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How to Letterbox

In celebration of finding our 200th letterbox, I wanted to share what this hobby has done for our family, how it works, and why others should consider joining in.

People often hear “letterboxing” and believe it has something to do with mailing letters or having a pen pal.

It’s not. We describe it as a world-wide treasure hunting game, with thousands of boxes hidden in an extraordinary array of places. Some are found inside libraries. Others, at the end of day-long hikes. Letterboxes can be hidden anywhere a person can go. There are urban boxes in the middle of major cities, some as tiny as a mini magnetized mint tin. They are in parks and playgrounds, inside coffee shops, near historical markers, along nature trails, at beaches. There are boxes in major museums and zoos. Some are in random parking lots. Here, in Colorado, many are in incredibly scenic places.

Chances are, you’ve walked by numerous letterboxes without knowing. After we started, we realized how many times we had been close to boxes, having no idea they existed. That’s part of the fun. They are so small and so well camoflaged they are overlooked.

How is it different from geocaching?

Geocaching and letterboxing share a few similarities. Both are about hiding tiny boxes in fun places. Both get families out of the house and into nature. Both require stealth, watchfulness, and skill. You never, ever make a production out of finding a box because many boxes have been lost by people mistaking them for trash or simply being jerks. The only way both hobbies survive is because serious fans are careful to maintain hiding spots.

The differences are a matter of taste. We like letterboxing because we feel it’s more quaint, creative, and often relies on deciphering clues. It’s more like a treasure hunt. Letterboxing = The Goonies. Geocaching = Chewbacca entering coordinates into the Millennium Falcon. Both get where they need to be.

With geocaching, a GPS coordinate is used to find the box. It’s more high tech than letterboxing, although with letterboxing apps and clue websites, technology is still involved.

Geocache boxes often contain little trinkets people take and leave behind for the next finder. They also have logbooks.

Letterboxes are different. They contain rubber stamps, usually hand-carved. Some are incredibly ornate and beautiful. We carry a logbook and stamp pads in many colors. When you find a box, you take the stamp, ink it up, and stamp it in your logbook. All letterboxers have their own stamps, too. We have a family stamp. We ink it and stamp it in the box’s logbook, writing the date. Then, you re-hide the box exactly—or better than—you found it.

How Does a Goonie Start Letterboxing?

The first thing to do is go to Atlas Quest. This is the biggest and best letterboxing portal in the world. Do a simple search for boxes in your city or state to get an idea of how many exist, keeping in mind many are series and many are hidden until you find a certain number of boxes. Read the clues, rules, and play around. If you decide you want to look for letterboxes, there are a few things you need first.

Beginners/Just Checking it Out:

Any craft or hobby store will have the following items.

1. A rubber stamp. Before carving our own stamp, we used a Snoopy stamp from a hobby store. Choose something that reflects your family’s personality. Keep it small because some of the logbooks in boxes are tiny.

2. A logbook. Our first logbook was a spiral-bound journal from a hobby store, about 5X7. It should be small enough to fit in a bag.

3. Ink. There are stamp pads in every color! I bought two to get us started. Again, something small is great. Some letterboxers use markers, but I think that takes too long.

4. A dedicated bag to carry everything in. You don’t want to look obvious, with all your gear hanging out. We commandeered an old toddler backpack and it’s still our letterboxing bag. Little kids can carry it easily. It’s nicer to have a letterboxing bag because it keeps everything organized when you’re in a hurry to stamp and log, especially if you’re in a busy place.

5. A sense of stealth and respect. This sounds overly dramatic, but people work really, really hard creating boxes. If you don’t think you can be careful with them, respecting the time and work it goes in to planting boxes, just don’t do it. Please.

6. An Atlas Quest account (it’s free). This way, you can access tools and log in your finds for an online record of your accomplishments. You can set your privacy to public or private.

7. If you know someone who letterboxes, ask to join them on their next outing. You don’t need all the accoutrements. It’s a good way to see if it’s something your family would enjoy.

You’ve decided you love being a Goonie. How do you take it to the next level?

Again, craft or hobby stores are your friends.

1. Carve your own stamp. I had no idea you could do this. We bought a sheet of pink rubber stamp material at Michael’s with a set of carving tools. There are tutorials online at Atlas Quest. I carved several stamps, including our official stamp and I’m not crafty in the least. It was fun and the stamp is surprisingly meaningful. Ours includes our trailname (like your username) and a little cartoon guy Tommy designed. Keep it a manageable size.

2. Start planting your own boxes. It’s a good idea to withhold planting boxes until you’ve found a dozen or so. You are able to see how/where it’s done and learn tricks. There are many different types of boxes, from hard plastic to pouches to metal tins with magnets. You can buy a little logbook or make your own. Aidan made our logbooks out of cardstock and leftover scrapbooking paper, binding them with embroidery thread and a needle. Find a cool/beautiful/meaningful/unusual spot with good hiding spots, write your clues, leave the box, upload the information at Atlas Quest, and wait for the emails from finders to roll in.

3. Carry serious tools. Like bandaids, flashlight, gloves, a compass (smartphone will work). We learned this pretty quickly, actually.

4. Find/meet other letterboxers in your area. Atlas Quest has message boards where you can meet others. Many city or state groups have meetups and parties. Many collaborate and make series together. There are also mailed stamps, traveling stamps. We don’t participate in local letterboxer events, aside from getting together with a few ‘boxing friends.

5. Download apps with easy access to boxes, maps, other resources.

What has letterboxing done for our family?

~ We’ve been to places we would have never been, discovering new-to-us hiking trails, parks, playgrounds, cool scenic spots.

letterboxing

~ We’ve flexed our creative brains by making logbooks, carving stamps, writing clues.

~ We’ve embraced a sense of adventure and whimsy. Our kids can act like spies and ninjas, do reconnaissance, and find boxes on their own by problem solving.

~ We’ve collected and compiled logbooks full of some beautiful examples of artistry. It’s fun to flip through and remember some of the outings we had. It’s a unique family-owned journal.

~ Some of the kids are more into it than others, although they’ve all had fun doing it. You can’t expect nine kids to agree on everything.

I’m proud we’ve found 200 boxes as a family. In fact, Teddy, who will be four next month, was a key player in finding the 200th box, which was in downtown Louisville, Colorado. He was proud of himself, too, for being an active participate and helper. There aren’t many family hobbies where kids of all ages can be equal and active participants. We’ve found ours.

If you have any questions about letterboxing, I’m happy to answer! If you’re an experienced letterboxer and realize I left some critically important bit of information out (or, you want to share your thoughts/stories) please share!

7 comments to How to Letterbox

  • Fantastic post, Gretchen!

    Letterboxing is one of our favorite activities! We’ve tried to find boxes in as many states as we can, and it’s an amazing way to be a “local tourist” in a new area. (The search function on AQ is superb and will allow you to search for boxes around whatever address or landmark you want. So far, we’re at 16 different states!) We also love road-trips, so I’ll mark boxes along our route to find. It gives us an excuse to get out and stretch our legs in places we’d normally zip right on by.

    The only thing I’d add is to peruse the “comments” listed under the clue online (on AQ) for the boxes you’re going to try, because a lot of times there is very pertinent information, such as “there are now 3 stumps off to the right of the big rock,” or “the last 14 people have tried to find it and can’t.” I’ve found that helps set expectations. (We HAVE found a box that has been “missing” for years, but it’s rare, and if you only have so much energy to spend on a covert mission, it’s best to do so wisely.) 😉

    Letterboxing has been our secret ticket to behind the scenes places (quite literally at times) and has been the center of so many of our adventures. We love it!

  • p.s. Here’s a link to our Letterboxing Adventures: http://thecasualperfectionist.com/fun-stuff/letterboxing/
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  • Shayne

    How cool! I’ve wanted to try geocaching but have never done it. I actually think our family might enjoy letterboxing even more. I’m going to check out the website right now!

    • Gretchen

      Let me know if you try it! I bet the boys would have fun looking. Kids love to sneak, even when it’s parentally-approved sneaking.

  • Have you hidden a letterbox? How do you go about doing so with info for the sites?

    • Gretchen

      Hi Rajean! We have hidden letterboxes. One was lost/stolen/removed. We planted it at a local ice cream place that is super popular and it went “poof!” after a few weeks. It was sad because I hand-carved two stamps and loved them. The other is currently waiting to be replanted somewhere because the city of Westminster pruned the old hiding spot. Your comment kicked me into gear thinking of an alternative.

      I think you are asking how others find the clues to a box you’ve hidden? We uploaded our clues to Atlas Quest, where boxers can view them, then report them as found. Then, Atlas Quest sends us a notification it was found, by whom, and any comments they left. So, people don’t contact us directly. It’s all done through Atlas Quest, which is nice.

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