Geocaching: Global Treasure Hunting

Think your GPS can only get you through traffic? A blossoming sport uses the high-tech tools to find treasure and teach kids about the world.

If only the pirates of the Caribbean had technology in addition to their hand-drawn maps, they’d have been much more successful at recovering hidden treasure. Modern-day adventure seekers are increasingly turning to geocaching, a high-tech treasure-hunting game using Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. The sport began in May 2000, after the U.S. government turned off Selective Availability (intentional errors in navigation signals available to the public) for its global satellites. Today, there are more than 699,000 active geocaches worldwide, according to, the official global GPS cache hunt site.

Geocaching Basics

The elements of geocaching are amazingly simple, and inexpensive, once you have a GPS device (which can range from just under $100 up to $500). A person hides something (a container), marks the cache’s latitude and longitude, then publishes the coordinates (often on a Web site, such as so others can find the treasure with the use of a GPS unit. The hidden containers are called geocaches, and they’re assigned a difficulty rating, from 1 to 5. They’re not always sitting out in the open. Often you have to climb trees, go off trail, or can access them only after dark or after solving a puzzle.

The main rules once you find a cache: Sign the logbook. Take something. Leave something. Replace the box where you found it. In geocache lingo, “TNLN” means “Took nothing, left nothing.” Once you’ve searched for caches and seen a few logbooks, you’ll discover more lingo to add to your geocache lexicon.

Geocoins and Travel Bugs

Geocache treasure, or swag, can include a variety of items, from toys to playing cards to postcards. In addition, there are two types of trackable items, often with special missions given to them by their owners: travel bugs and geocoins.

Travel bugs are dogtags with unique tracking numbers that are attached to hitchhiker items that can be moved from cache to cache around the world. Each bug has adventures based on its travel path, tracked in an online diary. When you find a travel bug, you “grab” it online, so you can add your own story to its journey. Sometimes the bug’s mission requires taking photos of it as it travels, much like the world-traveling gnome in Amelie. Travel bugs range from rubber duckies to jewelry charms to stuffed animals.

Erik DeBoard turned a gift to his daughters into a goal for the family. “The girls’ grandfather brought back a souvenir teddy bear from the Old Jameson Distillery in Ireland as a gift. I promised my family that we’d take a trip to Ireland as well, and put a travel bug tag (called Evergreen to Dublin) on the bear to see if it can get back to the Distillery. When it arrives, I’ve asked the staff to let me know, and we’ll go to Ireland within a year to reclaim it.”

Like travel bugs, geocoins are trackable items (collectable coins) that travel between caches. They too have online diaries and can have special instructions from the owner.

Education Tool

Besides the outdoor adventure, geocaching can be a great educational tool. An EarthCache site doesn’t have a physical container—instead it teaches the visitor something about the location, such as a geoscience aspect of the Earth. Some caches even include the history of the location or area along with its coordinates.

Travel bugs and geocoins provide ways for parents to teach children about different places in the world. “Ella and Emilie love to hear about the toy they once held in their hands and where it is now,” says Erin DeBoard, the girls’ mother. “We show them where it is on a map and talk about what things are like in that place.” Besides the Dublin-bound teddy bear, they’ve sent a shell necklace to Italy (Luigi to Italy), some francs to France (Bordeaux Bound) and a spiky ball around the Pacific Northwest (Psychedelic Spike).

How to Get Started

While you may be able to find some caches by merely guessing at the location from clues, it’s important to use a GPS device to be able to track the cache’s coordinates. If you don’t already have one, check out Lost and Found, our review of handheld GPS units.

Outdoor gear stores, like REI, have introductory classes on GPS usage and geocaching that include outings to test your new skills. Some state parks have gotten into the game as well, such as Minnesota’s Geocaching History Challenge. Many state park systems support geocaching, but require that you apply for a permit to leave a cache on park lands.

Once you have your trusty GPS unit, go to, enter your zip code, and you can see the coordinates of caches in your area. Pick one, and you’re on your way to hidden treasure.

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures