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A geocache is an object hidden by a geocaching enthusiast. The GPS coordinates are uploaded to a geocaching website so that other enthusiasts might find it. Usually the object is a container with a logbook and some trinkets in it. The finder should sign the logbook, take something, leave something and tell the story online.
It's a global hide-and-seek game. I suppose I had heard of it before, but it never caught my interest until my five and 3-year-old boys were heading up a trail with me. Suddenly it was more than a hike. It was a treasure hunt. I realized there were numerous things to learn from this hobby.
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Rarely do online games actually lead to physical activity. This one actually requires you to go outside and be active. Not every cache is up a hiking trail. Some are in urban locations. Every cache hunt requires the participant to get up and go. Fresh air is consumed. Sunshine is absorbed. Eyes focus on trees, earth and sky rather than screens.
The last cache on our hunt that day was at the top of a three-mile trail. We didn't make it before evening fell, but my boys did an admirable amount of hiking. They enthusiastically marched onward hoping to reach the final goal. Without that motivation, they may have faded away much sooner.
Furthermore, I learned something about my own backyard. I might never have found the place even though you could see my house from up there. Geocaching pushes you to explore places you otherwise wouldn't. You will learn about your own area. When traveling, you will go to places not on the typical path. If you follow the guidebook, it will take you the normal tourist places. If you geocache, you'll go to the locals' favorite secret spots.
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The game encourages you to examine your surroundings. When you are near your cache, you'll search under logs, look up trees, flip rocks and watch for things out of place. Inevitably, you will find new creatures and plants. You'll see things you would have overlooked otherwise. The whole trip, you will be looking for something new.
My oldest kept bringing me leaves and asking me what kind of tree they belonged to. I could not answer many of his questions and realized how ignorant I was about local foliage. We found a number of beetles, birds and other critters. We even saw some spittlebugs. We would just read about them in a library book. Now they were right in front of us in all their foamy beauty.
EarthCaches take you to a particular geological formation rather than a planted object. Along with coordinates are a set of educational notes. After completing the search, you must answer a series of questions about the site. Learning nothing is not an option.
When I hike, sometimes I only watch the terrain and focus on the destination. This time, the boys and I were more in tune with the discovery process.
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Solve a Problem
Some caches are not easy to find. Their coordinates are not given simply. Sometimes you must solve a puzzle. The first cache we found involved a math problem to determine the coordinates and then a clue: between the center and tackle in football. My European friends believe football is played with a round ball and feet only. Knowing better, I said “guard” and found the cache behind a guardrail.
Letterbox caches involve a series of clues rather than coordinates. Wherigo caches are an entire adventure requiring interactions with characters and objects along the way. Multi-caches have multiple locations with hints along the way leading to the final prize.
You may become part of the journey for an object. Some items, known as “trackables,” can be followed online as they move around the globe. When you find one, you are expected to move it to another cache. Travel Bugs are trackables with a specific goal, like to move from coast to coast or visit every country in South America.
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Respect the Land
An essential rule to geocaching is to leave it where you found it. It's a good lesson for the entire trip. I had a chance to encourage my boys to leave the land as we found it. That included: Please stop pulling the leaves off the trees. Take a picture of the flowers rather than bringing them physically to mommy. Don't step on that beetle.
“Cache In, Trash Out” events ask geocachers to clean as they go. Pick up trash along the way and consider the reclaimed rubbish to be a prize. Geocaching is more fun in beautiful, unspoiled nature.
The hunt is an opportunity to realize what great things blue sky, fresh air and abundant nature are. At home or in a classroom, children can understand intellectually what it means to protect the environment. Only outdoors can they see, smell and feel how vibrant and delicate it is. They need to see what they'll be losing.
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Tell a Story
Once you find it, you need to log it. You will have a chance to not only note the event, but to share the experience as well. With photos and words, you can bring the tale to life. Surely, it was more than just finding a thing in the woods. It was the people you were with, the things you didn't expect and all the ways your senses were triggered.
The art of writing a story is slipping away. This is one reason to keep sharing. You'll find the stories of other geocachers. You can interact with them and compare. This can be the beginning of an online conversation that is actually about something.
Look at me. It all started out with my son's preschool friend coming over for lunch. Next thing you know, I cared what my longitude and latitude were. My boys and I learned something new. We had a story to tell.
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Oh, and Learn Some Tech
Of course, the whole thing is impossible without the geocache app for your phone or a GPS. You'll learn how to navigate with a GPS, which could save your life. You will learn global positioning and the meaning of the coordinates. Navigating with a hand-held device will become second nature.
And you'll find the best part of social networking. People you have never met will share pictures and stories. You'll reach across borders and see you have something in common with the planet.
Geocaching is a great excuse, if you need one, to take a hike.