Family-friendly sleuthing makes traveling more exciting and educational
Road trip activities are often tedious and predictable: the license plate game, 10-minute pit stops, mounds of munchies and the occasional snooze. But there are ways to break up the monotony, get a little exercise and have fun.
Try geocaching and letterboxing. Though these scavenger hunts aren’t new, they’re less familiar than your traditional traveling games. Having gained worldwide attention, they can be played within feet of your home, in the middle of nowhere and abroad. No matter where or how far you travel, it’s practically guaranteed that a geocaching or letterboxing treasure is nearby.
On your next road trip, take a little detour and include a few stops to search for hidden treasure.
Geocaching was first reported by The New York Times in October 2000. It has since become a worldwide sensation, says Eric Schudiske, public relations and special media manager for geocaching.com. Geocachers can be found all over the world, and many are deeply ingrained in the geocaching community. Several groups go so far as to schedule geocaching events and outings.
Geocaching uses GPS devices to locate the coordinates of a specific treasure, or geocache. Simply register for a free basic membership on geocaching.com, locate the “Hide & Seek a Cache” page, enter the postal code, state or approximate address of your desired location and click on any geocache in the list provided. Lists are sizable and range in difficulty and terrain, so you’ll have many options to choose from.
Once you decide which geocache is the most enticing, enter the coordinates in your GPS device and follow the clues. Find out if the geocache’s description offers additional hints such as a decryption as these tips can be critical to finding the cache. And remember to pack a pencil and notebook for the road.
Smartphone users can install the free “Geocaching Intro” app, which accomplishes the same goals as the website, but its portability comes in handy, especially on road trips when you need to look up a tip or resolve to abort a particular mission and move to a different cache.
Geocaches have hidden compartments and come in many forms: plastic containers, boxes, bags, fake rocks and logs, tools, nuts and bolts and magnetic containers such as the geocache titled “Cherry Knolls 8: Elvis” in Centennial, Colo. With a difficulty rating of one star, this particular find is easy enough for an amateur geocacher but fun to hunt down nonetheless.
When you find the geocache, open it, check out the contents, sign the logbook and take a picture as a reminder of your journey. Some caches contain treasures. If you choose to take one, it is expected that you replace the treasure with another of equal value. When your mission is complete, it’s important to return the cache to its original spot so others can enjoy the treasure hunt in the future.
As you become more familiar with the game, challenge yourself with the more difficult hunts. Or relocate or create a geocaching trackable, a traveling game piece. Common types of trackables include Travel Bug® Trackables and Geocoins. These game pieces are etched with codes so users can find details of the trackable on the Geocaching.com website. The game piece travels from one cache to another, sometimes all over the world, and recently one traveled to space.
To learn about space travel, the fifth-grade class at Chase Elementary School in Waterbury, Conn., gave astronaut Rick Mastracchio a special Travel Bug that traveled with him to the International Space Station in November 2013. The Travel Bug is expected to arrive back at the elementary school when he returns in May 2014.
Geocaching has taken off in Tennessee just like the rest of the country with many opportunities to take part in this fun-filled pastime. For instance, the Todd Family Fun Farm in Dyer, served by Gibson Electric Membership Corporation, now offers a geocaching adventure targeted toward an array of hunters — from school classes to church groups. Two courses offer from five to nine caches. The geocaching adventures are available to groups only by appointment. Groups of 20-75 can book during one time slot. To book your time or for more information, call 731-643-6720 or 731-234-1568 and ask for Martha.
Oak Ridge is known throughout Tennessee as a destination for geocachers. There are caches left all around town, ranging in location from Haw Ridge Park, one of the most challenging trail systems in the area, to the local Manhattan Project historic attractions. Visit geocaching.com to view a list of all caches in Oak Ridge — or any location in Tennessee. When you pull up the listings for Tennessee, there are a number of useful entries under the headings of “Events,” “Latest Caches Hidden” and “Latest Trackables.” The site also offers a wealth of information about local geocaching organizations, a geocache map, a guide to buying a GPS device and “Geocaching 101,” a tutorial with frequently asked questions for beginning geocachers.
Hundreds of geocache locations are in the Pigeon Forge area, including two at popular tourist attractions The Comedy Barn and The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show.
“We get tourists from all over the world looking for caches at the funniest show in town,” says Clare Lewis of The Comedy Barn Theater. “There are 17,063 caches in Tennessee alone, and this changes daily. Some people tell us they plan their vacations around geocaching. Often, as I head out of the back door of The Comedy Barn Theater, people are back there looking around, and they tell me they are on a scavenger hunt. Sometimes I tell them if they are hot or cold. It’s fun and a great activity for families.”
History buffs who love geocaching will get a two-for-one trip at the Sam Davis Home in Smyrna. “Our geocache is a traditional container located in the Visitor Center of the museum,” says Nikki Ward, events and marketing manager. “Coming to the geocache location is free and only available during business hours and gets you on the site of the beautiful Davis Plantation. Exploring the grounds is free, but regular admission is applied to house and museum tours. We have a few geocache visitors when the weather is nice, but we would always love to see more.”
Susie Yonkers, a member service assistant at Cumberland EMC, enjoys geocaching with her family.
“My husband, Tony, and I have been taking our son, Brayden, caching since he was 4. We love getting out to hike together or to take family adventures,” Yonkers says. “Brayden used to call them treasure hunts since we always take a bag of trinkets for him to trade if the opportunity is available.
“I have an app on my phone that allows us to pull up a nearby cache and its coordinates. If we find the cache, we make a note on the app so the owner of the cache can keep track and others will know that it is still an active cache. It also helps us keep up with how many we have found. We have been known to geocache on our way to vacation destinations, on the way to my niece’s softball tournaments, after canoe trips, while camping or hiking at state parks or just on a whim after church.
“We have found them down dead-end dirt roads and in tree trunks, cemeteries, restaurants and parks. We have looked in caves and explored geological caches that tell about the area the coordinates took us to. It is a great way to spend time with family and teach teamwork to little ones, and it brings back the excitement of a treasure hunt that adults may have experienced as children.”
It is believed that letterboxing began in 1854 in England. In a hard-to-reach area of Dartmoor National Park, guide James Perrott left his contact information in a bottle, inviting those who found the bottle to contact him and leave their own information for others to find. That was letterboxing in its infancy. The game never went away, but it didn’t gain a lot of popularity in North America until it was resurrected in 1998 when Smithsonian magazine wrote an article about the pastime.
Today, letterboxing is different. Letterboxing players start by establishing a trail name and stamp design as their identification. Many diehard letterboxing enthusiasts create their own one-of-a-kind signature stamps using wine bottle corks, foam, erasers, rubber or any other ink-absorbent material. Then, with a writing implement, notebook, ink pad, compass and clues in hand, they set out to find letterboxes.
Letterbox clues can be found online at letterboxing.org or atlasquest.com. By doing a simple location-based search, players can obtain a list of letterboxes in that area. Choose your desired letterbox, read the clues, print a map of the area, gather your letterboxing supplies and you’re ready for the hunt.
Letterboxes range in size and type. One letterbox could be a Tupperware container while another might be a fake rock, so be observant. Many letterboxes require you to hike for miles, but others can be found just feet from your home.
Once you locate a letterbox, you’ll find a logbook and stamp inside. Imprint the enclosed stamp impression in your personal logbook and write about your experience. Next, stamp the letterbox’s logbook with your personal stamp and record your letterboxing name, hometown and date. Lastly, return the letterbox and its contents to its original location.
“The LetterBoxer’s Companion — Exploring Mysteries Hidden in the Great Outdoors” by Randy Hall is a popular guide for letterboxing newbies and could come in handy during your letterboxing road trip. In the book, Hall offers tips on following clues, creating your personal stamp and letterboxing etiquette.
With geocaching and letterboxing you’re not only experiencing a fun adventure and testing your problem-solving skills, you also benefit from the exercise. “There’s a study, for the first time, that tracks the health benefits of geocaching,” says geocaching.com’s Schudiske. “People who geocache are less likely to be obese or call in to work sick.”
Studying 1,000 participants, researchers of the Geocaching for Exercise and Activity Research (GEAR) project will determine how much physical activity is involved in hunting for geocaches. Study participants are using pedometers to track their movements while geocaching.
Who doesn’t like a little treasure in their life? Start a tradition and give letterboxing or geocaching a shot on your next road trip. Whichever path you choose, be sure to go back to the activity’s website and share your experience with people who enjoy treasure-hunting as much as you.