A bit of advice - if you're going to read this entry, read my letterboxing posting beforehand - that might fill in some of the gaps about what I'm talking about here.

You'll remember that I described letterboxing as something of a cryptic treasure-hunt. However, what if the activity wasn't limited to just Dartmoor, you used a bit of technology to help and there was actually a bit of treasure?

Welcome to Geocaching. In short, it's letterboxing on a global scale with items going all over the place. The letterboxes in geocaching are called caches (pronounced cashes). Treat the cache like a big Kinder Egg (without having to construct the toy first) - you never know what's inside. Nowhere in the world is exempt. At the time of writing, there are just short of half a million caches around the planet. There's about 20,000 in the UK alone, covering a mixture or urban, rural and remote areas, although there are a good few on Dartmoor anyway - so you can hunt caches at the same time as hunting letterboxes. The pastime only started in 2000 and in seven years has exploded in popularity.

Want to give it a try? Here's what you need.
  • Some small toys/trinkets - anything that would fit inside a Christmas cracker is generally good.
  • Something to write with.
  • A GPS receiver.
  • A map of the area.
  • An account with geocaching.com
  • Other equipment will vary upon where your chosen cache is sited.
Here's what to do:

1) Sign up with geocaching.com. Once you've signed up (it's free), you can start to run queries on the database to find nearby caches. Alternatively, there's a rather good plugin for Google Earth if you would prefer a more visual approach.

2) Once you've identified some nearby sites, print out the details page. Each site has a difficulty level (i.e. whether it's easy to find), size (usually ranging from a 35mm film container to something similar to an ice-cream tub) and terrain rating (you'll need to know this if your mobility isn't good or you don't feel like climbing mountains).

3) The details page will have some co-ordinates. Enter the coordinates as a waypoint on your GPS unit.

4) Drive/walk to the coordinates, using the GPS receiver/map as your guide.

5) When you're close you'll be looking for a container, the size of which will have been described in the location description. It will probably be secreted somewhere, such as in the recess of a tree or behind a rock. It might take some searching. If members of the public are around when you're looking for the cache, don't continue - either employ a bit of stealth, or come back later. There's a reason for this. If you're spotted taking the cache and putting it back, people who don't know what's going on will either:

- Think you're planting / taking a suspicious device and call the police.
- Steal the cache and contents.
- Vandalise the box. (See above)

None of the three options are appealing.

6) Once you've found the cache, do the ceremonial victory dance (letterboxers will already be aware of this) and open the box. You should see contained a log-book (for visitors to say "hello", "thank-you" and other such stuff), something to write with and a few other random items. Put a little message in the log and have a peruse in whatever's in the box.

Above: Your average geocache's contents.

7) Take a random item from the box and replace it with something of your own. You're generally aiming to replace it with something of a similar financial value or very-slightly higher. Don't worry, diamonds and cocaine usually don't feature in caches. Taking an object but failing to put something in yourself is considered bad form. If you just enjoyed trying to find the cache, you don't have to exchange items - just sign the book if you like.

8) The only exception to the exchange-rule is if there is a prize contained within for the first person to find the cache. If you're the first person to find the cache (you'll know from the cache description), then you can get lucky - but it's nice to put something small inside anyway.

9) Seal the box up tightly and hide it back where you found it. Find your next one and when you get home, log your visit on geocaching.com. Well done you - you've just found your first cache.

10) Occasionally you'll find what are called "travelling items". They are items that you're not supposed to take for yourself, but move on to other caches throughout the world - as long as it fulfills the items' mission. You'll know they're travelling items, because they'll have a dog-tag attached to them, or look like a coin. If you take it, you'll need to look up the serial-number on the geocaching.com website to see what to do with it next. As an example, I picked up a "travel-bug" dog-tag, attached to a small scale model of a London bus. The instructions on it say that it wants to head to Kent. When I got home, I entered the tag-id into geocaching.com's site to say that I'd picked it up. When I go east at some point, I'll put it in a cache and then go back to the site and say where I put it. This allows the owner of the object to track the progress of the item around the globe - and there are many items that have travelled a long way.

I quite enjoy geocaching (obviously), probably a little bit more than I do letterboxing. Nonetheless, they're both habit forming activities. The joy of geocaching is sometimes finding a cache in a very public area, driving up to it, doing an quick exchange and moving on, whereas with letterboxing it's all about the wilderness of the moors and the feeling of solitude - a very different thing indeed. Whichever one you choose, you'll get out and explore - and that can't be bad.
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