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'Geocaching' offers high-tech treasure hunt

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Web site unites users

Cache offers trinkets, connection

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- There's an axiom that states, "Wherever you go, there you are." But where is here? How far away is there? And can you get there from here?

Answers to these questions were made clearer last May when former President Bill Clinton removed the encryption from Global Position System (GPS) units. The GPS technique was previously the domain of the military and dedicated outdoorspeople.

If you had a GPS unit, would you participate in geocaching?

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When the Department of Defense started launching GPS satellites in the 1980s, it provided two classes of service: signals with an accuracy of 10 to 20 meters for military users and a degraded signal available to civil users with an accuracy of 100 meters.

That policy was meant to prevent potential adversaries from using the GPS technology to launch attacks against U.S. forces or targets. However, the degradation of the civil GPS signal was recently removed because officials determined it would have a "minimal impact on national security."

Now that personal GPS units are more accurate, an intrepid group of people is using them for a new hobby. It's a game called "geocaching," but it's likened more to a high-tech treasure hunt. Players obtain the coordinates of a particular stash, or cache. They type the data into their GPS devices, then trek across the terrain to find their reward.

Web site unites users

Jeremy Irish, who lives near Seattle, Washington, enjoyed the experience so much that he helped start a Web site to unite geocachers around the globe. By visiting the site, participants can find cache coordinates close to their location. Once they've visited the cache, the Web site is also used as a forum for people to discuss their experiences.

Jeremy Irish, founder of  

"A lot of people get hooked when they find their first cache. (It's) an interesting adventure like 'Indiana Jones,' but you don't have the boulders, the restless natives or the spikes," Irish said.

Just like in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," it's recommended you have a good pair of walking shoes, bug spray, water and a compass to help you find your way back to the car after the adventure. Geocaching can be done alone, or with a group of people. And anyone can place a new cache.

But the spirit of geocaching rests on the honor system and allows people to connect with others they may never see in person.

Cache offers trinkets, connection

A self-described "nerd" at heart, Jason Thomas says that while the game requires technology to participate, it's really all about getting outdoors. Thomas, an animator for a local TV station, said he believes that many of those getting involved with geocaching are hikers before they're techies.

His most recent trek took him to a cache in Stone Mountain park near Atlanta. Thomas first plugged the longitude and latitude coordinates from the geocaching Web site into his GPS unit.

Periodically confirming his direction, he then walked through the trees and even needed to leap across a small stream.

Jason Thomas begins his geocaching trek  

But when Thomas finally arrived at the coordinates he was initially stumped -- nothing was in plain view.

Undaunted, Thomas remembered that some coordinates are chosen as a place to stand, look around and try to spot the cache.

Sure enough, he spotted an ammunition case (used for weatherproofing) leaning against a nearby tree. Thomas opted to take a plastic canteen and leave a DVD copy of "Deep Impact" because he says, "somebody's got to like this movie."

As part of the geocache code of ethics, participants can take any item from the cache, but they must replace it with a new one.

Among the most common items left in caches are batteries for the power-hungry GPS units, Thomas says. He has also come across such trinkets as computer games, laser pointers and compasses.

He carefully signed the logbook, which had about a dozen entries since the cache was placed in June.

"It's not really so much the box itself as it is a connection with another human being. They sat here, they saw this scene, they felt strong it was a good place for other people to go to. You feel connected to the person," said Thomas, pausing to admire the landscape before he packed up the cache box.

Brushing the dirt off his pants, Thomas then stood up and headed back to his car, leaving the site intact for the next adventurer.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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