Geocaching with Kids: The Beginner’s Guide

blue lidded container with words Official Geocache hidden in leaves

Who else loves both being outside and a good scavenger or treasure hunt?

If your family is anything like ours, and you don’t already geocache, you are going to want to give it a try! We love geocaching and been participating since mid-2008, albeit as off and on cachers. This would be because we did not find it to be a viable activity while our son was in a car seat. But, once he became independently mobile with his booster, we “drove” right back in. However, when taking kids geocaching, we do recommend a kid-friendly game strategy.

Sometimes we plan on getting outside for a nice long walk and our child is just not in the mood that day. He’s bored, he’s frustrated, he wants to do anything else but this. And yet the dog really needs a good ramble and we parents need a break. Planning a geocaching adventure rewards all of us. The kid has a mission, the dog gets a nice walk, and we aren’t stuck at home.

Read on for tips and tricks on how to get started and how to keep the fun going as your kids get more proficient at the game!

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What is geocaching?

The word geocache is derived from two words: geo, meaning earth, and cache, meaning a safe place for hiding or storing something. The official definition of geocaching, as defined by those who created the game, is “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.” Basically, it is a worldwide* game of hide and seek. The game began on May 3, 2000, in Beavercreek, OR (near Portland) and I (Tracy) have been to the original stash site with a photo to prove it.

plaque showing location of first geocache

*Actually, it is now interplanetary as there is a geocache that can be logged from Mars, and we have the souvenir to show!

Is geocaching hard?

While geocaching does have its own lingo to learn, there is nothing difficult about it. When we began, pre-Smart phone era, it was a bit more complicated as you had to download coordinates to a handheld GPS device. Nowadays the apps and maps are so sophisticated that just about anyone can participate.

Why do people geocache?

That’s a really good question and I’m sure there are many answers. We geocache because we enjoy getting out and about. It gives us a reason to explore new places and find new campgrounds. We have found new parks to play at, new trails to explore, new places to bike, all because a geocache led us in that direction. They make a nice break as we travel down the road and need to make a stop to stretch our legs, go to the bathroom, and/or get a bite to eat. We also enjoy the educational aspects that some caches offer.

Wait, there are educational aspects for kids geocaching?

Yes, there are. You can sneak some learning into this game with your kids. At a high level we believe that geocaching involves math and mapping, nature, technology, sometimes art, sometimes history, definitely safety, and the ability to work on problem solving and puzzles.

  • Art: some of the caches we have gone to discover are placed to highlight a hidden mural or a statue. We would probably not have gone looking for these without a reason to do so but once we are there we can discuss what the artist intended by creating this piece.
  • History: similar to the art, many caches have been placed in an area where there are interesting pieces of knowledge to acquire. Sometimes we have to answer questions about what we’ve learned in order to log the cache as found. Oftentimes we will become curious enough to further research on the topic once we get home.
  • Math and mapping: we get to learn about how a compass works, what latitude and longitude are, how to follow directions, and map out the location of the cache. If you start creating your own caches, there will be even more math and mapping involved.
  • Nature: while we wouldn’t wax poetic over the joys of an LPC (see below for common acronyms) many times we are in areas where we can discuss the plants and trees around us. We can also use this time to talk about the effects of pollution, maybe practice a little CITO, and discuss ways in which we can make the world a more beautiful place. One of my favorite picture books happens to be Miss Rumphius and while I wouldn’t go about scattering lupine seeds everywhere we cache, I do find it fun to dream about doing something similar.
kid finding a small geocache under the skirt of a lamp pole
  • Problem Solving: many caches require a bit of problem solving such as where is thing actually located? I’m standing at ground zero and I see nothing out of place. Then we put our thinking caps on and evaluate the area. We get to think about how it might be camouflaged. Is it hanging from a tree limb? Do I see a guardrail that might have a magnetic attached somewhere? Is there a light pole skirt that lifts up?
  • Puzzles: other caches actually require us to solve a puzzle before we even get the clues to go to the end location. We might be sent to one place, have to solve a puzzle, then get the coordinates for the actual cache itself. Other caches require you to solve a puzzle in order to even open the cache container. Those can be fun…and frustrating!
  • Safety: there are so many ways to incorporate discussions of safety as you are geocaching with kids. Don’t stick your hand inside a hole without knowing there are no snakes or spiders inside. Watch where you are walking and don’t trip over that tree root and fall into that patch of poison ivy. We need to climb partway up that wall to reach the cache, how can we do so without injury? Take advantage of each situation to reinforce being aware of our surroundings, discuss road safety and water safety, and what to do if we get lost. All of these are skills every kid should know, but especially those who spend time camping and in the outdoors.
  • Technology: we are using multi-million dollar satellites to find Tupperware containers in the woods, how can we not learn something about technology while playing this game?

How do I get my kid into geocaching?

We recommend using geocache hunts to find new parks to play in, to explore the history of your area, and to break up a road trip. Rest stop caches might not be the most interesting to find, but they sure do help stretch the legs as you drive along the interstate.

For kids who are extremely active, scrambling around rocks and climbing trees can be a reward in and of itself. Kids who love to solve puzzles will have fun with the multitude of logic caches available to find. And tech-obsessed kids will enjoy “using multi-million dollar satellites to find Tupperware containers in the woods.

What equipment is needed to start kids geocaching?

Back when we started, we used a Garmin handheld GPS along with lots and lots of paper. Sigh. So much paper. We were intrigued by others who used Blackberry devices, but they all owned them already and we did not. Therefore, we were thrilled when the geocaching app was introduced and quickly switched over to it. We both have the app on our smartphones and our son is extremely familiar with how to use the Navigate tab to head us in the correct direction. If we do bring the handheld along as well, he is responsible and is learning how to program it.

How much does geocaching cost?

The app is currently free, and we pay $30 a year for our premium membership. Since we already own our phones, we find this a relatively small price to pay for the hours and hours of fun we have with the game. Why do I say currently free for the app? When we first got the app on our phones, there was a small price associated with it. I don’t know if this will change again. If it does though, I’m sure the creators will keep it affordable.

Having said that, for those who seriously get into the game, there are other costs associated with it. We do spend a little bit of money each year on SWAG for trading and containers for placing our own caches. We keep it simple. Others can be a lot more elaborate. In other words, you can make it expensive, or you can keep it affordable.

This all sounds great! How does one get started geocaching with kids?

This is incredibly easy as long as you don’t get bogged down in the details. The hardest part is probably coming up with a username that isn’t already taken and yet means something to you. We geocache as a team under the name WagThatTAIL which works for us. However, the simple steps are as follows:

  1. Become a member
    1. Choose a name
    2. Create an account at geocaching.com
    3. Download the app
  2. Select a cache to find
    1. Search for those close by
    2. We recommend starting with traditionals
    3. Check their ratings
    4. What size is it?
    5. Read the description, possibly the hint
  3. Click Navigate and GO!
  4. Locate your cache
    1. Reading other logs can provide tips if you are stuck
    2. Practice Leave No Trace principles
  5. Once found
    1. Sign the paper log
    2. Hide it back exactly where you found it
    3. Practice CITO: cache in, trash out
  6. Digitally log your find
    1. Click on Log in the app on or on the website
    2. Choose your message type
    3. Say something fun*

*Those who create caches do so for the enjoyment of others. We hope to provide them with some enjoyment by writing something in response that might tickle their fancy or cause them to smile. We believe this is how you say “thank you” to the cache owner for the time and effort it takes them to create, place, and maintain their geocaches.

What exactly are do those cache types mean?

We recommend you read up on all of the different types of caches directly at the website. And now we will tell you that when geocaching with kids we recommend the traditional to start with. We also have a lot of fun with the mystery caches as they typically have a puzzle to solve prior to heading off on the hunt. Letterboxes are also on our list of enjoyable caches for geocaching with kids as they can stamp their notebook with the stamp that stays in the cache location.

What does a traditional geocache look like?

Traditional geocaches are the original type of cache. These are containers located at specific coordinates and can be any size from nano to large. The smallest might only have a log to sign. Larger ones might include items to trade or trackables.

As for appearance, they can vary dramatically. We have seen fake rocks, fake sprinkler heads, and fake bolts. There used to be a lot of 35 mm film canisters, these have been shifting over to small pill bottles. The larger ones are usually easier for a child to discover, plus they are more likely to have treasure to find.

What’s in a geocache?

All geocaches will have a way for you to record your name and the date of discovery. If it is a traditional geocache, there will be some sort of log. Any of them from small to large should also contain some trinkets or toys for trading. Geocaching etiquette states you can take an item from the cache as long as you also leave something of equal or greater value in its place. We bring trade items in our geocaching kit so we always have something available. There may also be trackables in the cache that you can help move along.

What’s a trackable?

Trackables are physical items that have been placed in a cache with a mission to achieve. The owner of the trackable will assign it a goal such as “visit every state” or “have my picture taken with yellow cars.” Community members will then help the trackable achieve their mission by moving them from cache to cache. You do not need to own the geocache to place a trackable in it.

They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they do have one thing in common. They all have a tracking code stamped on it which allows geocachers to log and follow the items’ travels online. If you find one, you do not need to trade for it, but only take it if you are willing to keep it moving. There is nothing more depressing than having your trackable go missing before they complete their journey.

How about some hints on reading the cache page?

Sure. We are a fan of keeping things on the easy side when we have our child with us. Start with the name of the cache. There can be valuable clues in the name which might help you narrow down a search area.

Last Found?

Next, we always check the “last found” date. If it has been a while since it was last found, we check the recent logs and look to see if there have been a bunch of DNFs posted. When the last several logs are Did Not Find, we move on to another cache. If the last few logs all say they found it, or if it has been found recently, we look at the Difficulty/Terrain ratings and the Size of the cache.

Difficulty/Terrain and Size

 photo showing size of nano cache in the palm of a hand

Both difficulty and terrain range from 1 to 5 and eventually we would love to hit all 81 possible D/T combinations but, again for now, we tend to stick to the easier ones. Size ranges from micro to small to regular to large to other. While there used to be fairly standard definitions of what each size consisted of that seems to have been lost along the way. Some caches will claim to be Small and once we find them, we would say they were Regular. Nano caches can be very hard to spot when you are new.

Description

Next you are going to want to read the description. Not only will this provide information you might need to find the cache, it might also state: BYOP (Bring Your Own Pen). It’s no fun finding the cache if you can’t then sign the log. If there is a hint, we recommend you go ahead and read it when you are new. As you become more experienced you might try to find them without the hints but to begin with hints help enhance your geo-senses.

Common Themes

kid climbing tree to get bison tube geocache hanging from tree limb

We now recognize common themes from local cache owners in their hides, especially when they are creating a power trail or GeoTour. Some of them have preferred containers so we know to always look for a bison tube, or a magnetic key holder, or an empty metal tin. Others always tend to hide in the same type of spot such as the top of a fence post, hanging from the branch of a tree, or under a lamp post skirt. These ten tips from the geocaching help center are a great reminder to read before each trip until you are confident in your skills.

Trails and Tours

Now for those wondering what a power trail could be, this is when someone creates a series of hides in a linear fashion such as one every mile down a highway. Similarly, GeoTours are a cluster of hides in a general area intended to bring attention to some local attraction. These are great ways to beef up your statistics if you are trying to reach a new milestone!

Now there are times we go geocaching without any kids. When that happens, we try for harder caches, or look for things that have been stumping others. The thrill of the hunt is what makes the game fun for us.

What are all those geocaching acronyms?

Every hobby seems to have their own language. Geocaching is no different. In this case, the ten most common acronyms you might find in descriptions, hints, and other logs are as follows:

  • BYOP – Bring Your Own Pen
  • CITO – Cache In, Trash Out ®
  • DNF – Did Not Find
  • FTF – First to Find
  • LPC – Lamp Pole Cache
  • SWAG – Stuff We All Get
  • TB – Travel Bug ®
  • TFTC – Thanks for The Cache
  • TNLN – Took Nothing Left Nothing
  • TOTT – Tools of The Trade

How do you make geocaching fun for kids?

The worst thing we can think of is to start off with a bunch of really difficult caches that can’t be found or are so small (nano) that the only thing to do is sign a paper log. With that in mind, we have five tips to select fun to find geocaches for kids.

Choose easy geocaches

Take a good look at the Difficulty/Terrain ratings of the cache in question. We aim for lower numbers as we are hoping our child will find the cache himself. Each time he is the first one of us to find a cache he is more inspired to try for the next one. Over time he will be eager to try for harder combos but in the meantime, we save those for our adult only geocaching trips.

The bigger the better

I don’t know about your kid but ours loves to go on a treasure hunt. This means that we focus on geocaches that are likely to have SWAG for trading. The larger containers are more likely to have toys and trinkets for trade which means we aim for medium to large caches. Don’t forget to bring items to swap for anything you might take though!

Is it still there?

Nothing ends a good time more quickly than being frustrated by a bunch of unfound caches. The disappointment can almost be touched. While there is no way to guarantee a cache will be found, there are some indications that you would be wasting your time going after a specific one. Check the latest activity and if there hasn’t been any or the most recent logs state DNF (did not find), don’t add it to your list.

Create a Pocket query using kid-friendly attributes

Premium members also can create Pocket queries, selecting various attributes to narrow down their searches. The first one to consider is the attribute “Recommended for kids.” We also like to look at ones with the attribute “Camping Nearby” when considering upcoming vacations. And now that our child is a little bit older, we’re going to start exploring those labeled “Night cache” to create a new sense of adventure.

Consider challenges

Over time the statistics page on geocaching.com has become quite robust. I remember when you had to log into a separate website to see all of the pretty charts for analyzing your success and failures. Now however we can see our caching chronology which includes things such as longest streak of finding, current slump, and finds per month. There is also a perpetual calendar view for those who want to find one on all 366 days (another one of our goals!), the types of caches found, the types of containers found, and distance statistics, as well as the Difficulty/Terrain grid showing all 81 possible combinations.

You can use any of these to create your own challenges as well as attempting some of the common challenges that have been discussed in the forums. Below are some of the most common:

The 365 (366) Day Challenge

Find one cache every day of the year (does not need to be a streak). This is probably the easiest one to do, especially as a newcomer to the game. Unfortunately for us, we still haven’t achieved this one. Maybe this is the year!

The Streak

See how long you can go finding at least one geocache every single day. Our streak is sad compared to many other geocachers out there. We have only achieved a streak of 45 days. I would love to have a longer streak someday!

The Fizzy Grid

Find a cache leveled at each of the 81 D/T combos. Ours is weighted in the upper left for the easier ones but things will change as our child gets older. At least we hope so!

The Jazmer Challenge

Find one cache hidden every month since geocaching began in May of 2000. This one is getting difficult as many of the caches from 2000 have since been archived. We aren’t even attempting to complete this one.

The County Challenge

Find one or more geocaches from every county in your state. We continue to chip away at this one while we see more of our state. Sometimes I do wish we lived in a state with fewer counties though!

The ICON Challenge

There are 16 active cache types to be found and, in this challenge, you see how many you can find in one day. This is another one we haven’t attempted as we haven’t had the opportunity to attend any events in years.

Geocaching Souvenirs

Geocaching.com offers digital souvenirs when certain caches are found. These might be a state souvenir the first time you find a cache in a state. We have 23 states so far. It might be a date specific souvenir such as finding a cache on Blue Switch Day (a day that recognizes the date, May 2nd, when the US Government “flipped the switch” and made high-accuracy GPS available to everyone). My favorite souvenir is the Original Cache Location which shows I have visited the place the game began. Collecting a group of souvenirs can keep some kids obsessed with the game.

What else should I know before starting my kids geocaching?

extra metal plate hiding a geocache

We like to carry a bag of supplies with us. We call this our “geo-bag.” In it we keep some a variety of tools such as a skinny hook to pull logs out of nano caches and a log roller to roll them back up, a mirror to see inside or under ledges (although before getting this we used the camera feature on our phones), and a magnet to help pull magnetic caches off metal containers. Other options include tweezers, a flashlight (we just use our phones), and pens that can write on wet paper.

We also keep supplies to help maintain caches we find such as replacement logs in a variety of sizes, some small plastic baggies to keep logs dry inside their caches, and some extra containers to swap out for broken ones. This is where empty pill containers are extremely useful. Please remember to remove any personal information!

Don’t forget about some small items for trading! One of the things that makes geocaching fun for kids is the opportunity to swap out items in the larger caches. We have found fun trading items at our local party store in the birthday goodie bag section. Some cachers around us have signature items they leave every time they trade. We aren’t that organized, but we do love to recognize familiar items.

showing stamp on geocache log

Last, we actually have a stamp with our team name on it and use that to stamp the physical logs instead. That way we never have to worry if our pen has run out of ink or if the paper is wet. The only issue we have is when we are attempting to sign a nano log as those pieces of paper are small!

What are some of the most fun caches you have found?

Oh, this is going to be a fun trip down memory lane…we have to say that finding the original cache has to be a highlight in Tracy’s hunt. Too bad it was on a business trip and Aaron didn’t get to go. Maybe someday we will go back.

Interestingly enough, Aaron’s favorite took place at a time Tracy was not with him. He had gone with her dad to run some errands they ended up at a City Park where there was a series of comic book characters. They did a little caching as they went, and he still talks about Super Fun #4 – The Joker six plus years later. We don’t want to include any spoilers, but the cache fits the name!

The kid’s favorite geocache would be World Largest Travel Bug Hotel. This cache is in Middle Tennessee and is a 960 cubic foot room filled with a variety of travel bugs and the signatures of geocachers all over the walls. He wants to plan another trip, but we told him we need to have some new travel bugs in our stash to drop off.

open bookdrop showing the location of a small geocache

Some other fun ones we have found are include The Legend of Monkeybrad, Driveby Caching (unfortunately archived now) and Numbers Station. Each of these stand out for a different reason. Monkeybrad is a local to us geocacher with many out there. This one requires knowing how to use an actual compass and involves the local library. We came across Driveby Caching on a road trip and it also involved a library. Numbers Station required us to listen to a number code over the radio and then break the code to find the coordinates for the actual location.

What should I think about when hiding my first cache?

If, after finding at least 20 caches, you find yourself with the itch to own some caches of your own, please read the instructions provided by geocaching first. Once you have done that, I recommend asking yourself these following questions:

  1. Will it be easy to get to?
  2. Is it likely to be muggled?
  3. Will it be easy to find?
  4. Is it on private or public land?
    1. You will need permission
    2. They can’t be placed in National Parks and other similar places
  5. Will searchers harm the environment?
  6. Why would I/anyone want to go there?
  7. Can you maintain it?

If you do decide to establish some caches in your area, we recommend something fun as a reward for the first to find such as these stickers or a brand-new travel bug.

What are some of the most creative caches you have found?

geoscarab car sticker

Oh another fun question! I warn you that this is a fun rabbit hole to go down! We have had fun finding travel bugs as stickers on cars or even as a tattoo on another geocacher’s arm. Other favorites include finding fake rocks or an extra sticker on a metal box and we can’t forget these evil bolts! One last favorite would be the time we found one in a concrete parking stop block. We had to pull the bolt up and get the log out of it with our hook to sign it.

geoscarab tattoo on man's arm

The Answer:

We really hope this peek into the game of geocaching has inspired you to get out there with your kids! If you have any other questions we haven’t answered, feel free to ask away. And when you find that first geocache, take a photo and tag us on Instagram @campinganswer so we can cheer you on!

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