If you’re looking for a fun, outdoor activity to do with your grandkids on your next multigenerational trip -- or even in your own hometown -- you might consider geocaching. Never heard of it or wondering if it’s too much of a tech stretch to give it a whirl? Rest assured, geocaching is something that can be enjoyed by all ages (from preschoolers to even the most tech-averse grandparents). All you need to get started is a smartphone, the downloaded Geocaching app (more on this below), and a sense of adventure.
Geocaching is often described as a modern-day treasure hunt. Geocaching enthusiasts around the world have hidden “caches” -- small containers -- in locations ranging from neighborhood parks to city centers to remote trails. In fact, there are three million caches hidden on all seven continents (yes, even Antarctica). So, chances are, there’s treasure not too far from where you are right now!
Inside these containers -- hidden from plain sight, but never buried -- are little trinkets. Once you find the container, you can take something that catches your eye and leave a surprise for the next person. However, geocaching isn’t about the specific “treasure” you earn; it’s the thrill of successfully finding the cache.
I like that folks of all mobility levels can have fun geocaching. Cache descriptions on the Geocaching app spell out if they are wheelchair accessible and note where terrain might be difficult. Each cache is also rated 1 to 5 on a "how hard it is to find" scale, so folks who are new to the activity or enjoying it with younger kids can search for 1-star ratings. Teenage grandkids might enjoy the stashes that are rated 4 stars for difficulty and terrain.
I dabbled with geocaching when my own kiddos were younger, and we had a ball using my phone’s GPS to lead us to secret spots not only close to our Colorado home but also on our travels. Sometimes the lure of searching for a hidden stash was all it took to get them outside and traipsing around -- breathing fresh air, getting exercise, taking in nature, decoding clues, and competing to be the first person to shout (or whisper, if bystanders were around), “I found it!”
Intrigued? Read on for tips to get started geocaching, and you’ll be well on your way to building memories with your grandchildren through this fun activity.
1. Download The App
Your first step is to download the Geocaching app on your phone. It’s available from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store. The app with a basic membership is free, though the information for some caches is only revealed with a premium membership, which costs a few dollars a month. As a beginner, you’ll likely find plenty of caches to hunt for with just the free membership. Make sure to allow the app access to your location; having GPS enabled on your phone is key.
2. Start With Simple-To-Find Caches
Click the Map icon in the app, and you can start searching for hidden caches all over the world. Scroll to your home location, your grandkids’ hometown, or a locale you’ll be visiting with them in the future. Click on the cache icon you’d like to learn more about, and you can learn its ratings for difficulty and terrain.
Also note your cache’s attributes icons: You can find out, for example, if the cache location has parking nearby, if it’s recommended for kids, if it’s available 24/7, and if it’s wheelchair accessible. To get even more details on its accessibility, you can cross-reference the number code of the cache (for example, GC3PNM2) with the Handicaching database.
Each cache description also details how big the container is, ranging from micro (smaller than a film canister) to large (the size of a bucket). Your treasure might be housed in an Altoid tin, a plastic Tupperware container, or a military ammo box.
Ideally, your first cache is marked “traditional” -- the most straightforward type of cache containing a logbook and, if the container is big enough, a small item (a colorful marble, foreign coin, keychain, toy car) to take and replace.
Finally, take note in the “Activity” section of the cache description when the cache was last found. This can help you determine if it’s still hidden there, and the activity log’s history may also give you some pointers. If no one has logged a find for months, it may be that the cache has been destroyed or removed, so you might not be able to find it yourselves.
3. Use The Compass, Cache Name, And Hints To Find Your Treasure
Once you’ve determined the cache you want to find, click “Navigate” on the app, and it will use your phone’s map app to help lead you to the treasure location. Once you’re pretty close, you can switch to compass view to follow the orange arrow and count down the feet until you should be where the cache is hidden. You can also adjust your settings to allow your phone to vibrate when you’re super close to the cache -- exciting!
If you think you’re in the right spot but are having trouble finding the hidden container, consider the name of the cache. Could “Take the High Road” mean that you should look up for treasure, not on the ground? Or maybe “I Pine For You” suggests you should be searching for a box hidden in an evergreen tree. Geocachers like to have fun with words, and they typically disguise clever hints in their cache names.
Sometimes additional hints in the cache description will help you find your treasure -- or perhaps the hints will make you even more confused! Remember, caches will never be buried, but they could be hidden under branches or rocks, magnetically stuck to the bottom of a guardrail, or perched on a ledge.
4. Watch Out For Muggles!
Geocaching is a stealth activity. You don’t want to attract attention from passersby, lest non-geocachers disturb or take the cache. In geocache speak, we call these bystanders “muggles,” inspired by the non-magical characters in the Harry Potter series. While it’s difficult -- especially with young children -- to be circumspect while excitedly hunting for treasure, remind them that it’s all part of the game to be secretive about their search!
5. BYOP (And A Trinket)
When you find your traditional cache, there will be a logbook to sign and date. Some tiny caches known as nanos -- the smallest of the micro-sized caches -- won’t have room for a pencil or pen, so you’ll need to bring your own pencil (BYOP) to sign the log. You can also log your find in the app to keep a running list of your successes.
If you want to take something out of the cache container, be sure to replace the item with something of equal or greater value. For example, if you’re eyeing a unique coin from Malaysia, don’t replace it with a pebble you just found on the ground. A simple keychain for a sparkly sticker might be an equal swap.
Note that your geocache container may include a Trackable, Geocoin, or Travel Bug. These are items that are meant to be moved from cache to cache, and you can follow the progress of these trackable items by entering their codes online. If you don’t want the responsibility of helping a trackable item along on its journey, just leave it in the cache container.
6. Respect The Environment And CITO
Remember some golden rules of hiking while geocaching on public lands: Respect the environment by staying on marked trails (caches shouldn’t be hidden too far off walking paths) and not trampling bushes, flowers, or plants.
Be careful not to litter along the way; pack out your own trash. And if you really want to do Mother Nature a favor, CITO: cache in, trash out -- pick up some litter that others have left behind.
Editor’s Note: For additional inspiration, consider these seven leave-no-trace tips, according to a USDA forest program manager, too.
7. Consider A Second GPS-Enabled Device
To help prevent sibling squabbles, you might consider geocaching with the app installed on two phones. That way two grandkids can navigate at the same time with their own screens. If your grandchildren take to the activity, you might also consider purchasing a dedicated handheld GPS device, such as those made by Garmin.
The forums at Geocaching.com are filled with users debating, “Are phones or GPS devices better?” Some GPS enthusiasts note that a handheld GPS can be more accurate than a phone’s GPS when it comes to navigating, especially under tree cover (though both have a margin of error). Users also note that batteries last longer in a GPS, plus they’re built more ruggedly and might survive a spill on a pile of rocks that your iPhone may not.
8. Hope For The Best, But Prepare For Challenges
Even if you think you’ve chosen a cache that’s easy to find, its exact location may simply stump you, which can be frustrating. Remind your grandkids that the hunt is all part of the fun, and there’s always next time.
Years ago, my kids and I spent close to an hour trying to find a cache while we were vacationing in New Hampshire -- but no dice. Thankfully, I’d chosen a location next door to an ice cream stand, so we still managed to salvage our outing with refreshing, sweet treats!
And if your grandkids don’t take to geocaching, remember this activity is for all ages -- no pint-sized people required. You can always keep the app on your phone and search for treasure yourself on your next vacation. Geocaching is a neat way to get to know neighborhoods, stumble upon scenic spots, and otherwise stay active outdoors on your travels. Have fun! And for more on U.S. and Canadian destinations where you can geocache, consider:
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