Grab a GPS and take the kids geocaching

Geocache 1FeatureBy Laura Barnhardt Cech

A man is staring from his balcony, possibly suspicious of me shouting, "We're 11 feet away. Oh no, now 15." We are geocaching for the first time. The wind is whipping us, and we're late for dinner. My 9-year-old cuts to the heart of our Sunday outing: "What are we looking for anyway?"

Good question, actually.

For a beginner, the toughest part of geocaching, the outdoor treasure-hunting game, might be not knowing what you're trying to find.

You select the location of the geocache — the hidden treasure — on an official website, which rates the level of difficulty of the hunt. But even with a few clues, you won't know whether you're looking for a Tupperware container or a shoebox.

A hand-held GPS or downloaded GPS app on a smart phone will give you driving directions and guide you on foot to a camouflaged container, which could contain anything from a marble to a golf ball.

"It's almost like an Easter Egg hunt... The kids love the trinkets inside," says Susan Kelley, public relations officer for the Maryland Geocaching Society who likes to take her grandsons on geocaching adventures. "And it gets them away from the Wii."

Geocaching in Maryland

There are more than 7,000 official geocaches hidden in Maryland and more than 2 million worldwide, says Kelley.

Finding the treasures is an ideal family activity, says Phil Gilbert, a Columbia geocacher. "There's something for everyone," he says.

If you're into puzzles, some have intricate clues, Gilbert says. Others emphasize the hiking. Some are in grassy areas just off parking lots and rest areas and give a great change of venue for bored kids. Many are along trails at state parks. A few can only be reached by canoe or with climbing gear.

Gilbert's wife and their 14-year-old daughter, Christine, once found a geocache in a PVC pipe made to blend in with some cattails.

This is part of what makes geocaching fun, says Christine. "I like the sense of accomplishment when you find it."

A small cache is about the size of an M&M candy tube or an Altoids mint tin, says Gilbert. It will hold a logbook, which serves as a kind of guest book for those who find it to sign, and, possibly, some small items such as buttons or marbles. A regular cache holds a logbook and a decent amount of swag. It's generally about the size of medium Tupperware container (usually 5-6 by 4 by 2 inches). It could have a matchbox car or a bracelet inside. A large cache might be a 5-gallon paint bucket, Gilbert says.

In hindsight, I should've paid closer attention to the size of the cache in the description. For a beginner, the symbols on the geocaching website are a little tricky to decipher.

I had chosen to download the Geocaching app to my phone ($9.99), which can be slightly less accurate than a hand-held GPS device, so I was doubting myself, as we walked in circles around a clump of trees.

At one point, as we drove out of a parking lot, defeated, my son said, "Well, I did see a green box."

I screeched the brakes. "Seriously? That was probably it."

Turns out, he was talking about a large green dumpster. Even I knew that the cache wasn't that big. And while some geocachers aren't afraid to go spelunking in caves, I knew I wasn't dumpster diving.

I also should have read the logs of those who'd found the cache. They're almost like mini-reviews, pointing out potential flaws, and occasionally adding clues.

Although we eventually found the cache, it was too small to hold a prize.

Geocaching for prizes

The reward is an extremely powerful motivator—even if it's just a matchbox car or a plastic bracelet.

"It gets the kids excited about going the park, or for a hike," says Paul Murphy, an Ellicott City father of two, ages 10 and 9, who geocache. "It's the prize at the end of the walk."

If you're geocaching with kids, you'll probably want to chose a cache that holds prizes, says Daniel Hammock, a father of three from Catonsville whose family also geocaches. "It's a big disappointment if there's not a toy inside."

Geocachers are asked to put something in the cache box if they take something out. So, you'll want to bring a trinket — a patch, stickers, bouncy ball or other small toy for trading. (Food and alcohol are big no-no's)

Hammock has a quality hand-held GPS unit. But he also uses a geocaching app on his phone for when the family travels to Georgia to visit relatives.

"We hit some on the way," he says. "There are often caches at rest stops, and they like to see what toys are left there."

Geocaching is fun for parents too

For parents, there's a competitive edge — many geocachers pride themselves on the number and types of finds they log onto the website. But geocaching is a great way to get exercise, spend time with the family and friends, and explore new areas.

"It's shown us parts of Maryland we never would've found otherwise," says Murphy, whose Air Force job moved he and his family to the area last summer.

Some geocaches are organized into a series, known as a "geotrail," with a theme. The Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Geocaching Society created a geotrail that highlights interesting, overlooked spots in the state, for example.

Morris Pearson, a long-time geocacher from Owings, created a geotrail of Cold War History sites in Maryland. There are 15 stops in all, including several decommissioned nuclear missile sites.

"We like to do the research," says Pearson, who geocaches with his wife and their 13-year-old daughter. "It combines our love of history with hiking."

Caching in on educational opportunities

There's another level to geocaching, using trackable items called "Travel Bug® Trackables" and "Geocoins."

These game pieces have codes used to log their movements in the world, tracked at Travel bugs have goals set by the creator — perhaps to visit state parks or amusement parks. People who find them in a cache, take them to specific sites, upload photographs to the website and write a journal entry. Then, they put the Travel Bug or other trackable in another cache, so it can hitch-hike to the next spot with another geocacher.

The Murphys, who cache under the name HAPPeMurphy (a combination of all their names: Hannah, Alice, Paul III, Paul IV), have released several trackables. One, a charm bracelet created in memory of Alice's mother, is traveling to theme parks. The family has also released a pewter Celtic cross on a mission to visit Cathedrals.

"It's been all through Europe," says Murphy. "Some of the logs aren't even written in English."

"We're learning about countries, languages, and really culture," he says.

Geocaching 101

geocachingWhat is geocaching? It's an outdoor treasure-hunting game using GPS devices. Using a set of GPS coordinates, participants search for the hidden container (caches), and log their discoveries on the website.

How do you get the GPS coordinates? Register for a free, basic membership at, and search for geocaches by area. Geocaches that are best for beginners are highlighted in green. All caches are rated by difficulty and terrain. A 1/1 would be an easy find, on flat terrain. Many caches are handicapped accessible. For example, there's one in Tawes Garden in Annapolis.

What equipment do you need? You can download a GPS app to your smart phone for less than $10, or you can use a hand-held GPS unit, which starts at about $110 available at, sporting good and electronic stores. You should also bring a pen to record your find in the cache log.

What's hidden in the containers? All have a log of who has found the cache and when. In regular-size containers, you might find a golf ball, a bracelet, a patch, or trinkets and toys. If you take something, you should put something in the cache. Smaller, nano-caches may only contain a log book. A Multi-Cache has two or more locations, and usually the first cache will be a clue to find the next cache.

What do you after you find a cache? Return the container to the exact location where you found it. This is very important. When you get home, log your find (and upload pictures, etc.) at

What is a trackable? A geocaching "game piece" etched with a unique code that can be used to log its movements on as it travels in the real world. Some trackables are "Travel Bug® Trackables" and "Geocoins."

What is a muggle? A non-geocacher, who may unintentionally or intentionally find a cache and move it or damage it.

More information:

Photos by Scott Cech

Originally published May 2013.