I have created numerous treasure hunts for my children. I love creating activities that are fun, entertaining, and age-appropriate.
Clue-Solving Fun for Kids and Adults
A treasure hunt (sometimes called a scavenger hunt) involves a series of clues hidden in various places. Participants must solve the first clue to discover the location of the next clue, and they continue finding and solving clues until they reach the final one. The final clue of the hunt typically points them towards a reward—the much-anticipated treasure! The treasure might be little prizes, toys, candy, or gift cards, depending on the age of the participants.
These fun hunts are a great activity for a variety of occasions, such as parties, team-building events, scouting events, holidays, or just some fun at home. They can take place most anywhere: in the home, office, or classroom, outside in a yard or park, or even throughout a neighborhood (as long as all of the neighbors agree to it!). You don't need a big space to hold a treasure hunt, though. Even a single room offers plenty of hiding spots for clues!
How Do You Make a Good Clue?
Planning a treasure or scavenger hunt is a lot of work. I have been creating these hunts for my children since my oldest was only three years old, and I have gotten better over the years. I use a variety of tools to make the clues interesting and give the kids an age-appropriate challenge. But treasure hunts aren't just for kids. By using more advanced clues and puzzles, you can create a satisfying hunt for adults, too.
Below are some of the different types of clues that I use to create a fun, entertaining hunt for any occasion.
10 Clue Ideas for Scavenger and Treasure Hunts
- Fill-in-the-Blank Clues
- Rhyming Clues
- Mirror Clues
- Rebus Clues
- Picture Clues
- Online Clues
- Secret Code Clues
- Maze Clues
- Word Search Clues
- Treasure Map Clues
1. Fill-in-the-Blank Clues
Fill-in-the-blank clues omit certain letters. You might be familiar with this type of clue from the game show Wheel of Fortune—except, in a treasure or scavenger hunt, your clue-solvers won't be done after they figure out the missing letters. They'll still have to solve the clue itself to continue the hunt! It’s fun to watch people wrack their brains while trying to come up with the missing letters.
For Kids: With young kids, you won't want to remove too many letters from the clue so it isn't too hard to solve. You'll also want to be careful about which letters you remove, again to make sure that the leftovers are solvable. Here are some examples of the different ways you could remove letters from the word SHOE:
- SH–E: Easy
- S–OE: Easy
- SHO–: Trickier (it could be SHOW, SHOP, SHOT, etc.)
- SH––: Hard (this could be a lot of things)
- S–––: Way too hard, unless the clue provides a lot of context.
For Adults: You can make the letter removal more challenging for adult participants—remove more letters from each word and/or choose letters that leave a lot of possible ways to complete the word. In true Wheel of Fortune style, you can remove all instances of particular letters from the clue (for example, all Es). That way, adults can employ their deduction skills when trying to fill in the blanks.
Atom Smasher's Word Puzzle Generator is great for making Wheel of Fortune–themed fill-in-the-blank clues. You can create clues that are up to four lines long. Use the underscore key “_” to create a blank box. You can also include a hint at the bottom, though this isn't required. Then, when you are done, you can print the picture out and use it as a clue.
2. Rhyming Clues
Rhyming clues usually take the most time to create, but they are worth it. The key is to be descriptive with your rhyme while still providing a challenge. For example, say you want to hide a clue in the freezer. You might pick the word "cold" as one of your rhymes:
Bring your gloves to the next clue!
At least, that's what I'm told.
I hear it's very cool—
Maybe even too cold to hold.
For Kids: Stick to simple rhymes for young kids, like one- or two-syllable words. Keep the clues shorter—maybe just two lines. For older kids, you can try longer rhymes and even different forms of poetry in your clues, like limericks. To make the clues easier, you can add some formatting to highlight the most obvious hint in the rhyme—for example, you could bold it, italicize it, underline it, or put it in all caps:
Maybe even too COLD to hold.
For Adults: Use more complex words and create longer rhymes. In addition, you might try some poetic clues that don't necessarily rhyme—why not write a clue haiku?
I am your winter.
I halt; I put time on ice.
Untended, I burn.
If you enjoy rhyming clues and have the time to write them, RhymeZone is a free online rhyming dictionary that you can use for ideas. You just type in the word that you need a rhyme for, and the site will list tons of suggestions. You can even organize the results by syllable count, which helps you find simpler rhymes for kids and more complex rhymes for adults.
3. Mirror Clues
A mirror clue is just what it sounds like: a clue written backward that has to be read in a mirror. What's more fun than having to run to a mirror in order to figure out your clue? Kids love this—after they figure out that the message is written backward, of course.
For Kids: The almost-magical experience of seeing a line of nonsense text turn into a real sentence when read in the mirror is the main draw for kids. You don't have to do anything special with the clue. With younger kids, you may want to be ready with a hint in case they don't think of using a mirror. ("Mirror, mirror on the wall . . . " is one hint idea.)
For Adults: Mirror clues alone are likely too simple for most adults. You can add to the complexity by first writing out your clue in code, and then flipping the code so that it reads backward. For example, using a simple Caesar cipher where each letter is replaced by the letter after it in the alphabet (A=B, B=C, etc.), we can change "The clue is under your desk" to "Uif dmvf jt voefs zpvs eftl." Write that backward, and you get a clue that will take several steps to solve!
If you don't have software that makes your message appear backward and your mind is too numb from creating all these clever clues to do it yourself, Mirror Your Text is the site to visit. Just enter your clue on the left, and the mirrored text will appear on the right. You can copy, paste, and print. Note that not all letters will render backward exactly right—the Ks turn out upside down, as you can see above. Still, the participants should be able to decipher the message!
4. Rebus Clues
A rebus uses images rather than words and instructs readers to add or remove letters from the image names to create words. For example, a picture of a bee minus the letter E would leave you with the word "be." These types of clues are tons of fun, especially for kids. Figuring them out can take a bit of time, thinking, and spelling, so they're a challenging addition to a treasure or scavenger hunt.
For Kids: Make sure that the images you use are unambiguous. It's annoying to get stuck on a rebus because you thought that an image of a rat was actually a mouse. Also, make sure that the addition and removal of letters isn't too complicated for kids, and avoid using hard-to-spell words. Working through a rebus can be a decent spelling exercise, as long as it isn't frustrating!
For Adults: A basic rebus can pose a fair challenge for adults, too, because figuring out the images and carrying out the spelling operations will require some time. However, feel free to bust out those hard-to-spell words for your adult clue-solvers to make it a real puzzle.
Drawing a rebus takes time, and some artistic talent may be necessary to ensure that your images are identifiable. If you could use a little help, Festisite is an awesome site that creates rebuses for you. Just select "rebus" on the left and type in your clue at the bottom. Print it out and add it to your hunt.
5. Picture Clues
A picture clue shows an image of the place or object where the next clue is hidden. For example, one clue might be an image of a rug, and then the clue-solver knows to go search around the rug. These tend to be straightforward clues, and they're particularly good for younger kids who can't read yet.
Another way of doing picture clues is to take a picture or print an image of an object where you want to hide another clue, then cut the picture into about four or more pieces, as seen below. You can place each piece along with a clue. At the end, the participants can reassemble the picture pieces to find their final prize.
For Kids: Simple, engaging picture clues are great for little kids. When I first created a hunt for my daughter, she was only three and very into Blue's Clues. So, we put little Blue's Clues stamps on one side of each piece of paper, and on the other side we drew the location of the clue—easy stuff, like a bathtub, TV, bed, etc. She thoroughly enjoyed her first treasure hunt, particularly her present at the end.
For Adults: To make a picture clue interesting for adults, you'll need to add some extra layers of challenge to it. If you use a cut-up picture, cut it up into many more pieces—ideally uniform pieces, like squares—to make it harder to reassemble. Instead of using a cut-up picture, you could include a series of close-up photos of the final hiding spot—so close up that each photo only reveals a texture or color, for example. The participants will need to figure out what it is once they've gathered all the photos.
You could also buy a small blank puzzle (12 to 28 pieces), write or draw the final clue on it with a permanent marker, and include a couple of random puzzle pieces alongside each other clue. For added challenge, use a cipher for any text in the final clue! Participants will need to assemble the puzzle, decode the cipher, and figure out the final clue to finish the hunt.
You can find tons of free Creative Commons images online, including both photos and drawings. Print them out and use them to make your picture clues. Of course, you can easily use your own personal photos, too!
6. Online Clues (Trivia)
Online clues generally require the participants to look up facts on the internet. Trivia clues fit into this category, for example. This type of clue is especially useful for teachers who want to incorporate a hunt into their lesson plan, and it works well both in the classroom and at home.
A good example of a clue is:
Add the year that Columbus reached America to the age that George Washington was when he died, plus one. Divide this number by eight. The answer will provide you with the location of your next clue.
Then, provide the participants with a paper listing different codes and their locations, like 192=the junk drawer, 195=the stairs, etc. Not only is this fun, but it’s also a great way to teach kids about a piece of history. (By the way, the answer to the clue above is 195, in case you were wondering.)
Online clues are also useful if you want the participants to find a certain missing word. Just find a web page that has the name of an item where you plan to hide a clue, then write down the web address, paragraph or sentence number, and word number on the clue. For example, if you wanted to hide a clue in a plant, you might provide a link to this National Geographic Kids article on Apatosaurus along with the clue "Sentence 4, word 12." Using a web page as your hunting ground adds variety to your scavenger or treasure hunt.
For Kids: Online clues are great for kids, and you can even take the opportunity to teach them a little about conducting research online. Just make sure that any facts you have them look up and any websites you have them visit are safe and age-appropriate.
For Adults: This type of clue works equally well for adults without much modification. You can just increase the challenge by giving them more to look up and more challenging math to do. You can also make the clues more complex—for example, "Take the zip code of the city hall in the capital city of the 26th state admitted to the United States . . . ".
7. Secret Code Clues
You can apply different codes and ciphers to disguise your clues. Even a simple clue like "Look in your sock drawer" becomes tricky when you first have to decode it. I once printed up a copy of Egyptian hieroglyphics and used it as a code. You can use Morse code or even a telephone number pad. You can also create your own code using symbols or numbers.
For Kids: When making hunts for my children, I have used pictures of a keyboard and numbered the keys. This actually provides two clues: First, the kids have to find a keyboard in order to solve the code. Second, they have to actually solve their individual clue. Below are a few reference sheets you can use to create different types of codes that work well for kids. Make sure to provide the kids with a copy of the reference sheet!
For Adults: There are many intriguing ways to encode text that will challenge your adult clue-solvers. All of the ideas mentioned above work for adults as well, and check out the online resources below for additional types of codes.
Cryptii offers a free online encoder for Caesar cipher. You can adjust how many letters you want to shift (for example, A=B shifts one letter; A=C shifts two letters, etc.). It allows you to copy, paste, and print your encoded clues.
Puzzled Pint is an organization that hosts puzzle nights around the world. It offers a free codesheet with nine different code types, ranging from the NATO alphabet to binary to semaphore.
8. Maze Clues
A maze clue is like a combination of a maze and a word hunt. You give your clue-solvers a maze with letters written along every path. To solve it, they draw a line with a highlighter from the start of the maze to the exit. When they're finished, the highlighted text will spell out a secret message that tells them where to go for the next clue.
For Kids: These clues are a little more challenging, so they are probably best for kids aged 10 and up. You may want to have several copies of the maze available (and several different colors of highlighter) in case the kids make a mistake in the maze and need to start over.
For Adults: Grown-ups may be able to discern the message too easily without even doing the maze. It would be best to combine a maze clue with a secret code clue so that the answer isn't obvious at a glance.
Festisite also has a tool for making maze clues. Click on "maze" at the left and type up your clue at the bottom. (If you're making a secret code maze for adults, first encode your clue, then type or copy/paste in the encoded version.) The site gives you a PDF of your maze that you can print out, like the one above.
9. Word Search Clues
In a word search clue, the participants have to pick out a secret message from a sea of letters. It's easy to adjust the complexity of word search clues based on how many words you include, how big the grid is, and how random the extra letters are.
For Kids: The word search shown above is a simple version, and it can be used with kids 10 and under. It differs a little from a traditional word search. Here's how to do it:
- Pick a place where you would like to hide your clue, like in a plant.
- Create a grid (I used a 7x7 grid above) and write the name of the hiding place in the boxes, either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. You can see how I wrote "PLANT" diagonally above, starting in the second column.
- Next, pick a different word that does not have any matching letters with your clue word, like "COMB" in this case, and write those letters in all of the remaining boxes.
- Give the grid to the participants, and ask them to cross out all the letters that are in the word “COMB,” thereby revealing the clue word.
For Adults: You might use a more traditional word search with adult participants and modify it to increase the challenge. For example, you can include a group of themed words in the puzzle that lead the participants to the next clue after they identify them. Don't provide the clue-solvers with a word list in this case; they first have to find all the words, then figure them out. For example, once they've found the words KITCHEN, METAL, HOT, COLD, DRAIN, and WATER in the word search, they can probably guess that the next clue is by the sink.
Another idea takes a little more effort on your part, but it's pretty easy to do with a word processing program (just use a table or grid template). It's basically a reverse word search: After the clue-solvers have crossed out all the words they need to find, the leftover letters will spell out the clue.
There are many online word search generators, though they tend to generate very traditional word searches. Most will create a word list for you automatically; if you don't want to provide the participants with a list, just cut off that part of the paper before you hand out the clues! Here are two options for word search generators:
10. Treasure Map Clues
Finally, one of my favorite clue types: the treasure map. No other clue matches the sense of adventure that this type of clue provides, in my opinion. This clue is great to use for large-scale hunts, like neighborhood or park hunts, though it also works well for hunts in the house—or even in a single room!
To make a treasure map, draw out the hunting grounds and place a big X where the final treasure lies. As with the picture clues, you can cut up the map into multiple pieces and add them to certain clues. Once the participants solve their final clue, they can tape together the pieces of the map they have collected and make their way to their "treasure." You can also leave the map whole and have it act as the final clue, like in the photo above.
For Kids: Keep the map simple and focus on the major landmarks. For a map of your house or apartment, include the most identifying feature for each room (a bed for the bedroom, a toilet or bath for the bathroom, etc.) so it's easy for kids to understand. For a backyard map, highlight some of your particularly colorful or recognizable plants or trees to help kids orient themselves. You can map a single room by drawing the notable pieces of furniture or appliances.
For Adults: Grown-ups can handle more detailed maps. If you have the time and inclination, you can even add a scale to your map so your clue-solvers can determine that the treasure is located, say, six feet west of a particular landmark.
Theme Ideas for Your Hunt
You don't need a theme to design a scavenger or treasure hunt, but themes are fun and can make the activity more engrossing for the participants. Here are a few common themes and what types of clues work well for each.
Ye'll never find me buried treasure! Pirates are an incredibly popular theme for scavenger and treasure hunts. If it's possible to have the participants actually dig up the final reward, go for it! You can facilitate this both outdoors and indoors.
Outdoors, if you're able to dig a shallow hole and bury the reward (protected in a plastic bag), that can be a lot of fun. Of course, that's not always an option. You could also just cover it with leaves, mulch, or potting soil rather than actually digging a hole. Indoors, you could "bury" the treasure in a pile of clean clothes, towels, pillows, pet toys, fabric scraps—whatever you might have a lot of!
The Best Clue Types for a Pirate Theme
- Treasure Map: This is a must-have for a pirate-themed hunt. Make your map evocative by renaming the locations in a pirate-y manner. The kitchen could become "The Galley," a closet could be "The Brig," a rock in the yard (or on a shelf) could be "Skull Rock," etc.
- Rhyming: Try to incorporate some pirate vocab, like arrrrr, matey, grog, avast, shiver me timbers, etc.
Ye scurvy sea dogs, I say yarrrrrrr!
I spied yer next clue by the carrrrrrr!
- Secret Code: Using a mysterious code also fits nicely into a pirate theme. If you have the time, you could make your own code by assigning a common pirate symbol to each letter (parrot, pirate flag, skull, treasure map, boat, plank, hook, pegleg, doubloon, etc.).
- Online Trivia: Have the participants look up some real-life pirate facts to solve a few clues. What was Blackbeard's real name?
A treasure hunt in honor of someone's birthday can highlight some of their favorite things, plus fun facts about them.
The Best Clue Types for a Birthday Theme
- Trivia: For this type of hunt, participants shouldn't need to look up facts online; the clues should feature interesting bits of trivia about the birthday person, funny memories you have together, and common knowledge about them. Here are a few examples:
For a child: Find your next clue by looking under Antoine's favorite toy!
For a child: Add Amy's age to the number of siblings she has. If you get 6, look in the hall closet. If you get 7, go to . . . (etc.)
For a friend or family member: Next, go to the spot where we spilled all that soda that one time (remember?!).
For a co-worker: Add the year that Juana started working for the company to the number for her phone extension. Subtract the number of people on her team. Divide by 4, then . . . (etc.)
- Pictures: Use old family photos or other funny or cute photos of the birthday person. For example, if you have a photo of them standing in front of a particular piece of furniture, that could be a clue indicating that the next message is hidden somewhere in or near that furniture.
- Word Search: The word list in your clue could feature the birthday person's favorite foods, TV shows, movies, hobbies, toys, drinks (more for adults), etc.
- Fill-in-the-Blank: Similar to the word search, you can design your fill-in-the-blank clues around the birthday person's favorite things or their possessions around the house.
You can design a scavenger or treasure hunt to suit most any holiday. Make a romantic hunt for your significant other on Valentine's Day, or write up some spooky clues for Halloween—there are lots of opportunities for festive inspiration.
The Best Clue Types for a Holiday Theme
This will depend on the particular holiday you're celebrating, but here are a few clue types that can easily be modified to match any holiday.
- Rebus: Try to use images in the rebus that relate to the holiday.
- Mirror: There's something magical about mirror clues that makes them a good fit for holiday hunts. If you're able to write backward, write out your clue by hand, using colors and letter designs inspired by the holiday (like blood-dripping letters for Halloween). If you can't write backward, don't worry! You can just decorate the piece of paper that the clue is written/printed on.
- Maze: Provide highlighters in holiday-appropriate colors (green for St. Patrick's Day, pink for Valentine's Day, etc.). Like with the mirror clues, you can decorate the sheet of paper that the maze is printed on.
- Rhyming: Incorporate thematic words into your rhymes. For example, this clue in a Christmas-themed treasure hunt would lead the participants to search around the garden tools:
Ho ho ho! To the next clue we go!
Or should I say ho ho hoe?
Tips for Indoor Hunts
When you picture a scavenger or treasure hunt, you might imagine a group of people running around outside, overturning rocks and searching under bushes. That kind of hunt is great, but indoor hunts have a lot of advantages, too. For one, they're not dependent on the weather, and there's less chance that the clues will get dirty and become illegible. They're just as challenging to design, but they'll probably take you less time to set up. And you don't need to have a big yard—or even a big house—to hold one.
Try an Ultra Small-Scale Hunt
You can hold a treasure hunt on a single bookshelf or in a single cupboard!
For a bookshelf hunt, have the clues lead participants to different books on the shelf, and slip each clue between the pages of the books in question. Your clues could relate to the books' titles, authors, plotlines, or even physical attributes like the size of the book or the color of the book jacket.
For a cupboard hunt, each clue should point towards a different item in the cupboard, and you put the clues inside those items or tape them to the undersides. (If you're using a food cupboard, just make sure the clues don't touch any food—you can slip a clue between the plastic bag and the cardboard of a cereal box, for example, instead of putting it in the bag with the cereal.)
Make Sure Participants Don't Find Clues Out of Order
If you're centering your hunt on a single room, it's more likely that your clue-solvers might accidentally find the clues out of order. You can combat this by making sure that each clue is well-hidden—instead of just putting a clue under the blanket on the bed, you might tape it to the underside of the bed; it's less likely to be stumbled upon by accident that way.
Also, make sure that the clues are unambiguous. This is especially important when the clues are hidden close together. It would be fine to have three different clues placed in three different drawers in a dresser as long as the clues clearly point to the right drawers in the right order. "Look in the dresser drawer" is vague, but "Look in the dresser drawer with the pink sock poking out of it" is a good example of a clear, unmistakable clue.
Pet-Proof Your Hunt
If you have pets, especially cats or dogs, you'll want to place the clues out of their sight and reach. Put clues inside drawers or cupboards, in closed closets, inside boxes, etc. (If you're doing a hunt for kids, make sure those areas are also child-safe.) Use tape to secure clues in place, if needed. There's nothing Mittens would enjoy more than fishing your clue out from beneath the coffee table and batting it around the room. The same goes for the final treasure!
Plan Ahead and Enjoy Your Hunt!
There you have it: numerous ideas for creating scavenger or treasure hunt clues. Remember that creating these clues takes time, so give yourself at least three days to a week to prepare a simple hunt and even longer for a more complex one. It will all be worth it in the end. Enjoy!
More Great Ideas for Hunts and Clues
- How to Make a Treasure Hunt at Home for Kids
This article outlines an indoor hunt for children. It also suggests a fun new clue idea: task clues! The participants have to complete a task (doing some simple math problems, doing jumping jacks, etc.) to receive their next clue.
- 5 Super Fun Scavenger Hunt Ideas
This author focuses on the more traditional definition of a scavenger hunt, where participants have to find different objects. They offer some suggestions for creating your object list, like using art, numbers, themed objects, or even actions.
- Get Kids Moving With a Fall Scavenger Hunt
Another article about traditional scavenger hunts, this one walks you through how to set up an autumn-themed backyard scavenger hunt for little kids. They'll need to find things like a red leaf and a pinecone—and they'll learn about nature, too!