It can be hard to tear kids away from their electronics these days. (Duh, Dad.) With TV shows, movies, video games and social media more pervasive than ever, quality time often takes a back seat when it comes to down time — and forget about suggesting something that might actually count as “exercise.”

But, there are alternatives to complete and total surrender to today’s ever-increasing electronic bombardment. One is to find an activity that ties it all together, like the real-world treasure hunting game known as geocaching.

“Geocaching is one of those rare circumstances where technology can actually get you off the couch,” said Eric Schudiske, public relations manager for www.geocaching.com. “It offers an experience that’s rare today, where you’re challenged to be an explorer and discover a new location.”

Not familiar with this next-generation sport-slash-hobby? Have you been living under a rock? (It’s a pun, sorry.)

Geocaching is an outdoor pursuit that started at the turn of the new millennium and, thanks to the Internet, has grown to include more than 6 million registered enthusiasts worldwide. In it, participants use a GPS or GPS-enabled device to make their way to a specific set of coordinates and then try to find a “cache” (container) hidden at that location. Each cache has a logbook in which you can enter your name and notes, and most will also hold various trinkets.

If you’ve ever created a simple treasure hunt for your kids, then you know how exciting this type of activity can be for them. Toss in an element of technology, thanks to the use of a GPS and online interaction with other geocachers, and you could have a budding Amerigo Vespucci on your hands.

“I have five kids. I cache with all of them when I can, but Connor and Paige are my hardcore cache partners,” said Bobby McCutcheon. The St. Louis resident has five kids: Kelsey (21), Ian (18), Connor (15), Paige (12) and Samantha (11). They have been caching together since 2011, when Connor learned about the activity in Boy Scout Camp.

“It gives us something to do together,” McCutcheon said. “Sometimes it’s a highly ‘Favorited’ cache. Other times it takes us somewhere amazing, like rapelling into a 100-foot-deep pit cave. One 10-part mystery cache we did took us all day, and we walked about eight miles to finish.”

There are currently more than 3,000 caches in St. Louis and 150,000 in the Midwest, just waiting to be discovered.

Best of Both Worlds
Geocaching is more than just child’s play. Many adults and groups passionately practice the sport, too. The St. Louis Area Geocachers Association (SLAGA), for example, was founded in 2000 and now hosts events on a regular basis for its approximately 700 members, who range in age from about 5 to 85. (Find them online at www.geostl.com.)

“We have a pretty good social group at the core that is always looking for an excuse to get together,” said Tony Colter, co-vice president of SLAGA. “Most, if not all, of the events are very informal and comfortable for kids and adults alike.

“We have four major events every year, matching up with the four seasons. There are usually about 200 to 250 people that show up for these. But there are smaller events that pop up all through the year where anywhere from a dozen to 100 people will come out,” Colter said. “In addition, there’s an active SLAGA Facebook community where people can discuss aspects of caching. Cachers can also let people know they’re heading out to a specific area and ask if anybody wants to join in.”

Schudiske is quick to point out that geocaching is also a highly adaptable activity. “It enables people to go outside and have a purposeful adventure while doing what they enjoy the most, whether that’s hiking, biking or boating,” he said. “I’ve done kayak caching, and I think there’s a serenity to being out on the water, surrounded by the quiet as you’re charting a course.”

There are caches on islands or within a short hike of the shoreline. There are caches high on mountains or deep in caves. There are even caches under water. “People are really excited to combine their hobbies, and you’ll see that with geocaching and outdoor fitness,” Schudiske said.

Another important part of the equation is the geocaching community and the enthusiasm it brings to the table. There are often stories attached to the caches, with descriptions and clues that intensify the experience. “It’s not just following the GPS. It’s getting there and trying to decipher the area and see what’s out of place,” said Schudiske. “Caches can be cleverly hidden sometimes, adding to the appeal.”

What’s more, you need to have situational awareness. “A GPS will take you in a straight line,” said Schudiske. “You may need to use an indirect route and follow the provided hints. That’s where the adventure begins.”

Get Your Cache On
So, how do you take your first step into this brave new world of social treasure hunting? It’s actually quite easy.

Step 1: Go to www.geocaching.com and register for a free account. Then, enter the location where you will be running, biking, hiking, etc. Chances are good that you’ll find something in your area.

Schudiske suggested looking for a cache that has been found recently — indicated on the cache page — to help ensure that it’s still viable. If kids will be joining the search, choose a “standard” or “large” cache, which will be easier to locate. It’s also a good idea to start with a lower difficulty/terrain rating and work your way up.

Step 2: Once you’ve targeted your cache, it’s time to gear up. Make sure you have a portable GPS or GPS-enabled device (there’s no shortage of apps that will turn your smartphone into a treasure-seeking tool). Wear a good pair of shoes or boots, and bring whatever else you need to keep comfortable in the outdoors — bug spray, suntan lotion, water, etc.

Step 3: Follow the GPS to the specified coordinates, keeping in mind they will only get you so close. That’s when you turn the kids loose and watch them search the area for the cache. If you find a container with goodies inside, the rule of thumb is to leave an item of equal or greater value than what you take. Be sure to seal the cache properly and return it safely to its hiding place.

When you get home, you can log on to www.geocaching.com to post pictures and describe your experience. And with a successful outing under your belt, it won’t be long before you’re ready to search for your next cache, maybe moving up out to a higher difficulty level or even registering and hiding your own cache for others to find!

Author: Brad Kovach is the editor of Terrain magazine.
Image: www.geocaching.com