Add “geocaching” to fun weekend activity for Menlo Park families

by Mike Lanza on September 22, 2012

I took my family “geocaching” in our Playborhood for the first time recently . It was an amazing experience for all of us.

Geocaching is an outdoor treasure hunt that you play whenever and wherever you want. “Caches” – containers stuffed with little treasures – are hidden in nooks and crannies all over the world. Locally, you’ll find some in the San Francisquito Creek bed between University and Yale.

In many parts of the United States, caches are so common that you could easily walk from cache site to cache site. So, that means many (most?) people reading this article can go geocaching right in their neighborhood without ever getting inside a car.

What makes geocaching fun? Well, first, the hunt for a cache is exciting for everyone, from adults and older kids who can read a GPS gadget (a smart phone or a dedicated GPS device), to little kids who crawl around to find the geocache once you’ve arrived at the general area of the site.

Then, once someone finds the geocache, all kids are excited to open it and examine its “treasures” – small, low-cost trinkets. They can take one if they exchange it for one that they’ve brought along. Finally, someone writes the group’s name and the current date into the physical log, which is a piece of paper or a small notebook.

On our first geocaching day, we ventured from our house on foot to find one in a natural setting in a tree and one in an urban setting, between two office buildings. We used an iPhone 4 and Groundspeak’s Geocaching app as our GPS device. Here are some of the lessons we learned on that first day:

▪ Smartphones’ GPS readings can be maddeningly inaccurate: In the natural setting, a creek bed, the iPhone’s GPS reading of where we were on the map jumped around quite a bit. Dedicated GPS devices provide more reliable GPS readings, but I’m resisting buying one of them for four reasons:

1. Their user interface and software aren’t nearly as good as those on smartphones.

2. Smartphones can retrieve geocache information at any time, as long as they have access to a cell tower. That means that I can decide to find a new cache “on the fly,” so that I don’t have to preplan what caches I’ll search for from home.

3. I like to minimize the number of devices I own (to save money), and the number of devices I carry at any time (to unclutter my life).

4.Smartphones are getting a lot better at doing all functions year-by-year, and will slowly make other dedicated devices obsolete (for example, consider dedicated music players and cameras).

▪ Geocaches come in many shapes and sizes, and are often covered by a camouflaging cover: Some geocaches are boxes, some are tupperware, some are bottles, etc. You shouldn’t expect that a geocache will look obvious, so you should look over areas very thoroughly.

▪ Descriptions, online logs and other metadata from are very useful for finding a geocache: At first, I thought all I needed was the latitude and longitude coordinates of a cache, but I found that this other information helped us a lot once the GPS device got us to the latitude and longitude.

▪ Even “easy” geocaches are difficult to find at first: You won’t be good at finding a geocache as novices, so chose one-starred ones, in terms of difficulty and terrain, at first. You may even want go to find the first geocache on your own before taking the family to find it to insure success. If your kids get frustrated due to a failed first attempt, they may never try again. That would be a shame.

▪ Search for a hiding place that could hide a geocache for months or years: Something that’s moveable, like a rock not anchored into the ground, is unlikely to be a hiding place. Also, parts of plants that are clearly growing, like leaves, flowers, or young limbs, probably aren’t hiding a geocache. If you concentrate on the things that aren’t going to move for a year or more, you’ll eliminate a lot of the area you’re searching.

I highly recommend geocaching – my boys are positively hooked now. It’s a wonderful way to explore your own neighborhood.

Pictured are author’s wife and two children

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