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Muggle or mastermind?

Searching for geocaches can yield improved mental health,
safe socialization and community connectedness

Hikers pull out their geocaching app to pinpoint where the closest treasure will be. (Groundspeak Inc.)

By Haley Grinder

GEOCACHING IS GAINING popularity through the pandemic as a safe alternative to traditional socialization – though it remains an underground activity.

With mandatory restrictions in place to reduce transmission of COVID-19, many people are turning to geocaching as an excuse to get out of the house, connect with family and explore the local environment.

Chris Ronan, public relations manager at Geocaching HQ in Seattle, says via email, “geocaching is an inexpensive way to get outside and explore, while maintaining proper social distance.”

“We’re happy to be able to contribute positively to people’s lives during this challenging period.”

Downtown Edmonton has become an extreme hotspot for geocachers, with more than 50 caches hidden between 109th and 96th Streets. The 13-block radius is usually bustling with working professionals, making it an even bigger challenge to stay discreet about your findings.

The community has dubbed non-geocachers “muggles,” and frequently stresses about the need for secrecy.

This map shows how active geocachers have been in the city. (Haley Grinder)

What Geocaching HQ calls the “world’s largest outdoor treasure hunt” uses GPS tracking and the Geocaching app to navigate users to containers cleverly hidden in plain sight.

Geocaches are placed by players and can come in a variety of sizes, including “micro,” “small,” “regular,” “large,” “virtual” and “other.” They are also rated on five-point scale for difficulty and terrain. Inside caches large enough, one may find trinkets left by the hider themselves or by past finders.

The honour system of “take a trinket, leave a trinket” holds players responsible for continuing the tradition.

Rarer still, players may come across “trackables” – physical game pieces in the form of tags, geocoins, or bugs (a small toy insect) – that move from geocache to geocache. They require the finder to scan the code, to track where the piece is at a given moment.

April 9, Alberta went into its third lockdown since March 2020, marking a regression from Phase 2  to Phase 1, making the prolonged isolation and social distancing more and more difficult to take for many of us.

Edmontonians have reported that fighting the mental health issues associated with such a crisis is becoming increasingly difficult.

Some say geocaching was their salvation.

Aaron Rebus, a geocache member since 2016, says the boredom he felt during the first two lockdowns sent him back to the app.

Rebus, who goes by “GuardianBob” in the geocaching community, says the activity helped him get outside and be active again. He’s now even considering hiding a geocache as well.

“I just couldn’t handle being cooped up at home. Not working and nothing to do was driving me crazy.”

One of the things geocaching can do, proponents say, is bring families together in a healthy outdoor activity. (Groundspeak Inc.)

According to surveys done by Mental Health Research Canada, issues among  Canadians are the highest they’ve every been, with depression at an increase of 70 per cent since the peak of COVID-19’s first wave.

The survey revealed that “going outside [has] the most positive impact on mental health.”

Forty-three per cent of Canadians agree with this – even during the winter months.

Ben Hollihan, a fourth-year journalism student at MacEwan University struggled hard with isolation.

He says, “I think, right now, more than ever, it’s important to get outside,” though he says he worries about safety protocols.

“If the activity gets too popular, we might have people handling these geocaches too often or really crowding the routes.”

Ronan says he has “seen significant membership growth over the past several months,” with 5.2 million new users joining the community in 2020. With more than 3 million active geocaches in 191 countries, and on all seven continents (“even Antarctica”), the activity only gains more popularity over time.

Still, the company stresses the importance of staying safe and responsible by adhering to regional health guidelines.

It also offers tips for staying connected and inspired if you must remain indoors. These include Skyping with friends who are geocaching, connecting online on local forums, solving challenging puzzle caches, planning a cache hide, or crafting maintenance ideas for older caches.

Groundspeak Inc., under the name of Geocaching HQ, celebrated its 20th anniversary in September. When went live in September 2000, it had only 75 locations logged. Two decades later, there are more than 3.2 million geocaches around the world, spread through almost every country. They had planned to have their celebration in Seattle last August.

However, COVID-19 has postponed the celebration to Summer 2022.

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