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Letterboxing for Kids

Updated on March 8, 2013

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!

A four year old with a letterbox and a sketchbook to record the hand-carved stamp inside the box. The box was carefully re-hidden once we had logged in and obtained our stamp!
A four year old with a letterbox and a sketchbook to record the hand-carved stamp inside the box. The box was carefully re-hidden once we had logged in and obtained our stamp! | Source

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

A recent hike to find another box. There is a "treasure" hidden under the bridge!
A recent hike to find another box. There is a "treasure" hidden under the bridge! | Source

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

This stamp was found near a historical train depot in our local area.
This stamp was found near a historical train depot in our local area. | Source

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

There is a letterbox in this picture - can you see it? Finding the small boxes in their hiding places can take a sharp eye (click to enlarge)!
There is a letterbox in this picture - can you see it? Finding the small boxes in their hiding places can take a sharp eye (click to enlarge)! | Source

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

Letterbox Vocabulary

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.

Comments

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    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      I think it is a lot of fun, too, Pattyworld! My kids still love it, but they are 4 and (almost) 6 so they are still young enough to enjoy the thrill of the "treasure hunt." We don't have many in our own area, though, so we have found most of them!

    • pattyworld1 profile image

      pattyworld1 

      6 years ago from Maine

      I began letterboxing a few years ago with my kids and loved it. The kids got bored after a while, but I still think it's great fun. You have a lot of good information here.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Yay! It is a lot of fun to find them. We actually have three sketchbooks (one for each boy and then one for me, because I really enjoy it, too)!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      I just found my first one!!!! And now I am off to record it. Thanks again for this incredible and fun hobby.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      It is really fun to find the boxes - it is a shame that some go missing, but there are a lot of people out there who continually craft new stamps for letterboxes, and they are always placing new ones.

      Thanks for catching the typo - editing can be my personal nemesis! Sometimes I open a hub to edit it, and leave an error by mistake. I appreciate the heads-up!

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 

      6 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      You have a letterbox in your first paragraph. To find out "what" it is, reread carefully. =:)

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 

      6 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      What a fun idea! I like to hike or mountain bike and this will be an added incentive. Thank you for the informative and enjoyable article. =:)

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Lots of adults do it (actually, most of the letterboxers are adults). It is a great activity for families, though families with young children need to select "easy" letterboxes that have no difficult terrain, etc. Some boxes are quite challenging to find!

    • profile image

      marellen 

      6 years ago

      Wow very interesting hub and I learned something new today. I'm going to the web site and hopefully find something near me. I don't think you need to be a kid to enjoy this pastime adventure. Thanks for sharing this.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      I think Matt will join cub scouts next year (he's in kindergarten now and there is a Lion den near us, but we figured we'd wait until he could be a Tiger Cub Scout). This would be a good activity for scouts - I'll have to keep that in mind next year! We only have a few in our county, though I am planting one tomorrow. We are taking a long road trip in the Spring, and I'm going to look up letterboxes along the route - it may be a great way to relieve boredom on the road!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      I am on the website right now and have seen that four are here in our tiny town! One seems to be at/near the library. Perhaps I can get my Bear Cub Scouts involved! I cannot thank you enough for this one. I shared it with my followers.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      We really like the letterboxes, because the kids constantly want to go on hikes to find more stamps. Since so many letterboxes are hidden in state parks and in historical areas, it gets us out and visiting educational places. We'd go hiking anyway, but this really gets the boys excited about the hike (and gives them a destination to reach on the trail)! I think we went nearly three miles yesterday - which was impressive for a four year old!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      This is such an interesting subject. We go hiking a lot and now we will look for these letterboxes. You have presented this in such a manner that I am excited to get started. For a little boy to be so involved proves this is a fun family activity. Thank you so much for this one and for the links.

      ps-He still is adorable!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, Hyphenbird! I think he's really cute, too, but I'm highly biased! I can't ever seem to get my older son to pose for photos (he is always running ahead of us, so I get the back of his head a lot) - Nolan was more than willing to pose with his letterbox find. We just went again today and had a great time on some hiking trails!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      I will have to read and really comment tomorrow but just had to stop and say, "That is THE most adorable little boy!"

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