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Geocaching uses advanced GPS technology to uncover the treasures in your own backyard

By Anna Fader

 

If the word geocaching is not yet in your vocabulary, brace yourself: You’re on the brink of a marvelous discovery—or more likely several! Geocaching is a large-scale, modern-day form of treasure hunting, offering adventures as grand or small as you want them to be. Have 20 minutes and an antsy kid to entertain? There could be a treasure hidden right in your neighborhood, waiting to be discovered. Have a whole weekend and a mountain to climb? You’ve got a good chance of finding something there, too.

Geocaching is an outdoor activity in which people use GPS devices to locate “caches,” anywhere in the world. And you never run out of caches to find. Like your Chevy Volt*, it’s about advanced technology, interactivity and the proliferation of nature’s treasures.

The game has existed for as long as GPS devices have been on the market. Now that most smartphones have GPS capabilities, geocaching is no longer the domain of a select few tech geeks. Luckily, the pioneers of geocaching invested several years in fleshing out the game, so there are caches just about everywhere, waiting to be found.

To be clear, treasure is a relative term. It might be a keychain, a coin, a matchbox car or a shiny stone —not so much something to affect your family fortune but fun to find. Just the sorts of treasures kids value most.

Here’s how the game works. Someone (perhaps you, once you get warmed up) hides a box with a memento in it, along with a list for visitors to sign. The coordinates of the hiding place and a clue or two are logged in an online database. Each person who finds the hidden cache signs the log and is welcome to take the treasure, as long as he replaces it with another comparable item.

The beauty of geocaching is that you don’t actually need any equipment to go hunting—though a smartphone definitely ensures a quicker find for young bounty hunters with short attention spans. And anywhere you care to wander, you can choose a cache as a destination. There are tiny treasures hidden all around us: on lampposts, in trees, under rocks. Anywhere you park your car, you can likely track one down. Keep a trinket in your pocket and you can always leave a surprise for the next geocacher.

One primary online database, geocaching.com, covers hidden booty all over the world. You can play without a smartphone—old-school geocaching—by checking this free database and making note of a cache’s coordinates and clues before leaving home. If you do use a smartphone, or a standalone GPS device, a variety of apps can help you connect with the database from the road.** The app offered directly on the geocaching website is one of the more expensive ones at $9.95. It works well, but you can play for less.

Two free apps for Android are offered by c:geo and geobeagle. iPhone users who don’t want to pay for an app can try the free Seek Cach app from iTunes. If geocaching turns into an obsession (which happens easily!), there are many other apps available on both platforms, ranging in price from $1 to $15. The best ones all access the main database.

The fun, of course, is that once you set up an account and have the right software on your phone, the world is your treasure trove. See what secrets lie hidden in your neighborhood, or set off on a weekend adventure following a trail of scavenger hunts. One thing you’ll never be is bored!

The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.

Anna Fader is the founder and editor in chief of Mommy Poppins, the ultimate insider city guide and travel blog for families in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, New Jersey and Connecticut.

*The Volt is available at participating dealers.

**As with texting, it is not safe to geocache while driving.