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Hide and seek goes high tech

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LANSDALE, Pa. — You walk and drive by them every day and don't even know it, unless you're looking for them.

They are hidden in plain view along sidewalks, in the park, on a fence, in the woods, under lampposts, in the hollow of a tree.

Some are the size of the first digit of a pinky finger, while others are as large as a 55-gallon drum.

There's an estimated 1.2 million of them around the world, and at least 100 or so in the Lansdale area.

Think of it as a technological treasure hunt, a hide-and-seek for the inquisitive digital set.

It's called geocaching, and it's been around for 10 years.

Using a GPS — either the pricey high-quality units or an Android or iPhone App — geocachers follow coordinates to a specific cache, and then have fun trying to find it.

Most caches — ranging in size from micro, to small, regular and large — have a logbook inside them. You open the cache, sign your name, date it and log your find at www.geocaching.com or another geocaching website.

Other geocachers then log in, search for geocaches around them and the search is on.

While locations offer one cache, there are multi-stage caches. Think of it as a scavenger hunt: finding one cache offers clues leading to the location of the next cache and so on. The same idea centers around puzzle caches, however with those, you must solve a puzzle in order to get the coordinates.

Then there are geocaches with certain themes. For instance, "Ducky's Kid Cache" is a geocache on the other side of County Line Road in New Britain that's about the size of a recycling container packed with wrapped children's toys. The idea is replace the toys you take out with other wrapped toys.

On the Geocaching.com site, each cache is rated with a star for locating difficulty, one star being easy.

And if you want to place a cache, its location must be approved by volunteers that review the rules and regulations of the sport. Caches cannot be placed on private property and they must be within a tenth of a mile from one another.

"I love it," said Towamencin resident John Ingram, 26. "I've been doing it since the beginning of July and since that time I've found 143 of them, mainly in this area. I've hidden two of them myself in Lansdale."

That number could be considered amateur by geocaching standards; some geocachers log as many has 100,000 caches found all over the world.

Furthermore, caches can contain things like geocoins and dog tag-shaped Travel Bugs: both items can be tracked via the Web so users can see where their caches are around the world.

"It's an amazing game. It's high-tech and it makes you think," Ingram said. "Coordinates take you to a certain spot, and then you have to use your head. 'Where could they hide this?' Some put them in a hole in a tree or among some rocks. They can be very well hidden and very well disguised."

The game gets people out from behind computers and from in front of televisions and video games. There's a health benefit to it too: Ingram has lost 43 pounds since July.

"I think it really makes you explore nature for a bit and you find places you've never been," Ingram said.

That's why Upper Gwynedd resident Bob Deddy likes it. It brought him back to the woods and nature, something he's missed since giving up hunting years ago.

"It takes me to places you never knew existed, and all, for the most part, are beautiful places — lakes, covered bridges, woodlands — that maybe I wouldn't have gotten to if I wasn't looking for a geocache," he said.

Lansdale resident Robert Schaffer's two 6-year-old daughters call the activity "treasure hunting."

"I always enjoyed the outdoors and hiking, and this is a way that I found my kids will go out and go for a picnic and find a few geocaches," Schaffer said.

Schaffer discovered geocaching through a friend and the addiction took off from there. Now, Schaffer has six caches hidden in Lansdale, including a multi-stage cache at the Moyers Road ballpark.

"It's rather addicting. It's a different challenge," he said. "It was like, 'Hey there's one over here, lets see if we can find it.' It starts to become where, between here and work, I can almost see a trail of ones I've found."

Schaffer is one geocacher who has a coin making the rounds across nations.

"We have one that's gone over 2,000 miles. We had another one that had gone 20 miles before it got 'lost.' We've had ones come from Germany," he said. "A traveler in Indiana went abroad and released five in Germany. It was a race to get them back home to Indiana. You can see on Google Maps all the places the geocache has been."

The 10-year-old hobby has caused a stir among local governments.

Geocaching is banned in Towamencin and Lower Salford townships. This a result of a bomb scare years ago near North Penn High School related to a hidden geocache.

"People have come up and asked what I'm doing in certain areas. People that live around it know what it is and ask questions," Ingram said.

"One person on Supplee Road came up to me as I was rifling through underbrush and she said 'I see people here all the time.' I had one cache in Colmar by the cabin along the tracks and I had a woman say, 'What are you doing back there? Drugs?' No, not at all."

The hobby has its share of "muggles" — people who don't geocache — who either find one and dispose of it or move it.

There are also organizations and communities that support geocaching.

The Schuylkill River Trail Association took it upon itself to hide 100 caches along its trail from Norristown to Philadelphia.

"It brought a lot of traffic to the trail," Ingram said.

State parks and county parks require written permission to place a cache on their properties. Geocaching is banned completely in federal parks.

Derek Dureka, parks and recreation director at Upper Dublin Township, has made a business out of it. He co-runs GeoVentures Inc., empowering groups of people, especially teens, to get outdoors in front of a GPS screen and take part in a different game.

"It brings technology outdoors," Dureka said. "It's hiking with a goal. It gives people extra motivation to continue on, to move forward. There's a satisfaction to track down a container and it's a leisure activity."

Information from: The Reporter, http://www.thereporteronline.com