Geocaching is a multigenerational way to enjoy the outdoors

Whether by yourself or with a group of friends, there’s something sublimely wondrous about roaming around in the woods. Nothing reawakens the child in you quite like traipsing through a lush and lively forest, reconnecting with nature. That’s what author Ernest Rugenstein was doing when he first learned about the fascinating hiking hobby known as geocaching.

“It was completely by accident,” says Rugenstein, 66, who lives in Troy. “It was 2004. I found a geocache under a tree as I’m walking through the woods, and I went, ‘What in the world is this?’ I’m first looking at it, and thinking, ‘Is this stolen loot or drugs?’ I mean, you never know — people sometimes hide stuff out in the woods.”

Rugenstein said instead, inside the geocache — typically, a small waterproof container, usually made of either durable plastic or wood — was a seemingly unremarkable trinket. “I can’t remember what it was now,” he says. “My wife and I wanted to be more active, and geocaching turned out to be something fun that we could do together that wasn’t hiking, which we also enjoy. It’s a great form of exercise.”

Now Rugenstein is one of the administrators of the New York Capital Region Geocachers Facebook group, which boasts over 650 members. He says geocaching has exploded in popularity throughout most of New York State since the late 2000s. 

For the uninitiated, geocaching is an outdoor activity in which participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) or mobile device to hide and/or seek containers. Known as geocaches or caches, these containers are set at specific locations and are marked by coordinates around the world. 

Geocaching- multigenerational game of hide and seek

If you are the adventurous type, but you’re also someone who enjoys solving puzzles and being social, geocaching may be the perfect way to enjoy the outdoors. Beyond access to a GPS, all you need to get started is a decent pair of shoes or boots, a pen and a notebook, and a curious nature. Then, simply download the Geocaching app onto your phone, and head for the great outdoors. 

The mobile app provides coordinates that “cachers’’ can punch into their portable GPS to help them locate the hidden containers. Not all are concealed in forests; even urban areas have geocaches. Some geocaches include “trackables,” or objects that cachers will move between different locations. Each has a unique code so that they can be tracked as they’re moved about the world. The app can also keep track of all of the geocaches a person locates.

“For some people, there’s a real sense of pride in running up the numbers” and collecting caches, says David Scott, the education director at Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site in Fort Hunter. But Scott — who geocaches himself — cautions that it takes a lot more than an app and a GPS to be a worthy cacher.

“You can keep up with the technology, but you still need to have an old-school sense of direction,” explains Scott, who estimates “thousands” of cachers live in the Albany area. “I am old enough to remember using a map to get around, and I think people of a certain generation are more observational. The tech puts you close to the cache, but you still have to develop that ‘geo-sense’ to identify what’s out of place or where a cache may be hiding.”

Now would actually be an opportune time to pick up the hobby, given the Saratoga-Capital District Region Geocache Challenge currently running through November 12. The annual event is organized by Ian Heney, an environmental educator at Mine Kill State Park in Schoharie County.

“Geocaching is great exercise for anyone, no matter their age,” Heney says, noting he often sees geocachers heading out on the hunt with their kids and grandkids. “It’s also a great way to see a state park, because these challenges are designed to show off the major points of interest in each park.”

The 2022 Geocache Challenge, according to Heney, generated 1,850 “geo-visits” to the participating parks, leading to 6,729 geocache finds. He says the majority of the challenge’s participants are retirees. Heney also says geocaching — like most hobbies — comes with its own culture, own rules, and own etiquette. “Most of its common sense,” Rugenstein explains. “For instance, tell people where you’re going. Whether you’ll be by yourself or going out with your spouse, let someone know where you’ll be.”

Rugenstein says you should always keep your wits about you when geocaching, regardless of whether you’re doing it in a park or city. “And don’t destroy anything,” he emphasizes. “Sometimes, a geocache will be hidden in a stone wall, and people will just about rip the wall apart finding it. Yes, it may take some time for you to find some of this stuff — but don’t destroy anything.”

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