Austin Geocaching: Family Outdoor Adventure

Have you ever heard of geocaching?

Most people have heard of it but haven’t tried it. My first exposure to geocaching was reading a course description on my city’s parks board months ago. From that moment I was hooked. If you are looking for ways to keep children entertained, geocaching is  “a worldwide game of hiding and seeking treasure using technology” Treasure hunting at any age ~ what’s not to like?

Geocaching spots Austin

Texas State Parks Geocaching

Geocaches can be found stashed in secret locations of parking lots, near stadiums, in playgrounds – just about anywhere.  But parks are a great place to find multiple in one area. Over 90 Texas state parks welcome geocachers to the adventure by hosting over 1,200 geocaches (prize-filled containers) concealed throughout state parks. Caches can be identified online in advance, using the Global Positioning System (GPS) or by installing a downloadable, easy-to-use mobile app. Many parks feature Geocache 101 workshops (free with regular park entrance) to show beginners the mechanics of this modern-day spin on a treasure hunt.

The latitude & longitude of the secret cache are given and the geocachers are then directed to about 12 feet of its position. The geocachers then scan the surrounding terrain until they discover the “goodies” in a jar that could be as small as a film canister or as big as a candy tin. These treasures are never buried, so a shovel is not needed.

There are over 3,500 geocaches around Austin

I wanted to share the experience immediately because it was so beneficial and rewarding. Literally, I’ve done nothing else but lookup caches in my area since coming home from the outing. I can understand why there’s a warning on most geocaching sites about possible addictions. =) I think I’ve caught the bug and it’s great this new activity will be relatively inexpensive and so healthy for my children and family. For anyone struggling with keeping older kids entertained and away from the TV, computers, and video games this summer – learning how to geocache may just be your ticket to enjoying the next few months outdoors.

geocaching found
image via nps.gov

Before I start on my rant about boys and electronics I’ll remember I’ve already written about this. It’s a daily battle with all my kids to keep them focused on nature and activities rather than jumping onto the computer or firing up the Wii. With geocaching, it’s two wonderful worlds colliding for children – electronic GPS system (or iPhone app) and treasure hunting in nature. Really, what isn’t to like? Only, in a child’s mind, it gets better. They are hunting treasure. And this isn’t the point of geocaching and shouldn’t be an important part of your geocaching experience, but let’s just think like children for a moment ~ and once they are told they’ll be discovering treasure – they are very excited!

Once you have loaded the coordinates into your GPS or iPhone and located the cache – usually there is a logbook so they can sign their name and swap trinkets. Yes, the trinkets are normally plastic because they need to be permeable to wet weather, but the children are simply thrilled by this aspect of geocaching. The thrill for many children and adults is the adrenaline rush of the ‘find’. Getting close to the cache, resisting the need to check the clue, then searching around for that perfectly hidden cache is the true thrill of geocaching.

And it’s so exciting to find the cache, but knowing there are treasures inside was exciting for my boys today. We even found a cache located at a park 2 blocks from our house after we got home…without the assistance of a GPS. Just putting our zip code into the ‘hide and seek’ section of the www.geocaching.com site we found a cache very easily and will try this route because we don’t have a GPS system or iPhone. My boys left hockey cards and even my girls were excited by the treasures.

geocache hidden
geocache hidden in a tree

Once you discover the magic – it’s hard to go back to being a Muggle. Umm yes, the activity of geocaching even has reference to ‘Muggles’ which as we know from Harry Potter refers to people that are non-wizards or in this case, non-geocachers. In the log notes that are left after discovering a cache, nearby people that aren’t aware of geocaching, are referred to as Muggles and in our house right now, there isn’t a more cool topic than anything referencing Harry Potter and wizards.

Austin Geocache Challenge

You can enter the Geocache Austin Challenge this winter for a totally healthy, touch-less experience! Presented by Austin Parks and Recreation, this is a free, self-paced geocache competition that will take place over two months, from  Feb 1st – to March 31st, 2021. Their crew has hidden more than 50 geocaches so you can find them in more than 20 Austin parks.

Geocache Austin Challenge

What is Geocaching?

Geocaching is a treasure hunting game that uses GPS technology to hide and locate geocaches. It can be a casual pastime, or highly competitive. It can be as easy as a walk in the park, or as hard as climbing a mountain. It can be a solitary experience, or very social. Geocaching can be done by the very young or the aged, the very fit, or people with disabilities. Geocaching is an activity that you can modify to suit YOU.

What is a geocache?

A traditional geocache (or just a “cache”) is a container of some sort. The size and form of this container are only limited by your imagination. The only requirement on a cache container is that it must hold a logbook of some sort and it must not be dangerous.

How do I geocache?

There are two essential parts to geocaching: finding a cache and hiding a cache.

Finding a geocache

To find a cache you need to know where it is. The location is usually provided to you as a set of coordinates that you can enter into a GPS receiver (GPSr). There are a number of websites that can provide this information, and the most popular is www.geocaching.com. The cache information page may also provide details on the size of the cache, the terrain difficulty, the finding difficulty, and additional hints.

geocaching map
map of geocaches. Look at all of these!

With the cache information, now you usually enter the coordinates into your GPSr and follow the directions to the area where the cache is hidden. The GPS typically gets you within 10-25 feet of the cache.

Once you find the cache, you sign the log, exchange any trade items you want, and log your find on the appropriate web site when you get home.

Hiding a geocache

Hiding a geocache involves careful planning to determine where to place the cache, what kind of container to use as the cache, obtaining permission to place the cache, and then submitting the cache for listing on the appropriate web site.

Geocaching is different for everyone. You may choose not to hide any caches, or you may choose to hide many caches. How you play the game is up to you!

Geocaching With Young Kids

Geocaching remains a favorite activity of our now 6yr old. He loves getting out, exploring new parts of the city, the province, other provinces, and indeed other countries! The treasure-hunting aspect of it is fun, but he enjoys the technological aspect (he’s a gadget geek just like his parents) and the SOCIAL aspect too.

We often go out caching with other cachers. Sometimes they have kids too, and it’s this shared experience that really appeals to them. He has kids to talk with, to explore with, and to treasure-hunt with. To be sure, it gets a bit competitive sometimes, but generally speaking, good fun is had by all.

Our youngest has never known weekends without geocaching! He seems to be taking after his brother, having claimed our older eTrex as his own, and participating in the hunts. He loves tromping through the woods, bush-whacking through the scrub, and finding the next cache in “just a few yards” — which is always his response to “how far to the next cache?”

With almost 800 cache finds, about 400 of those with one kid, and another 300 with both kids, we think we have some perspective on how to have fun as a family geocaching.

  • Caching as a family is fun. Two families caching is more than twice as fun. Geocaching is also an all-ages hobby. Geocaching with grandparents is a great way to spend a day!
  • Keep spirits up by bringing lots of food and drinks. Snacks along the trail are important to keep everybody’s energy level up and spirit high. Don’t forget about snacks and drinks for you too!
  • Patience is key. If it’s taking too long to find a cache, the kids will get bored and distracted and morale will fall. Be willing to accept DNFs!
  • The kids set the pace. They’ll let you know when enough is enough, so resist the urge for “one last cache” — you’ll end up paying for it in the end!
  • Pay attention to the terrain and difficulty ratings. Don’t tackle caches that will be too difficult to find, or be too hard to get to with the kids. We sometimes have the toddler walking on his own, sometimes in a backpack, and sometimes in a stroller. The terrain has to be appropriate!
  • As a practical matter, kids under 5 can handle a few miles’ walking, but if you’re doing more than 3 miles return then you’re starting to push things.
  • It’s not just about the hunt! Through the course of your adventures, you will discover parts of your region you never knew existed. Take some time to explore them, and enjoy them. You’ll come across countless new playgrounds, and your kids will love that.

 

 

What do I need to geocache?

Geocaching does not require much. At the least, you need internet access to find out where the caches are hidden. You do not necessarily need a GPSr (you can often use Google Maps or the like to find urban geocaches) but it definitely is handy. You don’t need a sport GPSr — newer cell phones with GPS capabilities are suitable for geocaching too. Automotive GPS is less suitable for geocaching. The last thing you need is a little bit of time. Caution: geocaching can be addictive and may consume more than “a little bit of time”.

Geocaching etiquette

Geocaching has evolved from a tradition of respecting the environment. It is important to minimize your (and others’) impact on the environment. Geocaches are never buried. Geocaches should be only placed (and found) respecting property rights. Geocaches should not disrupt or cause public alarm.

Always sign logs of caches you find. Leave polite and helpful logs when you log your finds on the web. Always “trade up”: if you take a trade item, leave an item of equal or better value. Always move travel bugs or geocoins within two weeks of picking them up. Never leave food-related items in caches.

Geocache types

Traditional caches are containers with logs. However, there are also “multicaches” which may require you to visit several locations and find several caches before finding the “final” cache. There are puzzle caches (aka mystery caches) that may require you to solve difficult (or easy) puzzles before finding the physical caches. There are “virtual” caches (no longer accepted at geocaching.com) where there is no container at all!

Geocaching events

Geocaching can be a very social activity too! Meetups of geocachers happen regularly, and these events can be registered on the geocaching web pages too! Events can be geocaching 101 events, rallies, poker events, anything where a group of cachers gets together for an event that is NOT primarily finding caches. Some events may have thousands of attendees!

Travel bugs, geocoins, and signature items

Part of the tradition of geocaching is leaving trinkets in the caches for others to find. These trinkets may range from small toys to keychains to CDs, or anything! Some items are trackable on geocaching web sites: they have tracking numbers on them that let their owners (and others) see the journey that they have been on. Travel bugs are any items with a “travel bug” dog-tag attached to them. Geocoins are coins with tracking numbers stamped right into them. Geocoins are *sometimes* left in geocaches, and some people just collect the coins outright!
Some geocachers have created items that they leave in every cache they visit, “signature items”. These items may be wooden nickels, buttons, or some other small trinket that have the geocacher’s name on them.

Do you go caching with your family? Do you have any tips or tricks to share?

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