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X Marks the Spot

 Free your family’s inner pirate with search for buried treasure

These days it can take an adventure of epic proportions to encourage kids away from the screens, game controllers and smartphones in exchange for some healthy time spent outdoors. What greater, imagination-inspiring adventure could you possibly offer than a search for buried treasure?

Geocaching is just that: a modern-day version of the classic Treasure Island hunt for a hidden trove of booty. Replace the chest full of gold with a small Tupperware container brimming with toys and trinkets, the faded treasure map with a sleek GPS device, the schooner with a Subaru, and the parrot with the family pup, and you can treat your family to an exciting afternoon excursion perfect for all ages.

In its simplest form, geocaching is a game, a sort of hide-and-seek. Someone carefully hides a waterproof container full of goodies, along with a logbook, then posts its longitude and latitude online; would-be adventurers trek out to the location, find the hidden container, sign the logbook and move on to their next bounty.

There are thousands of geocaches in the state of Oregon alone, with a likelihood that a few are hiding just a few blocks from where you live. These tiniest caches, called micro-caches, are simply film canisters or magnetic key hiders with a scrap of paper sealed inside to serve as the log. But the bigger and more bountiful, traditionally sized caches—ammunition cans and Tupperware containers—are usually found outside of town, and contain the log, a pen or pencil, and a variety of knick-knacks and toys you might find at a garage sale or in a Happy Meal.

In the early days of geocaching, just after the hobby was born in the year 2000, dedicated and costly GPS devices were required to find a cache. Today most smartphones have a GPS built right in. Add to that a sturdy pair of shoes or hiking boots, a pencil or pen (in case the cache doesn’t have one) and proper clothing for the weather, and you’ll have everything you need to get started.

Finding your first geocache is easy. First, give yourself a trail name—a fun nickname that you or your party will use when signing logbooks. Once you have your name, visit a geocaching website to see what caches are out there. Geocaching.com is by far the most popular site. It’s free, it’s easy-to-use and it keeps track of which caches you’ve found, all on an easy-to-read interactive map.

When searching the website, pay attention to the difficulty rating, and select an easy cache to start with, along with a few nearby backup caches in case the first proves too easy—or too hard to find. (This happens fairly often, as some cachers are ruthless with their hiding spots!) When you’ve found a few caches you like, print out their pages to take with you.

Geocaching.com also offers an inexpensive, easy-to-use smartphone app that allows you to search, navigate to, and log your cache all in one screen. It’s a must-have for steadfast geocachers, but if your phone loses its cell signal, you might not be able to use some of its online functionality. However, your GPS will work almost anywhere, so it’s best to print the pages out for backup so you’ll have all the information on-hand.

Before you leave, or on the way through town, be sure to grab some trinkets to add to the containers you find. Standard geocaching procedure is to trade rather than take; for every cache you plunder, you add something of your own to replace what you took out. This ensures a box is always full of treasure for the next party to discover.

Once you’ve geared up for your adventure, enter the longitude and latitude of the first cache into your GPS. Then look at the map and determine ahead of time which roads you’ll take to get there—or just hand the device off to the kids and let them be the navigation officers. Once you get as close as you can by car, it’s time to get out and finish the journey on foot.

When you finally arrive at the cache site, be sure to zoom your map in completely to ensure you’re in the exact right spot. Then start looking, but keep an eye on your GPS; the devices often experience some amount of jitter when you’re on the move, and their accuracy slowly increases the longer you stay in one spot. While searching, keep in mind the size and shape of the container, and look for it in, under and behind every place it might possibly fit. Some caches are hidden in easy-to-find locations and are found within minutes of arrival. Others are more elusive and might take ten minutes or more to find. Occasionally, you’ll just get stumped and have to move on to the next cache on your list.

When you finally discover the cache’s hiding place, especially in town or near a populated area, be sure to retrieve it discreetly. If a muggle—a person who isn’t a geocacher, a term borrowed from the Harry Potter world—sees you dig the cache out of its sight-screened sanctuary, they might raid or vandalize it. Once you’ve logged your visit and traded any items, put the cache back in its home (again, don’t let any muggles see you do it!), making sure to replace any cover that kept it out of easy eyesight.

While kids are especially interested in a cache’s contents, there are often items an adult might enjoy as well. A typical cache has anywhere from ten to twenty items. They range from the worthless—used hair bands, beer coasters, loose change, or anything else an unprepared cacher might toss in—to some fairly unique items that would have a place on your windowsill at home, your rearview mirror or in a souvenir collection. There are also trackable trinkets, called hitchhikers, that you can log online and see where it’s from and where it’s been, before sending it on its way to its next cache.

After you log your first geocaches, you can expand your searches to the variety of other caches out there. Many of these are for die-hard cachers only, and aren’t so much about the booty as they are the bragging rights. If you live in town, you’re likely surrounded by microcaches, which make up for their easy access with tiny containers tucked into difficult, hard-to-find hiding spots. For a bigger adventure, you can go after a multi-cache, which is hidden in two or more locations, with only the first location listed on the website. Coordinates for each successive location are found within the caches themselves. State and national parks, which prohibit physical caches, have virtual Earth caches, which lead you to a natural feature and provide a page or two of context on the area. (Be sure to print the web page out for these!) For a real challenge you can try a mystery cache, which presents puzzles to solve in order to determine the coordinates for the cache itself.

If ever there existed an outdoor activity fit for all of Oregon, geocaching is it. The hobby was, after all, born here. (The first geocache was hidden in May of 2000 in Beavercreek, Oregon.) Geocaching is also a perfect excuse for an impromptu family outing. Every extra pair of eyes in the search party makes the treasure that much easier to find. And while children are especially enticed by the mystery of what they’ll find inside, the excitement of hearing someone finally shout “I found it!” from behind a tree or lava formation is usually shared by old and young alike.

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