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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, June 30, 2003

Geocaching turns trekking high-tech

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Geocachers Ryan Ozawa of Makiki, foreground, and Tim Billings of Waipahu consult their GPS devices to find a cache — a container hidden for sport — on the Pu'u 'Ohi'a trail on Tantalus. Hawai'i's cache count is about 190 and growing.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

When Tim Billings first heard about geocaching three years ago, he couldn't wait to try it.

He got a Global Positioning System receiver, then new as a consumer toy, for his 40th birthday and went online to look for ideas on how to use it. At the time, geocaching, a combination of high-tech gadgetry and old-fashioned treasure hunting, was just growing popular, starting with adventurous techies along the West Coast and in Europe.

The object of the sport is simple: Use a GPS receiver to navigate forest trails, beaches, cityscapes or other environs in search of hidden "caches."

Billings was intrigued. All he needed were the coordinates for the nearest cache.

Only one problem.

"There were no caches in Hawai'i," says Billings.

The retired Navy man turned special-education teacher quickly remedied that, taking it upon himself to plant Hawai'i's first geocache, on July 21, 2000, on a trail near 'Aiea.

Since then, more than 190 other caches have been hidden around the state by a growing community of geocache enthusiasts. New caches are popping up quickly.


Here are a few handy terms to know if you're interested in geocaching.

• Cache: A hidden container filled with a log book and pencil/pen, and possibly prizes.

Datum: A datum is something used as a basis for calculating and measuring. In the case of GPS, datums are calculations for determining longitude and latitude for a given location.

• FTF: First To Find. Usually found in the forums or written in the online or physical logbooks.

• GPS: Global Positioning System. It is a system of satellites that work with a GPS receiver to determine your location on the planet.

• Hitchhiker: An item that is placed in a cache, and has instructions to travel to other caches. Sometimes they have logbooks attached so you can log their travels. A Travel Bug is an example of a hitchhiker.

• LETTERBOX(ING): Similar to Geocaching, but you use a series of clues to find a container. Once you find the container (or letterbox), you take a carved stamp from the box and stamp your personal logbook. You then take your carved stamp and stamp the letterbox's log book.

• NAD27: North American Datum 1927. The precursor to WGS84 (see below). Many maps still use NAD27, so always check before using a GPS unit with a map.

• TNLN: Took Nothing. Left Nothing. Usually found in cache logbooks for folks that enjoy the thrill of the hunt more than the material contents of the cache.

• Virtual cache: The location is the cache itself. Usually, nothing is traded, except photos and experiences.

• Waypoint: Coordinates representing points on the surface of the Earth. Geocaching uses a suggested waypoint for a cache location.

• WGS84: The most current system used for GPS, the World Geodetic System of 1984.

Source: Geocaching.com

• On the Web: geocaching.com

GPS Hawai'i: lightfantastic.org/gps

Buxley's Geocaching Waypoint: brillig.com/geocaching

If the game is something of an elaborate treasure hunt, the caches themselves offer only a modest booty. Most are ammunition boxes or some other compact container. Inside, you'll typically find a log book for recording your "Eureka!" moment, plus a few trinkets for trading.

Billings puts waterproof pouches, space blankets and other inexpensive hiking wares in his caches for other players to find.

The honor system dictates that if you take something from a cache, you should also leave something, and geocachers here have been thoughtful in their exchanges. Some put Hawaiian music CDs or other Hawai'i-specific items for out-of-state geocachers to take home. Others put rare coins, small toys, even video-game disks. (Drugs, alcohol and the like are taboo.)

But Billings and other geocachers stress that the game is less about the object and much, much more about the pursuit.

"I like the hiking and the scrambling around for where (the cache) is hidden," he said. "Once I spot it, that's enough for me. I could end it right there."

Local geocachers typically log on to a geocaching Web site to get coordinates and clues for caches in their area. To begin their hunt, geocachers enter their selected cache's "waypoint" into their GPS unit, allowing them to find their way from wherever they may be to within 15 feet of the cache's hiding place. From there, all it takes is a keen eye and a little patience to find the cache.

In addition to real caches, players can also seek out "virtual" caches, following coordinates and instructions to historical or cultural sites, where they gather information (often from signs or plaques) to prove they found it.

One popular virtual cache is in the parking lot of City Mill on a highway; others are scattered around Waikiki and the downtown area.

Billings says he has visited 62 caches on O'ahu, and a few others on Maui and in New Mexico.

Is anybody out there?

GPS devices zero in on a location by triangulating radio signals from a network of satellites around the globe. The technology was developed by the United States for military and security purposes. At first, the government limited the availability of GPS for common use. The first devices were accurate only within a wide range, limiting their usefulness.

The first recorded GPS-based treasure hunts go back to the early 1990s and a group in the Greater Helsinki area of Finland, according to Geocaching.com. But the sport as it exists today began in earnest shortly after the Clinton administration removed the limitations on GPS use on May 1, 2000. That led to a boom in private use of GPS receivers.

On May 3, 2000, an unidentified person celebrated the liberation of GPS technology by planting what is believed to be the first geocache in Portland, Ore. Mike Teague found the container and built a personal Web page to document the spread of caches around the country. This eventually led to a partnership with Jeremy Irish and the creation of the geocaching.com Web site, now considered the best source for geocaching information in the United States.

Today, there are more than 50,000 geocaches spread out over 177 countries; nearly three-fourths of the caches are in the United States.

Despite its growing popularity, the sight of GPS-wielding geocachers is still a curiosity for many traditional hikers.

"There's a really high 'Huh?' factor," says Mike Gifford, a geocacher from Maunawili. "I'm always bumping into people on the trail, and they always look at me funny, like, why would I need a GPS in Hawai'i? But when I tell them what I'm doing, they're always really interested. I'm sure a lot of them have gone on to try it for themselves."

An appreciation for nature

Most physical caches are on trails or in wilderness areas — "just so you don't get the FBI excited walking around with a GPS and leaving boxes around town," says geocacher Ryan Ozawa.

Ozawa says geocachers adhere to basic "pack it in, pack it out" rules and do what they can to minimize their impact on the natural environment. Those who hide caches look for inobtrusive, hard-to-spot areas, preferably in places where vegetation isn't likely to be trampled by repeated visits.

A GPS receiver works with satellite signals to pinpoint a location.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Geocachers also confer regularly about the condition of caches and cache sites, sometimes agreeing to move or deactivate caches that attract too much foot traffic. Those conversations are made infinitely easier by Ozawa's Web site, GPS Hawai'i, active now for four months.

On the GPS Hawai'i site, local geocachers share notes and tips and collaborate on special events. The site is also a welcoming point for the hundreds of people who try to get in a little geocaching during their vacations in Hawai'i.

Ozawa, a manager at Hawaii National Bank and a Web designer, is a recent convert to geocaching. He says the sport gives him a good excuse to turn off the computer and go outdoors. "You have to leave the house to do it," he says, laughing. "(My skin) would be pale white or even transparent if I didn't do this."

Geocachers Terri Roberts and 12-year-old daughter, Courtney, have been active in the sport since Easter, when Terri Roberts bought a GPS unit.

"I didn't really hike before, but I always wanted to," Roberts says. "This way, having to find something, it makes it more interesting."

Their first cache hunt, in 'Aiea, was no problem. The second (at a spot called Mothballs) took four attempts — but it didn't deter them. To the contrary, "we were hooked," Roberts says.

Roberts said her husband, Bill, who is in the Navy, wasn't quite sure what to make of his family's new hobby at first. "But then we all went out and spent a whole weekend geocaching. Now he loves it, too."

Courtney Roberts says she looks forward to the weekend outings because it gives her family a chance to explore Hawai'i together. "Otherwise, I'd just be sitting around the house."

This is the Roberts' second stint in Hawai'i, and this time, thanks to geocaching, they're seeing the Islands in a whole new light.

"We've been to Tantalus, Pele's Chair, Ka'ena Point — places we never would have seen or never would have hiked before," Terri Roberts says.

That's exactly the point, says geocacher Stanley Santiago.

"The idea of geocaching is not to hide something, but to get people to go out to places they might never go, to share beautiful places that they never knew were there," says Santiago, a retired firearms instructor. "And not just tourists or military, but local people, too. There are a lot of really interesting places locals don't know about."

Santiago, an outdoorsman and recreational prospector, spends much of his time researching Hawai'i cultural and geographic history. For him, geocaching is a playful way to share what he has learned over the years.

Santiago has been geocaching for a year and a half, long enough to collect a fair share of adventures — including running across a 7-foot snake near the Pali.

"When I called the police, I was able to give them the exact coordinates," he says proudly.

Santiago has been one of the most active promoters of geocaching locally. Among his many projects, Santiago hopes to establish a Web-cam cache site on the University of Hawai'i-Manoa campus and at least a few caches that are easily accessible to people with disabilities.

"With geocaching," he says, "no matter where you are in the world, you can share something amazing with someone else."