Travel

There's Hidden Treasure in Your Neighborhood. Here's How to Find It

A beginner's guide to geocaching, the worldwide treasure hunt happening right under your nose.

Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

It’s not often you find yourself 100% ready and willing to squat down on your knees in the middle of New York City in the rain. Still, there I was, down low on the concrete, checking every inch of an old abandoned newspaper box. It was the end of a day-long journey that’d sent me wandering around Soho and Tribeca, along random streets in Midtown, and at last to a quiet street corner just outside Grand Central. 

I was out geocaching. For the uninitiated, geocaching is essentially one big worldwide treasure hunt in which people place caches-containers of various shapes and sizes-in secret locations, then drop a set of coordinates and clues to help members of the community find them.The first cache was placed over 20 years ago by Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon; today, there are about 3 million spread across more than 190 countries-meaning that wherever you are, there’s probably one hidden right under your nose.

The caches, filled with everything from basic guest logs to fun little trinkets, come with all kinds of stories attached to them. I’ve found caches placed in honor of birthdays and beloved pets, as history lessons and small tokens of appreciation to the city. Once I spent an afternoon traipsing up and down Staple Street in pursuit of a cache placed there by a New Yorker who simply wanted more people to come and admire the block.

After spending the better part of the last year and a half indoors, the game presented the perfect opportunity to get back outside and rediscover the world around me-every random nook and cranny of it.

ra-photos/Getty Images
ra-photos/Getty Images
ra-photos/Getty Images

I’m not the only one. Chris Pierno, a federal contractor who lives in DC, was like me: A “COVID Cacher,” somebody who started geocaching in the throes of the virus.

“[Geocaching] has been around for a long time, so obviously, activity ebbs and flows. But the community has seen an influx of people starting accounts primarily due to COVID,” Pierno says. In just six months he’s found more than 500 caches-many in places he’d passed by a thousand times before. “It’s like, how cool is this: That this thing is just there, outside of a restaurant that you’ve been to a bajillion times, and you didn’t even know it.”

It takes a couple of tries to get into the game, but once you channel your inner Harriet the Spy (or Sherlock Holmes, or whichever puzzle-solving cultural icon you vibe with) you’ll soon find yourself giddily solving clues, cracking open hidden boxes, and remembering that little secrets are all around us if we just look for them.

Fertnig/Getty Images
Fertnig/Getty Images
Fertnig/Getty Images

How does geocaching work?

Download the free Geocaching app and sign up. I’d recommend dropping the extra $6 on a premium account if you can: It’ll give you access to way more caches than a standard account.

Input your zip code and your screen will fill up with caches in your area. Select the cache you want to find-I recommend starting with a “traditional” cache, marked with a green icon-and check out the description page. There, you’ll find details like whether the cache is available 24/7, how long it should take to find, its size and difficulty level, plus a hint and description. Read the latter two carefully: Not only do they add some fun context to the cache, but they’ll also help you uncover its location. Then, it’s off to the races.

Oh yeah, and bring a pen. You’ll need one to sign the cache log, aka the cache’s guestbook-a list of everyone who’s ever discovered it.

What do caches look like? 

All caches must be outside and relatively accessible-meaning you won’t need to break and enter and weave Bond-like through lasers to find one. But caches do come in many forms. 

Traditional caches are the most straightforward: you’ll go to a location, find the cache container, and sign the log. Multi-caches take a little more effort: they usually involve solving a series of clues that’ll take you to two or more locations until you reach the cache. To find a mystery cache (aka a puzzle cache), you’ll often need to solve some sort of puzzle. You can get a full list of cache types here.

Caches come in a few different sizes, too: nano, micro, small, regular, large, and other. When I say nano, I mean nano; these caches can be as tiny as an eraser cap. Micro caches are generally around the size of a chapstick tube, while small caches tend to be the size of a film canister or a pill bottle-and so on up.

Flickr/Paul Downey
Flickr/Paul Downey
Flickr/Paul Downey

What’s inside?

While small caches tend to have room enough for the log sheet alone, larger caches may come with a little fun inside. Some caches contain “trackables”-items you’re meant to take from one cache and move to another, logging it along the way so that the person who placed it can track its journey. Others have collectibles inside, which tend to be fun, inexpensive knick-knacks: action figures, fun erasers, and other chachkies-the kinds of things you might get for a couple hundred tickets at an arcade.

How to find a cache

Head to the cache’s general location, and then hit “Navigate” in the app to see its exact coordinates and roughly how far away you are in feet. Caches are hidden out of the way-after all, you only want people who are playing the game to find them-so keep an eye out for inconspicuous nooks and crannies. 

If you’re really struggling, head to the description page and hit “Activity.” You’ll be able to check out other cachers’ stories, some of which may include pictures so you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for.

Once you’ve found the cache, sign the log and return the cache exactly as it was so that the game can go on. Back on the Activity page, you can detail your success story-or, if you just can’t find the damn thing, report it as a DNF (or “did not find”). Sometimes caches go missing, and you’ll want to let the person who placed it know.

Wojciech Lepczynski/Shutterstock
Wojciech Lepczynski/Shutterstock
Wojciech Lepczynski/Shutterstock

Don’t be surprised if it takes a while to find

I came out of the gate way overconfident and expected my first cache to be a cakewalk. But after skulking up and down the same street about a thousand times, checking the same potted plants again and again, and generally looking like a complete weirdo, I realized it takes some patience and diligence to uncover a cache. 

“I found my first cache on a Target run,” Pierno recalls. “It ended up being in a birdhouse, in a tree, in a parking lot behind the store. That’s not necessarily the experience most people get; it’s usually on a guardrail or in a pill bottle!”

Pro-tip: Always check the lamp skirts. “I didn’t know before I started geocaching that lamp skirts existed,” he says. “I didn’t know that they can be pulled up. But you’re gonna spend a lot of time in parking lots pulling those lamp skirts up and down.” The more you know!

Geocaching
Geocaching
Geocaching

You’re going to look weird. Maybe bring a friend to look weird with you?

Naturally, if you’re snooping around in bushes or in strange corners along the same street, you’re going to raise a few eyebrows. But the anxiety around looking weird may keep you from the find-and the sooner you defeat it, the sooner you can enjoy the game.

Pierno recommends recruiting some pals to make things more fun. Hell, it might even lead to a weekend trip. “A group of friends and I actually traveled to go geocaching. We rented an Airbnb in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where there’s known to be really cool gadget caches,” Pierno says. “We went and spent the weekend and found 30-40 caches.”

Try to be discreet

Geocaching operates on the honor system: If you’re going to play, you know that you’re not supposed to remove a cache from its place. But you also want to ensure the cache continues to be there after you’ve left-which means keeping an eye out for potential cache-snatchers.

“If someone sees you, they may be waiting for you to go away,” says Pierno. “And then they’re going to go check out whatever you were looking at…and all of a sudden, that cache is gone, because people just like taking things, and then you’ve ruined it for someone else. There’s always the danger of messing up the game.”

Consider waiting until there’s low foot traffic to remove the cache from its place-especially if you’re caching in an urban area.

Geocaching
Geocaching
Geocaching

Got the hang of it? Now hide your own geocache!

If you want to place a cache of your own, there are some rules you’ll need to abide by: geocaches must be located at least 0.1 miles apart, they can’t be buried, they should be widely accessible, and a few other things.

Volunteers will review the submission, and then it’ll go live on the app. Just keep an eye on your listing once it’s up-people may message you looking for hints, and you’ll eventually need to replace the cache log once enough people find it.

Whether you’re building your own cache or contributing to someone else’s, consider leaving something meaningful or customized-sort of like your own personal calling card. “If you do want to invest some time into [geocaching], I would consider going that personalized route and leaving behind a signature item-whether that’s going the extra mile and creating a little coin that’s specific to who you are, or getting a stamp to sign your name.”

“Personally,” Pierno adds, “I’ve been buying mini brands, these plastic balls that you buy at a Target or Walmart, and they have five little compartments in them with miniaturized versions of food-a miniature Soubrette hotdog, or Kraft macaroni and cheese, or Barilla pasta.” 

I, for one, did not know that these existed but would be ecstatic and delighted to find one. One cacher’s trinket is another cacher’s treasure, after all.

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Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s Associate Travel Editor. She can confirm that Geocaching in New York is a doozy worth trying.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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