High-tech survival device ignites return to outdoor treasure hunting

30 Mar

The following article originally appeared in the March 26, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

An geocache that will remain nameless sits near the vault it was discovered in (photo by Clint Thomsen)

An geocache that will remain nameless sits near the vault it was discovered in (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

“Think about it, honey– we’ll never be lost again.”

This last-ditch selling point may have what finally convinced my wife to let me buy a GPS receiver last weekend. Either that, or she was just fed up with crackpot pitches like “how can I be an outdoors writer and not own a GPS receiver?” and “It’s just the cheap $100 model, not the deluxe version—I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”

Of course my promise of never being lost again was a steep one, completely dependent upon the complex little device’s ability to process precise signals from outer space and my ability to master its ins and outs. It meant that even though I’m a man, I might need to at least skim the user manual before I take the kids bushwhacking in the High Uintas Wilderness Area.

Aside from wishing my new toy—err, survival device— didn’t look so much like a Happy Meal prize, my first thought when I opened the box was “The 90’s just called. They’d like their serial cable back.” If I was going to assuage my tech anxiety, I would need to give this baby a test run, ASAP.

Fortunately I’ve had some exposure to geocaching, the outdoor treasure hunting game where players seek out hidden “caches” using GPS technology. The activity is especially popular in Utah, and hundreds of caches are hidden across Tooele County. I used to hunt caches with my friend Tyler, but more often than not, his brother’s old receiver led us on maddening wild goose chases.

Just in case my past frustration was due more to user error than device flaw, I selected a few kid-friendly “drive-by” caches in the Stansbury foothills. The “Pirate Gold”, “Willow516”, and “Little Dam” caches along the Old Mormon Trail would be easily locatable and exciting enough to whet the kids’ appetite for the sport.

Geocaches vary in type and location difficulty, but a traditional cache consists of a watertight container, a log book, and a collection of dollar store type “prizes.” Some contain useful items like batteries or printed maps. Geocachers may take items from a cache if they leave something of similar or greater value. Thoughtful cache hiders clearly label their container a geocache and include a note explaining the game for people who might accidentally stumble upon it.

After secreting the cache, its owner uses a GPS receiver to log a set of coordinates called a waypoint, which marks its physical location on Earth. The owner then publishes the waypoint, along with cache name and description, to one of several geocaching websites. Other geocachers find the cache by plugging the waypoint into their GPS receivers and mapping to it.

The Global Positioning System is a constellation of 27 dedicated satellites that circle the globe at 12,000 mph on six orbital planes. Each satellite broadcasts precise microwave time signals at the speed of light. A GPS receiver uses the combined signals of four satellites to calculate its accurate position on earth, and thus it’s position relative to a waypoint.

GPS was made available for civilian use in 1996, but the use a receiver for precise navigation was hindered by a feature called Selective Availability, which purposely scrambled publicly available signals. SA was turned off on May 2, 2000 by Presidential directive, and enthusiast Dave Ulmer placed the first documented geocache the very next day. Its contents included a can of beans, mapping software, five dollars, and a slingshot.

Since then, an estimated 823,000 caches have been placed worldwide.

As a father-son treasure hunting team, we sought Pirate Gold as our first cache, both because 3 year old Coulter is obsessed with pirates and because previous discoverers left enough online hints to make missing it nearly impossible.

“When Captain Jack Sparrow was wandering around Worlds End,” wrote cache owner Termite49 on one website, “he happened to get a little further east and secreted a treasure chest…”

As Cracker-Jack as it looks on the outside, my new receiver worked like a charm. The boys soon cracked open a wooden chest full of Yu-Gi-Oh cards and plastic booty. 7 year old Bridger took one card and Coulter took a plastic coin. We left some army guys before returning the chest to its metal hinged vault.

The next cache had been placed by a Grantsville Boy Scout troop. My receiver led us to a juniper grove where Bridger spotted the converted ammo can. “Aren’t you glad you’re a pirate?” I asked him, referring to the time a Jack Sparrow face actor at Disney World made him an “official” member of his crew. Bridger had taken the ordeal seriously and has tried to renounce his piracy ever since.

“I never wanted to become a pirate. I just wanted to sword fight with him. Let Coulter be the pirate.”

“Ah, but you’re the one who took the oath,” 5 year old Weston piled on. “Besides, see how good that makes you at finding treasure?”

Bridger furrowed his brow, torn between his moral opposition to piracy and the advanced treasure hunting skills it had apparently endowed him with. Weston traded some army guys for a plastic fish from the cache before hiding it again.

After locating the last cache, we drove to Grantsville Reservoir to build and hide our own. The boys had meticulously chosen items at the Family Dollar in Grantsville—a plastic gun set, silly putty, and some pens. I prepared the log book and added the remaining the army guys (because what’s a cache without army guys?). Then we sealed it up and hid it in a spot the boys had chosen. They called the cache “Beach Reach” after watching the windsurfers on the lake.

“Dad, can we do this every day?” asked Weston as we drove back home. “Whenever we want,” I responded contentedly, my little GPS receiver still in hand– still tracking speed and distance from the Beach Reach waypoint just because. Never getting lost again is going to be a whole lot of fun.


In case you were wondering, the “cheap” GPS receiver I bought was the Garmin eTrex H.  Looks like a toy, works like a charm. 1990’s serial port included, $40 1990’s serial cable not.


8 responses to “High-tech survival device ignites return to outdoor treasure hunting

  1. Curt Hall

    March 30, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    Nice work. If you need some Topo maps, go to I run these on my etrex vista HCX. They are great maps, and free as well.

  2. Curt Hall

    March 30, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    just make sure they are compatible with your GPS.

    • bonnevillemariner

      March 30, 2009 at 8:17 pm

      Thanks, Curt. I’ll check them out. And thanks again for the idea.

  3. Kristine Shreve

    March 30, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    I’ve thought about trying the whole Geocache hunting thing, but haven’t given it a try yet. Mostly because I was trying to decide on a fairly cheap GPS. Sounds like I might have to look at the one you bought.

    • bonnevillemariner

      March 30, 2009 at 9:17 pm

      Yeah, finding the right receiver can be tough. I’m kind of a tech freak, so dropping that much cash on something as stripped-down as the eTrex H was rough. For $50 more I could have gone with the sleeker Magellan Triton 200, but 1) I couldn’t justify another $50, and 2) People I trust tell me Garmin is a superior brand. Plus I would have worried about getting it dirty. My Garmin is amazingly accurate for such a “cheap” cost. If you’re on a budget and just want it for geocaching, mine fits the bill. In-car navigation would be a completely different story though…

  4. Tyler

    April 2, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    For the record, I don’t ever remember any wild goose chases. The GPS receiver I used to geocache with was a brick of a GPS (an old Eagle) but it worked great. If it ever seemed like a wild goose chase it was only because the Eagle didn’t come with built-in maps, just a blank screen with your current location and a bunch of waypoints. That’s part of what made it so fun! I’m sorry you found it so maddening.

    I have long since upgraded and it even came with a new-fangled USB cable and built-in maps and it works just as well as my trusty Eagle. With built-in maps, Google Earth and many other tools geocaching is sometimes too easy. I like caches that take me to someplace that I might not have gone otherwise. I always appreciate a nice view, a good hike or a little history with my geocache hunt. All of the caches I’ve ever hidden fit that bill.

    • bonnevillemariner

      April 2, 2009 at 10:32 pm

      I mostly remember getting (somewhat) lost a few times when we’d turn it off to save batteries. Then there was the time we spent about 2 hours behind that Smiths in Midvale(?) looking for a cache. Seems like we’d move 10 feet and our distance to the cache would jump wildly. I’m sure there was something interfering with our signals, but that’s when I decided I was done geocaching!

  5. Tyler

    April 6, 2009 at 3:59 am

    And that’s when I decided I was done searching for caches hidden in parking lots. 😉


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