A few months ago Chrysalis and I had the pleasure of hunting down a really nice nighttime-only cache in Virginia. We had a wonderful time, and the idea inspired us to place a couple night caches in St. Mary’s County. We learned quite a bit in the process of designing and placing the caches. Consider the following suggestions and observations when you design and place your own night cache.
For the readers who haven’t had the pleasure of finding a night cache yet, a basic description is in order. Simply put, a night cache is any cache designed to be hunted purely at night. Most night caches involve reflectors, small lights, or other clues only visible in the dark or by reflected light. Many could be hunted in the daytime but only with extreme difficulty. Of course, you can always attack any cache at night for a novel experience: Lakemaster wrote a great article about a particular night caching experience. But in this article, we’re describing caches designed specifically for night hunting.
How about some examples of night caches? Well, the one that kicked it off for us was the Cat Eyes Night Cache in Harrisonburg, VA. As a basic description, you GPS-navigate to a designated parking area, then use a flashlight and look in a certain direction for a reflective marker, and start walking. The dots take you to the cache. This is a very basic night cache, but very effective: it’s a combination of cool and spooky to walk around like this at night, in a safe park, knowing you can’t see very far, listening to the sounds of the surrounding forest, smelling the night air, wondering who or what might be watching in silence…
For starters, what about supplies?
At the most basic level, night caches frequently use reflectors. There are a few types, but most common is the “Fire Tacks” or “Cat Eyes” type of marker – basically a thumbtack with a reflective surface. One benefit is the minimal damage to a tree – it’s only a thumbtack and sticks in the bark without making a big hole. You can also use reflective tape or twist-ties with a reflective surface.
Where can you get them? All of these products are commonly available at hunting supply stores – used by hunters to mark a trail in and out of an area for nighttime hunting. I found that such supplies are NOT readily available at places you might expect to find them, however, like Dicks Sporting Goods – but at least one local WalMart now carries these reflectors in the hunting goods section.
I also found a useful reflective tape material at Lowes, in both red and white. One nice thing about it was the frangible, fragile nature of the tape and the really, really good glue – once it’s attached, it won’t be coming off, at least in one piece. It would be VERY hard to remove without a scraper and some determined effort. On the other hand, it cracks easily and doesn’t conform well to anything other than a fairly flat and smooth surface.
When you to place the cache, bring a hammer or mallet. Bark can be surprisingly dense.
Try for trees with thin bark, like beech or hickory trees – the tacks will never come out of those. Oaks have thick, chippable bark. Pines have thick but soft bark which doesn’t hold tacks well. Watch out for loose bark. I had to replace several dots on Night Writing in the first month, because I put the tacks into what I thought was solid bark, which quickly chipped off because of the new tack hole.
Consider the Terrain
Beyond the supplies, planning the cache is the whole problem. Where should it go? How should it be arranged? What possible safety concerns are there? Without further ado, here’s a list of considerations for a night cache.
Find a suitable location. Of course. But what looks great in the daytime may NOT be suitable at night. Obviously the big difference is the visibility of the local area using only a flashlight. Plan your cache placement and intended approach route carefully. Avoid holes, especially underneath leaves. Look for poorly-visible trip hazards. Avoid low-hanging branches: a torn cornea is no fun. At night it would be easy to miss a hole or root and hurt an ankle. And pay attention some distance left and right of the intended course – people don’t always do what you expect… admit it – how many times have you deliberately taken the alternate route from what the listing recommends? Stuff tends to surprise us at night, so don’t lead the cache seeker down a route that will walk through obvious hazards.
Be careful to adequately describe the cache conditions in the cache listing, especially terrain issues. It’s hard to get the feel of a place at night by flashlight, so it’s easy to miss stuff. Unless you want a high terrain difficulty, don’t let the seeker be surprised by something. And up the terrain difficulty by at least one point, if not more, to reflect the nighttime issues.
Remember that a flashlight is a point source of light, and it’s easy to not see something you’re approaching at eye level if you’re carrying the light a bit low (like most people tend to do). But alternately, remember that most reflectors are best at “retro-reflecting” – sending the light directly back its path. A reflector may not be visible as far as you’d like if you mount it high on a tree.
Consider your reflector placements with respect to nearby electric lighting. A reflector may disappear into the glare of a sodium vapor light a mile away, if it’s in the same direction.
What About Visibility?
Consider how visible your markers will be to daytime visitors. Don’t make it easy to muggle. The reflective dots can look a lot like a typical lichen on a beech tree bark, but they stand out clearly on a dark pine bark.
Consider how visible your markers will be to nighttime muggles. Will people be in the area at night with a light source nearby, such as in cars? We had to consider visibility to a vehicle being driven thru both night caches. Would it attract unwanted attention? Would that attention lead to muggled markers? Even if you’re placing a night cache in a fairly populated area with a lot of traffic, note that most reflectors only work from specific angles, and you can chose orientations that will hide the marker from most traffic. Remember, a reflector is designed to attract attention – a single reflector in a dark area will stand out like a sore thumb and a reflector will draw a lot more curiosity than a similarly sized object in the daytime.
Depending on how you arrange your course, you may or may not want people to see more than one reflector at a time. In Night Writing, we carefully arranged the course so you could only see one reflector from any given position – so there would be no shortcutting, and to make sure people found all the dots in the right order. On the Cat’s Eyes cache in VA, you could see several dots ahead; the trail was “overmarked” to make it easy to follow – but we chose not to do that because each dot had a specific meaning. On the other hand, in The Sneakier, I deliberately left some misleading dots visible – so anyone who didn’t follow the explicit instructions would fail. However you chose to arrange your cache, remember that on a good dark and clear night, with a good flashlight, it may be possible to clearly see a single reflective dot a few hundred feet away. Don’t allow this to mislead your seekers, unless this is your intention.
Even if it is visible with a flashlight, a reflector may NOT be visible from a car. Again, remember that reflectors are largely dependent on direct illumination and direct reflection. Anything not directly in the beam probably won’t show up to a car driver. This characteristic can be good or bad, depending on how you use it.
How about stealth? One peculiar visibility consideration is whether you want someone to be able to find it in the daytime. One of our night caches could be found in the daytime with not too much effort, but the other would be practically impossible – a couple reflectors are so far away that it’s difficult to see even at night with a flashlight. This is by design – and it’s so hard to find in the daytime that I’ve had trouble just checking the marker placements. (Along those lines, use your GPS to waypoint all the marker placements. It will really help later when you need to service the cache by day.)
What about the final cache location? Actually getting to the cache is the real fun of a night cache, so don’t spoil the experience by hiding a micro that would be well-nigh impossible to find even in the daytime. Consider a fairly easy-to-find container, possibly marked with a reflector that daytime muggles wouldn’t see but which is easy to find at night. Of course, if you’re determined to be devious, it’s up to you… but remember to try looking for the cache yourself at night – you’d be surprised how hard it is to find even a simple cache if you’ve never looked for one at night with a flashlight. We really do rely on our peripheral vision, and other 3-D depth cues, and at night you really can only see what you’re pointing the flashlight directly at, and really you can only see that in 2-D because of the single-point light source. So mentally upgrade the container difficulty a couple notches for the night cache.
Security Guards and other Fun
Muggles at night can be a real issue. What would someone say if they saw a group of people wandering around with flashlights near your cache? This is really no different than any other cache, with the following exception: People with flashlights at night are infinitely more suspicious than the same people in the same place in the daytime. So consider your cache placement in light of security issues. For example, the back of a strip mall or apartment complex is probably NOT the place for a night cache, even if they’re not officially off-limits at night. Don’t set your cache seekers up for an unpleasant encounter with a suspicious policeman or security guard. Remember, at night that GPS may look more like a gun to a nervous officer, especially the way we usually hold it.
Location, Location, Location
Carefully consider the available times for the cache location. Most parks are officially closed at night. The Cats Eyes cache in VA was officially a dawn-to-sundown park – if you’re following the park rules, that only leaves you about a half-hour window where it’s dark enough to see the reflectors, before the park closes. We approached at night from an alternate parking area with no signs posted about night hours. But a cache approver might hesitate to approve a cache with an instruction like “The park closes at sundown, so you’ll have to go right before dark”, KNOWING that MOST folks would end up officially trespassing to get the cache well after dark.
Pay careful attention to the cache exit strategy. This is usually easy in the day – but not at night where you can’t see more than 30 feet. What’s the “way out” – have you left them somewhere dangerous or difficult to exit? If the endpoint is deep in the woods, do you need to provide markers to help them get out? Will those markers potentially mislead them on the way IN? Consider using only red markers to exit, for example, and mention that in the listing. For example, the Cat’s Eyes cache in VA was a relatively long way from the recommended parking lot, and if we hadn’t actually parked about 20 ft from the cache (purely by chance) we would have had to backtrack a long way in the dark with no guidance other than the GPS trail, and no assurance we wouldn’t walk into a hole or tree branch. So design your night caches with the exit in mind.
Do several daytime and nighttime walk-throughs after you’ve placed the markers. You may be surprised by what you find. Pay careful attention to possible pitfalls – will someone end up somewhere you didn’t intend? Will markers be visible from the wrong angle? Are there markers or other reflective stuff YOU didn’t place, that might mislead? Is there an unexpected physical hazard nearby? If someone stands on the “wrong” side of a marker they’ve reached, will the next marker be obscured by a tree or branch? (In other words, will a few feet of offset ruin your plans?)
Plan for Success
Plan the cache for a successful hunt. By this, I mean plan the cache and the approach and the puzzle (if you have one) so that it can all be done in one pass. A night caching expedition is a somewhat exclusive hunt – you won’t go caching and happen to pass by a night cache and decide “Let’s try it.” You usually have to plan ahead to go after a specific night cache. After the initial rush of local cachers, MOST folks who hit it will be visitors, and they will probably only get ONE shot at it because of the specific time requirement. So make it manageable in one visit, IF they follow the instructions. And make sure the instructions cover what they really need. For example, if it’s a puzzle, make sure it’s clear in the instructions that the puzzle MUST be solved first to find the cache. Don’t lead someone out into the woods at night only to frustrate them with realizing they are missing a critical bit of data back home on their computer – it’s likely they won’t come back.
Finally, enjoy yourself. As much fun as it can be to hunt down a night cache, it’s even more fun to design and place and check it. You get to spend a few hours out in the dark, listening to the sounds of the night.
See you on the trails!