As a kid, that first day of summer break was like winning the lottery, wasn’t it? For those of us who are now parents, the arrival of summer break might evoke the thought that we might actually need to win the lottery to survive the months ahead.
When you’re trying to limit your spending, simply signing the kids up for camps and other activities isn’t an option. And we all know keeping kids with boundless energy quarantined in a house all day is no good.
What’s a parent on a budget to do? Here’s one way to entertain your kids for free this summer: introduce them to geocaching.
Geocaching: Treasure Hunting Gone Wild
Never heard of it? Neither had I until a few years ago when I was introduced to it by, of all people, my 5-year-old niece.
After tagging along on an excursion with her and her parents, I was hooked. Often referred to as a “real-world treasure hunt,” this activity actually lives up to its name.
Participants use GPS coordinates to find hidden containers — anything from a tiny film canister to a large metal box, though plastic Tupperware containers seem to be most popular — known as geocaches, or simply caches. These caches, which were concealed by other geocachers, often have clever names and additional clues that help you find the treasure.
What Do You Need to Geocache?
The beauty of geocaching is you probably already have everything you need to get started. You could be out the door in a matter of minutes — which is handy if you’re like me and your kids are performing Cirque du Soleil acrobatics on your sofa as you read this post.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A GPS-enabled device
- Internet access
- Your sense of adventure
- A small trinket or toy for each child (optional; read on to learn why)
Years ago, when I first tried geocaching with my niece, I had a “dumbphone.” It was an old-school flip phone that certainly wasn’t GPS-enabled. At that time, most geocaching folks — including us — used a bulky handheld GPS unit to hunt down our treasures. If you’d still like to go this route, you can often find these units on eBay for under $50.
However, if you have a smartphone, you’ve got numbers one and two covered. As long as you’re in an area with coverage from your wireless provider, you’ll be able to access the GPS coordinates right from your phone. Log onto Geocaching.com through your phone’s browser, or download the site’s free app for iPhone or Android. Android users can also try a comparable free app called C:geo.
As long as you remember to pack your sense of adventure — and perhaps even a picnic lunch — you’re good to go.
Geocaching in Action
So you’ve fully charged your phone, packed a picnic and promised your ornery offspring an adventure. Now what do you do?
Get the party started by logging into the app or site of your choice. Plug in your zip code — and voila! Up pops a list of nearby geocaches. The size of the list will vary depending on your location.
For example, when I plugged in my zip code, it came back with nearly 15,000 listings within a 100-mile radius — and I live in a pretty small Midwestern town. At least 200 of those were within a 10-mile radius, which is much more doable with small children. And if you keep the searches even closer to home, you can save on gas by walking.
Look at the list and pick your first geocache. The site or app will rank each one based on its level of difficulty and terrain, so if your kids are younger, you should probably stick with the easier ones.
Select your cache and let the hunt begin! Your phone will update you on your progress as you approach or veer away from the cache, with updates on your direction and distance from the destination.
The anticipation of opening your first cache is going to be huge. After all, you’ve just found a treasure! Each time, right before my kids open a container, I think, “This is it. This is the cache holding some billionaire’s big fat check.”
But, alas, that hasn’t happened yet.
Inside a cache, anything goes: you might find small toy cars, a hand-drawn picture or other interesting trinkets. Now’s the time to use those toys your kids grabbed before leaving the house. Have each child trade their toy for one in the container — and then be sure to brainstorm about the people who will find them next. Use those imaginations!
Nearly every cache also holds a logbook. Your family can sign it and check out the other signatures. Some caches have been in the same place for years! If you’re using Geocaching.com’s site or app, encourage your kids to sign the online logbook as well, where they can leave tips or encouragement for other geocachers.
Finally, put everything back in the cache and hide it back in its place, exactly how you found it, so it’s ready for the next group of geocachers.
The hunt for the “treasure” and the randomness of the cache contents are what makes this activity so much fun. It’s a free activity that gets the kids running around outside — what more could a parent ask?
Your Turn: Have you ever geocached? Have you tried it with kids, or would you?
Steph Weber is a mom and freelance writer hailing from the Midwest. She writes mostly about healthcare, finance, and small business — that is, when she’s not finding her happy place after chasing around a sticker-crazed toddler.