Free Treasure!?..in Grand Rapids?
Did you know that thousands of people across the world come together online to play hide-and-seek? It’s true! And chances are, the real-life treasure boxes (aka tupperware containers and Altoid tins) are hiding in locations closer than you’d imagine!
Follow along as we break down two very popular treasure hunts, geocaching and letterboxing, and introduce you to a world of fun that’s not only good family bonding for kids of all ages, but is also FREE!
WHAT IS GEOCACHING?
The term geocaching comes from the root words geo (Earth) and cache (hidden or to hide).
HIDE: Participants hide caches in diverse locations around the world. While you may find one at your local park, or on a hiking trail, you could also find one in the parking lot of your favorite supermarket. Typically beginners don’t partake in the hiding, but it’s a great way for experienced geocachers to up the ante.
SEEK: The hiders provide the geocaching community with specific GPS coordinates, that seekers then use to find their treasure, called the cache. Caches are usually a container of some kind, ranging in size from nano (think bullet shell) to a 5 gallon bucket, often camouflaged to match their surroundings. Most contain a paper log where you can record your name, and some even have swag to trade!
How to get Started Geocaching
There are many online resources and apps available to the geocaching community, but the best place to start is at geocaching.com. There, you should register for a FREE basic membership, that will help you track your treasures and download their FREE app.
Next, using either the website or app, plug in your desired location. A map of caches will come up with a number of different icons. Traditional caches are shown in green, and are great for beginners. From the list of caches, choose those that interest you.
No Smartphone? No Problem!
Back when my family first began geocaching, a smartphone was not in our vocabulary so we entered the coordinates given at geocaching.com into our Garmin GPS to find our cache. This is still an option for those who have yet to ‘upgrade’ or for those who don’t want to download an app.
You can also drive to the desired location and use a compass, or free compass app, to find the cache. It is a little trickier, but does work, and can provide a more challenging experience for the older kiddos.
How to Choose a Cache
A Premium Membership will allow you to filter the caches. However, with the basic membership, you are still able to view the characteristics of each cache by clicking on it. Be sure to keep and eye on the Difficulty and Terrain ratings before choosing one to conquer.
When you think you’ve found the perfect cache, scan through the comments. Some people have great input, and many add in bonus highlights (ie. walk an extra ¼ mile and find a beautiful view). If the cache hasn’t been found in a while, I tend to skip it.
While not all of the caches have clues, some that do are written in CODE! Adjacent to the hint is a decryption key [A-L equals M-Z]. Some apps will decrypt the codes with the push of a button, but for my kids, this is half the fun.
What to Bring on the Hunt
Mother Nature typically has a few treasures of her own awaiting you. When heading out on a hunt, be sure to bring along or wear:
- Bug spray and sunscreen
- Close-toed shoes and play clothes – some destinations are located in areas that are prone to mud and guck
- Water and snacks
- Swag (your treasure) – you’ll read more about this later
- A backpack including such things as binoculars, magnifying glasses, a sketchbook and writing utensils (all optional)
Finding the Geocache Treasure
Once you’ve chosen a cache to locate, enter the coordinates into your mapping device, or, if you’re using the app, click “START”.
Using the GPS begin your hunt. It sounds easy – follow a line until you get to the “X” – but once you reach your destination there is often a bit more to the find. Some caches are fake rocks, others are covered in camouflage tape, while others are disguised as a bolt. Keep the size of the cache in mind as you’re hunting and try to get inside the mind of the hider. Where would you place something so nobody would see it?
Be on the lookout for MUGGLES! Based on Harry Potter, this term refers to non-magical (or non-caching) people who could ruin the secret for others if they see you on the hunt. If you see one, try to hold off on your search until they’ve gone. Chances are they’re hunters too!
Once you find the cache (and you won’t always), you should sign the logbook and return it to its original location. If there is treasure inside (aka swag), you can exchange it for something you bring. Our swag typically includes stickers, erasers and small toys and trinkets.
Don’t forget to log your cache, either on the app, or at home. This allows you to keep track of those you’ve found and also helps the owner and other users to keep up on it’s condition.
Our family has been geocaching for close to a decade, and while we’ve always had fun, I am over-the-moon excited about the new caches that have evolved in recent years! Here are a few that can be found in the greater Grand Rapids area that can add to your adventure.
- Multi-Cache – These caches involve two or more locations. There are variations, but typically you will receive a clue to the second stage, once you reach the first…the third when you reach the second…and so on.
- Mystery or Puzzle Caches – This type of cache may include complicated puzzles, such as decrypting emojis, that you will first need to solve in order to determine the correct coordinates.
- Letterbox Hybrid – As you’ll discover below, letterboxing is a type of treasure hunt that uses clues instead of coordinates. My family has a lot of fun with these and highly recommend you check out those that are listed, such as this one at THE ZOO!
- Earth Cache – A learning experience, this kind of cache is hidden at a special geological location that has a unique feature (ie. Grand Rapids’ Fish Ladder). To log the cache, you’ll typically have to answer questions.
- Webcam Cache – These caches, like this one at Calvin College, require you to use existing web cameras to log the find.
- Whereigo Cache – Have your kids ever asked to take their video game outdoors? Now they can! Whereigo quests, like this Amazing Geo-Race, allows geocachers to interact with both physical and virtual elements, objects and characters, when on their hunt. Do note, a Whereigo-enabled GPS device is required to play.
WHAT IS LETTERBOXING?
Letterboxing is much like geocaching, but with a new element of fun!
HIDE: Letterboxers hide small weatherproof boxes in places around the world, such as parks, cemeteries and trails. They then post clues online to that will help others find the box. Your family can hide a letterbox, but is not required to do so to participate in the game.
SEEK: Seekers use the clues provided to find the location of the box, which will contain a log and a unique stamp, often hand-carved, that the finder can then use to stamp into their own personal logbook to track the treasures they’ve found.
How to get Started Letterboxing
In the past, I turned to letterboxing.org to get started, however, I’ve found that atlasquest.com is much more active in the greater Grand Rapids area, and recommend that you start there. A membership is not required, but is offered FREE, if you’d like to track your finds.
Atlas Quest does have an app called Clue Tracker, however, it is not FREE. I find it easy enough to pull the website up on my phone. When the kids were younger, I would also print the clues before leaving home, so the kids could have them in hand without putting my device in danger.
Once you plug your desired location into the site, a list of letterboxes will be revealed. When you click on them, the clues will be revealed. Some of the writers have great fun. A Dutton letterbox reads,
“…after awhile, the trail splits in two. Head up a hill, that’s what you must do. Stop at the top, go twenty three paces, turn to the northwest, look for trees that have faces.”
What to Bring
There are 3 tools that letterboxes bring along; however, keep in mind that nobody is monitoring you. If you don’t have time to find these things, you can simply go for the hunt.
- A letterboxing log (aka small notebook)
- An ink pad and stamp that represents your family
- A pen
Locating the Box
Have fun using the clues to locate the box. Once you find it, you should open it and write down your name and the date on the log and (if you have one) stamp it with your family marquee. This can be something you make, or a design you pick out at Hobby Lobby.
You should find a stamp in the box as well. If you have a logbook with you, you can use this stamp to log your find, adding the date and location for reference in the future.
Both geocaching and letterboxing lead to great adventures, whether you find the treasure or not. The journey is the reward my friends…get out and enjoy it!