Friday, August 14, 2009

Geocaching is High Tech, Low Cost Family Fun

Would you believe there are dozens of secret, hidden treasures right around your own hometown? Granted, some contain only the odd coin or tiny toy, but each is hidden to give treasure hunters, like my family, a little adventure right in our own backyards. It is called geocaching, and it has become a world-wide game of hide-and-seek for people of all ages. Using GPS coordinates found on, my family and I have found ourselves exploring parts of town we’ve never seen, and the sense of adventure we experience does not cost a dime!

A geocache is a waterproof container of any size that is filled with a paper log on which geocachers record their names and date of discovery. Some are so tiny as to only accommodate a tiny rolled paper log, but some are large enough to hold coins, toys, and other tiny items. It is always okay to take a piece of “swag” as long as something of equal value is left in its place. We are fond of leaving coupons for free sandwiches at a local restaurant, and my son delights in taking a marble or foreign coin in exchange. These ordinary items take on new significance when he has hiked and hunted to find them!

We started geocaching without the aid of a hand-held GPS unit, using only the Google Earth map provided for free on Using the hybrid map, which shows the actual image of the landscape combined with street names, we were able to locate our first cache near a local fire station. Each cache on the website contains instructions and clues, and this one led us off of the sidewalk, down into the bushes, and directly to a small, green plastic tube concealed between some bushes and a large rock. Contained inside was the log and a small pencil, and we marveled at the fact that we were nearly the 40th party to sign the log since it was placed over 5 years ago!

Geocaching has its rules. “Cache in, trash out” is the motto, and cachers are encouraged to leave no trace of their hunt, as well as remove debris and trash during their adventures. I have friends who compete to bring back the most trash on their caching trips, and they even take pictures of the bags of garbage, rusty car fenders, and cigarette butts they collect!

Another rule of geocaching is to hunt as discreetly as possible, so as not to draw the attention of the non-geocaching public, referred to as Muggles (from Harry Potter fame). On a recent geocaching adventure, my 7 year old son and I were exploring a quiet neighborhood park, looking for a well-hidden geocache. A man on a nearby park bench had not noticed us, so we felt comfortable grabbing the cache when I finally noticed it nestled in a bush. We excitedly huddled together to open the 4 oz-size metal can without drawing attention to ourselves. To our great surprise, lifting the lid caused a large spring-loaded cloth snake to leap up into the air. So much for being discreet! The joke was on us.

Some caches are more difficult to find than others. The website rates each one according to terrain and difficulty to find. Quick and easy finds are often in magnetic cases concealed in the metal bases of lamp posts. We have found them hanging from trees, stuck to the bottom of newspaper racks, and even uncovered one at the back of a fillet sink at the end of a certain pier at the coast. Some caches are identified as more difficult to find and hunters are advised to bring a TOTT (Tool of the Trade), which can range from a ladder to reach the top of a road sign, to a flashlight to see down a dark tunnel. So far, our family has stuck to the easier terrain, but we have still have lots of fun.

We recently purchased a kid-friendly handheld GPS unit for our son’s birthday, and with its 250,000 preprogrammed geocaches, we can amuse ourselves during car trips by checking to see if there are any nearby caches when we stop for gas or travel to another town to visit friends. Recently at a playdate in a neighboring town, we were excited to press the search button and find a hidden cache just 1000 feet from our friends’ driveway. The children huddled around the GPS unit and counted down as the device walked them directly to the hiding spot, which was under the community mailbox.

After we find a cache, we open it up to inspect the contents and locate the paper log. We sign our names and the date of discovery, carefully pack everything back into the container, take a picture for the scrapbook, and replace the cache for the next party of cachers. When we get home, we go to the website and officially record our find. To date, we have found nearly 20. We have been unable to find 7 that we searched for; a certain local shopping center’s fire pit supposedly conceals one we search for every time we go for ice cream!

Geocaching provided us with some local, low-cost adventure during a summer in which we opted to stay close to home and save money. Every cache provides that thrill of the hunt, and my kids love the secrecy element of caching. Even my three year old gets a kick out of scouting around park benches and doorframes! We are planning to place our own cache soon, and are still debating what prize to place inside for the First to Find (FTF). My son thinks a $100 bill would be great, but we are leaning toward a $25 gift card! Nevertheless, placing our own cache will be just one more way to expand the joy that geocaching has brought into our lives: a sense of community with other cachers, a greater knowledge of local landmarks, and some fun summer memories I hope my children will always treasure.

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