When our three daughters were little and needed some encouragement to go hiking with us, my husband invented the Chocolate Tree. He would take small chocolate treats and bury them in leaves or snow. The kids would then try to sniff out the candy, happily checking out the trails as they searched for the treats.
Now that our children are older, we don’t need the enticement of the Chocolate Tree for our outdoor adventures. But the lure of finding a hidden object never fades, and a few years ago, we discovered an activity expressly for this purpose. It’s called geocaching, and it’s like a big, global scavenger hunt that you can do close to home — say on Mount Royal — or on a trip to a far-away destination.
The idea is simple: people hide novelty items or trinkets (stamps, small plastic toys) in a container or plastic baggie. Then they use a GPS unit to determine the exact coordinates (longitude and latitude) of the site where the object is hidden. Those coordinates are posted on sites like www.geocaching.com or http://geocaching-qc.com. Then anyone who has a GPS receiver or a GPS-enabled smartphone can note the coordinates and go hunting for the container. Items have been hidden in all kinds of places, from a bus stop to under a rock in the countryside.
The only real rule of geocaching is “find some stuff, leave some stuff.” Over time, we’ve found stickers, lots of dollar store trinkets, a Sammy Davis Jr. music cassette, comic books and some foreign coins. Not exactly the kind of treasure you’d expect, but thrilling nonetheless. Some geocachers leave signature items, such as tiny clay sculptures or little rubber toys.
Occasionally, we’ve found what’s called a Travel Bug: a to-be-taken-and-moved item that has a metal dog tag attached to it with a logo of a bug and a serial number. You can take it only if you agree to put it into in the next cache you find, and then note its new location on the Track Travel Bugs link at www.geocaching.com
Since it’s a family activity, cachers are careful never to leave anything dangerous or offensive. And common sense dictates that anything that can rot, like food, is not a good thing to hide. Geocachers also have logbooks and pencils, where finders record their names, dates and a few sentences about themselves or their adventure of finding it. When you’re done, you put everything back in, seal the container or bag and replace it in the exact same spot for the next person.
To keep the element of surprise, our family takes special care to avoid leaving an easily-identifiable path to the cache. Some people like to keep a log of their adventures (which you can do at www.geocaching.com) while others simply enjoy the activity but don’t post notes.
Geocaching grew out of the huge improvements made to GPS accuracy in 2000. To test a GPS system, a computer enthusiast hid a cache and posted the coordinates on an Internet newsgroup. Users were so excited by the race to track it down, that they began hiding their own caches and logging their coordinates online. It caught on quickly and a new activity spread across the globe, based on the generosity, cooperation and anarchy of the Internet.
Our kids love the idea of transforming our world into a giant, free game with strangers we will never meet. It’s exciting to think up new objects to leave behind, and we have enjoyed planting caches when we visit different places. We also enjoy the opportunity to teach our kids how to navigate outdoors by GPS, and the excitement of the hunt has silenced the usual whining and complaining you might otherwise expect to hear from kids on hikes, snowshoeing treks and mountain biking excursions.
Best of all, geocaching is a four-season activity, something you can do around town, at your park or out in the country. You don’t need anything fancier than a pair of shoes or boots and a GPS-enabled smartphone. Oh, and a pocket full of chocolate always comes in handy.
Getting started with geocaching
For a unique twist on geocaching, try a “biokits” created by Environment Canada, which give GPS coordinates to points of interest in Montreal and across Canada. For example, the City of Montreal BioKit helps families explore the variety of animal life in the city, from tiny laneways to the large parks. The Ile-Sainte-Helene BioKit allows families to search for a secret treasure chest left by botanist Pehr Kalm. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/LCb2Bo.
McMaze, an outdoor maze and farm located in Ontario about an hour and half drive from Montreal, has added a geocaching activity this summer. Participants can roam the farm looking for caches containing clues leading to the final “needle in a haystack” location. Visitors can bring their own GPS unit or rent one for $10. Afterwards, people can explore the corn maze, watch pig races and more. For information, visit www.mcmaze.ca or call (613) 932-7630.
Smugglers’ Notch resort in Vermont (about a two-hour drive from Montreal) offers an introduction to geocaching on Tuesdays and Fridays. Participants meet with a guide who shows them how to use a GPS unit (provided by the resort) and then has them search for various caches around the resort. Cost is $20 per person and the activity is recommended for ages 5 and up. In the winter months, Smmugs organizes a twist on geocaching by having visitors search for avalanche “victims” (buried transmitters). Working in groups of two, participants move through an open park area (simulating the backcountry), where they use a beacon and probes to locate the transmitters. Finding all the transmitters takes skill, patience, teamwork and a cool head. For more information, visit www.smuggs.com