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The GPS Treasure Hunt for Outdoor Family Fun - Geocaching

Bruce W. Smith and Larry Walton

Perhaps the most dreaded refrain heard on a camping trip is: “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do.” “Nothing to do?” you say, “There’s biking, hiking, nature watching, skipping rocks, firewood gathering and getting me a Coke out of the cooler.”

As fun as these camping activities sound to adults, the kids may not be that thrilled. For many modern children and adolescents, it can be a difficult transition to go from the high-tech multitasking at school and home to the “low-tech” hanging out with the family in the great outdoors.

That’s where geocaching (pronounced “gee-oh-cashing”) can bridge the gap; it’s a fun, exciting way to move kids from the virtual to the real outdoors.

Geocaching is a high-tech outdoor GPS treasure hunt for the whole family. Participants use handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to find caches — usually plastic containers with small “treasures” inside — that have been hidden by fellow geocachers. The coordinates that lead the seekers to the cache locations are posted on websites designed for the sport.

A geocaching outing involves finding the coordinates for a cache on the Internet, entering or downloading these coordinates into a GPS unit and then setting out to find the cache following the directional arrow or map on the handheld GPS unit.

This may sound quite intimidating to some adults. But to kids, working with computers and the Internet is second nature, and taking a GPS into the outdoors to find a hidden treasure can be an exciting new adventure.

When you find the cache, it’s protocol to celebrate with high-fives all around, sign the logbook, take a prize and leave a prize. Back home you can log your visit on the cache’s website to inform the cache creator and others of your success.

Fast-Growing Fun

Geocaching has seen tremendous growth since its humble beginnings just a few years ago. Since then, the sport has become an international phenomenon with geocachers hiding and finding caches all around the world. Today there are more than 97,000 caches in the United States alone.

Prior to 2000, the U.S. military/government-developed GPS navigation system had a varying amount of inaccuracy when it came to civilian use. This “error” could place a civilian GPS unit as much as 300 feet off an actual location.

Fortunately, in the last few years, that error has been reduced so the GPS units you buy at the local sporting-goods store can pinpoint a location to within a few yards. Such accuracy made it possible for geocaching to really take off.

Getting Started

Getting started in geocaching can be as easy as buying a GPS unit and doing a little Internet research. With tens of thousands of caches in the United States, the chances are good that you can find one very close to home.

Don’t think geocaching is only for the “techy” types. What’s great about this sport is that everyone in the family can get involved by preparing the equipment, obtaining maps, researching cache locations and hiking the terrain in search of treasure. Stories recounting the thrill of the hunt and the contents of the cache will enliven campfires for years to come (“Remember when we got that troll doll out of that cache at Crescent Lake?” “Yeah, it still rides above the sink in the camp trailer.”)

As with all outdoor camping activities, preparedness is the key to having a great time. Take along a small fanny pack or light daypack with a first-aid kit, drinking water and all the other “essentials” for a day in the woods. You also need to be aware of any potential dangers in your geocaching location.

When preparing for your outing, pay attention to the difficulty ratings of caches. Geocaches are rated on a five-star scale on how well they are hidden (one for easy, five for difficult). They are also rated on how difficult it may be to actually traverse the terrain in the area leading up to and near the cache. If you’re treasure hunting with small children, look for one to two stars in both categories. If you’re looking for a more adventurous and challenging endeavor, look for caches rated four to five stars.

Mulitfaceted Sport

As the sport of geocaching evolves, is becoming increasingly diverse. For example, camping geocachers may attracted to a variation of the sport that leads to specific points of interest instead of hidden treasures.

The “treasure” these caches provide can be anything from a great photo location to something with historical significance. Reading the description, or hints in the description, will provide clues to what you will find.

Geocaching is just one of several benefits you will gain from learning how to use a GPS unit. Many people are starting to recognize the safety benefits of operating a handheld GPS device.

For example, geocaching requires entering coordinates into the GPS unit. The same idea is used when kids are hiking or biking away from camp. The “waypoint” (location coordinates) of your campsite can be quickly and easily “marked” on a GPS unit, making it easy for the user to find his way back to camp.

Hands-on experience is a great way to learn. As kids grow and move from geocaching with Mom and Dad to venturing out on their own, they will have the GPS treasure hunt skills they need to make it back to camp (or home) safely.

We must take this opportunity to offer a few cautionary words regarding geocaching. Participants can become so engrossed in the sport that they focus on the GPS screen instead of where they are driving, biking or walking. Obviously, not paying attention to the road, trail or terrain ahead can be dangerous. Please be careful and geocache responsibly. Geocachers should also act responsibly toward the environment. Leave no trace of your explorations other than your name in the logbook and your contribution to the treasure cache.

So if you want to get the kids excited about your next camping trip, toss geocaching into the discussion and watch it generate renewed enthusiasm in your family’s outdoor adventures.

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