For the last year I've been seeing all kinds of references to geocaching, without ever really knowing exactly what it was people were talking about. Finally, a few weeks ago Mac was talking non-stop about finding buried treasure and going on a treasure hunt (perhaps due to a particular Curious George episode), so I decided it was time to get all the details about geocaching and try our hand at finding our own treasures.
I looked up a few things online about geocaching, but I was a bit underwhelmed by the information out there on exactly where to begin and how to do this with little kids. The GPS/waypoints language frightened me and I was confused about whether I needed a separate GPS device or if my phone would work. I had a general idea about what geocaching was (this is a great quick video), but I had no idea how to get started or if this was something my toddler and preschooler could handle. I reached out to my friend Angie, mom of 2 young kids and avid geocacher, who walked me through the ridiculously easy process and assured me that my kids would absolutely love it. She even accurately predicted that we'd all be addicted by the end of our first outing. Had I known how easy and fun geocaching was, we would have started doing this ages ago! So, if you're anything like me (the me from three weeks ago) and are interested in geocaching with your kids, but don't know where to get started, let me walk you through the process. But first...
What is Geocaching?
According to the www.geocaching.com website, geocaching (pronounced GEE-o-cash-ing) is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunt using a GPS-enabled device (including smart phone). Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location. Geocaches can be found all over the world and almost anywhere you can imagine. Geocachers usually hide caches in locations that are important to them, reflecting a special interest, memory or skill of the cache owner. These locations can be quite diverse - they may be at your local park, at the end of a long hike, underwater or on the side of a city street. There are currently over a dozen "cache types" in geocaching, with each cache type being a different variation of the game. Geocaches vary greatly in size and appearance - everything from large, clear plastic containers to film canisters to a fake rock with a secret compartment. In its simplest form, a cache always contains a logbook for you to log your find. Larger caches may also contain any number of items, trinkets, souvenirs, etc.. You can take an item from the cache if you like - just make sure to leave something of equal or greater value in its place. When you are finished, put the cache back exactly as you found it, even if you think you see a better spot for it. It is recommended that items in a cache be individually packaged in a clear, zipped plastic bag to protect them from the elements.
Step 1: Create an account and download the free app
Go to www.geocaching.com and create an account. It only takes a minute and is totally free. While you're there, you can check out all the great information, videos and tutorials they have on how to play this GPS treasuring hunting game. Once you have an account, download the app to your phone. It's also totally free and will give you "Basic" access to all geocaches with a difficulty rating of 1.5 and below (on a scale of 1-5). If you're geocaching with little kids, this will be perfect because it'll ensure that you only get geocaches that are relatively easy to find, solve and access. If you're geocaching on your own as an adult or with older kids and want more of a challenge, you can upgrade your account to Premium, which gives you instant phone access to a lot more caches that are more difficult to find.
2. Choose a cache to find
Open the app and use the map to find a cache you want to find. We picked a park in our area that has tons of geocaches hidden within. We drove to the park, parked the car, jumped out and picked the one closest to us. Your current location on the map shows up as a blue dot and all the "basic level" caches in your area will show as green dots, with the rest of them (the more difficult/Premium ones) gray. Note that we have the Premium package, so all the dots in the screenshot above (see far left photo above) are available to us. The first time you use the app, it'll ask you to point the phone in the direction of the cache you're looking for, but you won't have to do that again. If you want more information on the cache, just click on the dot and it will give you information on the difficulty, terrain and size of the cache (see middle photo above). Most of them also include a description of or story behind the cache. Some have clues/hints, if you want them.
3. Click START and begin walking
Once you've picked your cache, click that green START arrow and the compass will guide you straight to your treasure! All you have to do is keep the red line of the compass directly in front of you and adjust your bearings as the compass moves. Red arrows will appear telling you which direction to move if you're too far off course. Your screen will tell you which direction you're moving, how far from the cache you are (in feet) and a line showing the shortest route. In the park we were exploring, most of the geocaches we found were just a little bit off the beaten path, which was really fun because it led us down hidden trails and into the woods, where we otherwise may not have gone. The kids (and adults) loved this and they thought the caches back in the woods that took some effort to get to were much more fun than the ones right along the road.
4. Find the cache
As you get closer to the cache, make sure to zoom in/expand the map so you stay on track. Once you get within 30 feet of the cache you'll get a warning on your phone that you're almost there. The website and app both warn you that the location isn't exact within 30 feet sometimes, so when your warning goes off, start to look around for good hiding places. This is when you let the kids know it's time for treasure - first person to find it wins! Remember that geocaches can be anything from a large Tupperware container to a tiny camouflaged film canister, depending on the level of difficulty (the app will tell you the size). We started with an easy "traditional" geocache, but I was still worried that we wouldn't be able to find it or the kids would get discouraged and bored after searching for a few minutes. Not so! Mac was amazing at finding the caches and was super pumped every time he spotted one. The ones we found this day were hidden inside hollowed out tree trunks, at the base of giant trees, inside stumps/logs and in between rocks. They ranged in size from a plastic container to a small barrel - some were protected in Ziploc bags and some were hidden where rain wouldn't bother them. As the difficulty of the geocache increases, they get harder and harder to find, but my 3.5 year old had no issues finding five in one day ranging from 1.5 - 2.5 difficulty! Make sure you really celebrate every find, so your kids get really excited about finding more treasure!5. Check out the contents & sign the book
Even the most basic geocache should have some form of a logbook or sheet of paper where anyone that finds it can record their name and date. All the geocaches we found this day had an available log book with a pencil provided, but I'd suggest bringing along your own pen and maybe a couple sheets of blank paper in case the current logbook is full. In addition, all the geocaches also had quite a few fun trinkets inside that the kids loved to look at and talk about. The rule is that you're welcome to take a trinket, so long as you leave something of equal or greater value in it's place. We brought along a handful of coins and little army men, which we left and let the kids choose one thing from each treasure. The trinkets were usually little toys, marbles or stickers, so they thought this was the coolest thing ever and it made it feel like a real treasure to them!6. Log your find and post a message
Once you find the geocache, click on the big green button at the bottom of your screen that says "Log Geocache" and record your find. You can also leave a comment about the geocache - you can say you loved it, comment on how long it took you to find it, leave a hint for a future geocacher, post a photo or note that the geocache needs maintenance or couldn't be located. These posts will be accessible to anyone, so try not to give away any secrets or take away the element of surprise.
That's it! Can you even believe how easy that was? The great thing about geocaching is that it's basically free (as long as you have a smart phone) and you can do it anywhere! I can't get over how many geocaches are out there...everywhere! Even the teeny tiny town I grew up in has at least a dozen! And since we started geocaching a few weekends ago, we've now found 12 geocaches (many within walking distance from our house) and we can't wait to find more! They keep getting better and Mac is getting quicker at finding them. We've since found a small pillbox container in the pilings outside our local fire station, a camouflaged container hidden inside a planter and a geocache in a padlocked birdhouse where we had to crack the code! Mac is just as obsessed (if not more) than I am and begs me daily to take him treasure hunting. He loves being outside, exploring and feeling like he's part of our little family team. If you've never tried geocaching, I highly recommend you make plans to get out this weekend and try it! There's treasure out there waiting for you!
Have you ever been geocaching?