Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Geocaching in urban areas

IntruderWhile I can hardly call myself a geocaching expert – I’ve only been doing it for 3 months and only have 19 cache finds to my name – I have become more adept at looking for geocaches in urban areas where ‘stealth’ is sometimes required.

Urban geocaches are a little controversial. Geocaching is still quite a niche interest and most people don’t know about it – geocachers call these people ‘muggles’ (as per Harry Potter). When you’re looking for a geocache, it’s fair to say you can look a bit shifty – searching for something in odd places, then opening a box, putting something inside it and then hiding it again. This is especially true in Britain, when in 1993 the IRA planted bombs in litter bins in Warrington, killing two children; the threat of terrorism has meant that many railway stations – especially larger ones – don’t have bins.

A case in point was an incident this summer in Wetherby (which isn’t that far away from where we live, in the same county) where someone was spotted placing a small plastic box under a flower box. It was a geocache, but was mistaken for a bomb – the town centre was sealed off and the box was destroyed by an army bomb disposal team.

So on the one hand, urban geocaches are a problem – by looking for them, you can look very suspicious and can trigger the sort of response that Wetherby experienced. But for some people, like me, they make geocaching significantly more accessible. I don’t drive – nor does Christine – so we’re limited to places we can get to by public transport or by walking. Consequently, it’s quite difficult to get out into the countryside to search for geocaches.

There are, however, some things you can do to appear less suspicious:

  1. Adopt a disguise. I don’t mean wear glasses and a moustache here. Get a high-visibility jacket, a clipboard, and optionally a hard hat, so that it looks like you’re actually there to work. While I’m not sure how suitable this advice is globally, it’s probably fair to say that if you look like you’re working, Brits will leave you alone. (This, in turn, is often why metal theft is such a big problem – don a high-vis jacket and the public probably won’t ask what you’re doing)
  2. Scout out the area online. Google Street View is very helpful here – look up the location on Google Maps and then use Street View to look for obvious hiding places. Many urban caches are the very small nano caches, which are usually magnetic, so look for magnetic objects that one could be attached to.
  3. Be aware of GPS shortcomings. GPS is usually accurate to around 7 metres, give or take, but in urban areas there’s a greater risk of interference, especially if there are tall buildings. Don’t rely solely on your GPS to work out your current location – you may want to print out a map if you don’t know the area.
  4. Walk around, or tie shoelaces. Spend a few seconds looking, and if you don’t see it straightaway, walk around the block and come back a bit later. Similarly if you think it’s on the ground, bend down and pretend to tie your shoelaces, whilst having a look.
  5. Avoid busy times. 3pm on a Saturday afternoon is not a good time to look for caches in a town centre. Try a Sunday morning or a quiet time midweek.
  6. Be honest. If a ‘muggle’ challenges you, be honest about what you are doing – if necessary, show your printouts or the geocaching app on your phone. You never know, they may even take it up themselves.

If you’re thinking of placing a cache in an urban area, it’s worth thinking from the perspective of the person trying to find the cache. Avoid putting it somewhere that would arouse suspicion, such as very open and busy public area, or near a railway station or airport. In particular, make sure you read the official guidelines carefully.

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