Start Finding Letterboxes

Letterboxing is an intriguing “treasure hunt” style outdoor activity. Letterboxers hide small, weatherproof boxes in publicly-accessible places (like parks) and post clues to finding the box online on one of several Web sites. However, clues to finding some of the most highly-sought boxes are passed around by word of mouth. There are about 20,000 letterboxes hidden in North America alone. Individual letterboxes usually contain a log book, an often hand-carved rubber stamp and may contain an ink pad. Finders make an imprint of the letterbox's stamp on their personal log book, and leave an imprint of their personal stamp on the letterbox's logbook .

Letterboxing is said to have started in England in 1854 when a Dartmoor National Park guide, James Perrott of Chagford, left a bottle by Cranmere Pool with his calling card in it an an invitation to those who found the bottle to add theirs. Eventually, visitors began leaving a self-addressed post card or note in the jar, hoping for them to be returned by mail by the next visitor (thus the origin of the term “letterboxing;” “letterbox” is a British term for a mailbox). This practice ended in time, however, and the current custom of using rubber stamps and visitor’s log books came into use. It caught on in the US in 1998 after an article in Smithsonian magazine.

To get started, you’ll need a “trail name,” rubber stamp, pencil or pen, small sketch book, one or more ink pads or brush markers, a simple compass, and clues.

1. Trail Name

A trail name is your letterboxing identity. Some letterboxers chose to use their real name, but most chose a trail name that is means something special to them. Examples of trail names are Mark & Sue, The Drew Clan, Team Green Dragon, The Wild Cats, Silent Doug, Clueless, and Choi.

2. Rubber Stamp

The image for the rubber stamp should mean something personal to you or your family and is either hand-carved or commercially made. This is your “personal stamp” and you’ll use this to make an imprint in the log book contained in each letterbox that you find. If you letterbox as a family, you can either use one team stamp or a stamp for each person.

3. Pencil or Pen

The pencil or pen is used to add your trail name and date next to your personal stamp imprint that you’ve made in the log book. You might also want to add a personal comment about your experience finding the letterbox.

4. Sketch Book

The sketch book is your “personal log book” where you stamp imprints using the stamps in the letterboxes that you find. It’s best to use acid-free medium to heavy weight paper. Paper with a smooth finish gives the best impression. An alternative is to make an imprint from the letterbox stamp on plain paper or index card then later cut it out and add it to a scrapbook.

5. Ink Pad

At a minimum, you should carry one inkpad. The easiest type to use has a raised foam pad. Archival Ink pads by Ranger are really the best, dry instantly, are waterproof and readily available in the big box craft stores. Ancient Page also possess the same qualities. StazOn alcohol pads are terrific too. If you find that you enjoy letterboxing, you may want to purchase a set of 24 Marvy Brush Makers. Their large brush point and bright, non-toxic, odorless watercolor make them perfect for rubber stamping because the color stays wet longer than other markers. They're a good choice on stamps that are suitable for inking in multiple colors.

6. Compass (optional)

Although many letterbox clues don’t require it, you should consider purchasing a simple baseplate compass, such as the Suunto A-10 (about $12). You won’t need a fancier compass with sighting or declination adjustment, since nearly all letterbox clues that reference compass bearings use magnetic bearings.

7. Clues

Now that you’re fully equipped, you need to locate some clues to letterboxes near you. The primary web site for letterboxing clues is www.letterboxing.org. Another popular web site is www.atlasquest.com. Once you find the clues to a letterbox that you’d like to find, read it carefully and try to locate and print out a trail map of the area in which you’ll be hiking.

The most important things to remember when letterboxing are respect and safety. Respect for the environment and for the letterbox that someone has created and your personal safety.

Letterboxing is intended to be an environmentally friendly activity, with as little impact as possible on the environment involved in hunting for letterboxes. Letterboxes should always be hidden in publicly-accessible areas, yet out of sight of casual visitors. Do not disturb any historical landmark or private property. Do not dig, remove native vegetation, disturb natural rock formations, or interfere with animals or their habitats. Leave the location better than you find it; you are encouraged to remove any litter left behind by people who care less for the land than you.

Respect the contents of each letterbox and the effort put into it by the letterboxer who made it. Letterboxes usually only cost about $5 to make but the letterboxer who created it also put a lot of time and effort into creating and placing the letterbox.

There are hazards of letterboxing, such as poison ivy and creatures like snakes or spiders who tend to like the same crevices and cavities where letterboxes are often hidden. It’s usually best to use a stick to poke into crevices then reach in carefully for the letterbox. Also be sure to letterbox with a partner or let others know where you are going. Carrying a cell phone is also a good idea, although some letterboxes are located in areas without cellular service. Most importantly, use common sense to letterbox safely.

When you arrive at the location of the letterbox by following the clues, make sure that there aren’t others around when you go to retrieve it to prevent it’s location from being discovered by non-letterboxers who might not respect the letterbox. Be careful not to damage any plants or historical structures in your search for the box. Actual digging should never be required, but you usually have to look under rocks, sticks or leaves to find the letterbox.

Once you’ve retrieved the letterbox, move a bit away from the hiding spot before opening it. If someone comes along and asks what you’re doing, be creative!

Sometimes you’ll search for the letterbox and not be able to find it. It could either be missing or simply difficult to find. Although this can sometimes be frustrating, just remember the great time you’ve had with the hike and the hunt, even if you don’'t find the letterbox.

The letterbox container will typically be some type of plastic food storage container, although many types can be used, as long as they’re watertight. Some containers are very small, such as a film canister, or may be disguised as a rock or some other natural feature.

Inside the letterbox you’ll find a log book and rubber stamp. You may also find an ink pad and pen or pencil. Stamp the imprint of your personal stamp into the letterbox’s log book and write in your letterboxing name, home town, and date. You're welcome to add an additional message in the log book about your experience finding the letterbox as well.

Next, stamp the imprint of the letterbox’s stamp in your personal log book. You might also add the name of the letterbox, who created it, and the date that you found it. Some people also like to add a little note about their experience into their personal log book.

Once you’ve finished “stamping up,” be sure to seal any plastic bags and the letterbox container itself carefully and replace it as you would hope to find it: completely hidden from view, with contents protected from the elements. Water is the biggest threat to letterboxes. If a letterbox is found damaged, please notify its owner. It's a good idea to carry some extra pint and quart size plastic freezer bags to replace bags that may no longer be watertight.

Planting your own letterbox is exciting, but it’s best to get started by finding a number of letterboxes before creating your own.