Letterboxing is outdoor, treasure-hunt adventure

July 18, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

If your kids like exploring, hiking, hide-n-seek, mysteries, riddles and crafts, they just might love letterboxing. And so might you.

Letterboxing is basically a treasure hunt for letterboxes – small containers holding a logbook and a unique, usually hand-carved rubber stamp. Letterboxes are hidden almost everywhere, and seekers follow a set of clues to find the hidden cache. It’s a low-tech cousin of geocaching, which uses a GPS and coordinates to locate caches.

This family-friendly activity was invented – sort of – in England during the mid-1800s. It has a fascinating history as it evolved into today’s hobby.

Seekers today carry their own letterboxing “kit,” usually made up of a journal, rubberstamp, pen, inkpad and possibly a compass (many clues require a good sense of direction). Our family has its own distinctive stamp and “trail name” – Ants marching – that we use to record our letterbox finds. Our own logbooks are filled with distinctive stamps, dates and notes about the caches we’ve discovered.

Obviously, much of the fun comes from the hunting and finding. The boxes can be hidden in parks, playgrounds, cemeteries, libraries, zoos, coffee shops, forests – anywhere. Some locations, such as airports, are off limits for obvious reasons. Letterboxers are creative types, so their hiding places are often very clever. Some are quite difficult to uncover, others are hidden in plain sight. While most letterboxes are made of some form of watertight food storage container, many are painted or camouflaged to blend in with their hiding place.

Our daughter has earned a reputation as the “eagle eye” in our family for being able to most quickly spot cleverly hidden letterboxes.

Seekers can find clues to letterboxes by visiting two websites: AtlasQuest.com and letterboxing.org. Once there, you can search by location, or whether the find is urban, bike-friendly, snow friendly, historic, wheelchair accessible, requiring special equipment or a number of other criteria. You can choose how far you want to travel to uncover a box, whether it’s a stroll (a mile or less), a hike (2-4 miles), a backpack (8-15 miles), an interior or a drive by.

Once you find a letterbox and exchange stamps in your logbook, you return to the website to record your find and leave notes about your experience.

Every letterbox is different. Most of them sport a quirky name – “I can’t cook” – or are created around a theme such as the series of six stamps hidden in Fish House, N.Y. Our kids like the series of thematically linked finds best. Literary connections are common, as are historical themes.

If you have an appreciation of art, a highlight is enjoying the creative, sometimes elaborate, hand-carved stamps contained in the boxes. People go to extremes to carve one-of-a-kind stamps. Our family stamp is hand-carved too, and it quickly becomes clear that in the letterboxing world, hands-carved stamps are a sign that you are “in” and not just a dabbler.

In fact, creating your stamp is another aspect of the fun. Our family designs and carves its own rubber stamps, not just for our trail identity, but also for letterboxes that we plant ourselves. Our kids also make their own logbooks.

Planting your own letterbox is another fun angle of the hobby. You decide the theme, create the stamp and logbook, and design the clever clues that will guide fellow seekers to your well-hidden cache. Our family has planted a bunch of boxes in locations radiating out from our hometown into western parts of New York and all of New England.

Obviously, one aspect we like about letterboxing is that it’s educational without really trying. The whole family has learned a lot about local history, animals, flowers, birds and people through our explorations. The kids have learned how to design and make their own stamps and logbooks, read and decipher clues, proper trail etiquette and how to use a compass, and how to understand the connection between the letterbox location and the symbolism in the stamp designs.

Our daughter likes to design hitchhikers, tiny stamps and logbooks that are inserted in someone else’s letterbox. When you discover a hitchhiker, it is expected that you will carry it along and replant it in another letterbox you find. Hitchhikers can find their way around the world, and following their exploits online is fun.

Of course, there is letterboxing etiquette, and the sites mentioned above can help acquaint you with the rules. Since so much of the hobby takes place outdoors, the “leave no trace” principles followed by hikers and backpackers are emphasized. And since secrecy is another aspect of the hobby, there are stealth guidelines too.

Our kids love this hobby. When they were younger, we chose clues that were simpler and didn’t involve extensive hiking or complex solutions. As they grow, we’ve tackled tougher challenges. It’s definitely more fun for them when they can be the ones who discover the hidden cache. There are elaborate and very challenging letterboxes out there too, but because we do this with our kids, we choose age-appropriate targets to search.

Every outing is a fun adventure. We can follow clues to a letterbox in any direction our travels take us, and we usually include at least one search on every trip we take.


Atlas Quest

Letterboxing North America

Both of these sites have Facebook pages too.

The Letterboxer’s Companion The Letterboxer’s Companion, 2nd: Exploring the Mysteries Hidden in the Great Outdoors

Tom Antis has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since January 2008. He and his wife, Julie, have enjoyed filling several logbooks with stamps while exploring New York and New England in search of letterboxes with their two children, ages 9 and 10.

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