This exciting hobby has it all: treasure hunt, adventure,learning, and fun.
In 1855, hiking guide James Perrot placed a stone bottle of visiting cards in a cairn (pile of rocks) beside the remote Cranmere Pool in Dartmore, England. Visitors who found the cairn and bottle could help themselves to the cards and take them home as testaments to their adventure. It was a unique reward for a long day of hiking and exploration.
Perrot had no way of knowing that these actions would give rise to the widespread and exciting hobby of letterboxing. And yet, 150 years later, there are tens of thousands of containers (letterboxes) hidden around the world – all waiting for curious and adventurous souls to seek them out.
Of course, many things have changed since Perrot’s day. The “visiting cards” are long gone, replaced by a rubber stamp and logbook, and sometimes more! And the searches have moved from the boggy moors of England into parks, forests, meadows, towns and cities.
Searchers today follow online clues to the hidden letterbox, and press the stamp they find into their own logbooks as collectable proof of their adventures. They also place an imprint of their own unique stamp in the logbook inside the letterbox. Then the letterbox is carefully replaced.
It’s all very secretive, daring and fun. And for families who search for letterboxes, it means quality time together exploring the outdoors, while learning a little history, science, geography and mapping.
After a few searches, your family might want to make their own letterbox, find a good place to hide it, and write clues to post online for others to follow.
So is your family ready to have some fun letterboxing?
To participate in letterboxing you need to go online. Websites such as www.letterbox.org and www.atlasquest.com allow you to find information, set up your profile, and find or post clues to hidden letterboxes. You’ll also be able to communicate with experienced letterboxers, who sport intriguing “trail names,” and will happily answer questions and offer guidance.
In return, they ask that you, as a new letterboxer, never reveal secret locations or clues, and respect the letterbox and the environment. (See The Golden Rules of Letterboxing.) Letterboxer Bubbaloo Magoo explains: “When I first got into this, I wanted to tell everyone in the world about it. But this is a somewhat delicate hobby – the boxes and hiding spots and locations need great care (and a decent amount of secrecy) so that when the next person comes along they can experience the whole find as it was meant to be.”
And that kind of find will get you hooked.
It didn’t take long for letterboxer WES to discover that searching and finding a letterbox is fun for the whole family.
“I had read an article in our local paper about letterboxing,” says WES. “I thought it would be a great thing to try during a long car ride with my three and five year old kids; something to get them out of the car and moving around.
“We found clues for boxes along our route. The kids enjoyed helping look for landmarks while my husband and I read the clues. And they really enjoyed exploring nature while we searched. That was back in 2003 and we have been letterboxing ever since.”
Tools of the trade
Coming up with a trail name for your family is the first thing you need to do. It should have some meaning for all of you. My wife and I set up a profile on two different letterboxing sites, choosing “CedarDawg” as our trail name. We figured that we’d probably find the bulk of our boxes while out walking our furry companion, Cedar.
Once you have your trail name, you’ll need to get some supplies together to take on your search for letterboxes – a rubber stamp, inkpad, sketchpad and compass.
Stamp. You can either buy a rubber stamp or make your own. You’ll be using it to stamp the logbooks in each hidden letterbox. The stamp you choose should reflect your trail name. For CedarDawg, we found a simple puppy-shaped stamp at the dollar store.
You can also carve blank stamps into exclusive images or adapt stamps to make the image more interesting. While the rubber is easily carved using an X-Acto knife, it’s not an activity that’s suitable for younger children. (Check out www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Rubber-Stamp-for-Letterboxing.)
Inkpad. Make sure its weatherproof and waterproof!
Sketchbook. This is your logbook. You’ll use it to collect the images of the stamps you find inside each letterbox. It’s a kind of letterboxing passport – a memento of all the places that you’ve visited and the boxes you’ve found.
Compass. While most of the clues you’ll find don’t use navigational directions, you may need to know which direction is which. Simple compasses can be found for as little as $10 at camping and outfitting stores.
Get a clue
Next up is deciding on where you want to go for your first adventure. To find a destination, simply go to the “Clues” section of any letterboxing site to find lists of locations with hidden letterboxes. Often, they will be near scenic or historic sites, giving your family great places to explore. Clues may be straightforward or written as puzzles, or poems, that you will need to decipher.
My wife and I discovered that there were three letterboxes within a 20 minute walk of our house – locations we had been to with Cedar on many occasions, and are visited by many people every day.
In order to maintain secrecy, we had to wait for people to leave the vicinity before pulling the boxes from their hiding spots. I felt a bit like a spy or secret agent, making sure the coast was clear before quickly pressing the hidden stamp into my scrapbook, and using my stamp on the logbook inside the letterbox. By the time I had carefully stashed the box away, I was actually sweating!
There’s joy in learning
While I chose local destinations for my letterbox search, families can find letterboxes virtually everywhere.
Just ask WES. “We’ve made letterboxing a part of our vacations. Instead of traveling to the same place year after year, we try to find new places so we can letterbox. It has really opened up the world to our kids. They can make connections between the places we have been and places they learn about in school.”
In fact, WES believes that the different aspects of letterboxing have helped her kids develop both academically and socially.
“It’s helped them with academic skills such as math (counting paces), mapping (using a compass), language arts (reading various clue styles such as directions, poetry, short stories, codes; even pictographs) geography, history (visiting lots of historical locations), science (learning about tree/plant types, weather information, insects, animal tracks), physical education (long hikes, varying terrains) art (drawing and carving their own stamps).”
In addition, says WES, kids learn “social skills (attending events and meeting other letterboxers, and discovering how to work together with someone), persistence (when a box is difficult to find), disappointment (when they don’t find a box), computer skills (finding and printing clues) and even some first-aid and preparedness skills.”
If you build it…
Now that your family has found a few letterboxes, they are probably eager to place one! Although some boxes are elaborate, there are only three things that you really need: a different stamp, a small notebook, and a waterproof container.
Ideally, the stamp design you choose for your letterbox will be linked to the location or history of the area.
Some letterboxes will contain other items – and you’ll definitely learn about these as you go, but I’m not going to let you in on all the secrets.
You’ll find information about how to prepare your letterbox on any of the letterboxing websites. Several of the boxes that I found were covered in camouflage duct tape. Another was decorated with dried leaves and branches – making it almost invisible to find in the tree that it was hidden in.
Whether you are searching for letterboxes, or hiding them, I have no doubt that your family is going to find letterboxing very addictive, but in a good way.
The Golden Rules of Letterboxing
One of the interesting things about letterboxing is that there are no official written rules. There are, however, codes of conduct that I have boiled down to two golden rules.
First, never, ever, reveal, publish or broadcast letterbox locations or clues.
Second, respect the environment and the letterbox.
That means taking care when you find a letterbox in natural surroundings – don’t let the kids break branches, trample down wild meadows, disturb animal habitat, or litter. And if your search takes you to a historical site or private property, leave it as you first found it. Or leave it in better shape. Why not pick up any litter you see and teach the kids a valuable lesson?
As for the letterboxes, be sure to seal them up properly and hide them well when returning them to their spots. If someone has gone to the trouble of making an artistic-looking letterbox, or a camouflaged one, treat it carefully so that no damage is done.