Geocaching is like a global scavenger hunt that's optimized for the modern era. It's a great way to explore the outdoors with your kids, and you can do it almost anywhere in Minnesota.
Finding activities that everyone in your family deems fun is a challenge. It certainly is in my household, which balances the interests of two boys under 5, an introverted writer mom and a nature-loving archeologist dad. And because one of our sons is on the autism spectrum, crowded spaces and new experiences pose a challenge.
Enter geocaching. In its simplest terms, geocaching is a scavenger hunt, one done using your cell phone or a GPS device. It’s a global phenomenon with millions of active caches all over the world—and thousands right here in Minnesota. Caches can be anything from a simple log with a guestbook, to a box containing small toys, stickers, coins or other swag.
Seeking out hidden treasure must be hardwired into the human genome, because no matter the circumstances, all four of us get positively giddy when we find a cache. The boys want to see the cool toys and trinkets inside the cache, while the grownups get to smugly check off the elusive geocache as “found.”
Geocaching has been particularly valuable for our son on the spectrum. Like almost half of all kids on the spectrum, he exhibits "wandering behavior," which means he will wander off, run away, and not stop when you tell him. Geocaching has helped curb that behavior greatly, because it combines a lot of the things that many kids on the spectrum love: technology, a clearly defined goal and a reward at the end. It is every occupational therapist’s dream, and for our family, it has been a complete game changer.
So how do you get started? The easiest way to play is to download the official Geocaching app (available on Android and iPhone). While there is a premium membership with added features, the free version has everything you need to get started and can keep you busy for years to come.
The app will show you a map of all the caches in your area. Pick one and the app will get you close, but not too close. After all, the fun is in checking behind trees, looking under logs, and combing the ground for the hidden cache and its unknown contents. If the cache contains swag, take what you want and leave something else behind—an old toy your kids no longer play with, for example.
You log your found caches, pick up fun mementos and can even make your own caches for others to find. Geocaching makes for outings that are exciting, unique, and often take you to unexpected places.
Geocaching at Minnesota State Parks
In Minnesota, we’re fortunate to have a great deal of natural beauty to explore, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources uses geocaching as a way to encourage everyone to get out into nature.
There are 82 geocaches hidden at Minnesota state parks and trails, and the DNR allows people to rent GPS kits free of charge. They also create special geocaching adventures, like the current Aquatic Quest that focus on a specific topic. Past adventures have included everything from the Geocaching History Challenge (where collectible cards provided fun facts about the history of the location where they were found) to the Geocaching Wildlife Safari (where cards focused on the animals that live in that habitat).
Of course not everyone is a nature buff, and that’s OK as far as geocaching is concerned. Urban geocaches can be as challenging and fun as any found in a state park, and you’ll find them everywhere from humble playgrounds to distinguished historic buildings.
“Travel bugs” are another variation on geocaching that is especially fun for road trips. Think of travel bugs like game pieces moving across a board—each bug has a goal (“this travel bug wants to go to Duluth”), and it’s your job to carry the bug for part or all of its journey.
So whether you’re planning your family’s next camping trip or an urban adventure, be sure to check for geocaches along the way or at your destination. Be it down the block or across the state, geocaching will give you new insights—and a whole lot of fun—no matter where you explore.