GeekDad UnWired: Letterboxing the No-Tech Geocaching Alternative

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GeekDad Unwired. Image: Jonathan LiuGeekDad Unwired. Image: Jonathan Liu

GeekDad Unwired. Image: Jonathan Liu

What is letterboxing, you ask? Most people I come across have heard of geocaching, but almost no one knows about letterboxing. It predates geocaching by almost 150 years, dating back to 1854 in Dartmoor, England (geocaching is less than ten years old). There, hikers left letters or cards inside a box along the trail. The next person along was supposed to collect and mail the letters, thus creating the name “letterboxing.” It also has things in common with orienteering, which is yet another fun activity to do with your family.

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Image by elvis_pelt via Flickr

Like geocaching, letterboxing involves finding a container in a hidden location. But rather than reaching certain coordinates with a GPS, you find the letterbox by following written clues. Some of them say things like, “Turn left at the large tree stump.” Others might be a bit more cryptic. Sometimes a compass is helpful. The boxes are usually hidden, similar to geocaches, so some searching in the end is common, but they are usually easy to find.

What is inside the box differs from what is inside a cache, however. Letterboxes all have a log book, but in them you don’t just sign your name and put the date. You also stamp their log book with your rubber stamp (which you have previously bought or created). You can also add any other information you wish. In the box, there is also a rubber stamp for that particular letterbox, with which you stamp your own book. Record the date, location, who you are with, and anything else to help you remember the trip. Some people leave room in their books to later add photos of the find. Your book then serves as a record of all the letterboxes that you have found. Ink pads are usually inside the letterbox as well, but it is best to bring your own, just in case, especially if you prefer a certain color.

While you can buy a pre-made rubber stamp at a craft store, it is encouraged for you to make your own. Try to make it of something that has some meaning for you. Rubber stamp making kits are available, or you can carve a stamp out of a large gum eraser.

To sum up, here is what you need to bring on a letterboxing adventure: Your log book, your rubber stamp, a stamp pad, a pen, and the clues. Optionally, you can also bring a compass, a hat, sunscreen, water, snacks, a camera, and another adventurous person or two.

One of the few disadvantages of letterboxing is that there aren’t nearly as many letterboxes as there are geocaches. For example, my town has 10 letterboxes and over 250 geocaches (within five miles). But if you’re looking for a twist on the usual geocaching activities, letterboxing is a lot of fun.

There are various types of letterboxes, detailed here. They include types such as traveling letterboxes, or hitchhikers, which you can take out of one letterbox and deposit it into another one. The best places to find clues for boxes in the United States are Letterboxing North America, Atlas Quest, and Letterboxing.info. If you’re the type to want a book to help you get started, check out The Letterboxer’s Companion and It’s a Treasure Hunt! Geocaching & Letterboxing.

I first learned about this sport by reading about it in Smithsonian Magazine in April of 1998. It sounded like something that I would really enjoy. Then I promptly forgot about it. So my first letterbox find wasn’t until the summer after my daughter was born, in 2001. I haven’t found too many in the intervening years, mostly because my kids have been too young to take on long hikes. In my experiences with letterboxing and geocaching, letterboxing often involves longer hikes to get to the box, or the placer of the box will take you on a long tour of the area before pointing you to the actual box location. This can be fun, but it is often quite time consuming.

To me, letterboxing brings up images of times past, especially since it started in the hills of England. It takes me back to times of handwritten letters, sealed closed with a drop of wax. I would love to take a trip to Dartmoor and find as many letterboxes as I can. Once you find 100 boxes in Dartmoor, you can join the 100 Club, which publishes an annual catalog of Dartmoor letterboxing clues. Dartmoor Letterboxing was one of the 100 More Geeky Places to Visit With Your Family listed last month.

As with geocaching, letterboxing is a great sport to take up with your children. It gets all of you out in nature, and kids are usually very good at helping to hunt for small items. Let us know which letterboxes you find!

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