Geocaching: An Adventure for the Urban Explorer 

New smart phone apps signal a change in the game

We all have those friends who are active people. As you stare at a computer screen, they're outside running, hiking, biking and boasting about the healing power of nature while they take vitamins and wear shoes that are gloves for the feet. For the video game loving, would--rather-watch-Planet-Earth-than-actually-go-outside types, geocaching is something those people do.

Geocaching is like an old-fashioned scavenger hunt, but instead of a list of items, you use any GPS-enabled device to find treasure. Geocachers leave the GPS coordinates of a cache, which is a hidden, weather-proof box of goodies that range from toys and trinkets to beer. The rules are simple: replace what you take and sign the logbook.

Geocaching isn't new. In fact, it has been around in some form for 150 years. What is new is that instead of using a compass or portable GPS system, people now use smart phones to locate caches. Geocaching.com has even created an app called Geocaching that changes the art of the hunt. The nature-maladjusted can now, with a touch of a screen, join the ranks of outdoor masters.

As a newcomer, I decided to do some urban exploring near my house, with a walk on the Greenbelt and through the North End. I wanted to test out urban geocaching to see how accessible it is for those of us who might not have the time (or inclination) to go full-on Amazon adventurer.

I downloaded the free app for iPhone (the full version is $10), which, despite having limited functionality, displayed three caches within walking distance of my house. With each step, there was a helpful tutorial, and once I'd chosen which cache to search for, the GPS location popped up on my phone.

Within 10 minutes of walking, the GPS was flashing, but I still had to find the cache. Eventually, I spotted it: a rusted Altoids tin hidden among stones. Inside, I found a small plastic brown bear with a mouth in full roar and a neon green sticky hand--the kind you find in 25-cent toy dispensers. I took the bear and replaced it with a small green Brontosaurus. I spent an entire day looking for the 10 caches in my neighborhood, eventually finding seven of them. Even when I couldn't find a cache, it was about the experience and getting to know my own stomping ground like never before. It was better than any video game could ever be, and that is coming from a bona fide nerd.

Some geocache purists insist that going the GPS route can spoil the fun, and they still use a compass with coordinates, to find their way through forests and river beds. But for the tech-savvy among us who want to impress both our eco-friends and our Vitamin D receptors, the urban geocache makes for a perfect day trip--with prizes.

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