This article was first published in the October, 2009 issue of PARENTGUIDE News and at parentguidenews.com.
Born into a family of hikers, I spent many childhood vacations traipsing through New Jersey’s Great Swamp, trudging along parts of the Appalachian Trail, and even panning for gold alongside trails near rivers in the West. As an adult, I hoped to introduce my children to hiking, but feared complaints of fatigue, bugs, and boredom would dominate any attempts at trekking with youngsters. In their view, an ideal afternoon involves clambering up play equipment at their favorite park, not watching the trees grow while strolling through the woods.
Once I discovered geocaching, however, my doubts faded. To engage in this new sport, hikers use a GPS receiver to locate treasure, or trinket-filled caches hidden in public places, such as parks, or near hiking trails. The website geocaching.com lists caches’ locations, but instead of giving an address, provides geographic coordinates. After plugging this data into a GPS, geocachers hit the “Go To” button, and the hunt begins. Since typical receivers are only accurate to within ten feet, the website provides hints, such as “In the hollow tree,” or “Under the pile of rocks,” to help visitors zero in on the location. After unearthing the container, geocachers sign an on-site log book and, later, record their find on the website.
For my daughters, hunting for caches turned hiking into an adventure. Eagerly leading the way to our first site, they regularly called out readings from the GPS, “Only 50 feet further, straight ahead!” and kept the group updated on statistics such as our distance covered, current elevation, or average speed. Once we uncovered the cache - usually some sort of durable container, such as an ammunition box - they excitedly sorted through its treasure: an assortment of small toys and collectibles, including plastic animals, baseball cards, and buttons. Following the unwritten geocaching rule, “Take something, leave something,” they gleefully pocketed their selection, then proudly deposited our contribution, toy telescopes. After we logged our visit, they helped return the container to its hiding place, then resumed tracking our progress as we headed back.
Though that particular cache was a traditional one, several types exist. Mystery caches require visitors to solve puzzles to determine the container’s coordinates. Multi-caches consist of a series of locations, each with hints for finding the next, culminating in the final stage, where the stash is hidden. Earth cache locations offer no physical treasure, but instead draw visitors to regions with unique landscapes, such as the stunning red shale beds of Walter Kidde Dinosaur Park, in Roseland, NJ, teaching about the geology of the area.
Enthusiasts are encouraged to plant and register their own containers, adding to the roughly 800,000 caches already hidden around the world. Launching travel bugs offers added fun. Registered with a tracking number, these objects travel from cache to cache by hitching rides with geocachers willing to retrieve them, deposit them elsewhere, and log their progress online. Owners can specify missions for travel bugs, or can even enter them in races, pitting them against other objects headed for the same destination.
To get started, simply visit geocaching.com. This website provides a wealth of information on the sport, including basic facts, its history, a glossary of terms, FAQ’s, and caches’ locations. Upon entering a zip code, visitors can view a list of caches in their area. In order to access geographic coordinates, however, users need to set up an account, a cost-free and straightforward process.
Another point worth noting concerns safety. Like any adventure, geocaching is not without risk. Dehydration, tick bites, and encounters with wild animals all pose threats on outings, but prepared hikers can minimize such dangers by packing water, wearing protective clothing, conducting tick-checks, and reading area advisories. Plus, avoiding the great outdoors can also prove harmful. Nature-Deficit Disorder, a condition characterized by health and emotional problems, including stress and loss of creativity, is a recognized concern.
No matter the location or format, the thrill of searching for caches gives our hikes purpose, keeping the kids moving. In addition to getting us outside, the short treks through nature provide a break from hectic schedules, helping our family reconnect and enjoy each other’s company. Best of all, with the kids busy monitoring trip statistics on the GPS, the abundance of fresh air and exercise never seems to bother them, giving the adults a chance to watch the trees grow.
Reprinted with permission from PARENTGUIDE News, October 2009.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Jennifer Kirsch. All Rights Reserved.