In 2013 I wrote some blog entries on the subject of whether a blind person could geocache (see Can a blind person geocache, A must-have app for blind geocachers, Can a blind person geocache – part 2 and Washknight walks 1). Now, a year later, I thought I would revisit the question to see what I have learnt in the last twelve months.
First off let’s be clear about what is meant by the term ‘blind’, as it isn’t as straightforward as you might think. If you haven’t had cause to consider the matter before then you could be forgiven for believing that all blind people are completely without sight. Initially is seems like a very reasonable assumption but in reality it simply isn’t the case. Of course, there are people who have no vision at all but a large percentage of people who are “legally blind” still have some useable sight. The level of residual vision a person has varies greatly and can take a number of forms. These can include light perception, shape recognition, movement detection or having only central or peripheral vision. I describe my level of sight as being able to see shapes and detect movement. I have almost no colour vision and cannot see facial features, no matter how close I get. I cannot read print, not even large print, cannot make out anything on a smartphone, tablet or pc screen and these days spend more and more time relying on my other senses to get by day to day. I walk using a long white cane which keeps me from coming to harm most of the time out on the streets but cannot navigate on my own without help of another person or by using clever technology. And yes… I am ‘blind’, well and truly beyond the threshold of what society considers ‘severely visually impaired’ which is what they call it these days, although I personally still prefer the term ‘blind’.
Understanding my own level of sight loss might help provide some context for my answers to the question, ‘Can a blind person geocache?’ I can’t truly consider the situation of someone who has no sight at all and their ability to cache but in all honesty I think it would be very difficult, and most likely require an awful lot of assistance from both technology and other people. The answer to the question is still ‘yes’, and when it comes to my situation whilst there have been challenges and obstacles, we have worked out ways of overcoming them and now geocaching is very much a part of our family life which is evident by us having found nearly 700 geocaches, at time of writing, since we started in June 2013.
The question actually needs to be broken down into two more distinct ones. Firstly can a blind person take an active part in geocaching with the help of sighted assistance and secondly can they cache on their own. The answer to both questions is ‘yes’ but in the case of solo geocaching there are a lot more caveats that go along with that answer. When you geocache alone as a blind person you need to consider not only how you would find the actual cache, but also how you would travel to the location where it is hidden and how you are going to sign the log if you find it. Urban geocaching would probably be your only realistic option if you were solo caching purely because streets are laid out in a clearly navigable way and with the assistance of walking sat nav software you could find your way to the location of the hide. Out in the countryside it is a lot harder for a blind person simply to work out where they are and how to get from A to B. I have solo cached 3 times and in all cases I was successful in finding the geocaches but I can tell you that it takes a lot of planning… an awful lot of planning before you even step out of the door.
In order to demonstrate how a blind person can geocache it would probably be helpful if I explain how our family goes about tackling a geocaching adventure. For those that have not read my blog before, my family consists of my partner Sharlene and our 10 year old son Sam.
First off there is the planning. You would think that, as the sighted person, it would be Sharlene that would plan the geocaching adventures that we take on, but you would be wrong. I choose the caches, try and work out the walking routes between them and figure out where we are going to park the car. I have a desktop CCTV magnifier that allows me to zoom the screen of my iPhone so that map details can be blown up as big as my head onto a 19” inch monitor. This allows me to spend hours studying maps of geocaches and trying to work out how to get from one to another. It is still quite a difficult process for me and if my eyes weren’t already buggered before I started sitting with my face 6 inches from a large screen for hours on end then they certainly are now as a result. I don’t see colours hardly at all and have to use the magnifier in a mode that converts everything to either black or white so some of the map details are lost to me. This can present problems sometimes especially with rivers being almost entirely invisible to me, but I generally get by. My iPhone also talks to me thanks to the Voiceover function which is built into most modern Apple devices. This allows me to read cache descriptions and logs and hints which all helps when planning our caching days out. My PC also talks to me using a program called JAWS and whilst it is not perfect I can use it to do most things I need to on the computer. So the process of choosing the caches is done using the standard geocaching app on the iPhone along with other general mapping apps such as OS Map Finder which allows me to examine the more detailed Ordinance Survey maps.
After I have chosen a group of geocaches for us to do I then have to get the coordinates into a different app so that I can actually track the caches when we are out and about. Unfortunately the geocaching app has a couple of flaws when it comes to navigating to the cache for a blind person and so I use a different app, called Ariadne GPS, that gives me clear spoken announcements of the distance and direction to a cache. It does this by referencing my current GPS position against the coordinates of the geocache which I have to load into it. It will then instruct me using the clock face as to the location. For example it might say that the cache is 36 metres at 10 o’clock. On the basis that 12 o’clock is always directly in front of me, 10 would be approximately 60 degrees to the left. I can get the coordinates of the geocaches into Ariadne GPS in a number of ways. First I can just enter them manually which is a massive pain in the arse so I don’t do it. Secondly I can open the cache in the geocaching app, then use the feature to view the cache on geocaching.com which it will do in safari the Apple browser, then I can use the gpx download link on the cache page to transfer the coordinates to my phone. When I do this it asks me which app I want to open the gpx file in and I choose Ariadne GPS whereupon it imports the coordinates as a waypoint that I will be able to use later when out searching for the cache. This is fine for one-off caches but can get a bit tedious if we are intending to try for a whole series. My other option is to use a pocket query to import a large number of caches into Ariadne GPS in one go. I can configure the query on the geocaching website, selecting the criteria I want, and then produce a gpx file with all the geocaches in. When we do a series I will choose one of the caches that looks to be near the centre and then tell the query to find an amount, spreading outwards from that cache, so if the series consisted of 20 geocaches, I might tell the query to find the nearest 40 caches to the centrally located one just to make sure I get all the ones in the series. I then get this pocket query emailed to me and I can dropbox it to my iPhone and from there, open the file and export it to Ariadne GPS and all the caches will be ready for me in a matter of minutes. I have a pocket query that runs automatically every week that includes the closest 500 unfound caches to my home. I import this into Ariadne GPS every week so that if we are out and about locally and fancy a bit of unplanned caching, I will have them loaded and ready to go.
Next, there is Sharlene to consider. I tend to email her a list of the GC codes and she stores them in c:geo which is the app she uses on her Samsung Galaxy Ace Android phone. I can also send gpx files to her phone by copying them onto her memory card if we are doing very large loops but she is pretty speedy at adding them and so a list of the GC codes tends to work best for her. Sam doesn’t have a GPS or smartphone, yet, so that is one less device that I need to worry about.
Finally I work out some convenient parking coordinates and then I enter them into a text file and save it onto a USB thumb drive. When we go to the car, Sharlene can put this pen drive into the car’s USB socket and import the file containing the parking coordinates into the car’s sat nav system. When done all the imported coordinates appear as POIs (points of interest) within the system and Shar can navigate to them in the normal way. This generally works brilliantly except when for some reason I get the coordinates wrong either by incorrectly converting them or by making typing errors when adding them into the text file wrong. Then we go on a magical mystery tour to god knows where. When dealing with decimal coordinates it is important to remember that north of the equator is represented as a positive number and south as a negative one. Likewise east of the Prime meridian is positive and west is negative. If you accidentally leave off the minus sign from the Longitude coordinate then you can be travelling along way from where you want to go. To be fair to me I have only done this once, and it was the very first time that I used this method to transfer coordinates to the car. Luckily I realised my error when the sat nav told us our destination was over 50 miles away when I was sure it was only supposed to be a couple of miles down the road.
In addition to the above we do all the normal planning and preparation for a geocaching adventure that anyone else would do. Making sure we have snacks, water, pens, essential first aid items, tweezers, etc.
Once we are out on the trail I use Ariadne GPS to guide me to the cache and Sharlene uses C:GEO on her android phone. We have a number of ways of walking depending on the environment and we have learnt what works best in each case. If the paths are wide and easy then I can walk with Sharlene or Sam, with my cane in my left hand and holding their hand with my right. This allows them to guide me around obstacles if needed. If it is really easy going then I can walk on my own using my cane to keep me safe. If the paths are narrower then we will resort to single file where I can use a combination of my ability to recognize people sized shapes in front of me if the light is right and the sound that they make as they walk, to follow in their steps. If the trail goes off into the woods and more caution is required then we have developed a system whereby Sharlene puts her hand behind her back and I hold it and walk directly behind her. This does require me to shorten my stride a bit so I don’t keep treading on her heels but this allows us to still move quite smoothly keeping me safe. Sharlene will call back any helpful warnings of particularly uneven ground, or things to step over or duck under. It would be a perfect world if she was the same height as me because as she is 10 inches shorter, she doesn’t always notice the branches that will be a problem to me. If we go wandering through open fields then I also walk on my own using the sounds the others make to keep me in the group and the cane to keep me from harm. When we get close to the cache and it is time to search then we often split up and get on with it. Sharlene will warn me of any real dangers such as large ditches or rivers but otherwise she trusts me to be safe. I spend quite a bit of time getting up close and personal with nature and tangled in tree limbs and bushes but despite my sight loss I still manage to find a good share of the caches. I don’t have a fear about getting my hands dirty and that helps. I will stick my hands into tree hollows and in amongst root balls where Shar and Sam might not. Sure I get a few scratches and stings and insect bites but I see that as all part of the fun.
I can use the geocaching app to read the hints and logs on my iPhone if we have a problem finding caches so am pretty much on a par with the abilities of sighted people when out in the field. I can’t see photos attached to logs which is a pain but then Shar can look at those if we need to. As I mentioned I have no fear when it comes to getting amongst it and this is often when I feel at my most useful as part of our little team. Often Shar won’t want to venture in if the stingers are too bad or if it looks like it could be home to a ‘million’ spiders and so she will guide me by talking to me as I venture into places she won’t go. I am also the tallest of our group so that comes in handy too. With care and patience, despite my sight loss I can take a very active part in finding the cache. Whilst I do have enough sight to maybe see the big tree that we are heading for, when it comes to actually searching that tree, it is all about hands on and I don’t use my vision at all. Sometimes I realise I even have my eyes closed as I am searching every gnarly knot and cranny of an ivy covered tree.
Once we have the cache in hand Sharlene signs the log, Sam sifts through the swag and I take the opportunity to snap a picture or two. Yes I know what you are thinking… the blind man takes the photos? If you can hold a camera straight and level then you can take a picture. I take a lot and quite a few are average at best but sometimes I get some real corkers. I am no David Bailey but I think it is important that we remember our geocaching adventures in the future and whilst they might not help me remember, sighted people will appreciate them. I also make any notes of memorable things that have happened on the way to the cache or of any trackables dropped off or picked up so that I can be accurate when I write the logs and my blog entries later.
Once back at home there are logs to write. Unlike a lot of geocaches, I actually like this part a lot as I get the chance to recount our adventures for others to read. Quite often I will write a more extensive blog entry to go along with the logs too, but if you are reading this then I guess you may have already read one or two of those. If not, why not? Doing the logs and blogs is made perfectly simple with the aid of the JAWS program I mentioned earlier. This runs on my PC and speaks most of what is on the screen which allows me to use the geocaching.com website to submit logs like any other geocacher. My blog is hosted on wordpress.com which is pretty accessible when it comes to blogging sites so I have no problem with that either. Any photos we have taken get transferred to the PC and I take the time to go through them with Sharlene and Sam and we rename the files with short descriptions telling me what is in the photo so I can refer back to them or include them in my blog or logs later.
So that is the process of geocaching for our family and I have to say that I feel as included in the hobby as Shar or Sam do. I am by no means along for the ride, having my own unique and useful talents to bring to the group and whilst sometimes my sight loss is an annoyance when out caching, 99% of the time I love every cache we go for… well maybe not those pesky ones that we have to log as a DNF (Did Not Find).
Why not check out my Ten Tips for Blind Geocachers.