Treasure Hunting Pittsburgh: A Beginner’s Guide to Geocaching

It happens to the best of us. That lazy Saturday morning with the family becoming a lazy afternoon that blends right into a lazy evening until, before you know it, another weekend has passed your family by and you barely left the house. What if this weekend, you took your children on an adventure and gave them something exciting to talk to their classmates about on Monday morning? Forget about big crowds and overpriced food; why not take your kids on a real life geocaching treasure hunt? This affordable and exciting hobby has become a hit for many families looking to spend time together and explore their city.

The idea is simple enough. People around the globe hide secret caches only retrievable if you know the stash’s GPS coordinates. Once a difficult hobby, with the advancement of technology and emergence of a helpful and enthusiastic community, geocaching has entered a new era of accessibility. Now, families armed with the right knowledge can fully enjoy this pastime. As a veteran geocacher, I have put together a guide that will help you navigate your way to a successful treasure hunt.

The first thing your family will need is a GPS device. In the past, geocachers needed a handheld device costing between $150 and $800. However, with the growth of the hobby, several smartphone apps have come on the market for a much more affordable $5-10. Most of these apps are linked to websites with databases full of thousands of coordinates ready for you to explore. A quick search on one of these websites,, reveals over 3300 caches within a 20-mile radius of downtown Pittsburgh (geocaching)!

Take some time to plan your day. Two years ago, I was 8 months pregnant with my third child. It was the middle of a very hot June and I was wandering the steep trails along the bluffs of Lake Erie. Huffing, puffing and wishing I had done a little more research prior to packing up the family for one last adventure before the baby came. It’s not an experience I would recommend. What I do recommend is finding a website that ranks their coordinates based on difficulty so you can be sure to make the best choice for your family’s expertise, age, and capabilities. Keep in mind that some rankings are based on how well the cache is hidden, others on accessibility. If possible, scout the general area of the cache beforehand to determine if you are comfortable with the location. When choosing coordinates, selecting 4-5 neighboring pairs per expedition allows you to be prepared in case your family is unable to locate a cache or if you find them too quickly.

Familiarize yourself with commonly used geocaching terms. If you aren’t aware that the designation micro means that a cache will be the size of a pen cap or smaller, you’ll find yourself part of a frustrating hunt. A multi-cache means your first few finds will only be more coordinates leading you to the main cache so be prepared for a longer event with an unknown end location. A hitchhiker is a trackable item with a goal attached to them. The geocacher who chooses to remove the hitchhiker is responsible for helping that item move towards its goal and reporting its progress on the designated website. Recently, my family came across a hitchhiker that started in Maine with a goal to see the Pacific Ocean. We ventured west and placed it at a cache in Ohio. Checking its progress online, I can see that it is currently in Michigan (geocaching).

Finding the cache. The typical size of a cache is slightly smaller than a shoebox. Most are waterproof (make sure everything is sealed up when you leave) and include a logbook and a collection of random baubles. Bring along a pen to record your family’s name and a memento to leave behind. My son always leaves a little green army man and my daughter leaves a friendship bracelet. When you find your cache, swap your trinket for an item already in the box. This is the most exciting part for most children, so don’t forget to bring along an item! After you have found the treasure and exchanged your loot, make sure to replace the cache exactly as you found it so the next hunters can enjoy the thrill of discovery as well.

It’s a great excuse for a picnic; so don’t forget to pack a meal or some snacks and drinks. While many caches are rural, there are plenty within the city. The general rule of thumb is that caches are not placed on private property; so most urban caches are located in or around parks and other public areas. Bring a Frisbee or a deck of cards, and plan a picnic lunch for your family. Caches are often placed in historically or socially significant areas so take some time to enjoy the sights.

From Scooby Doo to smartphones, geocaching is fun for all ages. If you’re seeking new ways to keep young children active and engaged, or simply looking for a way to reconnect with your teen, geocaching might be the perfect activity to introduce. It’s a great way to peel your family away from all those screens and get them out there exploring their world. Western Pennsylvania is littered with hidden gems just waiting to be discovered by your family, so lace up your boots and hit the trails. Your adventure awaits!


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