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One Smartphone. Two Kids. Tons of Fun.

Finding hidden treasures -- also known as geocaching -- is a great way to nerd out in nature.

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!
Sierra Filucci
Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. As her kids get older, Sierra has developed a special fascination with youth culture, including YouTubers, gamers, social media, and slang. When she's not watching Marvel movies and Parks and Recreation with her kids, she enjoys reading young adult books, walking her dog, and streaming dystopian thrillers late at night.