Ask your children if they want to go outdoors for a hike, and you'll likely hear moans of protest as they turn back to their screens. Invite them on a high-tech treasure hunt for a "geocache," (pronounced geo-cash) and they'll start peppering you with questions as they put on their shoes and head for the door.
The outdoor adventure game of geocaching combines cool technology with the thrill of finding a hidden box of mystery prizes – no wonder kids find it irresistible. More advanced versions of the game include multi-step puzzles, and trackable traveling objects such as geocoins and travel bugs, so there are plenty of new challenges to keep kids interested in future outings.
Geocaching simply refers to finding hidden containers or objects by using a handheld global positioning system (GPS) device. There are more than 627,000 registered geocaches hidden around the world, and newcomers to the game are usually surprised by how many caches are located in their own regions.
Geocaching with kids can range from a simple outing that includes an easy-to-find cache, to multi-step lessons in GPS technology, geography, and map-reading. Many caches are educational in nature (don't tell the kids) and are closely linked to regional history, or geological features. Many caches are hidden by children, for children, making these finds especially appealing. Geocaching is an excellent scouting activity because it includes orienteering and other outdoor skills. It's also a terrific homeschooling activity.
It's easy to get started in geocaching. You'll need a mapping handheld GPS receiver, but once you've made that purchase, the game is free to play.
Learning how to use a GPS receiver with your children is part of the fun. Your next step toward finding your first geocache is visiting geocaching.com and registering for a free account. Once registered, you may seek caches by many different parameters, including postal code and keyword.
Cache descriptions include a significant amount of information, including exact coordinates of the location, description of the cache, type of cache (most consist of a water-proof container filled with items), difficulty and terrain ratings (one through five, with one being easiest, and five being most difficult), clues, tips, and comments from those who have found the cache.
Kids are online-savvy, so they can take part in every part of this process. Select caches with easier difficulty and terrain ratings for younger children. Move up to more advanced ratings as you and the children gain experience.
Caches often contain small gifts and toys that are of interest to children. Cache etiquette requires that you place something in the cache if you remove something, so plan to bring along some small items to put in the cache, at least one for each child. Caches also often contain logbooks, so the kids can sign in and leave comments.
Traveling trackable items such as geocoins and travel bugs add an interesting dimension. These items have unique identifying numbers, and you may look them up on geocaching.com to find out where they have been. I recently led a group of kids to a cache that included a travel bug that originated in Australia and had traveled via Hawaii and Quebec to Virginia. This can be turned into a great geography lesson, as the kids review the travel bug’s adventures on a map. Advanced geocaching includes multi-step finds that include clues leading to the cache.
Geocaching has never failed to fascinate the kids I've introduced to it, and it's a great way to get children out of the door and onto the trail.
Seven tips for geocaching with kids:
- Engage kids in every step, from learning to use the GPS, to selecting and finding caches.
- Bring water, bug repellent, and hats on cache hunts.
- Let kids find the cache after arriving at the coordinates.
- Educate kids on the “take one, leave one” ethic of cache treasures.
- Pack out your own trash, or better yet, show the kids a great example by packing out other trash you may find along the way.
- Bring a camera and notepad and pen (to write down numbers of trackable items).
- Integrate science, history, geography, or geology lessons.