The short, humorous answer: "Using billions of dollars of military hardware to find Tupperware® hidden in the woods."
The more helpful answer: Geocaching uses handheld GPS units to find hidden "caches" in your neighborhood or out on the trails. Caches are containers of all sizes that may be camouflaged to blend into their surroundings. Inside there will be—at a minimum—a logbook to sign, with larger caches also containing various inexpensive trinkets for trade.
Start by looking up caches in your area. Geocaching.com lists more than 2.1 million active geocaches worldwide, so chances are excellent there will be several near you.
Some caches are easy to find while others may require a long hike, so check the difficulty and terrain ratings on the web page before you go. A "1 star" difficulty and terrain rating are just about right for a young child.
Cache sizes are also given online, so if your child is looking forward to finding and exchanging "treasure," be sure to select a cache that is "regular" size or larger.
Treat a geocaching-hunt as you would any hike by dressing your kids comfortably for the outdoors and carrying essential supplies such as water and snacks.
To find a cache, you will need to enter its coordinates in a handheld GPS receiver. A GPS unit with all the bells and whistles for navigation may cost from $300 to $600, but there are also geocaching-specific units available for around $70. Pick one that is simple to use so the kids can lead the way.
Shop REI's selection of handheld GPS receivers.
Family-friendly GPS receivers are pretty easy to use, but instruction is helpful for more advanced models. REI stores regularly offer basic GPS instruction classes, and you can reference the REI Expert Advice articles noted above.
Caches often contain small trade items or trinkets. The rule of geocaching is that if you take something from the cache, you must replace it with something of equal or greater value. So, have the kids pack an assortment of trinkets for trading.
For poking into dark cache-hiding places, bring a trekking pole or hiking stick and a flashlight. Lastly, you will want to sign the logbook in the cache to prove you found it, so don't forget to bring a pen.
Understanding how a GPS works and what it is telling you will greatly increase your chances of finding a cache. A GPS is a radio receiver and needs a clear view of the sky for best reception, so keep it out of your pocket while hiking.
You may find the compass view, which gives the bearing and distance to the cache, to be the most informative screen. It will point you in the right direction while you are moving but may not be accurate while stopped. Keep an eye on where it is pointing while you are hiking, and you may be able to guess where the cache is hidden from a distance.
Safety tip: Be aware of your surroundings. Take your eyes off of the GPS occasionally so you don't fall down a hill (or worse).
Most GPS units are accurate to within 20 feet, so when you are closer than this to the cache, it really can't tell you much more. At this point you should put it away and start looking.
Tips to locate a cache:
Caches may be hidden in old logs or rock piles that are home to other creatures as well, so teach kids to look first before reaching in. Kids will likely search enthusiastically; just make sure they don't tear up the countryside looking for the cache. If you turn over a rock, replace it as found. Always follow Leave No Trace principles.
You found it! Congratulations! Now what?
Look through the cache. Take an item and leave an item, and enter your name and experience into the logbook. Some people don't care to trade, and that's OK too. Carefully reseal the cache and hide it as well as you found it. Don't leave markers for the next cacher to find it or place it in a "better" spot.
Now is a good time to practice a little CITO (Cache In, Trash Out). If there is any trash in the area, pick it up and pack it out.
Once back at home, go to geocaching.com and write a log to let the cache "owner" know you found it. Let them know the condition of the cache, your experiences on the trail and any trades you made. This can be a fun creative-writing experience for the kids.
Now off to the next cache… and the next one… and the next one. Hmm, kind of addicting, isn't it? After finding a variety of geocaches in your area, you may be ready to hide some of your own.
Some kids will really enjoy creating and hiding geocaches of their own. Follow the guidelines provided by geocaching.com to make sure it is something you would enjoy finding yourself.
Geocaching can be fun for the whole family. Use geocache hunts to introduce your kids to new parks, new activities and/or the natural history of your area. It also can make a fun addition to your next vacation. Look up cache locations along highways and near hotels to make travel time more interesting.
For more information, see the REI Expert Advice article, Geocaching: How to Get Started.
By Steve Wood
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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