Once again, a case of a geocache being exploded by the bomb squad is in the news. It’s probably fair to say that most people who hide geocaches understand that there is a risk that any given geocache hide will meet its end that way, however, it seems clear that some hides are much more likely than others to end up at the business end of the bomb squad’s water cannon.
I’m a geocacher, but I also do security work. This may give me a unique insight into this subject matter. Certainly the fact that two of the three events in Ottawa of which I am aware were wrongfully attributed to me in 2004 gives me a perspective that other people may not have.
To all geocachers, if you get nothing else from this blog post, please take this away: If geocachers don’t buck up and start applying a little more brain power to their cache hides, this activity absolutely will get banned or severely curtailed in Canada. We’ve already seen an inkling of this with the negotiations with Parks Canada a few years ago – their geocaching ban was improved to a rather strict curtailment, and although geocaching is still permitted on Parks Canada land, they’ve made the rules a bit of a PITA. At least it’s still permitted… geocaching is already banned in Ontario parks. I assure you that the bomb squads won’t have to be called out too many times in too many places before cities take a hard-line approach.
You might think that a bomb-squad response is over the top… after all, you know it’s just a geocache, so why couldn’t they look it up? The answer to that is startlingly simple – it’s not their job to look it up, it’s their job to treat suspicious packages as potential bombs. It should be readily apparent that some nutbar could register a geocache and put a bomb on the spot. Is it likely? Of course not. It is, however, possible, and that’s why we have a bomb squad – to deal with those unlikely, but possible, scenarios.
So here, then, are things that I think geocachers collectively have to understand and how they should alter their behaviour to reduce the risk of a public backlash against geocaching.
Stop hiding cache containers on private property
This past week’s bomb scare involved a package that was hidden on private property, in violation of the guidelines for geocache hides. Even if one were to argue that it is a bridge on which people are encouraged to walk, permission should probably have been sought. In my own geocache hunts, I’ve had to stop at “No Trespass” markers, knowing full well that the container was “just over there”.
Surprisingly, there have been few actual complaints about caches on private property, but I am certain that is because when there is a complaint, it’s usually about a bigger issue, or the property owner finds the cache and simply removes it.
Here are examples of places that are private property and should not have a cache hidden without the owner’s permission: quarries, shopping mall parking lots, mass transit infrastructure, airports, people’s yards, farmland.
Stop hiding cache containers on public infrastructure
Directly related to the point above, and in direct contravention of the cache listing guidelines, attaching a cache to most public infrastructure is a bad idea. In particular this would apply to bridges, power equipment, rail infrastructure, and historic sites that attract tourists.
Often, such a hide would run afoul of private property guidelines, but more to the point, emergency services do not tend to react well to odd packages stuck on bridges, hydro towers, and so forth. It doesn’t matter if it’s got a geocache sticker on it, nobody is going to care and they’re going to blast the cache and make a stink about it. It will get media attention and it will reflect negatively on the hider and on geocaching and geocachers as a whole.
Stop hiding caches in dangerous places
One would think this would go without saying given how geocachers themselves seem to go ballistic if there’s a little pen-knife in a geocache. Nevertheless, I’ve seen a number of hides that are inherently dangerous and tend to violate the previous two discussion points as well. Here’s a list of hides that I have seen that are, in my opinion, dangerous:
Notice here that I’m not whinging about terrain. If the cache is a bit dangerous because you need to be an Edmund Hillary-level mountain climber to get it, that’s fine. That’s not the same as risking electrical shock to retrieve the thing.
Stop using marked ammunition containers
This is a pet peeve of mine. I absolutely concur that military surplus ammunition containers make absolutely wonderful cache containers. They’re all but impossible for animals to open. They’re proof against all kinds of horrible weather. They’re relatively indestructible. They’re relatively inexpensive for what you get. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that ammunition containers are marked with stencilled letters that describe the contents. Even if you paint over them, the letters usually have sufficient relief that the original contents of the can are still easily readable. So while all geocachers may well know that at some coordinates there is a perfectly safe ammunition can, a wandering member of the public sees a green box marked “AMMUNITION .50 CAL, MK II, C1, 4B 1T, 2000 UNITS”. They call the police, the police blow it up, etc. This does NOT endear geocaching or geocachers to the public.
This problem is also easy to fix. Stop using marked ammunition cans. Sand/file/scrape off the old markings and repaint the can. Most people wouldn’t know what an ammo can was if it bit them… assuming they can’t read the ammunition markings on the side.
Start using transparent / translucent containers
The corollary to the previous item is that I believe geocachers should use transparent or translucent containers when hides are anywhere that the public might reasonably stumble across the container. In essence, if the hide is in the core urban area, use a transparent or translucent container such as a Lock’n’Lock. This allows people who might be coming to blow up your geocache an opportunity to look inside it without opening it. They still might not look, and blow it up anyway, but I believe the chances of cache survival are greater if it looks inspectible.
The three caches that I have been involved with that were suspected of being bombs were: A camouflaged pipe in a park (!! – cache was blown up by the bomb squad), a marked ammo can about 1.5 km down a trail in the middle of nowhere slung in a stick tower topped by a garden gnome (container opened safely, contents and gnome returned to owner), and this most recent (!! metal can on a Transitway bridge blown up by bomb squad).
All it takes is a little extra thought when placing a cache. Is that really so much to ask?