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Wall Street Journal / Tech

The App That Turns Everyday Life Into a Treasure Hunt

This global hunt for hidden rewards puts a digital gloss on the sort of suspenseful search glorified in “The Goonies” and other films of summers past.

You learn a lot about yourself while pressed and sliding against the cold cement wall of a Staten Island, N.Y., storm drain. First, that you should have spent more on so-called “waterproof” boots. Second, that you’re not that thrilled about venturing into dark storm drains with nothing but your iPhone’s soft blue beam to light the way (you should have invested a little in flashlights, too). Still, as Mark Twain wrote, “There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.”

It’s never too late. With the simple technology behind geocaching, people like me who—inspired by movies like “The Goonies”—spent their childhood summers hoping for just such an adventure can become real-life Goonies for an afternoon.

Billed as “the world’s largest treasure hunt,” geocaching launched soon after the U.S. military gave the public better access to its Global Positioning System in May of 2000. That month Dave Ulmer hid a black bucket of treasure near his home in Beavercreek, Ore., and posted its waypoint online. People soon tracked it down using GPS devices and were inspired to create and share their own hunts. You can now discover more than 3 million caches hidden world-wide by following coordinates and clues on the Geocaching app (geocaching.com). The easiest ones are magnetically affixed to city light poles you may pass on a morning commute. Others might be clipped to the side of a mountain, floating in a lake or require dozens of destinations and puzzles to unearth.

Unfortunately, the first hunt that retired NYPD detective Jeremy Jacobowitz and I undertake is a bust. We’re ill-equipped, so we carefully extricate ourselves from the drain pipe and return to his Jeep to plan our next exploit. Mr. Jacobowitz has found more than 8,000 caches throughout the globe in the last decade (and precariously hidden more than 250 of his own). He knows it’s not worth it to waste a day on one.

“Some of the easiest caches I just can’t find,” he said, “and the hard ones I’ll spot right away. That’s why I’ll go with a couple people so we have more sets of eyes.”

We scan the Geocaching app, which is free for all but $30 a year if you want to unlock more challenging hunts. Each is ranked one to five in difficulty and navigability of terrain. We drive a few miles to one named “End of Main Creek”—ranked 2.5 and 3 respectively. Another storm drain, not as deep and dark, reveals a red box strung to a ladder leading up to a manhole. It does not house the Holy Grail, only some trinkets a child might get for being good at the doctor and a log book we sign to prove we found it. It’s about the journey, not the ultimate prize, though seemingly impossible caches might earn you a custom token you can tally in your app profile and show off when grabbing beers with fellow hunters.

“I geocache to see where it brings me,” said Mr. Jacobowitz. The boxes he hides often point people toward street art or beautiful views they might otherwise miss.

Throughout the day we find a dozen more caches all over the island, tucked under a bridge, hidden in the fender of a car rusting in the woods, deep in the nook of a tree, among scattered stones. Locating each cache is as thrilling as failing to find others is frustrating. We scoured one beach for nearly half an hour only to come up empty. But a favorite of mine was right out in the open. Upon investigation, what looked like a normal electrical box on the side of a building turned out to be a fake. We slid up a front panel to reveal a key.

Want to know what was inside? You’ll have to find it yourself.

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