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A Geocaching Manifesto

In December of 2009, my family discovered a fantastic hobby which combines our love of technology with the great outdoors.  It set us on a course that would see us happily consuming countless hours on afternoons & weekends wandering through wooded areas, digging through shrubs on the outskirts of shopping malls, staring up into low-hanging limbs, and most importantly, getting out of the house instead of potatoing away our off-work time on the couch.

We found Geocaching.

I won’t try to describe in great detail just what Geocaching is (I’ll leave that to the experts), but suffice it to say that people hide stuff out there in the world, usually hidden well enough that you wouldn’t find it accidentally, and then give information on the official website so that anyone who wants to can go find it.

It’s to those who hide the stuff that I address this list of things to think about.  I’m not addressing those who are doing the hunting.  If anything, I’m an advocate of those hunters.  I want them to have fun, however it is that they have fun with this hobby.  I personally don’t like going out in a gang and trying to run up my numbers, but if that’s how you enjoy it, then more power to you.  What I’m specifically addressing here is how those who hide these things (know as “caches”) describe their hides on the official website.

A couple of caveats, now, before I get started.

Firstly, remember that these are my opinions, not facts.  If you don’t agree, I’d love to hear thoughtful discussion and debate about any point below.  But if you back your argument with that’s-just-the-way-it-is or who-do-you-think-you-are-to-question-me rhetoric, I will call shenanigans.  This is an attack on the status quo, not an attack on you.

Secondly, if you aren’t a geocacher yourself, you might wonder why I care how others play the game.  Understand, it’s not like I’m telling them which house rules they should use when playing Monopoly (by the way, putting $500 on free parking is stupid, ruins the balance of the game, and you shouldn’t do it) — this is a worldwide activity that’s open to the public.  The points I illustrate below don’t just impact a couple of people sitting around a dining room table; they impact every other individual who tries to play.  And that’s why I care.

So here goes.  Please try to read with an open mind.

A Geocaching Manifesto

For the benefit of geocaching hobbyists worldwide, and my own sanity, I humbly submit these following points for your consideration.

  1. Pretend It’s the Cacher’s First Hunt: This is the first and most important tenet of my list.  If you read nothing else beyond, please read and take this first note to heart:  Your geocache’s page should be written with the new cacher in mind.  After writing your submission, try to re-read it with fresh eyes as if this was your very first hunt.  If the description and/or hint relies on special knowledge or insider information, then you’re alienating the bulk of your audience.  If you assume that the reader may be a brand new first time cacher, you will be right a lot of the time.
  2. Experience and Tenure Is No Excuse for Being a Jerk: When I was a wet-behind-the ears geocacher with fewer than a dozen finds, I was confused by the description of a cache that had nothing to do with the hide.  After two trips to the site, I found it despite the lack of information, and in the log I wrote something to the effect of, “Thanks for the hide, but don’t understand description.”  My log was unceremoniously deleted by the owner, my find nullified, and my spirits quashed.  I even wrote the owner asking what I did wrong, and got no response.  I share this anecdote because it explains my point much better than I could ever abstract it.  Just because you’ve been hiding stuff in the woods longer than I’ve been hunting for it, that doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want and call the shots.  Have a thick skin, accept constructive criticism in the spirit it’s intended, and stand behind your actions.  If you don’t like something in a log on your cache, try communication first before swinging the ban-hammer.
  3. The Description Should Be a Description: The first field a cacher is going to read is the description.  Maybe the administrators of geocaching.com weren’t specific enough when they named that text box.  When they say, “Description,” they mean “Description of the geocache” — not “Description of what you were doing and who you were hanging out with on the day you decided to hide this altoids can in the woods with no information for those looking to find it.”  (As an aside, I’ve actually seen a geocache with a description that was nothing more than the photo of a dog.  Really.  How this stuff makes it past the verification process is beyond me.)  Put a description of the container in there, please.  You don’t have to give it away, but tell the poor reader what they’re trying to find when they arrive.  I know to you, the hider, this might seem  like giving too much information, but you’re not.  It seems obvious to you, because you hid it, but knowing whether I’m looking for a 35mm film tube or a pouch dramatically changes the things I look in, under, behind and between when searching.
    • Right: “You’re looking for a camouflaged 35mm film canister”
    • Right: “This is roughly 3x4x4 lock-n-lock container just off the main trail”
    • Right: “You will be trying to find a painted ammo can that blends in well with its surroundings”
    • Wrong: “I put some more caches in this area.”
    • Wrong: “Was out running up the numbers with SuperGeoPro and InnerCircleCacher when we decided there weren’t enough caches out here, so we did something about it

    How does this help anybody?  Now, lest I be accused of being a heartless buzzkill, this sort of interesting, personal information is fine in the description, as long as it accompanies a description of the cache, not just replaces it.  I understand that for you, who are intimately familiar with the container you hid, who you were hanging out with and what the weather was like is something you want to preserve and document more so than what your camo-taped pill bottle looks like, but just consider including both, because the other 20 million geocachers who may drive through the area and want to look for your hide don’t know what they’re looking for if you don’t share that information here.

  4. There’s a Hint Field.  Use It: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a hint that reads something like, “It’s not what you think.”  What?  Here are the sorts of asinine hints I’ve read and why they are insensitive to cachers:
    • “If you need a hint, just ask” — If I’m reading this field, it’s because I needed a hint.  Don’t make me send you an email, wait for a response, and then drive back to find your micro.  I obviously need a hint or I wouldn’t be looking at the hint.
    • “Just like my other hides” – Who cares?  Try to remember that only your inner circle of geo-leets know who you are, and what your other hides may be like.  If finding your cache requries prior knowledge of you or your tendencies, then just tell me that information in the hint.  If your other hides are painted purple and jammed in a knothole, then say that.  Then both those who know you and those who are newcomers have the same information with which to find your cache.
    • “It’s not what you think” — Yeah, I know.  If it was what I thought it was, I would have found it already.  I’m looking in the hint field for a hint, not for further frustration.
    • “It’s all in the name” — No kidding?  I hadn’t considered that the name might have something to do with this cache.  Come on, really?  Give your readers some credit.  On the whole, geocache hiders are a fairly clever crowd, the names of caches are pretty witty, and generally give you an idea of what you’re looking for, but we already have that information.  We’re looking in the hint because that wasn’t enough for us.
    • “Too easy for a hint” — Apparently not.  If you really believe that, then don’t leave a hint, but even that is a cop-out.  Maybe you think it’s too easy, but not everybody is as eagle-eyed and experienced as you.  Hints are, by default, encrypted on the site, so they can be ignored by the more experienced cachers.  But if someone can’t find your hide with the supplied description, then they need a hint.  “Easy” is such a subjective term.  Don’t be the preemptive judge of your finder’s abilities.  Give them what they need to make the find and enjoy your cache.
  5. Georgia Style? Oklahoma Style? How About Plain English Style?: Now, if you don’t know what I’m talking about; good.  Please don’t ever learn.  This is another example of how long-time enthusiasts of the geocaching hobby forget that not everybody is a cache hunting veteran, well versed in all of the insider slang, lingo, and shorthand.These hiding style descriptions are counter to their intention.  Rather than give information to those who need it, you’re only giving info to those experienced enough to know the secret code — the very ones who probably least need the extra help finding your hide.  If you want to let someone know that your container’s hidden in pine straw, what’s wrong with saying, “hidden in pine straw?”  Is “Georgia style” so much easier to type that it’s worth withholding important clues from those new folks who need your hints the most?  This is the very type of thing that irks me most because it violates #1 above — forgetting that your audience is not just the dozen buddies and long-timers you know personally as hardcore cachers, but it’s everybody.  Stop with the secret codes and handshakes so everyone has equal access to your information.
  6. If It’s Tiny & In The Woods, More Info, Please: If you’re hiding something in a wooded area, and it can be obscured by a leaf, you’re not giving away the farm by letting us know the general area to look.
    • Is it hanging overhead?
    • Is it attached to a tree?
    • Is it eye-level?  Chest-level?  Knee-level?
    • Is it on the ground?  (Note: If it is on the ground, you’re lazy.  How much creativity does it take to throw a tiny container in a pile of leaves?  I shouldn’t need a rake to play your game of needle in the haystack.  I’m out geocaching to get away from mundane tasks like lawn care.  If I wanted to do gardening, I would have stayed home and taken care of my own yard.  If you must hide micros in the woods, please get them up off the ground.)
  7. Why is Normal so Abnormal?: You know that little size chart that describes the size of your cache?  Micro, small, normal, etc.?  Ever wonder why they call the third size up, “normal” or “regular?”  Because it’s supposed to be the normal size for a cache!  Small is a little smaller than the normal, and micro is a tiny thing that’s nothing more than a container for a log.  In fact, I’d be willing to make the argument (however unpopular) that anything smaller than “small” (I’m looking at you, micro and nano), isn’t even a “cache,” based on the definition.  It’s a “hide,” but not a “cache.”  A cache is a storage place for treasure — your strip of paper where I sign my name is not treasure.  Every time I’m signing a micro/nano log, I feel like I’m writing, “I found your container, and signed here to indicate that there’s nothing in it.  Yay.”  Now, before I’m lynched, let me say that I do appreciate the time and effort that goes into hiding any cache, even the tiny ones, but every cache hider is also a cache hunter, and I’m sure they can agree how much more rewarding it is to find a cache that has stuff in it.  In the area where I live, if an ammo box pops up as a new hide, it’s cause for celebration.All I’m saying, is that “normal” should be the norm, not the exception.  Who are you trying to impress by hiding three dozen bison tubes and zip-lock pouches?  Is it just for the numbers?  Or to provide low-hanging fruit for hunters wanting to run the numbers?  Now, I have found a few very good micros, but on the whole, they’re uninspired and derivative.  I’d personally rather find one ammo box (or cache of comparable size) than a dozen micros.
  8. Geocaching Isn’t Your Own Private Game: With this last point, I will bring my list full circle.  Both formal and informal geocaching groups have sprouted up worldwide, and that’s great for those involved, but there are drawbacks to that sort of compartmentalization of a globally public hobby, and I’ve seen the results.The members of these groups get to know each other so well, that the name, description and hints for geocache hides start to become little inside joke references to private information.   Almost as if the entire hide is a wink, nod, and broad smile between two or three individuals.  I can picture them now, reading the details about the hide and laughing at the good-natured and well-intended humor it inspires.  The problem, then, is what happens when every other person who isn’t in that tight group comes along and tries to make heads or tails of your nonsense.  With any hobby such as this, the formation of clubs and groups is inevitable — and that’s fantastic — but in the cache of geocaching, you’ve got to remember that when your group does something in the context of the description of a geocache, while it may be hilarious to you, you’re likely causing confusion and frustration for the 99% of the cache hunters who aren’t a part of your inner circle.
    Worse still, remember that hypothetical first-time cacher I mentioned earlier?  What if his first hunt is one of your self-referential, inside-information, private-joke, cryptic micro?  We (not you, but all of us for allowing it to continue) may have just turned off that new cacher, and maybe lost a great addition to the community.  I’m not saying not to have fun with your cache descriptions, but please remember to include clear information alongside the fun.  This is a public game.  Don’t let your private usage ruin it for others.

I hope this list of my own observations and pet peeves is read and taken in the spirit intended.  I’m a fan of geocaching, and I want nothing more than for the next guy who’s introduced to the past time to experience a more open, and less frustrating experience at the outset.

I can already envision some long-time geocache hiders reading this, and thinking smugly, “Well, if you don’t like my cache, then don’t bother trying to find it.”

That’s not the point.  Drop the sense of entitlement that you think experience brings, and get off your pedestal.  I actually love your cache!  And the fact of the matter is, because you went to the trouble and jumped through all the hoops (buying supplies, downloading/printing materials, finding good spots, triangulating good coordinates, filing a new cache form, following up with reviewers, etc.) to hide a cache for others to enjoy, I think you’re a pretty great and generous person.  I want more people to be able to find, enjoy and appreciate your cache, and thus, your efforts.

So that’s it.  Thank you for taking the time to read this, and more importantly, thank you for your consideration.

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