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Family Fun: Geocaching
C. Schurman October 2008
It used to be that Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) personal units were heavy and clunky and used tons of batteries. I know. We still have our first one from over 8 years ago. But this summer when someone suggested that we take our 4-year-old daughter on a high-tech treasure hunt known as “geocaching,” we dug out the “brick” as we fondly refer to it today and visited www.geocaching.com, the official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site. There, we could enter our address as a starting point, search for hidden caches or treasures within a mile or so (or more) of our house, and start out on foot to find a cache.
WHAT IS IT?
Geocaching (pronounced geo-cashing), in short, is “a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices.” With over 600,000 caches of various sizes and types around the world, Geocaching offers limitless fun for all ages and ability levels, both in local urban neighborhoods and out in the wilderness. Hidden “treasure” containers, or geocaches, are placed at precise locations (specific GPS coordinates) outdoors and then shared online.
WHAT DO THE CACHES LOOK LIKE?
Some of the ones we have found are as small as a match tube that can hold 3-4 matches; such “microcaches” are tiny and usually specify (in the on-line tips) that you will need to BYOP or “bring your own pen” so that you can sign the rolled-up logbook inside. Some are “multi-caches” which mean you get a set of coordinates for the first stop and then acquire new GPS coordinates or directions to go to another spot (s) for treasure, roster or additional clues. Other types of caches include “geocoins” or “travel bugs” which are small trackable objects that you leave in one spot so other players can move them to other caches. You can actually watch your trackable travel around the world. The most fun for us with a pre-school aged child in tow are the larger caches, known simply as “traditional caches.” These usually have fun objects that players leave behind; take one to leave in place and you have a new treasure for your child. These range from pins to stickers to small toys (depending on the size of the box) to bumper stickers and beyond.
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
All you need to start geocaching is a working GPS (we have since acquired a brand new model that works with Topo maps for the entire state of Washington), a computer to access sites with cache information, and a means to get to the targeted cache. Our first two were within .5 miles of our house, so on a warm afternoon in summer, we told our daughter we were going on a treasure hunt and headed off on foot to places unknown. The first cache we tried was actually located at a bus stop, and we were perplexed as to what, exactly, to look for. We poked around for a few minutes, shook our head at the bus driver slowing down for us, and eventually stuck our hands up in a little metal hole and – lo and behold – we pulled out a microcache log book! Our second one, in the exact opposite direction, was located at the corner of a golf course hidden inside a public wooden sign; we were warned to look for “mugglers” or non-geocaching people who might either a) view our activity as suspicious, or b) locate the cache after we returned it and somehow move, damage, or otherwise destroy it.
In addition to taking your GPS unit, bring a pen or pencil, treasure to leave behind, sturdy shoes, and the notes from whatever Geocaching site you use so that if you need to access the navigation hints, you can do so. Some of the ones we attempted to find were in pretty swampy areas, or filled with blackberry bushes; others were in very public and open places. If you will be hiking, don’t forget your Ten Essential Systems (snacks, water, rain gear etc.) and remember always to pack out whatever you carry in with you.
While sites with geocaching information sometimes provide clues and strategies for hunting, most will have “hints” embedded in the coordinate information so you can look at them or not. We went 2 for 2 the first day, then failed to find the next 3, before we started figuring out that our “brick” was not able to do much in the high density woods. We got a new unit and have had much more luck since then. We have gone on family hikes to Denny Creek Water Slide, Barclay Lake, and Fort Stevens in OR and found memorable treasures in the wilderness and along the road; we simply downloaded the target coordinates and caches within a few miles or our destination and as we hiked or drove along, we noted whether they were close enough to take a short detour to search for them.
We have found 23 so far, 13 of those were found while we were on vacation and NOT near our neighborhood; 5 were in our neighborhood, accessible by foot or by riding our bikes (one equipped with a Tagalong for our daughter) and 5 out in the wilderness. As we get more experienced with how geocachers hide their treasures, it becomes an extra challenge to seek the caches without looking at the give-away tips. My personal favorite was one that we found while vacationing near Willapa Bay on the Washington Coast. It came complete with fake electrical wiring on a light post, a fishing line and magnet hid seven feet up in a nearby tree, and a box that had to be carefully pulled out of the PVC piping unit with the fishing line (I won’t supply the name but with this information if you geocache you can figure it out!) The other very memorable one was on the drive back from Baring and Barclay Lake at a turnout on the road that had a stunning waterfall that I’d always wanted to stop at but never had a good enough reason -- until now.
THE FAMILY WAY
Now when we go geocaching, we try to make it more appealing for our daughter by bringing a little treasure for her that we can hide somewhere on our person, in the bike compartment, or on a nearby playground near the real treasure, or else something that she can leave in the box herself. Geocaching provides us with a new way to view both the surrounding neighborhoods and the more distant wilderness. We feel like explorers seeking unknown treasure. It helps us teach our daughter that we leave things the way we found them so others can enjoy the experience in much the same way we did. It teaches valuable lessons about navigation and map reading. It provides us with a new form of “exercise with a purpose,” and it is FUN. What more can you ask for? The next challenge is setting up our own kid-friendly cache with our new Geocoins, supplied for my birthday…