Making Sense

One Smartphone. Two Kids. Tons of Fun.

Finding hidden treasures -- also known as geocaching -- is a great way to nerd out in nature.
Sierra Filucci Editorial Manager, Ratings and Reviews | Mom of two Categories: Learning with technology
Editorial Manager, Ratings and Reviews | Mom of two

My son would glue his eyeballs to my iPhone if I let him. He wants every second he can squeeze out of that shiny device, and we're constantly wrestling with the when and how of device time. So when I found a way for us to blend outdoor time and exercise with the allure of the iPhone, I knew I'd struck gold.

Geocaching is something that tech-savvy (and GPS-owning) families have been doing for ages, but now that many families own at least one smartphone, this digitally driven treasure hunt is something almost anyone can enjoy.

Here's the deal: An international community of treasure hunters (known as geocachers) have hidden little caches of fun stuff all over the world. You can use your smartphone to hunt down the treasures -- usually little goodies like plastic toy animals, a play token, or maybe a dime. How cool is that?

Recently, I took three kids to a nearby park and spent hours searching trails, tree stumps, boulders, and fences for caches. Each time we found one, using an easy geocaching app with a map and compass, the kids celebrated their successes with hoots and hollers. I celebrated their observation and problem-solving skills. And by the end of our journey, I also celebrated their sheer exhaustion and the easy bedtime in store for me.

One thing to note: The treasures are often very small, and sometimes there aren't any goodies, just a log to sign. But kids quickly pick up that it's more about the thrill of the hunt than the prize.

Though this is still a new thrill for my family, I've picked up a few tips that I think are helpful for other novices:

  1. Start with a free app, and move to the fancier ones after you've decided you want to keep geocaching. We started with Groundspeak's free app but finally bought the $9.99 version when I knew that this was a big hit with my kids.
  2. Research your cache sites on the official geocaching website (or on the full version of the app) before you leave the house. The first time I took my daughter out, I didn't do this, and we ended up searching for caches that no longer existed. Now I always check before I go to avoid disappointment.
  3. Teach your kids the short and sweet rules before you start: Always put the cache back exactly as you found it, and, if you take a treasure from the cache, you must leave something of equal or greater value.
  4. Non-geocachers are called "Muggles," as in the non-wizards in Harry Potter's world. If you see Muggles during your hunt, you should act normal, and don't let them catch on to what you're doing. (Kids LOVE this part.)
  5. Always bring a pen!

About Sierra Filucci

Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women's and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley... Read more

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Comments (15)

My three year old sister's nursery school has introduced this, it seems like a good idea! They go away on trips twice every week - just places like parks and playgrounds nearby.
Put him in programs .And if he is on the phone or anything to go on the internet make him go on fun educational things .
Yes, I've taken lots of kids on geocaching field trips. Let me know if you'd like to chat about it. I have a lot of resources and am glad to share. Also, if you're going to the ISTE conference this summer in San Antonio, I'll be giving a workshop on geocaching and educaching.
Hi, nice article and thanks for promoting Geocaching. I think, as an avid hiker, geocacher and educator, that it's very important to point out to novices that using a smartphone for URBAN geocaching is a fine dea, but to rely on a smartphone for hiking/geocaching out in nature can be extremely unreliable and put folks, especially kids, into dangerous situations. Your smartphone is only reliable for navigation if it's getting good signal and if the battery lasts a long time. My proper GPS batteries last all day and I can easily replace them with new AA's I've stored in my backpack if I'm hiking for 10 hours+ and they go dead, but my smartphone battery, especially when it's taxing network services to tap into maps and google earth, will last much less time...only a few hours at best. Also, your smartphone's accuracy for navigation is far less precise than a proper GPS and can cause some frustration when trying to find a cache with a device that can easily be 30 - 40 feet off course. For me and my geocaching friends, we always rely on a GPS that is specific to geocaching, but bring our smartphones along as well for backup (mostly to see a satellite view of the area when we are looking for alternative trails...not so much for searching for an actual cache. The only time I use my smartphone for geocaching is when I'm out and about town and suddenly get the urge to see if there might be a geocache nearby. For those kinds of urban caching moments, it can be really useful. I just wouldn't recommend using a smartphone for lengthy hikes that could tax your battery or find you with no signal. Thanks again! -Christine
I'm an active Geocacher here in Prescott, AZ. My screen name here is also my Geocaching "nickname". We have several caches here by one cacher that have been co-sponsored by the City's Parks & Recreation Dept., making it a Felony to destroy/damage them. This person has made some really "Amazing" cache sites (and that's also the name of one of his caches). One is even located completely inside one of the local Public Libraries; you don't even have to go outside; he even tells you where the cache container is, but it's locked and you have to search all around the Library interior to find the clues to open it (he tells you where to look). As a result of his caches here, one cacher in the Phoenix area coined the name "Ravenland" (he caches as "The Raven") for the Prescott area, and it stuck! As was mentioned in the article, it's a really "family-friendly" activity.
I've done some geocaching in Prescott, AZ.....my parents live there and my twin sons, believe it or not, are named Payson and Prescott. ; ) I'll have to try out that library cache next time I visit....sounds like a fun one. I'll find the GC code.
Great article. We geocache as a family in Tokyo. Our kids love it! My daughter and I have hidden a Totoro-themed geocache and it has been well-visited (your bio mentioned Miyazaki, so i figured I'd mention it). I think you're right about the kids enjoying the stealth required of them when caching. It is a great way to get them outdoors. We have also taken part in exchanging trackables (special trading items that are digitally tagged and moved from cache to cache). Each time our trackable goes to a new country we pull out a map and make it a learning experience. We have made many geocaching friends worldwide through this game!
CSM, it's a worldwide activity; you can cache anywhere in the world. All you need is either a hand-held GPS (doesn't have to be expensive or have fancy features - unless that's what you want to use) or a GPS-enabled smartphone with a Geocaching-tyle app. Mike B. AeroMechAZ on Geocaching.com
Follow the link given in the article to the official Geo-caching website and type your country, I did and some results were available so the answer is yes, but check if there are any close to where you live.
What a nice use for a smartphone!!, I found this really useful since I'm also fighting with my kids over what we call "screen time" vs rest of the world activities. There are only 3 items in my country :(, but maybe I can help with this in order to have my kids playing the game.