8 Tips for Creating a Great Scavenger Hunt

Misha Collins via Twitter
Misha Collins via Twitter / Misha Collins via Twitter

Founded by actor Misha Collins (of the CW’s Supernatural) in 2011, the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen (or GISHWHES) recruits thousands of participants from all over the world for a competition to corral, create, or capture hundreds of objectives while contributing to charitable causes along the way. Can you get your hands on a gallon of crude oil? That’s worth 28 points. Design an app for the Amish? 102 points. Draw Robert Downey Jr. using only salt and pepper? 51 points.

As GISHWHES prepares to launch its annual competition on July 30—registration closes Friday, July 22—we asked Collins, its chief author of absurdity, for tips on how to create your own scavenger hunt that's fun, philanthropic, and unlikely to get you or anyone else arrested. (But no promises.)


GISHWHES’s items can often require the cooperation of third parties to complete: their 2015 hunt invoked police officers, newscasters, and permission to act like a maniac on private property. While Collins believes “bribery and coercion work best,” those of you short on cash can probably get by just being effusive. “Generally speaking, I'd recommend just being friendly and enthusiastic," he says. "It's incredible to see how often people from all walks of life are willing to help you if you're excited and having fun.”


A good scavenger hunt item is usually a study in contrasts: wearing a suit to a sewage factory tour while accompanied by a violinist, for example. When devising challenges, it’s a good idea to look for that kind of juxtaposition. “If I were being highbrow, I'd say something pithy about using gestalt to shake us free from the stupor of normalcy,” Collins says. "But the simple answer is I just really like to see nuns going down water slides and Christmas trees floating in the sky. So think about what you'd like to see in the world, and then make it happen.”


While it can be hard for competitors to abandon their self-respect by slathering themselves in butter or crafting tiny statues made of boogers, Collins believes a little embarrassment makes for some fine scavenging. “Feeling silly should always be a requirement. Not just in GISHWHES, but in daily life! But the difficulty of an item doesn't always have to correlate to how much it strips you of your dignity. Some challenges, like riddles and solving unproven math theorems, don't negatively affect your dignity at all.

“That being said, I encourage participants to abandon their dignity anyway. It's useless and gets in the way of a good time.”


Prop comedians have known this for decades, but material objects can often bolster an otherwise ho-hum day. Collins doesn’t like to rely on them—it avoids being predictable—but there are still a few accessories that make regular appearances in his hunts. “I will say that there are some materials that seem to make cameos in every year's item list, such as a Stormtrooper, feminine hygiene product sculptures, and, until this year, kale. So those objects are something you can reliably expect to see. Except when you don't, because I like to keep things consistently inconsistent.”


Collins frequently enlists celebrities like Chris Pratt and William Shatner to help publicize the event and advises you to do the same. “The first thing I'd recommend is that every municipality invest in a William Shatner,” he says. “Communities need to provide the basic services for their citizens!” With Shatners in tragically short supply, you can try to recruit local names to help spread the word instead.


“Vultures, burying beetles, and jackals are all pretty big into scavenging, but as both an expert in scavenger hunts and an unaccredited animal behaviorist, I will say it's difficult to get most vultures to participate in GISHWHES unless the item involves carrion or sequins.” Unfortunately, not everyone is as experienced an animal handler as Collins. Instead, try conceiving of a challenge that involves a domesticated pet. Be mindful of involving a cat, however, who is one ridiculous costume away from never wanting anything more to do with you.


Try to use common sense when it comes to challenges. If they involve fire, heights, or any kind of illegal activity, it’s better to dismiss them for something involving cheese instead. “There have been items that proved to be impractical or too dangerous,” Collins says. “For example, one year my son wanted to see a full-sized boat on top of an actual airplane in flight. I loved the idea and we included it initially. But we had to remove the item due to the likelihood of the boat falling off the plane and crashing to the ground, potentially causing injuries or fatalities to the boaters on board. Water safety is important.”


The main engine behind GISHWHES is finding opportunities to assist humanity in some way, whether it’s raising money for a good cause or just brightening someone’s day. “A big part of GISHWHES involves trying to make a positive impact on your community, both by shaking things up creatively and by doing something that has a charitable component or helps solve a problem,” Collins says. “While there's no set formula, any good item list will have a broad range of items that are ridiculous and fun, and lots of opportunities to make a difference, ideally with a lot of crossover between the two.”

All images courtesy of GISHWHES.