Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Letterboxing—A treasure hunt for the whole family

I first learned about letterboxing from an article in one of the local parenting magazines years ago and knew it was something we had to try. We started simple with a pre-made stamp and notepad but went on to carve our own stamp and put together a kit to tuck in our bag when we were out and about.

It was a go-to activity for years, especially preschool through fifth grade. As my kiddos got older they then helped me create clues and carve stamps for a series of boxes we planted in the park behind their school. I also created kits with everything you need to get started to give as gifts and then worked with a good friend to sell some too.

If you’re curious to give it a try, here’s an overview on how to get started.

Some people call it a modern day treasure hunt or low-tech geocaching. Letterboxing involves puzzle solving, hiking, navigation skills and rubber stamping. It can be tailored for any age and amount of time—from a short hike in a local park or while traveling to another city. Simply put, it’s a really fun way to get outdoors and explore new places.

It all started in the late 1800’s when an English guide hid a bottle with his calling card in it and others who found it added theirs. Somewhere along the way people left postcards to be sent back to them (in England a letterbox is a mailbox). An article in Smithsonian magazine in the late 1990s brought the craze to America and now there are more than 4000 letterboxes hidden around the Washington state and more than 85,000 around the world.

Today, the adventure is to find a letterbox—a small weather-resistant container hidden in a public place by someone else—by following clues found online. Inside the box is a unique stamp and logbook. You first sign the box’s logbook with your trail name and stamp and then stamp your logbook with the box’s stamp before re-hiding the box for the next person to discover.

How do you get started?

1. Create a trail identity.
This will be a “trail name” you come up with for you/your family that goes along with your signature stamp. It’s also the name you would use when creating an account on the two letterboxing websites to record your finds.

2. Make your signature stamp.
There are several options for making a stamp. Traditionally, letterboxing stamps are little pieces of art carved out of rubber (like an eraser) and sometimes they are stamps bought at your local craft store. For us, in an effort to make it more kid friendly, we opted for sticky back foam that we put on a wood block.

3. Gather other materials you will need and a container to put them in. Or purchase one of my kits with everything you need, including signature stamp making materials. 

Our letterboxing kit

This is where you will record the stamps you find.

You can use your phone or an app but we like to go low-tech as much as possible.

Stamp pad
Some letterboxes have them but most don’t so it’s best to have one with you.

We like to write the date, name of the letterbox and location.

4. Go online to find clues.
There are two main websites that list free clues for finding letterboxes— and You can search by location and add filters for things like length of hike and if it’s pet-friendly. I then suggest printing out the clues since there are times when you might not have cell service, plus I like to be low-tech as possible when outside.

You can also download an app, called Clue Tracker, for your phone which lets you search both websites and save them for offline use.

Any which way you chose, just make sure to look for clues that have been found recently, within the past couple months, since Mother Nature has her way of making boxes go missing which can be disappointing when first starting out. 

5. Get looking.
This is where the adventure really begins! With your letterboxing kit and clues head outside and get looking. Once you find a box wait until others aren’t around to pick it up and then move away from the spot to do your stamping. Re-hide the box where you found it and continue on your adventure.

A few things to remember.
Be kind to Mother Nature. Leave the place better than you found it by packing out trash and be careful not to disturb plants or animals.

If the box is missing or damaged, you can contact the person who planted the box through the website where you found the clue to let them know.

Choose how much technology you want to use. There are times when it’s nice to turn off your phone and times when it makes sense to pull it out for a last minute adventure. You can also opt to register your trail name online and keep track of your finds but it’s not required. You will always have your logbook filled with stamps from the boxes you’ve found.

Learn more about letterboxing.
If you’re interested to learn more about letterboxing both Atlas Quest and Letterboxing North America not only have clues, but a lot more information about the activity, stamp carving and how to plant a box. There is also a book called The Letterboxer’s Companion by Randy Hall.

Letterboxes around West Seattle
Here are a few letterboxes that have been found recently to give you an idea of what clues are like if you want to give it a try. There are several more near by that have been found within the past year or so that are probably still there as well but anything beyond that I wouldn't suggest for when you are first starting out.