Letterboxing for Kids
What Are Letterboxes?
A few months ago, I would not have known was a letterbox was. I stumbled across a travel forum that mentioned this activity, and felt compelled to learn more. The combination of hiking, searching for hidden "treasure," and collecting stamps sounded like it would suit our family's sense of adventure, so we quickly searched for letterboxes in our local area.
We get to search for “hidden treasure” (in the form of small, plastic boxes) on local hiking trails, and my two young sons look forward to finding a new stamp for their notebooks on each adventure. Similar to geo-caching, letterboxing has fans all over the world. Letterboxing is much more low-tech than geo-caching – in most cases, no equipment is needed to find the letterbox. The most complicated letterboxes will require a compass or a solved riddle to find the box.
What are letterboxes? They are small, waterproof boxes that contain a hand-carved stamp, a log book, and an ink pad. Hikers find the letterboxes, stamp the log-book with a family or personal stamp, and then use the hand-carved stamp to stamp their own notebook. Avid letterboxers can collect stamps from all over the country (and internationally, if their travels carry them that far)!
A Letterbox Find!
The History of Letterboxing
Letterboxing began in England, when a guide named James Perrott placed his calling card in a box in the wildest area ofDartmoor. The flooded peat surrounding the Cranmere Pool area was a daunting challenge in 1854 – only the most stalwart hikers could find the pool. Those who did find the pool would leave their calling cards in Perrott’s bottle – this was the earliest form of letterboxing.
Calling cards remained the norm until 1907, when a visitor to the now-accessible pool suggested a rubber stamp system. The hobby has slowly grown over time, spreading across Englandand then to other countries. Craftsmen sometimes carve intricate stamps and place them in boxes in difficult locations. For a long time, letterboxing was a hobby confined to the moors of England. In 1998, however, the Smithsonian produced an article about the obscure hobby – within a few years, thousands of letterboxes peppered theUnited States. Many letterboxes are located along hiking trails in rural areas. Other letterboxes can be found inside amusement parks (Disney has several) and in the middle of busy city centers!
An Activity to Get Kids Moving
The Advantage of Letterboxing with Kids
- It gets kids moving: Letterboxing always requires getting out and about, and many letterboxes are situated along hiking trails. In an increasingly sedentary nation, it is wonderful to get out in the fresh air and search for the hidden box.
- It is low-cost: Letterboxing is essentially free. Once the stamp pad, sketch book, and family stamp are purchased, all that is required is an internet connection to search for the locations of new boxes! Unlike geo-caching, an expensive hand-held GPS unit is not required.
- Letterboxing is educational: many letterboxes have riddles to solve, or have quizzes requiring historically accurate answers. This leads to a learning activity for the entire family. For the letterboxes that require a compass, kids learn to detect north, south, east, and west. Many letterboxes are located within state parks and other educational settings, encouraging families to explore local terrain together.
In fact, if there is any “con” to this hobby, it may be that it is highly addictive! My four year old son complained this morning, “I don’t want to watch cartoons. I want to go find a stamp!” Of course, we were soon off to find yet another local letterbox!
How to Find a Letterbox
There are two great websites for locating letterboxes in North America. The first is Letterboxing North America (LbNA), which lists active boxes for specific geographical areas.
Atlas Quest is a more recent letterboxing site, which allows letterboxers to record their finds virtually. Atlas Quest also allows people to search for letterboxes within a certain geographical area.
Both sites list the general characteristics of each letterbox (e.g. whether it is a short hike to reach, requires a solved riddle, or is accessible in snowy weather).
A Video Showing a Typical Letterbox
Getting Started with Letterboxing
Letterboxing is low-tech, and thankfully does not require expensive equipment. The first time letterboxer should carry the following:
1. A rubber “personal” stamp to represent the individual or family who found the letterbox.
2. A pen.
3. A book (acid-free) with blank pages.
4. An acid-free stamp pad or acid-free stamping markers.
When you find a box, stamp the logbook with your personal stamp and include the date found and your trail name. Then use the hand-carved stamp in the box to stamp your book. We always include the date and the location the stamp was found in our logbooks.
Part of the fun involved with letterboxing is “keeping the secret.” Once you have located a box, be sure that no one else observes the location of the box. It is a wise idea to move away from the hiding location while stamping and recording information from the letterbox. Once this has been completed, ensure the coast is clear before carefully re-hiding the box.
The First Stamp in Our Book
Our First Letterbox Experience
Our family has two small boys, ages 4 and 5 ½. They love nature and finding “treasure,” so I felt that letterboxing would be a fun activity for the entire family. I purchased two inexpensive acid-free sketch books (one for each boy) and a family stamp from Walmart. I had not attempted to hand-carve a stamp at that time, so the purchased rubber stamp was fine for our family stamp. I also bought a few acid-free stamp pads, just in case the letterbox was missing one.
I used Atlas Quest to find our first box. I noticed there was a letterbox near an old train depot in our area, so I printed out the riddle and packed the boys into the car for the hunt. The riddle was very simple for this letterbox, and I quickly located the wall of rocks the container should have been hidden in. We hunted for quite some time, and I was almost ready to leave, empty handed. Suddenly, my five year old shouted, “Mommy – I see something BLUE!” I looked, and almost invisible under a pile of rocks, was the lid to the letterbox. This letterbox hadn’t been found in nearly four years, so there were quite a few cobwebs to clear.
We signed into the logbook with our family trail name, included the date, and then stamped the very cute hand-carved train stamp into our books. My five year old was extremely proud that he was the one to find the box, and he was quite eager to immediately start the hunt for every letterbox in our county!
Creating a Letterbox
If you would like to create a letterbox, the process is fairly simple. Use a waterproof plastic sandwich container (or other plastic box), and place a notebook, pen, ink pad, and a stamp inside the box. Hand-carved stamps are preferred for letterboxing – letterboxers use master-carve (found in the artist’s section at common craft stores) and a basic stamp carving tool. You can transfer a picture to the master-carve and cut away the light areas to create a stamp (more specific instructions can be found at Atlas Quest).
- Do not place a letterbox in or near any ancient site or historical treasure. Antiquities should be protected by all, and no letterboxer should cause damage to any structure or property of historical importance.
- Do not place a letterbox in any area that is dangerous to reach or could cause injury to the person searching for the box.
- Letterboxes should not be placed as a permanent fixture – they should not be encased in concrete or brick.
Once the letterbox has been created, log onto Atlas Quest or LbNA and list the location of the box, along with its characteristics – whether it requires a compass to find, or if it is bicycle friendly, for example.
It is a good tip to write a brief explanation about what the box is – otherwise, an unsuspecting person may “accidentally” find the box, assume it to be trash, and throw it away. Or a less scrupulous person may steal the stamping materials inside the box, not understanding that the box is part of the large hide-and-seek world of letterboxing!
Hard to Spot
Help! I Can’t Find a Letterbox!
Sometimes, a person will find the clues to a letterbox and be unable to locate the actual box. There are several reasons for this: sometimes the box is particularly hard to locate, and sometimes the box has actually gone missing. Occasionally a person unfamiliar with letterboxing will come across the letterbox and take it, or throw it away. If a box is missing, find the original page with the search clues and notify the box’s creator. This will allow the originator to verify the missing box and to update the listings on the hosting website.
Letterboxing in Dartmoor, Where it All Started
There is a vocabulary unique to people on the hunt for letterboxes.
Muggle: a person unfamiliar with letterboxing
Boxing Buddy: A pretend “mascot” with its own stamp, and shares in your letterboxing adventures. The boxing buddy may travel along with several different letterboxing families, obtaining a wide variety of stamps from different locations.
SPOR: Suspicious Pile of Rocks
Tourist Box: Easy to find letterbox in a popular destination, simple for children and adults to find.
Cootie: When a person places a stamp and a logbook into an unsuspecting person’s pack on the trail, they will have acquired a cootie. The cootie will travel from person to person in this manner.
Flea: A hybrid between a cootie and a hitchhiker. A flea may be left in another letterbox like a hitchhiker, or travel between letterboxers like a cootie.
Hitchhiker: A hitchhiker box travels between letterboxes – if you find one, you can either leave it behind, or transport it to a new box.
Bonus Box: Sometimes a clue will be listed inside a letterbox containing directions to another, unlisted box nearby! Bonus stamp!
Word of Mouth Box: Some boxes have no online clues, and the locations are spread by word of mouth.