Smartphone apps give geocaching a boost

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      It was a 2001 magazine article that led to Bob Bunting’s involvement with geocaching.

      “It was a perfect match,” Bunting told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I had the equipment, and I was already into the activities that geocaching naturally lends itself to—outdoor-recreational activities. There were a couple of caches in the Lower Mainland, so I proceeded to go out and hunt my first one.

      “After that I started placing them, and then it took off from there. At the time, there were few and far between, and I remember for my third cache I had to drive to Cache Creek to actually get it,” the North Vancouver resident said, noting there are now thousands of geocaches hidden across the Metro Vancouver.

      The basics of geocaching have remained relatively unchanged since the pastime was created in 2000. That’s when Oregon resident Dave Ulmer hid the first cache. Participants access a database, most commonly that of, to find the coordinates of local caches. They may also hide their own caches and upload the location data to the same database.

      These days, the same technology that allows you to find the nearest sushi restaurant using your smartphone is being used to hunt for caches. Many developers have made mobile apps seeking to emulate the experience that users get from a standalone GPS receiver. One such app is GPS Kit.

      “It’s meant to replace a handheld GPS unit, while offering a lot more functionality because of its nature as an iPhone app with a very nice touchscreen and that kind of stuff,” Joe Wilson, the art director at Garafa, told the Straight by phone from the iOS development studio’s office in Provo, Utah.

      Wilson noted that modern smartphones are increasingly accurate when it comes to location. “We receive the GPS data from the device,” he said. “And we’ve seen fairly consistent results on the newer devices within a three-meter accuracy.”

      Downloading a cheap or even free app requires much less of an initial investment than a stand-alone GPS unit. For instance, GPS Kit sells for $9.99 on the Apple App Store. According to Wilson, Garafa’s geospatial apps have tens of thousands of users.

      “I don’t think they would be consumers in this sphere otherwise,” Wilson said. “I think it’s just exciting to know that you’ve got a device powerful enough to help you do these things, so it’s kind of a ‘Why not?’ at that point.”

      The smartphone-fuelled rise in interest in geocaching has not gone unnoticed. Seeing the activity as a way to get more people out into regional parks, Stephen Suddes worked to create Metro Vancouver’s Introduction to Geocaching course.

      “This is all a response to what we see as an emerging and evolving demand for this kind of thing,” Suddes, division manager for public programs and community development, told the Straight by phone.

      The two-hour course costs $8 and includes the use of stand-alone GPS equipment. Suddes explained: “The intent is that if they really get interested in geocaching as an activity—the fact that they’ve been able to take this introductory course—it may be enough to stimulate them to go out and make some inquiries, purchase the [stand-alone] kind of equipment, and maybe even get in touch with some of the groups that are involved in organized geocaching in the Lower Mainland or around the province.”

      Bunting is excited about the use of smartphones in geocaching, since in the past cache information had to be obtained using a home computer. But he argues that phones are more accessories than replacements for handheld GPS units.

      “Where the phone really shines is that you can have all the cache information on the device, and that’s very, very easy to read and easy to sort through,” Bunting said. “If I’m in an area and want to search through different types of caches that have been found in the last week that are a certain size, then there’s applications that I can run on my phone that will give a list of those caches that meet that particular criteria.”

      Suddes is worried about safety issues that can arise when people rely only on mobile apps to navigate Metro Vancouver’s parks. He notes that cellphones can even have trouble getting a signal in some urban parks.

      “You cannot substitute a good topographic map, a good compass, and maybe a GPS device that relies on satellite, but local knowledge and really good common sense are the things that you need when you’re out in our parks,” Suddes said. “Also obeying all signs and postings, because that’s critical.”

      Even with the growing usage of smartphones in geocaching, Bunting believes his hobby hasn’t changed all that much since he got into it.

      “It’s still a treasure hunt,” Bunting said. “The GPS is going to get you close, but experienced cachers all do the same thing. Once you get near where the cache is you put the GPS or the phone in your pocket, and you look around and think where you’d have hidden the cache. That has not changed. It’s still a hunt. If the GPS took you right to it, we’d have lost interest a decade ago.”