Thank you for following along with our series focusing on Kids and Backpacking. For this installment, Manfred Kopisch shares some thoughts on using geocaching as a tool to interest children in being active, getting outdoors, and ultimately getting them backpacking. I’ll let Manfred take it from here…
Geocaching with Children
Over the last years I have seen many articles that discuss the lack of interest of children in nature, outdoor activities, hiking and backpacking. Although I see the same tendencies in my own children and in scouts I work with, I have found that, with a bit of planning, most children love being outdoors and will delight in it once we create the right environment for them. There are many factors that contribute to an environment that makes kids want to go out there – and go out again and again. For this article I will focus on just one factor that I found the most helpful in introducing children to hiking and backpacking: geocaching.
Time after time I have been surprised by former couch potato children and the endless energy and enthusiasm for hiking and backpacking they develop once they are enticed away from their monitors. This enthusiasm seems to be boundless and doesn’t subscribe to typical prejudices many adults have about our youth. Some examples of our experiences from the last couple of years are:
- 9 and 10 year old girls doing hikes of over 10 miles every other weekend – rain or shine
- Boy Scouts going from no hiking at all to planning and completing a Philmont trek of 100 miles
- Teenage girls backpacking for three weeks without a shower in the wilderness
- Teenage boys backpacking over 200 miles in three weeks
- 9 year old girls backpacking the John Muir Trail in two to three weeks
Every child loves a treasure hunt – I have not found a single child who didn’t like to search for hidden treasures. With the advent of Geocaching it has become very easy to organize a treasure hunt for children.
Our own children started geocaching when they were four. With simply downloading a couple of geocaches to a GPS receiver my wife and I could get our four year old daughter (and her older siblings) to run around hunting treasures for 5 miles. While my wife and I were merely hiking and enjoying the beautiful outdoors, our kids we were racing to search the forest for hidden treasures they could pilfer through. By just holding a GPS receiver in her hand, our tiny four year old daughter would burst forth and literally run from geocache to geocache wanting to be the first to find and open the treasure box and be the first to “trade” her loot. Getting to the cache (hiking) was as much fun for her as finding the cache. Our kids would generally take turns leading through the use of the GPS, or sometimes compete for who gets to have the GPS receiver; over the years we got enough units so that each child could have one. By using geocaching as a tool to engage the kids, my wife and I enjoyed many nice 5 mile hikes through the beautiful parks here in the San Francisco Bay Area , while our kids spent their afternoons searching for a dozen treasures. The kids didn’t realize that these geocaches on their GPS receivers were always strategically downloaded by their parents to lead them around a loop hike—the kids were filled with adventure, roaming the parks looking carefully at the details of their surroundings, along the way finding more than just a box filled with loot!
Luckily for us there is no shortage of geocaches in the Bay Area and we have the luxury of only downloading caches of larger size, which in general have more interesting things to find in them.
Over time our kids started to carry more and more items along the trail. First they carried the toys they wanted to trade – geocaching is a game where you trade items, so the game can go on forever, without depleting the “treasure box”. Next we allowed them to choose their own snacks (instead of we adults bringing them for the children) and our kids would proudly carry those too. Then we got little day packs with water bladders – which our kids thought were really cool, while we were purposefully transitioning the kids from hiking to “backpacking” without their even noticing – they still thought of our excursions as a treasure hunt.
The next exciting step was to go on a weekend geocaching hunt. The kids loved the additional aspects – like roasting marshmallows at the campfire or sleeping outside and would gladly add a sleeping bag to their pack for this bigger adventure. Luckily we wouldn’t need tents here in California during the long summer.
On several of these weekend outings I would place special caches that allowed the kids to keep the prizes without trading. For example my wife would play with the kids in the morning at the beach at Point Reyes, while I ran a 10 mile loop to place geocaches which contained little gadgets and tools they could use on their trek—like headlamps, magnifying glasses and bubbles, just to keep it interesting. After lunch we would all hike that loop and find all the caches. Later our oldest daughter requested to have such a special treasure hunt for her 10th birthday. All her guests loved it and I was asked by other parents to organize such a party for their kids too. At that time we would even allow our kids to go out by themselves. This was made possible by a set of GPS receivers that have a built-in walkie-talkie. These units transmit their location to all other units, so we could at all times see on our own device, the map including where which kid is and even talk to them if they had any questions (or subtly redirect them if we noticed they were going off-course).
I used the same concept in my sons’ Boy Scout Troop to introduce the scouts to hiking and backpacking.
None of the youth would ever consider going on a 10 mile hike when we started out. The treasure hunt got them into hiking and kept them going, often distracted by the excitement of looking for the loot. Each route was designed to build on the previous, giving the scouts the confidence they never had, to go farther each time—the GPS device indicating how far they have gone. First just a couple of miles as an introduction, then five, ten or even twelve miles! Once these milestones are reached, the “tool” geocaching is no longer necessary to get the scouts outdoors, and tends to fade into the background as other outdoor features become more central – like playing in a creek, fishing, or navigating with the GPS, hiking and ultimately backpacking. The scouts and our own kids each got to the point where they would pass geocaches, because they would rather keep their hiking rhythm and go farther instead of stopping again and again in search for a cache—now they wanted to get up that hill or over to that creek instead. This transition seems to happen after a couple of years of geocaching or when they become teenagers, roughly thirteen. By then they use the GPS receiver more to navigate and track their progress. How far have we gone? How much did we climb? How fast were we?
The scouts and our children end up with a mindset of trying to see how far they can go and what’s on the other side of that mountain. Carrying their own gear extends the enjoyment so they can continue to hunt for the new treasures—each new rock outcropping, creek and valley. Many of these young people have gone on to further their adventures by taking hikes that tally over 100 miles on a single trek—or in a few cases, to complete the entirety of the John Muir Trail, at as young as 9 years old, amazing their family and friends. And for them it was merely an extension of that early treasure hunt adventure.
Geocaching continues to be a lot of fun for our kids and through geocaching they have discovered the world of hiking and backpacking which they enjoy tremendously. Geocaching allowed for a natural progression into backpacking that made it play and fun – something to look forward to on the next weekend.
So next weekend, why don’t you take your child on a treasure hunt? You might find that your children will love to go out into nature and keep walking to always find the next treasure. While doing it they will find way more treasures than just the toys in the geocaches.
Have fun out there!
– Manfred Kopisch
About the Author
Manfred Kopisch lives with Michelle and six children (ages between 9 and 18) in Menlo Park, CA. The outdoors plays a big role in their family life. The whole family enjoys activities like orienteering with map and compass, hiking, backpacking, bike riding, fishing, geocaching, and more. Manfred and Michelle are both active scout leaders who work with children and also train other adults. Manfred is the director for High Adventure Training in their local BSA Council and prepares adult leaders for taking youth on longer treks into the wilderness. Manfred fell in love with maps at the age of 16. All participants in his map & compass classes notice his passion for maps, but few are aware that he won several US Championships in Orienteering in his age class. With the advent of mapping GPS units that allow displaying a topo map on a GPS receiver, Manfred got interested in that technology over 10 years ago. He immediately realized the value of such GPS receivers in attracting children into the outdoors and incorporated them right away into outings with his own kids and scouts. Hike It. Like It.