What started in 1972 as a Department of Defense project to help the military has become increasingly in demand for outdoor recreation. So how do you harness the popularity of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology to reach groups of people who otherwise might not come to wildlife refuges? Geocaching—carefully organized and monitored.

Geocaching is a high–tech scavenger hunt that is now being modified for refuges. Traditional geocaching consists of hiding and seeking a physical cache: coins, logbook and more. The cache location is pinpointed using GPS technology and shared on a Web site such as geocaching.com for others to find.

Burying, placing or removing a physical cache is prohibited on refuges because sensitive natural or cultural resources could be damaged. Wilderness areas pose a particular challenge. Although the use of GPS units within refuge wilderness is allowed, competitive public events or contests—such as a large, organized GPS geocaching event—are prohibited.

However, refuges and Friends groups have been creative in using virtual geocaching (waymarking.com) or earthcaching (earthcache.org). Typically, visitors obtain a list of clues to questions that can be answered by visiting waypoints on a refuge identified by GPS coordinates. Visitors who answer all the questions may receive a stamp, patch or other small prize.

Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, CA, incorporates Friends into one of its geocaching clues:

  • N40° 41.1625 W 124° 12.3810

    The Friends of Humboldt Bay Refuge assists refuge staff in all functions, from leading walks to constructing benches like this one. They also help support the refuge financially through fundraising, paid memberships and grants. If you would like to join the Friends or share your knowledge and skills, please talk to staff at the refuge office. Who made this bench? When was it built?

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, WA, lends visitors a GPS device along with a small log and journal for two separate adventures—biology or archaeology. Families or school groups carry small backpacks containing objects that relate to each waypoint. As visitors stand outside the refuge’s Cathlapotle Plankhouse, for example, they read a journal entry about Native American traditions and find in their backpack a small replica of the wooden wedge used to split huge cedars.

Young people who participate in the Ridgefield GeoAdventure can earn a Scout badges; it is also a popular activity for middle school field trips. Contact Eric_Anderson@fws.gov, instructional specialist at Ridgefield Refuge Complex, to get suggestions for creating similar programs.