It may be hard to imagine a fleet of wheelchair-using pirates. While we might not fare well rolling about on the slippery decks of ships, our pirate ties certainly run deep. It’s virtually impossible to picture a pirate without some form of disability — peg leg, an eye patch, a hook. For pirates, it seems disability is the norm. With such connections, people with disabilities should be naturally well suited for a modern day treasure hunt. Minus the water and the tendency toward illegal activities, geocaching is the 21st century hobby of pirates of all abilities. With cell phones as today’s treasure maps and a social community teeming with support, geocaching is an affordable and exciting recreational adventure.
Since geocaching is an inclusive activity, the disability community itself has begun to join in hiding and finding treasures. Day Al-Mohamed, a fiction author and senior policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Labor, has been geocaching for several years. Al-Mohamed is blind. Her first geocaching experience took place in Breckenridge, Colo., while on vacation with her wife and friends. “What I found most fun was the sense of adventure — of being on a modern day treasure hunt,” she says. Kevin Hosea also found geocaching through connections with friends. Hosea has spina bifida and uses a manual wheelchair for mobility. For a hobby that can take place miles from civilization or in the heart of a bustling city, geocaching is often a social endeavor, even when enjoyed alone. And since the treasure must be “located” first with clues, the lack of a physical disability is not necessarily an advantage.
Geocaching (pronounced “geocashing”) is an outdoor activity enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Treasure hunters use GPS devices and smart phones to find hidden containers, called caches. Online connections allow users to share their experiences and post feedback about their finds. Websites like www.geocaching.com provide the “X” that marks the spot through databases of GPS coordinates where cache owners hide and then post about their treasures. Along with these coordinates, owners estimate the difficulty of finding their caches. Some caches are within plain view while others are hidden. Unlike the great treasure chests of yesteryear, caches are not allowed to be buried. They can, however, be covered with foliage or ground cover. A ratings system describes the terrain around a cache and the degree of difficulty for the find. Together with the coordinates, these ratings create a “waypoint.” Waypoints are especially meaningful to geocachers with disabilities because this common reference point has allowed the community to add important notes on the accessibility of specific finds.
Caches are usually placed in waterproof containers that can be as small as a film container, which would be considered a micro cache, or as large as an ammunition case or a plastic file container. The size of caches are also noted in rating systems, so treasure hunters have a clear idea what they might be looking for once they reach the coordinates mapped by their GPS. Caches contain small, usually inexpensive, trinkets or treasures. When David Ulmer, the inventor of geocaching, launched the sport, it had just one rule: Take something and leave something. Since its inception more than a decade ago, geocaching has adopted a few additional etiquette considerations, like signing a logbook to document guests and improving cache ratings to make the sport more inclusive for all. Some players take the sport a step further, participating in CITO (or “cache in, trash out”) to clean up areas around caches.
Getting Started Geocaching
Step 1. Many of us are most familiar with our local community. Try looking around your home for your first treasure. Start at www.geocaching.com, enter your zip code, and click through some descriptions of nearby caches. While a challenging find adds to the fun, thoughtful cache owners usually consider variables like parking or nearby landmarks when describing their hiding place.
Step 2. Once you’ve selected a cache, you have several options for taking the treasure map with you. Some players simply take note of the coordinates listed in the cache description. These can be entered in most GPS devices and several smartphone apps. There are also options to export the coordinates directly to these devices straight from geocaching websites.
Step 3. In addition to the coordinates, make note of the cache’s waypoint. This code, which is usually around five characters and starts with GC, is listed on www.geocaching.com. Waypoints can be entered on www.handicaching.com to discover whether another player with a disability has rated this cache on several accessibility variables. Like most organizations with an aim to break through barriers of inclusion, the site is still growing. Most caches won’t yet be rated by Handicaching, but there are new treasures posted daily. Once a new cache is rated — either prior to its hiding or after its discovery — it’s assigned a new waypoint that begins with the letters HC. This unified rating system makes it fun to search for treasures left, hidden, and discovered again by members of our disability community.
Step 4. Now the real fun begins! Armed with your GPS device or GPS-enabled smartphone, take to the great outdoors! While some geocaches are hidden in forested areas, thousands of urban geocaches bring this game to cities around the world. If you can’t find a cache in your hometown, try searching prior to or during your next trip. Follow the directions provided by your GPS to locate your cache. Apps like Geocaching Intro will vibrate when you are near the cache.
Step 5. Find your cache. If you choose, carefully remove the cache and replace it with your own hidden treasure. Disability pride swag, like advocacy pins and stickers, are one fun option. Any small item, including toys from quarter machines, can be left. Many caches, though, are too small for treasures. Sign a logbook if one’s available. Check online geocaching communities for commonly used abbreviated messages, like TFTC (thanks for the cache) and TNLNSL (took nothing left nothing signed log).
Step 6. Once you are home, basking in the glory of your successful hunt, don’t forget to document your cache. The most active geocaching community, www.geocaching.com, needs more feedback from players with disabilities. If your waypoint wasn’t logged in the Handicaching directory, rate your experience in terms of accessibility. As this database grows, more people with disabilities will feel comfortable trying this exciting activity.
Caches might not have the monetary value of the pirate days of gold, jewels, and loot, but their intrinsic value can be just as precious. Kevin Hosea’s favorite caches have been trackers, which allow the cache owner to see where their treasure has traveled. For Hosea, it’s not about the treasure but rather the adventure in the find. He has found caches tucked in piles of fake rocks, rolled inside fake bolts, and hidden in pipes coming out of the ground. Occasionally, he is able to leave his chair to climb or reach a cache that’s just off the accessible trail. For players who can’t leave their chairs, Hosea suggests looking for lower terrain ratings (usually near paved surfaces). Teaming with nondisabled friends or family members is also fun. Caches that are definite guarantees for people in wheelchairs are labeled Park and Grab on www.geocache.com.
Al-Mohamed’s favorite caches embody the sense of creativity and history infused in this relatively new hobby. Near her home in Washington, D.C., Day found a cache around a granite grave marker for 17 unknown Confederate soldiers. The grave marker was located in a small cemetery of a church. The Confederate Army allegedly marched through the cemetery during the Civil War. Unique educational opportunities like this one make geocaching a perfect fit for families in search of fun ways to learn together.
In another memorable find, Al-Mohamed and her friends were searching a wooded area for a cache, and she navigated the group to the general vicinity using geocaching phone apps with screen reading capabilities. The cache’s hiding spot was described as a hollow tree. Her friends peered and poked in the surrounding area, then squealed and shrieked when the group found what they would learn was actually the treasure itself. The cache owner had constructed a rubber spider inside a log container. It was positioned deep in the hollow to look like a giant spider waiting for its next meal! Al-Mohamed and other geocachers love the creativity and fun offered by this affordable and accessible hobby.
Making It More Accessible
Websites like www.handicaching.com are expanding the possibilities for geocachers with disabilities. Rather than creating alternative treasures, the supplementary rating system created by Handicaching allows players to assess which already available caches might be most accessible. While some terrain estimates are made within traditional geocaching ratings, we’ve all experienced epic fails associated with nondisabled attempts to describe the accessibility of an area. Disabled geocachers on www.handicaching.com have made impressive progress in their efforts to make this hobby more inclusive. More than 26,000 caches have been rated. Some cache descriptions include directions to nearby accessible restrooms or detailed suggestions on how best to navigate terrain in a wheelchair (e.g., “The trail is muddy but it’s very well packed and an easy roll.”)
Geocaching and accessibility share a unique relationship. Wheelchair users often hope for indoor, physical environments to be accessible. The outdoors is often exempt from our accessibility wish lists, but that doesn’t mean these environments have to be off limits. Geocaching offers an opportunity and a fun incentive to get outside, try a new activity, and socialize with friends and family.
• www.geocaching.com: Find answers to geocaching FAQs, guides to finding and hiding caches, and an easy to use directory of treasures in your area.
• www.handicaching.com: A site that aims to improve the accessibility of geocaching across the world through a rating system created for and by people with disabilities.
• www.handicaching.com/ratingsystem.html: A printable guide to the rating system used by Handicaching geocachers.
• Geocaching iPhone app by Groundspeak: Includes coordinates for more than 2 million caches around the world. Pair with your phone’s GPS to start your treasure hunt!
Scavenging with a Purpose
This past September in Portland, Ore., participants in the Backbones Scavenger Hunt scoured the city in search of points and prizes. They were encouraged to use any type of technology that helped them solve the clues, from GPS to iPhones and laptops, and the clues ranged from whimsical to educational.
“We had a lot of fun with it,” says Reveca Torres, 31, executive director of Backbones and a C5-7 quad. She and her volunteers are always on the lookout for activities to get people with and without SCIs to hang out together. “We like to do that through events that also have an awareness component.”
Backbones used the Hunt to highlight local organizations that benefited people with SCI, as well as give props to friendly local businesses — like a local brewery. To make the event challenging, Backbones required each competing group to have at least one wheelchair user in it, and when someone with an SCI wasn’t available, nondisabled volunteers used a wheelchair loaned by a local DME vendor for the event.
Some of the wheelchair-related clues were just for fun, like, “find a bike rack and tie yourself to it,” but others were serious. “One stop was at the rehab hospital, where a physical therapist handed out ‘diagnosis’ cards with an SCI level printed on it, like, T12 or C5,” says Torres. “They had to go to a skeleton and find the vertebrae and learn what that meant, how that injury would affect the body. A lot of people really enjoyed that stuff, got a lot out of it — learning what an injury was and how each level could affect them differently.”
After the hunt, all the groups gathered together for pizza and talked about their experiences. Some nondisabled participants who had borrowed wheelchairs were surprised by the public’s reaction. “Some said they didn’t expect to be affected by the way people looked at them. They didn’t realize that would happen,” says Torres. “Other people really liked the attention, and talked about how people were nice, opening doors, smiling. And others said it was difficult to stay in the chair and complete tasks that would be easily done if they popped out and reached something.” Like the woman who had to use the bathroom and just couldn’t figure out how to maneuver in the accessible stall. “I cheated,” she told Torres, confessing she stood up and walked into the stall.
The hunt was so successful that the group pulled off a second one in Chicago. For more information about the scavenger hunt, and how your own group can replicate it, go to Backbonesonline.com or friend them on Facebook.