetic box attached underneath. Of course, I also had to be discreet when replacing the cache, after I’d signed the logbook. This time, I used what I call the ‘body-shield’ tactic – putting yourself in between the onlooker and the cache location. I got up from the bench and stood on the other side to block the view of the muggles, and then pretended to be looking for something in my bag as I nonchalantly slipped the cache back into position.
As you might imagine, it certainly feels like you’re playing the role of a ‘secret agent’ at times when geocaching. As part of this ‘secret society’, it is your responsibility to protect its secrets from those who could ruin the magic. This can be challenging, because in an outdoor, real-world environment filled with real people, there is always the potential for unexpected and unpredictable situations to occur. However, it is also this unpredictability that makes geocaching a continually enchanting and enjoyable experience for geocachers, as they improvise and adapt to their surroundings – whether that is by creating a fake ‘CCTV in operation’ sign to hide a cache in a car park, or pretending to tie your shoelaces when searching for a cache at ground-level. As Bradley Garrett writes about urban exploration, it is by becoming a gatekeeper to such “intimate spatial knowledge” that participants experience moments that are “empowering and exciting”.                          
A benevolent community
While acts of secrecy and intimacy are essential for creating these powerful experiences, they wouldn’t be possible in the first place without the commitment of the geocaching community to share interesting places, and their stories, with other people.
When geocachers decide on a place to hide a cache, they nearly always think carefully about why their particular spot is worth bringing people to. This could be a site with an interesting history; an area of natural beauty; or even somewhere to which the cache owner has a strong personal attachment. When the cache is approved and published online, this information is then often shared in the cache description alongside coordinates.
Reading these descriptions can give you a whole new level of understanding about the place you’re in. Before finding a cache hidden near the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, I read its description to discover a wealth of history about the theatre and its site that I’d never known about before. It turns out that the location where the current theatre stands used to be an Odeon cinema until 1984, when it was converted into the Marlowe’s second building. Its first building was demolished just before, and is where the current Marlowe Arcade shopping area now lies. Simply by reading this description that the owner made the effort to write – because they took an interest in the site – this interest was passed on to me, and I became newly aware of the history behind multiple areas of my city.
It’s not simply factual knowledge that gets passed on, though. In the description for a cache hidden in the Spring Lane area of Canterbury, the cache owner poignantly revealed that “this is near my old school which sadly closed down”. He was referring to Chaucer Technology School, a secondary school located a stone’s throw away from my own secondary school, whose sounds of lunchtime life I heard in the distance during my search for the cache.

As I walked past the old school, I thought about the stories of everyone who attended it over the decades – how this now abandoned site played such a formative part in the lives of so many people. I also pondered nostalgically about my own time at secondary school, as its sounds continued to echo through the streets. Through the sharing of stories and personal connections, geocaching immerses you in the narrative tissue of neighbourhoods, uncovering the emotional attachments that people form with places.
Alongside the cache descriptions, stories are also shared in the logs that people write after searching for caches. Although the physical logbooks in the cache containers usually only record the dates and names of finders, geocachers also write virtual logs on the online pages for each cache. In these virtual logs, it is customary for geocachers to tell short anecdotes from their time spent seeking the cache. Accounts typically include descriptions of the journey taken to the cache, muggle activity, the length of time spent searching, and ending with a thanks to the cache owner for the experience. Taken altogether, by inscribing your presence in a place through the act of logging, geocachers take part in a process of ‘story-stacking’ that ultimately fosters a shared interest in places amongst the geocaching community.
Logging also enables the geocaching community to sustain itself in a more practical sense, through the monitoring and maintenance of caches. In the event that a geocacher does not find a cache, they can write a different kind of log called a ‘Did Not Find’ (‘DNF’). If a cache owner sees that there are a number of successive DNF logs on their cache, they might suspect that their cache is missing or has been ‘muggled’, and can therefore make the decision to give it a check-up and replace it if necessary.
Occasionally, caches are still in place but need some kind of maintenance. From my experience, this is most commonly due to logbooks being full or damaged – therefore preventing other users from signing it – or damage to the cache container itself. As you can see from the pictures below, in two recent cases the logbooks I found were waterlogged.

For the first example, I wrote a ‘Needs Maintenance’ log on the cache page, including pictures of the saturated logbook. Explaining the situation, I also suggested to the cache owner that logbooks should be kept in a waterproof bag to prevent any moisture from causing damage.
In the second case I was geocaching with my Dad, who happened to have some spare paper in his car. We put the old logbook at the bottom of the container, covered it in a bit of plastic bag, and put the new paper inside a waterproof bag, making sure it was properly fastened.
Both of these kinds of actions are common in geocaching, and illustrate how the community is largely self-sustaining. It is almost totally through the motivation of fellow geocachers to share interesting places and fun experiences with other people that the game can continue. Whether it is through revealing historical facts, telling personal stories or physically maintaining caches, the geocaching community is benevolent because it is bound by a shared concern: encouraging people to care about the places they live in.
As you can probably tell, the world of geocaching is one in which I’ve thoroughly immersed myself over the past couple of months. But this exciting, secretive realm isn’t a different world – it is our world. It is the one we live in every day. The magic is hidden in the mundane, if you know how to look for it.
Unfortunately, access isn’t equal. I’ve indulged myself with a premium geocaching membership over the last two months, which has cost me £4.63 per month (although it is much less - £2.08/month - if you decide to buy an annual membership). As soon as I upgraded, a multitude of premium-only caches appeared on my geocaching map. As a premium member, I also have access to more services on the geocaching app and website. The free service is great for newcomers who want to try it out, but I’d find it hard to let go of my membership now.
Clearly, geocaching isn’t an unproblematic activity. The technology can be inaccurate and poor network coverage can be a hindrance. Muggles can be difficult to avoid, especially in cities. Walking around can be tiring (but good exercise). The weather can be terrible. And some caches can be extremely hard to find.
Yet it is this contingency that keeps you wanting to explore, because every single experience is different. Geocaching takes the diversity, unpredictability and uniqueness of the places we live in and turns it into a game – something we want to participate in, learn about, and enjoy.