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GPS Treasure Hunt

Enjoy the outdoors with a GPS treasure hunt and your family
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Anyone for ... Geocaching?

I do like to go outside — but not with my children. That's not a nice thing to admit, I know, but when they go outside they just want to dig up the front lawn with spoons, which I find boring. I'd rather be taking a long, quiet walk, a difficult thing to do with a 3-year-old and an 8-year-old. Enter geocaching.

I'd never heard of geocaching before my ex-husband, Mike, suggested it as a one-size-fits-all outdoor adventure for our family.

"All we need," Mike said, "is a handheld GPS, then …" As he explained, I nodded and hmm-ed, not wanting to let on that I had no clue what he was talking about. But after a quick Google search, here's what I learned: Geocachers use GPS (global positioning system) technology to locate more than 430,000 caches, or treasure boxes, hidden in nearly every country in the world, from busy downtown areas to underwater caves. These caches contain treasure, usually toys or other little trinkets. It seemed worth a try. The kids would be lured by the promise of "stuff," and while they were occupied maybe I'd get my long, relatively quiet walk.

At geocaching.com I found more than 200 caches within 10 miles of our zip code, with several stashed in 600-acre Frick Park, just a few blocks from my house in Pittsburgh. The website's searchable database of caches gives their waypoints, or longitude and latitude coordinates. Each listing also rates the cache's terrain and "intellectual difficulty," which doesn't mean you'll have to recite Emily Dickinson or calculate pi, only that some are harder to find than others. Unless your child is a gifted bushwhacker who doesn't mind extremely delayed gratification, I recommend caches with lower terrain and difficulty ratings. For our first outing, I chose a cache rated two out of five stars for both.

The girls, Mike, our dog, Brandi, and I set out to find our first treasure on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. Mike had downloaded the cache's waypoint into our GPS, so I figured the magic of technology would lead us directly to our prize. Not exactly. It led us along a winding trail, up steep hillsides, and across large mud puddles. We followed obediently, but either despite or because of this electronic marvel we spent 15 minutes wandering through bushes and, temporarily, losing Brandi.

The GPS eventually got us to within 30 feet of the cache, and then the real fun began: lifting rocks, searching stumps. Two hours after we started, and an hour after 3-year-old Peyton fell asleep in the stroller, an ecstatic Taylor found an ammo box inside a fallen tree. It contained a troll doll, a few marbles, and some purple Mardi Gras beads. "I feel like a low-rent Lewis and Clark," Mike said. Taylor agreed. "Explorers went on adventures like this a long time ago," she said, "but I don't know if they had fun like we did."

Golden Rules of Geocaching

  • Never let a muggle (non-geocacher) see you find — or hide — a cache.
  • Take from the cache, give to the cache.
  • Add your names to the cache's logbook, and fun details of your hunt.
  • Leave everything the way you found it: Seal the cache tightly, return it to its place, replace everything concealing it.
  • Log your adventure on the online listing.

Don't Forget

  • Trinkets to replace the ones you take from the cache. We like tiny trolls and other figurines, toy cars, and foreign coins.
  • A copy of the cache listing.
  • Water and snacks.
  • A map, for finding the general location of the cache beforehand and in case of battery failure or dropped signals.

High vs. Low Tech
Geocaching was created with GPS units in mind. (To learn how it started, go to geocaching.com.) Units range from about $100 to more than $1,000. You also can rent one at lowergear.com.

If the price tag sounds daunting, there's a low-tech alternative: Letterboxing (letterboxing.org) uses directions, clues, and riddles instead of waypoints. Once you find the box, you can trade not just trinkets but stamps. You print your family's stamp in the logbook inside and stamp your logbook with the one in the box — often a handmade work of art.

Go Go Gadgets

A Good Read: For those old-schoolers who still like information in printed form, try The Complete Idiot's Guide to Geocaching ($17, powells.com).

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CeReality: 5 Families, 5 Stories, 1 Critical Meal

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