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The hi-tech geographical treasure hunt

In this article, David Holmes - Geography Advisor to the Field Studies Council and Senior Examiner for Edexcel - explains the concept of geocaching and makes the case for using this increasingly popular activity as an educational tool. He also puts forward some ideas for lessons using geocaching, which encourage students to use their mapping, teamwork and problem-solving skills.

"Technology is an integral and growing part of daily living in the twenty-first century. The challenge, then, for teachers, is to use technology effectively inside and outside the classroom to help students take ownership for learning and develop the practical and critical thinking skills necessary to better understand the world around them." Source www.alicechristie.org.

The word Geocaching represents geo for geography, and caching for the process of hiding a cache

Geocaching is a new activity, partly treasure hunt and partly outdoor exploration, based on principles of orienteering. It was started about 10 years ago and owes its inception to human creativity, the internet, and most importantly, Global Position System (GPS) technology. The concept of geocaching is simple. One person puts together a collection (cache) of things like toys, trinkets and places them in a container, usually a plastic box (Figure one). The exact location of the cache is recorded using a GPS and then the location is uploaded to a website.

Figure one

Figure one: A geocache with goodies.

Someone else, a playe', visits a website (Figure two) and can obtain the location coordinate (from a range of other caches in the vicinity). After noting down the location (or uploading it to their GPS), they hunt out the cache and once found, takes one item from the collection and replaces it with another. Caches are hidden in the wilderness, in parks or even in urban locations accessible to the public (although you would never know they were there if you were not actually looking for them based on some GPS coordinates). Since GPS devices are only accurate to a few metres, finding the cache can be harder than first imagined (see Figure three - location of a hidden cache in NW Scotland).

Figure two

Figure two: Extract from www.geocaching.com, where Google maps are embedded in the website to help users to find caches in a defined area. There are a surprising number of caches, even in urban areas.

Figure three

Figure three: This is the Merlin geocache in NW Scotland. Called Merlin because it is part of the wreckage of a Merlin aircraft engine which crashed into the side of Beinn Eighe. The cache itself is hidden inside the engine wreckage.

Huge popularity

The enthusiasm for the activity has quickly spread as participants combine their love for outdoors life with their interest in modern technology. Some Geocachers may find a route of strenuous hikes through hills and mountains as they search out a particular treasure chest. Another person may view it as a game of finding tiny treasures (caches which are found in tiny plastic film canisters or even smaller). It has been so appealing to many that the activity has grown from a few dozen enthusiasts in 2001 to hundreds of thousands just over the past seven to eight years.

The case for geocaching in education

Geocaching is recognised as having educational benefit, especially as a learning activity for students allowing them to improve their skills not only in geography, but also in English, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, media and technology. The activity has a number of positive outcomes:

  • Can be carried out in a range of localities, both rural and urban
  • Can be made a challenging activity for girls and boys alike (encouraging enquiry skills and higher order thinking)
  • Students will learn how to use maps and coordinates, therefore focusing cartographic skills
  • Allows students to integrate GPS and GIS technology
  • There are a range of opportunities for peer assessment, for example judging the quality of each other's caches, approaches to searching etc.
  • Can help with self-confidence and team building
  • It is an excuse to get outside and enjoy the outdoors (if the activity is operated as a race, students can get some exercise by chasing between caches)

A small school in California hid a travel bug (a trackable object - see Figure four) in one of their school caches. The travel bug travelled 4,780 miles, through 21 geocache sites, taking over two years. The students followed using Google Maps on a computer, and the bug finished up being carried by one of the competitors in a sled dog Race in Alaska.

Figure four

Figure four: The Mad Jack Mytton travel bug. These are trackable objects, uniquely identified by a number. Their individual movements and locations can be tracked on a website.

Things to consider before you start - hardware

The essential hardware which underpins the geocaching exercise is a GPS unit. The availability of GPS units will therefore be a determinate of group size and organisation. The cheapest units come in around £70, but have limited connectivity to computer without buying additional leads etc. There is much better flexibility if you can afford £110+ units (these easily connect to computer and have the ability to upload digital map data therefore better for GIS etc).

Another strategy is to work as a consortium of schools. In this way equipment costs can be shared and resources pooled. This can work since GPS units are only likely to be required for a limited window of time during the year, although there may be pressure points around the summer.

Be aware that most handheld GPS units will not be happy working in wooded areas or in urban canyons. Under these circumstances an external bluetooth unit (cost about £40) which links to a handheld PDA or mobile phone, offers the best chance of fixing a position. Handheld GPS units eat batteries extremely quickly regardless of the manufacturer's specifications. It's probably best to invest in rechargeable batteries.

Lesson ideas

There are a range of activities that can make the most of geocaching as a fun and worthwhile educational tool. Three are suggested here. The first is the most simple, progressively becoming more adventurous as you and the learners gain confidence in the process and using the technology.

Lesson one: (Basic) Simple hunt. Skills: Maps and teamwork. The teacher sets up a series of caches (say six) for students to locate and find using their GPS units in groups. Students can also be given the opportunity to write a log detailing his/her experience. This could be as a homework or even extended as a piece of work linked to their own (or school) on the webpage. This might allow future cache seekers to see how and when it was found.

Lesson two: (Intermediate) Multi cache. Skills: Maps, problem solving and GIS. This is a more complex ‘multi-cache' activity round the school grounds. In order to complete the challenge, students must follow in sequence the trail of caches to complete a challenge. Each cache contains a clue to the location of the next cache.
This activity can be further extended by getting the students to take photos at each cache (this is a known location identified by a waypoint). These digital photos are now ‘geo-tagged', i.e. have unique coordinates. Photos can then be uploaded and shared on internet sites such as ‘Flickr' and ‘Panoramio'

Lesson three: (Sophisticated) Make your own. Skills: Decision making . Students design their own cache locations and upload them onto the internet. To do this they will need to register at www.geocaching.com They can choose some interesting locations, e.g. places they may be familiar in their home/local environment. They may even want to put caches in locations they will be visiting on holiday. Note, this activity should be undertaken in publicly accessible areas if caches are going to be recorded onto the website.

To undertake this activity students will need to really understand the idea of waypoints, how they can be created and logged into a GPS. They will also need to think carefully about what makes a good hiding location, for example not visible to passers-by, but also somewhere that can be found by a person with the correct coordinates.

Lesson three allows significant opportunity for peer assessment, examination and evaluation. Students can for example, review other pupils caches in terms of location (hiding difficulty), quality of clue, accuracy of GPS coordinates, quality of written description which describes the point of interest, worth of goodies inside the cache.

If you fancy a more adventurous context you can view a lesson plan involving aliens (PDF) which could be used as an inspiration to develop the geocache idea further.


Geocaching is not just for geeks. Geocachers have an international community, where people can discuss the experiences of geocaching. Geocaching is continuing to evolve, not only as a leisure activity, but also in educational circles. Many workers have praised the use of the technology as a way of fostering the skills of enquiry, problem solving and higher-order thinking.

The only real drawback is the upfront expenditure and subsequent management of the GPS units. However as the cost and availability of GPS devices continues to drop (as it has done in the last five years), then this way of teaching and learning in geography should have even more appeal. It also provides a context for out-of-classroom learning on your doorstep. Get out and have fun.

Glossary of terms

  • Cache - a waterproof box full of goodies. A cache can come in many forms but the first item should always be the logbook which contains information from the founder of the cache and notes from the cache's visitors, for example the date and time someone visited the cache. There may be other things in the cache, including: maps, plastic toys, pictures, jewellery, tickets, trinkets, tools, small games etc. generally they are very low cost items
  • Geotagging - sometimes referred to as Geocoding, is the process of adding geographical identification metadata to various media such as websites, RSS feeds, or images. This data usually consists of latitude and longitude coordinates, though it can also include altitude and place names
  • Travel bug - a tagged identifier, for example a dog tag that is designed to be moved from cache to cache. These can be tracked using GIS, for example Google Maps from the via www.geocaching.com. Similar names include Hitchhiker - an object that moves from cache to cache
  • GPS - Global Positioning System. A worldwide satellite navigational system formed by 24 satellites orbiting the earth and their corresponding receivers on the earth. The GPS satellites transmit radio signals that contain data on the satellites location and the exact time to the earth-bound receivers. By using three satellites, GPS can calculate the longitude and latitude of the receiver based on where the three spheres intersect. By using four satellites, GPS can also determine altitude
  • Waypoint - Waypoints are sets of coordinates that identify a point in physical space. These coordinates usually include longitude and latitude, or an Ordnance Survey (OS) grid location. Waypoints can be transferred from the GPS device to a computer or vice-versa

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