Hidden Gold: the Art of the Treasure Hunt

Published on: 09 August 2022

Six top tips for creating a treasure hunt by the authors of The Secret of Ragnar's Gold, Allan Boroughs and Mark Dawson

So, once again the school holidays are here, and the job of keeping the little monsters stimulated during the summer months feels more challenging than hosting a dinner party for a pack of wild baboons.  But, let’s face it, no one is going to give you the easy option of cooking for baboons, so you’re just going to have to find new ways to (pause for deep breath) keep the kids entertained.

At such times, parental thoughts may turn to the prospect of organising a treasure hunt, perhaps spurred by fond childhood memories of rifling through the cutlery drawer or turning the cat out of its basket whilst looking for a half-melted Cadbury’s Crème Egg.  Done well, treasure hunts are inventive, stimulating, entertaining and, best of all, can keep them quiet for a really long time.  However, the potential for failure and chaos can also be pretty high.  Clues that are too difficult may cause frustration; not hard enough and they’ll be back in twenty minutes to demand you play Mario Kart with them. 

When Mark Dawson and I wrote The Secret of Ragnar’s Gold, the second in The After-School Detective Club series, we wanted to include all the basic ingredients of the stories we loved as kids – a castle, a mystery, a hidden hoard of Viking gold and four kids and a dog pitted against the villains.  All the basic ingredients, in fact, of a first-rate treasure hunt in which the fun is not only in the outcome (spoiler alert: the kids win) but in the journey they undertake on the way. 

So how should you set up the ideal treasure hunt?  What is the best blend of clues, action, challenge and cooperation that will not only keep your offspring quiet but which might even teach them something about themselves in the process?  Whilst we don’t claim to have the answer to all of these lofty questions, we did pick up a few ideas along the way when writing Ragnar’s Gold – so here are our top six tips for creating a memorable summer treasure hunt.

  1. SAFETY:  Obviously you don’t want your treasure hunt to be memorable for the wrong reasons, so safety is a key consideration. Whilst you want your children to have some freedom in the process, this should not come at the expense of parental responsibility.  Before starting, an early review of the clues, the locations, the activities and the potential risks that these present before can save a lot of heartache later on. 
  2. STEGANOGRAPHY: Ragnar’s Gold introduces the children to the concept of steganography, which is not, as one character believes, ‘something to do with dinosaurs’ but is in fact, the ancient art of hiding things in plain sight. The story deals with a major clue found on a 200-year-old gravestone.  Whilst the average family treasure hunt doesn’t require anything like as much forward planning, a cryptic message placed in plain sight on a notice board a few days earlier, a doctored photograph hung on the wall or a row of books, arranged so that the authors’ names spell out a clue, can add the thrill of discovery and adventure to the process. 
  3. INVENTIVE CLUES:  There are entire websites filled with ideas for treasure hunting clues and I won’t try to recreate them here. However, the key to success in setting your clues is to be as inventive and diverse as possible.  The best treasure hunts combine maths riddles, logic puzzles, picture clues and even good old treasure maps to lead the participants through the hunt.  Picture clues can be made as easy or difficult as you wish by the simple expedient of cutting a picture into pieces that need to be reassembled.  Clues written in morse code can add difficulty and a sense of triumph in mastering something new, as can clues that may require a level of online research such as ‘Where did George II die?’ (answer: on the toilet).  With a mixed age-group, remember to try and create some clues that the younger ones will be able to answer (for example, naming the characters in their favourite TV programme may give them advantage over the older ones).
  4. USE OF TECHNOLOGY:  Tech gadgets are a part of life for most kids and also a key element of The After-School Detective Club series.  One clue in Ragnar’s Gold was written in Latin which the kids must go online to solve; another involved photographing two halves of a message which only make sense when they are superimposed. The inclusion of phones, cameras, printers and sticky tape has the potential to add a whole new dimension to the average treasure hunt. 
  5. LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION:  An abandoned castle, a burial mound and ancient tunnels are the backdrop to the treasure hunt in Ragnar’s Gold; however, given their limited availability in urban areas, a more modest approach may be required.  A short car ride and a shift of location, even if only to a local park or wood, to pick up the next clue can add significantly to the excitement.  Other possibilities include exploiting local history in the clues – is there a local myth or legend, a historical figure or an event that can lend colour and theme to the treasure hunt?  The After-School series draws extensively on the supernatural legends of old Suffolk; incorporating your own local history into the mix can give the treasure hunt much more of a sense of relevance.
  6. HAVE FUN:  This is the primary objective of any decent treasure hunt. Take plenty of breaks along the way and include a few snacks and some soft drinks along with some of the clues. Be on hand to provide some useful prompts should energy fade, and remember: the art of a good treasure hunt is always in the preparation. And, if that all seems like a lot of effort, it’s got to be better than cooking for baboons.


The After School Detective Club series, written by Mark Dawson and Allan Boroughs and illustrated by Ben Mantle, is available now. 


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