During the latter half of lockdown, we have spent our weekends hunting down various small containers in assorted random spots. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of geocaching.
Sunday morning. There’s no need for discussions or arguments. The kids eat breakfast and pull on their walking boots. Heather and I fill water bottles and pack a bag of snacks and picnic food. We jump into the car, park up in a nearby village and set off into the woods or across fields and farmland.
It’s time to go hunting.
What is geocaching?
Geocaching is an outdoor activity in which participants use a smartphone or other GPS device to find ‘caches’ concealed at specific locations, defined by GPS co-ordinates.
Caches typically consist of a small waterproof container with a logbook which geocachers sign to prove that they found it before replacing it where they found it. Sometimes the cache may also contain a small item which can be exchanged for another item, to be taken and swapped in turn with another cache elsewhere. Or they may contain a clue to help solve a puzzle.
And that’s pretty much it. Geocaches are often found at common destinations or landmarks. Or several may be laid out along a linear or circular route, to punctuate a long walk. The one thing all caches have in common is that they are essentially hidden in plain sight. Without realising it, you will probably have passed several while shopping in town or on your favourite walk in the country. They are magnetic tins stuck to the underside of a park bench. Or old 35mm film canisters concealed under strategically placed twigs (‘stickoflage’) at the base of a gate-post. Or small Tupperware boxes nestling in the base of a MTT (multi-trunked tree).
Geocaching in lockdown
We’ve been doing geocaching on and off for several years now. But with the lack of safe alternative options available during the pandemic lockdown, it has become a way of combining exercise with the desire to escape the four walls of our house in a way that doesn’t involve encountering lots of people.
We explored local geocaching routes within walking distance of our house in the early days pre-lockdown. We’re lucky that, within 15-20 minutes’ walk, we can immerse ourselves in open fields and woodland.
Since lockdown restrictions started to ease, we’ve spent time every weekend travelling a short distance to do a nearby route. Some have taken us through the woods. Others have traced a path across rolling hills and open fields. We’ve been up on the Ridgeway and across the Berkshire Downs, discovering lovely little spots and views we never knew existed. We’ve picnicked in the grounds of old village churches and kicked a football around in the park.
It’s surprising how easy it is to get away from people. Obviously it helps being away from a big city. But we’re hardly in the middle of nowhere either. We tend to stick to well-trodden routes. Even then, we can be out for three or four hours and encounter no more than 10-12 groups. Often we can stand in the middle of a field, able to see for half a mile in every direction, and there will not be another human in sight. Splendid isolation.
No kids’ weekend activities plus not being able to visit theme parks and restaurants and do all the other things we used to do has been a blessing in disguise. We’ve lived in Thatcham for 13 years, and only now are we taking the time to discover what’s on our doorstep. It’s lovely.
Why I like geocaching
I must admit, I don’t actually enjoy the actual geocaching element much myself. But I do like it as an excuse to go for a family walk together. Typically we do between 6km and 9km, which can take anywhere between two and four hours depending on how many caches we have to find and how long we stop for lunch.
As well as getting my exercise in and seeing some pleasant views, I love the opportunity to have one-to-one time with the kids.
During our walks, we have an established pattern. Heather walks up front with the geocaching app open on her phone. I bring up the rear to ensure we’re all together. And the kids oscillate back and forth between the two of us. Which means that at different times I will find myself alone with Isaac, Toby or Kara. We’ll stroll along having a leisurely chat, in a way we wouldn’t do if we were at home with all the distractions that exist there.
I’ve come to treasure these little moments of father/child time. They seem to enjoy them too.
Why the kids like geocaching
The kids enjoy geocaching because they love the hunting element. They get quite competitive about the race to be the one to find the next cache. (Toby is our master spotter. He has an uncanny knack of spying even the most cunningly disguised of caches.) And they are genuinely affronted when the occasional cache eludes our search.
They don’t mind the length of the walk either. It’s funny. We can go out for a 3km walk around Thatcham and they will complain of tired legs from pretty much the moment we leave our road. But on a Sunday we will cover two to three times that distance and everyone just gets on with it. Finding the caches gives the walk a sense of purpose. And because they are rarely more than about 700 metres apart (frequently much less), it never feels like you’re walking particularly far.
Healthy, cheap exercise
It’s often said that golf is a good walk spoiled. But geocaching has the opposite effect for us. It’s a good walk enhanced; low-impact exercise with intermediate points of interest.
Plus it’s a cheap pastime. Smartphones are pretty much ubiquitous these days. You can download the official geocaching app for free, although premium membership does require a paid subscription. (See geocaching.com for details.) You don’t need any other specialist equipment other than suitable clothes and footwear. And because you are generally on public paths and roads, the only other costs are travel, food and drink.
Unsurprisingly, many available routes conveniently pass a pub or three along the way. There are many worse ways to spend a summer’s Sunday – and a pub lunch and beer always feels better when you’ve earned it.
If you haven’t tried geocaching before, why not give it a go? Whether it’s a solo or family activity, it’s a good excuse to get out and about, enjoy some scenery and get some exercise too.