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Go on a treasure hunt: A geocaching primer

About the author: Marla Hardee Milling is a freelance writer in Asheville, North Carolina. Her articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, both online and in print, including Cooking Smart, Healthgate, Pinnacle Living, Blue...

Geocaching: Treasure fun

You don't have to be a pirate of the Caribbean or a six-year-old at a birthday party to love a good treasure hunt. An outdoor adventure -- combining an obstacle course, a workout and some high-tech appeal -- can be yours for the price of a GPS unit. (And no, the one pre-installed in your car won't cut it.)

Geocaching girl

It's called geocaching, and it's a unique, fun and challenging way to enjoy nature. Indeed, it is the ultimate outdoor adventure game.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find a small and well-hidden goodie box (the "cache" -- pronounced cash and not ka-shay) based on its latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. With a portable GPS (Global Positioning System) device in hand, that should be simple, right?

Not so fast. While one cache may be hidden in plain sight, another may be tucked away inside a moss-covered tree stump, miles away from the nearest road. Some have even been placed underwater to allow divers and snorkelers to feel the thrill of the hunt.

Taking kids on their first geocaching adventure

Ever since my children were toddlers, I've often headed into the woods with them. When they were too young to walk on their own, I'd tote them on my back in a baby backpack. Now that they're 7 and 9, I find myself trying to keep up with their energetic pace, especially recently, when our hike took on a new twist. We set out on our treasure hunt, guided by geocaching expert Graeme McGufficke (who uses the handle "OzGuff") and his trusty GPS unit.

Basically, geocaching involves someone hiding a waterproof container -- the cache -- with a log book and an assortment of goodies -- such as toys, photo books, CDs, two dollar bills, foreign coins and other trinkets -- tucked inside. The person who created the cache then posts the coordinates on an Internet site and other people track it down using a GPS. When it's found, each person signs the log book, takes something from the box and leaves something else in exchange. Then, back at home, they record their find on the website.

The activity attracts a truly diverse crowd because there are various levels of difficulty, so everyone from the newbie to the avid professional can have fun. Families, couples, groups of friends and all outdoor enthusiasts can start their quests by jumping online to research the coordinates of nearby caches.

The thought of finding a hidden box in the woods delighted my kids -- and to be honest, I was pretty excited by the idea, too.

33n31, 111w54 marks the spot

Sites such as geocaching.com will allow you to search for caches by zip code, state, country or degree of difficulty. The information you need to start your quest will be provided much as follows:

  • what the geocache is called (each one has a name)
  • the latitude and longitude coordinates
  • a physical description of the cache, which can be as small as a film canister to foot locker size (though most are about as big as a standard Tupperware container)
  • a hint, often in code and/or otherwise cryptic, in case the coordinates aren't enough
  • degree of difficulty
  • any other related details, such as where not to park or if there's a site admission fee
  • user comments: the observations and experiences of other people who have found the cache can offer invaluable information

With your uber-compass in one hand and the abovementioned details in the other, the hunt begins!

Talking to the satellites

McGufficke, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, entered the coordinates for a cache into his GPS unit and handed it to Ben to take the lead first, before passing it off to Hannah to let her have a chance to blaze the trail. An arrow on the gadget pointed the direction we should follow and also listed the distance, the numbers decreasing with each step we took.

We made a steady ascent along a rocky trail in Jackson County, North Carolina, before coming to a large boulder that looked like a large heart with a crack running down the middle. The rock was listed as a landmark, and then McGufficke provided more directions to finding the cache.

"Look for a tree that's leaning over. Do you see it?" he asked as the kids hurried up the bank beside the boulder. They spotted the tree, and then McGufficke told them to look for the "treasure box" at the base of the tree. They pushed back the leaves and discovered a plastic container. The contents included a variety of inexpensive trinkets, such as spools of thread, batteries and pair of child's sunglasses. McGufficke pulled out the log book to record our find, and the kids each selected a "prize" -- a small tape measure for Ben, a shiny notepad and pen for Hannah.

In geocaching, when you take something, you are supposed to leave something in return, so Ben left one of his toys and Hannah deposited a water-squirting camera in the box for another child to find.

NEXT PAGE: The rules, family-friendliness, loot ideas

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