We have a dirty little secret in our family: dirty, and dusty, and leaf-mold-y. We are geocachers. Other people may spend their free time throwing a football around, or sailing, or even watching television; but we like to go out into the woods — or the fields, or even the parking lots of the world — and find things that other geocachers have hidden.
Geocaching is essentially a high-tech game of hide-and-seek treasure hunting, in which participants use GPS devices to find their way to hidden items called “caches”. Often the only reward is the thrill of success (the “Aha!” moment) but often there are little trinkets in the container to be traded.
And that is — in part, at least — what makes this such a great family activity. Children love the whole concept of adventure and hiking in the outdoors, and they especially love the idea of finding hidden treasure. Geocaching is essentially an outing that has an additional purpose, a game that children are often especially good at (in part because they are naturally curious, but also — let’s face it — because they tend to be shorter and have better vision than adults and can more easily see close to the ground.)
For the child who is interested in the natural sciences, the hobby of geocaching offers a welcome opportunity to hone his observational skills. There are plenty of birds, beasts, and crawly things to be observed along the way, and the practice of close inspection (which is, after all, necessary to find hidden items) serves the budding biologist well. A field guide to identify plants, bugs, or birds, a small pair of binoculars, and a child’s field microscope (see photo below) are great accessories to bring along on geocaching expeditions. A small hand-held compass would also be a great addition (though GPS systems do have a compass function) so that kids can learn about navigation and bushwhacking.
The only truly necessary equipment for geocaching, though, is a GPS (global positioning system). Experienced geocachers don’t recommend using automotive GPS systems, as the caches may be a considerable distance from car parking, and the search radius would therefore be uncomfortably large. There are a great many hand-held GPS systems available, starting at under $100, which will do a great job (we have a Garmin, which we like a lot), and you can also download GPS apps for smartphones such as the iPhone and the Blackberry which will essentially turn them into GPS systems (and they seem to work just fine).
Geocaching has encouraged us to get out into the world and see things we might never have noticed had we not been trying to find a cache: lovely parks, beautiful vistas, historic buildings, quiet trails. We usually bring our dog along (though she’s proven herself quite useless as a treasure-finding-dog) and she loves the outings too.
For a complete introduction to this engrossing hobby, visit Geocaching – The Official GPS Cache Hunt Site. Basic membership is free, and allows you to seek (and hide!) caches in your area or wherever you may travel around the world. They have a good little video on the page that explains all the basics.
Now get out there, and have fun!