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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.)

Kid- and family-friendly

Our trek was fun for everyone, due in no small part to the help of our guide. One mom from Ohio suggests that when taking young kids on one of their first geocaching adventures, look for short, easy hikes -- maybe even do a trial run of a local one for guaranteed success. She laughs, "My kids would have been frustrated to do all that hiking with no jackpot!"

Since the advent of the sport in 2000, hundreds of thousands of these caches have been created -- and McGufficke has hidden the second largest number of them in the world. The majority of his 600 active caches are located in western North Carolina, but he also has some in Illinois where his in-laws live, in his native Australia, and various other points around the globe. He has also found more than 3000 caches, and enjoys this activity while vacationing with his wife and two children, 12-year-old Megan and 9-year-old Ian.

"Geocaching has a broad appeal," says McGufficke. "I see grandmas and grandpas hunting for caches, as well as families with small children. There are even some caches that are wheelchair accessible."

Leave things better than you found them

Geocaching truly epitomizes the old saying, "It's not the destination -- it's the journey." Face it: Nobody of sound mind would take a three hour hike just to lay their hands on a yo-yo or a British 50 pence coin. You're there to be part of the game, and to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Still, that doesn't mean you shouldn't bring something nice for the goodie swap. In the book Geocaching For Dummies (Wiley), author Joel McNamara advises you to trade up. "Trading up means leaving something in the cache that's better than what you take. Many times, caches start out with cool stuff but soon end up filled with junk," he says. "Put yourself in the shoes of the next cache visitor. Would they find whatever item you just left interesting, intriguing, useful or fun?"

The typical loot is in the $1-$3 range. Think travel size, souvenir, useful... and not used, junk, cheap. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • beanie animals
  • bookmarks
  • bouncy balls
  • camping/hiking tools
  • CDs
  • Christmas ornaments
  • cool pens/pencils
  • costume jewelry
  • coupons/tickets/gift cards
  • decks of cards
  • erasers
  • flashlights
  • foreign or unique coins
  • guitar picks
  • hairclips
  • keychains
  • lanyards
  • laser pointer
  • lottery tickets
  • matchbox cars
  • mini tools (tape measure, screwdriver)
  • notepad
  • novelty socks
  • paperback books
  • patches
  • pencil sharpeners
  • picture frames
  • pins (buttons or lapel-type)
  • plastic animals
  • pocket radio
  • postcards
  • post-it notes
  • refrigerator magnets
  • rubber stamps
  • small scissors
  • seed packets
  • semi-precious stones
  • shells
  • squeaky toys
  • state quarters
  • new trading card packs
  • travel-size games (Etch-a-sketch, Mastermind)
  • water squirters
  • whistles

Something that will melt, get soggy or otherwise degrade isn't a good choice, and food items are off-limits to avoid attracting non-human hunters.

As for the other rules of the off-road: 1) respect the environment and 2) leave no trace that you were ever even there. And one tip: mark the coordinates of where you park the car on your GPS unit. That way, if you get lost returning from a cache, you can at least find the spot where you started!

Variations on a theme

Not every cache exists in the physical realm, but are "virtual" instead -- often because you can't always hide these treasures on even public land. For example, National Wildlife Refuges are a no-go. But that doesn't mean you can't still play the game on government property.

Mary Stefanski, District Manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge says, "Geocaching is such a popular activity, we had to think outside the box to see if there was a venue that would allow this activity on the Refuge."

They had the perfect answer when Refuge Ranger Cindy Samples discovered an alternative: virtual geocaching. While this twist on the game doesn't involve leaving a cache on-site, it still allows the participant to experience the thrill of the hunt. By using landmarks and other existing local features for guidance, you can track down the specified location and then photograph it to prove your Eureka moment.

Virtual geocaching's cousin is Earthcaching, where the goal is to discover a geological formation, event or some other kind of natural wonder -- and this is just one of a thousand variants on the geocaching game. There are caches hidden in public spots throughout major cities, "event caches" to set up a meeting for all those clever enough to figure out where and when the party starts, and "mystery caches," where the coordinates lead you to a puzzle that you must solve in order to find the real prize.

A hobby for the 21st century

With geocaching, now you know that a love of the outdoors and a love of technology don't have to be mutually exclusive -- you can put your tech-savvy skills to work while getting some fresh air and fitness! And whether you go cache-hunting with family, friends or solo, one thing is for sure: This is an experience you will always treasure.

Want more ideas for boredom-busting exercise? Check out:

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