Friday, March 4, 2016

The motivations behind "First to Find" seekers in the geocaching game (with stories and personal musings about research along the way)

Even though the month of February has ended, I have decided to write a few more posts about geocaching, as there are several themes I haven't yet had the chance to explore.  For the non-geocachers out there, keep sending me your ideas of what else you'd like to see me write about next... I will get to them soon!  One interested reader said he'd like to see me write about "locations (neighbourhoods), food, people, pets, the description of your travels, music, photography" and "antiquing", as well as the new cubs at the zoo.  Looks like I've got work to do - stay tuned!

But in the meantime, for all you geocachers out there...

My "February challenge" of finding at least one per day went very well - I completed the challenge, and February just flew by!  I've decided to continue finding one per day but not go out of my way for it, and let the streak end wherever it naturally does.

On February 29th, there were geocaching "Events" held all over the world.  These are always fun to attend.  Instead of finding a container at the posted coordinates, you find a group of geocachers!  I attended one at 7am in a Tim Hortons close to home.  We were certainly the most lively group of people at that hour!

What is the draw to meeting other like-minded cachers?  Geocaching is often a solitary game.  Looking for containers in the woods, your local park, or in the heart of downtown is an activity that many others in our lives don't quite understand the thrill of.  So when we get the chance to interact with other strangers that share the same unique interest, there is a palpable sense of excitement.  We have our own terminology, our own collective history of shared experiences, our own stories of adventure with unique elements that only make sense to others in the subculture, expertise with materials like waterproof containers and types of camouflage materials... there is no one else you can really talk about these things with seriously and in detail.  Whatever our personal reasons are for seeking out "tupperware in the woods", geocachers who get together at events simply can't not talk about caching.

Introduction: My own FTF experiences

At the event I attended, I was asked what the reason was behind my seeking of "FTFs" (being "First to Find" on a new cache).  It got me thinking about the motivations for this particular aspect of the game, that is not officially recognized.

I remember my first FTF... I was a brand new geocacher.  I had spent some time quietly searching through geocaching message boards, trying to absorb as much of the subculture as I could before feeling confident enough to try the game out for myself.  But then again, that has always been me - quiet, careful, observant.  New social situations are something I find incredibly mysterious and uncomfortable, and I tend to gather as much "data" as I can through multiple experiences before I feel comfortable enough to join in.

So I knew about the FTF phenomenon, but thought it belonged to the "hardcore" cacher category, of which I did not consider myself to belong.  I was just a girl that liked the occasional thrill of hunting for something that was hidden in the woods.  I previously spent much of my free time exploring Toronto's ravines and secret places anyway, so this was just an added bonus.

A few weeks after finding my first several caches, I noticed a couple that had been published recently but that hadn't been found after over a day.  Intrigued, I set out for a nice walk in High Park, exploring parts of the park I was unfamiliar with and picking up a few caches along the day to the first unfound one.  I really didn't think I'd be first - "surely, some hardcore cacher would have gotten there by now!" I thought.  However, when I opened the container and saw a perfectly blank logbook (and a $1 coin as the FTF prize), I was very excited.  My first FTF.  Was I hooked?  Looking back, I'm not sure.

What was that excitement, exactly?  It wasn't really that I had "beaten" anyone else to it.  It was moreso that sense of discovery... I had been the very first to uncover a secret, to explore a new place in this precise manner, to find the treasure, if you will.  We as a human species seem to have this desire ingrained in us.  Why did people in days of old set off in ships across stormy oceans?  We were looking for something unknown.  Something, someWHERE, new.  That no one else had seen.  We are explorers.  Why else do we study the stars?  Why else do we examine atoms?  Why do we travel?

Around the same time, I also hid my very first geocache.  Would anyone come?  Would they find it?  What would they write about?  Would they enjoy the experience?  Would they appreciate the space that way I did?  I carefully wrote about the woods that I knew so well, and posted interesting photos of my discoveries in these woods.  I crafted a story about a space, my own personal space, and wanted to share that with others; wanted them to experience it in the same way I did.  It was more than just a patch of woods to me - it was a part of my personal story.  (See this post for further exploration of that topic).

The FTF seeker of my cache came later that evening.  The cache was published at almost 11pm, and the next morning, I had a fascinating "Found it" log in my email.  I read with incredulity and delight about my first finder's experience.  He had headed into the woods to look for my cache with a headlamp - a headlamp! - and made the find at 1:20am after circling around for a while and listening to the crickets in the deep darkness.  I called up my sister and excitedly read her the email.  Who was this crazy person that would go to such great lengths just to be first?

As it turns out, as I got more into the game, such activities started to appear less 'crazy' and more par for the course.  I myself have been known to hop into my car late in the evening to go look for a new cache (rarely in the dangerous woods, however!  More in urban, safer areas).  (I also ended up meeting this person at a few events since that time, and it was really fun to put a face to a username).

As I sought out more FTFs, it was not only the thrill of the blank logbook that drew me, but also the unexpected encounters.  Would there be another geocacher there?  It was almost like an impromptu opportunity to meet friends, or friendly strangers.

I think my very favourite FTF-chase was actually one where someone beat me to being first. I was on my way home from work on public transportation, and recovering from a cold.  Everything in me wanted to go to bed and sleep.  I noticed that a new cache had been published in a ravine that was close to home, and somehow this was enough motivation to forego my bed.  As soon as I got home, I hopped into my car and drove off.

Into the woods I went, armed with my GPS.  I wandered through winding trails, walked around urban waterfalls, and finally found a trail that appeared to lead to the cache location.  I was alone in the woods, or so I thought.  I saw someone in the distance with his back turned.  I held back for a bit, unsure if I should approach.  Soon the individual turned around, and we both took a few seconds to realize that we knew each other - it was the 'crazy' person with a headlamp that had been FTF on my first cache!  And now here we were together, a very unexpected encounter with a familiar face in the middle of nowhere.  He had already found the container, and graciously offered to share the FTF claim, but I wasn't interested - a true FTF, for me, is if I am the first to lay eyes on the container.  However, I didn't care in the slightest - as I wrote in my log, I'll take a fun surprise encounter with a fellow cacher over an FTF, any day!  We ended up crossing a creek together in order to go search for another cache that was nearby, and then kept each other company on the walk out of the woods, and I even drove him to the closest public transit stop.

A brief summary of a survey of FTF motivations: Methods

I am a researcher at heart.  Having spent over 12 years in university settings collecting a Bachelors and two Masters degrees, I feel a little lost suddenly not having anything to research, analyze, and write about.  That was the reason I initially created this blog in the first place - a way to continue writing, and explore this creative talent of mine in different forms. Ever dichotomous, I am drawn by necessity of spirit to both qualitative/emotional writing as well as analytic, academic writing.  And so I of course couldn't resist the opportunity to conduct my own mini research project.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a data-laden research project regarding the motivations of geocachers.  This post of mine got over 200 views, so I assume it is a topic that geocachers are naturally interested in.  Self-discovery and self-understanding seems to be something we are all drawn to in one way or another.  While the above research study collected an impressive amount of data, it did little in the way of true in-depth analysis.  Having data is one thing; uncovering the story your data is telling you is quite another.

Recently, I posted an open-ended question to some of my geocaching Facebook groups (mostly Ontario-based), and asked what they feel their motivations are for seeking FTFs.  I collected 21 responses and analyzed these responses for common themes, a method I have used before for my own Masters thesis and that the above-mentioned researchers also used as their initial starting point.  It's common to make up a questionnaire from your own perceptions of what is important to ask, but it's a bit more scientifically valid to first probe what a large group of people feel are the important themes, and design your questions around that.  The preliminary results I got were as follows:

Number of times each theme was mentioned by 21 respondents:
Spontaneous opportunity to cache (3)
To meet other cachers (8)
To look for something unknown/original hide (4)
The challenge/competition aspect (9)
Adrenaline rush to be first/thrill/excitement (5)
Love when an accidental one happens (1)

No other clear themes were mentioned by these first respondents.  I did have to 'interpret' some statements by a few individuals who didn't use the exact wording above, but who's responses nevertheless seemed to clearly fit into one of the already mentioned categories.  I used the responses to create the questions in my short quiz, which asked for gender, age, # of FTFs, one main motivation for seeking FTFs, all motivations for seeking FTFs, and rating of each motivation on a 7 point scale.

The method of first collecting open-ended responses and then analyzing them for common themes is frequently used in the social sciences, and seems to have social validity in this case as well.  One survey-taker commented:   "Great survey. The questions are spot on."  Another factor that is evidence that the questions were socially valid was the fact that only 6/100 people felt the need to add an "other" category to the question regarding their one main motivation for seeking FTFs.

At the time of writing, 130 people had taken the survey in less than 48 hours; however, I was only able to analyze the data of the first 100 people, as that is all the free version allows me to see.  (If anyone is for some reason intensely interested in paying $30CAD for a month of access to see ALL the data, by all means you are welcome to!)  If you would like to take the survey and add to the data pool that someone else may one day eventually use, you can do so here: Click Link.


I like visual representations of data and find them helpful, so I have taken screenshots of the answers to each of the 6 questions.  These first three are the descriptive data of the first 100 people to take the questionnaire:

58% of people were in the 35-54 range. Even though many individuals say they only have the opportunity to seek FTFs because they are retired, or that they DON'T seek FTFs because they have jobs, it appears that a significant number of geocachers in the non-retired age ranges still nevertheless find ways to seek FTFs.

55% males and 44% females.  I'm not sure if I have a large enough sample size to say that this is representative, however, so take the gender differences with the necessary grain of salt.  2 individuals elected to leave this question blank, despite the 'prefer to specify' option.  One person did select this option and wrote "caching team", but since this was intended to find out personal feelings towards FTFs I was concerned that someone trying to respond for two people at once would give inaccurate results ("It's going to skew your data!" J said to me teasingly when I showed her), so I opted to remove this data from the main results like a good researcher, while keeping any of their valuable written comments.

36% of people had 0-19 FTFs; 21% had 20-59; and 42% had 60+.  I found it interesting that, according to this data, people either have a very modest amount of FTFs (0-19) or a really large amount (60+).

These next three images show their answers to questions.  I've made some notes with further explanations of data under each image; I'll discuss/interpret the data further at the end.
This is, perhaps, the most interesting result.  When given a forced choice, 58% of people said their main reason for geocaching was to experience an adrenaline rush or a sense of excitement.  Only 7% said their main reason was to compete with other geocachers. 3% said it was to meet other cachers, and 8% said it was to look for something that no one has seen before.  A modest amount (17%) said it was for a spontaneous opportunity to go caching.  6 people used the "other" category to give me their own main reason: if it just happens to occur; can no longer get them due to having inside knowledge of when they will be published; for statistical reasons; to give new excitement to the game; opportunity to give unbiased feedback on location and placement; FTF prizes).  One person apparently just couldn't decide and left the question blank!

87% of people chose the adrenaline rush as at least one reason they seek FTFs.  Meeting other cachers was only chosen as a reason by 32% of individuals, which is still about a third.  The "other" responses that were given were as follows: Complete an FTF calendar/keep streak going (x4); seeing a cache as owner intended (x2) (could fall into something unknown); to experience fun stories that can be re-told at gatherings (could fall into meeting other cachers) (x1); FTF prizes (x1); to get themselves out of the house (x1) (could fall into spontaneous opportunity); nice to get but they don't go out of their way (x1).

Individuals were asked to rate how strongly they felt about each of the motivations, and their data was averaged.  It seems that people feel the most strongly about the adrenaline rush/thrill, but that looking for something unknown, the spontaneous opportunity to cache, and experiencing a challenge with other cachers are also moderate motivators. 26% of people rated meeting other geocachers as a 5-7 on the scale, which matches the rough third of geocachers that reported it as a motivation at all in the previous question.  I will say that I am not very familiar with in-depth interpretations of "Likert" type data, so if there's anyone out there that wants this data for further analysis, send me a message!  I strongly believe in the free sharing of data, regardless of the field.


Disclaimer:  The following discussion of the results is my best attempt to uncover the story that the data is telling, by looking at averages and patterns.  It is by no means an attempt to say that all FTF-seekers fall into this story; there are many people who do it for different reasons than the majority.  This is what quantitative research does - it looks for majority trends and significant patterns, while recognizing that those that fall outside these patterns have valid stories and truths as well... spin-off research projects are often created from these "outliers"!  So, if you're one of the outliers and find these interpretations don't apply to you, fear not - perhaps one day someone else will continue this preliminary research and uncover further patterns that you feel you better fit into!

While many people anecdotally report that one of their main reasons for seeking FTFs is to encounter other geocachers, and non-FTF seekers seem to believe that the FTF-ers do it for competition, the data tells a different story.  A significant number of people (87%) seem to race to be first to experience a sense of thrill or excitement during the drive or hike to the cache, and anecdotally report not minding so much if someone gets there before them, because it is the race that motivates them.  Once you arrive and open the logbook to see if you're first, the thrill is over.

There seems to be about a third of geocachers that expressly report running into other geocachers as one of their main reasons for racing to get to a cache first.  This desire for spontaneous human encounters with other people that share the same interest is intriguing.  Surely it would be easier to message a random geocacher and plan an actual date to meet each other - why is the spontaneous encounter so much more enticing for this third of cachers?  Perhaps it lies in the motivations that draw people to geocache in the first place.  That desire to find something unexpected, hidden, unknown doesn't just apply to containers in the woods, perhaps it applies to people, too.
# of FTFs by gender (click for larger version)

The website allows for some comparisons of data between questions, and I did notice some interesting things.  Individuals who have 40+ FTFs are more likely to be male (74%).  (Again, I'm not sure I have a large enough sample size to be representative). 

Gender differences in those who selected
adrenaline rush/thrill/excitement as their one main reason

Another interesting thing was that there were no gender differences between males and females when it came to who selected the adrenaline rush as the one main reason for their FTF seeking.

There were no real age differences that I could tell from my sample - people of all ages were equally likely to have any number of FTFs as well as seek them for the thrill/excitement/adrenaline rush reason.  100 people was too small a sample size to make comments about any of the differences in age, gender, or # of FTFs for any of the other reasons.


I'd like to thank everyone that participated in my questionnaire - interesting and meaningful data/research is not possible without volunteers like you!  The fact that so many people took the survey in such a short amount of time was fascinating in and of itself.  We all engage in a variety of unique behaviours each and every day, and many of them can be incomprehensible to the people around us.  

One example of this is the motivation that causes many geocachers to drop what they are in the middle of doing when they get an email of a newly published cache, hop into their car, and drive off - sometimes to a different city!  It seems bizarre to those around us that are not geocachers.

Perhaps this mini-research project of mine will help shed some light on the nature of this behaviour, and the next time someone stares at you funny when you tell them about your FTF-seeking, you can direct them to this entry.  For what the data shows clearly is that for the large majority of FTF seekers, the sense of thrill, excitement, and the adrenaline rush are the strongest motivators.  These are common human experiences that many people can relate to.  Why do we get worked up over watching our favourite sports team?  Why do we play board games with each other?  Why do we engage in extreme sports like bungee jumping?  Why do we travel to new countries, try a new recipe, meet a new friend, perform art on stage in front of thousands?

There are obviously dozens of different components to all of these things, but one common thread that runs through much of human behaviour is that desire for newness, a sense of thrill, excitement, or even that adrenaline rush.  This is something people can relate to.  So the next time someone looks at you strangely when you tell them you hopped into your car at 11pm at night, in your pajamas, and drove for half an hour to go look for a plastic container hidden in the woods with a headlamp, you can reassure them that you are just seeking an adrenaline rush in the same way that they themselves probably seek in their own unique way, and find a bond in your common human experience.