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Reader Poll: Geocaching in National Forests

Geocache on The Four Soldiers Path in the White Mountain National Forest
Geocache on The Four Soldiers Path in the White Mountains National Forest

I recently took a backpacking trip to a very remote and isolated destination in the White Mountain National Forest, following trails that are not drawn on the local USGS quadrangle and do not appear on the most of the region’s printed maps. I didn’t see any other hikers for two entire days and reveled in the wildness and solitude of the area.

At least until I came across this geocache at the end of my first day which drove home the sad reality of our times, that there are few natural places left in the lower 48 you can still go to where the imprint of humans is “substantially unnoticeable” (per the Wilderness Act of 1964).

I know almost nothing about geocaching, except that it’s a high-tech sport, where players use global positioning system (GPS) receivers to locate caches of stuff left by other GPS users. I don’t have any firm opinions about the placement of geocaches, but seeing this one jarred me because up to that points I’d felt like I had been on a unique adventure, the only person to visit this place in weeks or months. There is was at the bottom of a tree right on the trail: unhidden and unlabelled. I didn’t know what the heck it was and steered clear of it.

When I returned home, one of the first things I did was look up whether geocaches are legal in the White Mountain National Forest. It seemed odd that the Forest Service would permit people to leave plastic ammo-case sized boxes scattered in full view along remote trails and viewpoints in the forest. Much to my surprise, Geocaching is legal in the WMNF except in posted Wilderness Areas and alpine areas, where the trees are less than 8 feet tall. Geocaching regulations differ across Forest Service regions, so check with local authorities before placing a Geocache on Forest service land.

Land of Many Uses and Types of Recreation
Land of Many Uses and Types of Recreation

This is the first geocache I’ve ever seen in the White Mountains so I don’t know if geocaching is popular in the region or not. While I can see how it fits into the “land of many uses philosophy” espoused by the Forest Service, I’m unsettled by the fact that geocachers can leave man-made objects in the woods for weeks or months at a time since they’re so obviously “unnatural”.  The premise seems completely different from other recreational uses like snowmobiling, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, even camping, where forest users takes their toys home with them after they’re finished playing in the woods and mountains.

But I’m willing to keep an open mind about geocaching and not jump to any quick conclusions about it. We need all the people we can get to preserve our National Forests, and if geocachers are willing to fight against commercial encroachment, adopt leave no trace wilderness ethics, and help and respect other forest users, who am I to kick them out of bed?

What do you think about geocaching in National Forests and Parks?

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  1. Our family enjoys geocaching. The kids seem to go many extra miles in pursuit of that one more geocache. They explore the trail, experience more of the wilderness, & try their chances at finding the next geocache (take a look at geocaching.com)

    Geocaches are not trash. Owners & users attend to them, exchange notes, challenge each other, & invite a visit to a new area.

    By definition, geocaches are hidden out of sight, not disturbing the view of other users. And that seem to have worked, given that there are thousands of them around Boston alone, yet you just find your first geocache.

    Meanwhile, there are many “unnatural” visible fixtures in the woods that remain for the enjoyment of many activities: shelters, trail signs, bridges, guest books, & plastic blazes.

    I suppose one should draw the line somewhere for “unnatural” items introduced in the forest. The current line does not seem to be too lenient.

  2. Aside from size and placement how is a cache any different than a summit canister? Thinking about it a bit more, ‘cachers and peakbaggers have a lot of similarities…

    • There are what maybe 100 canisters on summits and how many geocaches? I don’t have any strong objection to geocaches unless there are thousands and highly visible.

      • Geocaches are not supposed to highly visible. The one in the photo is not properly placed. According to the official rules caches are to be hidden, but not buried.

  3. When my kids were younger we did Geocaching. The kids loved having a goal and going on an adventure and I like finding a new bits of open space. If Geocaching encourages more people to use open space then there is more public will maintain the open space we have and set aside more land for open space.

    Most geocaches are hidden from view and even off trail you could pass next to one and never know it is there. This is by design to prevent vandalism. I really am having trouble seeing the difference between finding a geocache in WMNF and Phil doing one of Trailwrights 72. Both hike along designated trails but at some point start bushwacking. Both navigate to a point off trail, one signs a peak register in a plastic container and one signs a cache.

  4. I enjoy Geocahcing though I don’t do it all the time. It has gotten me to go to some beautiful and unexpected places I would not otherwise have found. I am all for an activity that gets people out in the woods, especially children. Usually the Geocaches are well hidden. You don’t have to go the hi tech route if you don’t want to. Just print out the map and do it the old fashioned way with a map and compass.

  5. wandering virginia

    I placed several geocaches in remote National Forest lands in Virginia before the geocaching.com folks interpreted regional regulations to prohibit them. The folks that run the website are very strict in their reading of regulations, and I believe the trend is to allow fewer geocaches in USFS lands in the future. Note that joining is free, and joining gives you access to the maps showing where all present caches are hidden (though some hides are very devious). I am all in favor of activities that encourage additional use of the trails!

    My USFS caches don’t create much activity, though, as neither of my two current USFS caches (each requires over an hour hike from the nearest trailhead) have had a single find yet this year. And the geocache you appear to have been found was last registered as found on June 13, 2013 – not exactly a crush of users. If it was out in the open, I am betting it was moved. It is my experience that a leaving a container out in the open for non-cachers to see invites theft. And, as one other poster mentioned, geocaching is really not that different than the 4000 footer club.

  6. A great question. The short answer for me is it’s complicated. I think any outdoor activity can have a deleterious effect on the natural world if pursued in irresponsible fashion. Trash left in campfire rings is a pet peeve of mine. Shortcuts that circumvent established trails on switchbacks are another, but then I suppose we all have our pet peeves. It is incumbent upon the cache owner to use judgment when placing the cache, and I’ve found the geocaching community to be friendly folks who share a love of nature. Indeed, CITO events held by cachers are held to combine caching (Cache In . . .) with clean-up of natural places (Trash Out): http://www.geocaching.com/cito/default.aspx. And Earth Caches seek to educate folks about unique geological features. But caches are supposed to be monitored and maintained, and one would like to think that common sense would be exercised if the human impact of cachers became evident in negative fashion in a given area. Common sense, however, is in increasingly short supply. I am an advocate of LNT principles, but I also enjoy geocaching (albeit often along watershed trails in urban areas), and that leaves me conflicted at times. For me the question suggests a larger theme: I find myself lamenting the artificial division between the realm of human activity and that of nature, established millennia ago by our forebears in hubristic fashion typical of our species. With that division can come a willful blindness to consequences of one’s actions, a regard for natural things as something other or outside of the human realm. At its worst, this otherness can inspire fear instead understanding—of spiders or snakes or bears, just as ignorance can foster prejudice among humans. We react to fear without understanding, or even to nature without thinking much about our impact on this “other” realm. Often implicit in such a worldview is a lack of respect for this “other” realm that attends irresponsible action. A rashly placed or poorly maintained geocache is as much a manifestation of this as trash or shortcuts. Alas, that we didn’t glean more wisdom about man’s place in the world from indigenous peoples who held respect for all living things. But I’ve digressed . . . .

  7. I don’t Geocache but see no issues with it. It is one way to enjoy the outdoors.and I think thats great.

  8. I don’t have a problem with geocaches as long as they are responsibly placed in the woods.

    I do think there are way too many of them though. I did geocaching for a few weeks once upon a time and it was astounding to me how many little hide-a-keys and other little small containers are all hidden over the freaking place.

    In response to the summit register vs. geocache idea…I’d be willing to place a bet that there are waaaay more geocaches hidden in the woods than there are summit registers.

  9. Yep, as mentioned, there are many rules and regs that geocachers have to follow to place a cache, particularly in national parks, forests, DNR land, etc. I have had a few not approved for the “sanctity of the land.” I can understand that. Everyone needs some wilderness to be able to go to, to get lost in, to think that no one else has ever been there. I love those times.

    I would say that the majority of geocachers, particularly the ones who hide caches “way out” in the forest are “nature lovers” in some aspect. So are the folks that will take a 2, 3, 4-hour hike in the woods for one single find. As nature lovers, we do just about whatever everyone else does out there: explore, enjoy views, take a nap, climb a summit and enjoy a beer, etc. Also, there is a particular kind of geocache event we call a CITO (Cache in, Trash Out) where a group of us goes to an area to find a cache or two, but volunteer for an “Earth Day” type clean up, remove invasive species, etc. So we do try our best to “pay back” the parks we enjoy.

    Mostly, I am a hiker and trail runner, but geocaching has helped in that it offers destinations to go to – places that I would have typically never known about. Some history or geology described about the local area. I have not found a cache in Vermont yet, but I would certainly love to run the trails you go down.

  10. My brother is a geocacher. Maybe I’m biased, but I feel like geocachers are a bit more wilderness savvy than some other folks out there. They know something about navigation (yes, it’s often assisted, but still…), and it makes me think they’re probably the types to learn other things, too. My brother is. I feel like most people who want to go really remote in the wilderness are generally cut from a different cloth than the people who take 2-mile hikes from visitors centers, and I tend to think the latter do a lot more damage. Again, could be my own biases.

    It would be interesting to see a movement within geocaching for more nature-friendly caches (ex. wood rather than plastic — the NSTs have wooden boxes for trail registers, so why wouldn’t this work for caches, too?).

  11. I’m not a fan of geocaching – meaning I don’t take part in the “sport’ but I don’t really have a firm opinion about it one way or the other.

    What I find interesting is that you are sad that your illusion of remoteness and wilderness was impacted and it seems you consider the geocaching to be the problem.

    The real problem, as I see it, is that you held a mistaken beliefs (that you were in the wild, that no one else had been there…those kinds of things) that were then challenged by finding this geocache.

    In that sense, the ammo box was a tool for your greater clarity and in that light you could maybe feel grateful to shed your illusions.

    I wonder what you are looking for when you are out in the forest and searching for some untouched wilderness? I bet it would make for an interesting article and I suspect you could go really deep on that topic.

    Is there anything unaffected by humanity on this planet? Is that a “bad” or “good” thing or simply how it is?

  12. I don’t geocache, strikes me as a bit silly. But I gotta echo another Jim’s comparison to summit canisters. Will also add that if it get’s people walking outdoors and enjoying it then why not?

  13. We cached heavily from 2003-2007 before it became the ‘sport’ it is today. We’d recently moved to Florida and geocaching took us to parks and places we have no idea were even there. Eventually we dropped caching for just plain old exploring and photgraphy. There are definitely high impact caches—ones with well worn trails and maintainers who don’t keep up their caches. And then there are the remote ones, usually with high terrain or difficulty ratings that don’t see much action.

    I believe, at least last I knew, geocaching was prohibited in National Parks. Other local, county, state, and federal agencies all have their own rules….especially now as more people are aware of what caching is.

    Generally if something gets abanoned or unmaintained another cacher will step in to take over and adopt the cache, typically to prevent it from becomine ‘trash’.

  14. seeing your picture immediately made me think of summit logs and caches. Most Geo Cachers I have met seem to be aware of the value of keeping things unobtrusive. also to echo another post, true wilderness is more of a state of mind than an actuality.
    when I looked up geocaching and activities- seems to me that the object is to find something in a clever hiding place. this particular cache seemed pretty obvious.

  15. I don’t GeoCache but I have no problem with the sport. Anything to get the kids off the computer and out in the wilds!

    I’ve found a couple when hiking and it took a while for both of my active neurons to sync up to recognize what they were. My grandkids found a “box of toys” on one hike. That time the neurons fired simultaneously and I got to explain a little of the sport to them. They each took a small toy and left a note of thanks and a pretty rock since they didn’t have anything else to put in. I had them put their hometown on the notes so that whoever next got to the box could see the “range” of that cache.

    I’d rather encounter a GeoCache than an empty water bottle. What never ceases to amaze me is that someone can carry a heavy full bottle a mile or two from the trailhead but is physically unable to carry the lightweight empty back!

  16. Perhaps Geocaches should be required to be out of plain view?


  17. If you climb to the top of most mountains in the Sierra Nevada and many other technical US mountain ranges (Rocky’s, winds, etc) you often find registers sealed in plastic boxes or old ammunition cans. Inside will be a book signed by the last person to summit, sometimes decades ago if it’s an unpopular or especially remote mountain.

    I see geocaching as a modern more accessible imitation, and as long as the registers are somewhat hidden have no problem with it even in wilderness area’s.

  18. In general, I agree with many of the other comments, that properly concealed Geocaches don’t bother me much. It is an activity that gets people out hiking, which I think is a good thing.

    I think your post points up the real conundrum that many of us feel regarding wilderness. We like being in the “wilderness”, yet we also like trails which make it easier to travel there. We like the feeling of being the only ones out there. Our best trips are often the ones when we don’t meet anyone else on the trail, in areas with few trails or other signs of people. Yet we also like sharing our experiences, talking about gear, and introducing others to hiking in the wild. Note that in your first paragraph you say “…I didn’t see any other hikers for two entire days and reveled in the wildness and solitude of the area…”, yet you also maintain this website that publicizes many of your favorite places.

    Geocachers are just another wilderness user group. If caches are done carefully and with restraint, they don’t upset my wilderness experience any more than does a trail or summit register. No doubt they should not be placed in some areas, just as some areas should be left without trails. More people who enjoy being out hiking means more people who will help fight to preserve those areas we enjoy hiking in.

  19. I would say that I’m a more avid geocacher than I am any other type of outdoorsman currently. We geocache with the kids and it presents good opportunities to get them outdoors enjoying creation and to teach them about low impact and stewardship. The downsides are there. With each cache there is at least one trail with the most popular caches being very worn. I’ve seen a LNT reference in most caches on state park lands that give the basics of LNT but I would say a big push on low impact guidelines would be a great thing for the geocaching community.

    See: http://www.backpacker.com/april_2008_geocache_leave_no_trace/nature/12342

  20. My only objection would be to the size and placement. A smaller and more unobtrusive canister would be EXACTLY like those summit jars.

  21. As hikers and backpacker we use trail signs, trail blazes, fire pits, tent platform, shelters/huts/lean-tos, summit canisters, those are a few I can think of off the top of my head, most are usually unattractive and definitely man made. I’ve seen a few geocache boxes, all were green, brown or camo and usually tucked under leaves, rocks or in the hollow of a tree and one or two sitting at the base of a tree similar to the one in Philip’s photo. I don’t find geocache boxes any more obtrusive than any of the things named above.

  22. It’s everyone’s forest. Cache away.

  23. Tom in Alaska has some great points. I would prefer to find a cache than used toilet paper or other signs of complete disregard for the natural area. It is how we use the wild places that counts – minimal impact in all areas. When perusing a geocaching book recently I discovered that many enthusiasts geocache in urban areas- perhaps requiring more clever ways to conceal the item.

  24. Jonathan Stoshick

    I have never done geocacheing but it seems like a great way to get kids involved in nature. Without kids its kinda like a grown up treasure hunt. Not sure what I would think if I were off trail hiking and found one. This one has me thinking……

  25. As a suburban dad — my belief is that anything that provides an incentive and motivation for young people to get out in the woods is “good”. Geocaching is also something that can be enjoyed “together” by families, and may lead to participating in orienteering club events, or doing weekend backpacking trips etc.

    I think the only thing wrong with the situation you had was that the ammo box was on the wrong side of the tree. If it was 20 feet off the trail and not visible from the trail, then it would have been both a “proper” cache, and not an eyesore (I use eyesore because seeing it ruined your illusion of being on an adventure in a remote / non traveled area and thereby reduced the beauty of that area to you).

  26. I’ve done some geocaching on and off over the years. I seem to catch the bug every time I buy a new GPS and want to try it out doing something fun. In my experience the caches are usually quite hidden, not something you would notice by just walking around. I completely understand how while enjoying a natural hike coming across a huge box would be unsettling but don’t let the one bad cache turn your off of an activity that gets lots of people out of their houses and cars and into nature. You might want to log onto http://www.geocaching.com, find the cache, and message the owner about its placement.

    Just remember, for every cache you stumble across you’ve probably walked by hundreds you never noticed!

  27. I had to weigh in here because we are letterboxers. It seems that caches placed well off the trail should NOT be hidden, because they can be w/in a 30 foot radius of the coordinates. Letterboxes, on the other hand, are hidden in such a way that the clues direct you to the exact location of the box. Their impact is therefore significantly less than that of a geocache, potentially. They are camouflaged with leaves or stacks of stones, but like geocaches never buried. The downside to both hobbies is that the boxes can be delisted if they haven’t been maintained (geocaching) or not maintained at all (letterboxing. Technically, you are supposed to maintain your boxes, but often boxers rely on the finders to do this, which works well most of the time. The listing, however, stays active until the owner removes it.) There is no way to ensure that inactive boxes are actually removed, but at least with a well-planted letterbox, you won’t find it unless you’re looking for it, though natural forces can uncover them. Letterboxers are secretive and don’t advertise their hobby, keeping participants to a minimum. For the most part, the hobby gets people outside using our resources who would otherwise maybe not. I understand how coming across signs of humans in a pristine area is disappointing. The idea that you are traversing someplace never seen by other humans is an enjoyable illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.

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