This will be the first in a likely series of posts about letterboxing, a hobby that has been active for more than 150 years.
As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a geocacher.
I love the game of geocaching — from the hunt, to the technology, to the find and to the hides. It’s a great game and I’ve had the chance to meet some great people through the game — people I never would have met without geocaching.
And, over the next month or two, I’ll be continuing my Geocaching 101 series of articles. But in a sidestep from that, I want to take you through the world of Letterboxing.
Some geocachers might have come across letterboxes before.
Letterboxing is a game that dates back to the 1800s. Technology is not needed. Just the ability to follow clues and, at times, to use a compass. It’s a game somewhat like geocaching in that people hide something and you need to find it. But, as far as I can tell and have seen, people don’t trade swag and such, as some do in geocaching.
Instead, it’s a stamp.
See, the beauty of letterboxing is the stamp. Each box that one finds has a stamp in it. Some are custom carved or some are store-bought stamps. But the idea is to stamp your personal log book with the stamp in the box; and stamp your personal stamp in the logbook at the box. It’s a nice and simple game that really can be quite fun.
Before I ever started geocaching, I knew about letterboxing. In fact, a couple of us had planned to try the game once spring came. That was until we discovered geocaching and the technological aspect.
Letterboxing went on the backburner.
Over the years as I’ve geocached, I’ve come across some letterboxes. Often, letterboxes and geocaches are in the same area, so it’s common for people to find one or the other. The big difference, usually, is the stamp. However, that can sometimes be an issue because there are letterbox hybrids on geocaching.com — which means it’s a letterbox, but listed on the geocaching site. Sometimes, these caches are also listed on a letterboxing site, so people can get credit for a find on more than one website.
I should probably check all of my letterbox hybrids I’ve found on geocaching.com so I can see if I’ve already found some other letterboxes!
Anyhoo, on with this blog post.
What is letterboxing?
The simple definition might be that it’s a game that anyone can play, but one must possess the ability to follow hints, be able to navigate and have an open mind to search for things. It’s a treasure hunt, of sorts, without modern technology to aid the finder.
The game features a bit of everything — treasure hunting, art, navigation, exploring, scenery, hiking etc. It takes you outdoors.
Basically, somebody hides a box — preferably waterproof. These can be hid in all sorts of locations, but the hope is you are bringing somebody to a nice spot. The box contains a logbook and a carved stamp (this is not something to take). There can be other goodies as well, but it seems that it’s mainly the logbook and the stamp.
Once placed, the person placing the box comes up with the clues, hints and directions to get to the letterbox. The directions can be easy and straightforward, or can be cryptic in nature. Or, it can be something else. The clues can have map coordinates, compass bearings from landmarks or just use certain things to get you to the box (start at the parking lot, take 24 steps toward the sign etc.)
Selecting the spot and writing the description and clues is a big part of it. The clues and directions are a major difference from geocaching, where people have coordinates to the spot of the cache.
Once the clues are done, hunters will attempt to find the box. (In olden days, the clues reached people in different ways. In modern times, we have the internet and there are places to find these boxes). That person can then go in search of the box.
Those hunting should carry a writing instrument, an inkpad, his or her rubber stamp and his or her personal logbook. Once locating the box, the person stamps the box’s logbook with their personal stamp. Then, use the box’s stamp to make an impression in the personal logbook. This keeps a record — both personally and at each box — of who has visited or where one person has visited.
The rubber stamp is what you seek. Many letterboxes have hand-carved stamps, which are really quite cool. I’m currently trying to teach myself to carve stamps, as I think it could be a fun hobby. And, should I decide to release several of these letterboxes, it’s my hope to do so with some hand-carved stamps in the hopes of doing some fun things.
The stamps in the box are for you to use in your personal log. You are NOT to take the stamp. This for you to have an imprint of the box you visited. Some are very cool. Some are basic. It all depends. But that’s part of the excitement of letterboxing — seeing what the stamps are when you find the box.
As for the stamp you carry, basically it is your signature.
You leave that mark in the logbook of the box to show you were there. Some geocachers already have stamps. Others just sign. When it comes to letterboxing, I make my stamp and then sign my name. As I start carving my own personal stamp, I am hoping to have it so it does everything I need with just the stamp.
I currently have a store-bought stamp and I look forward to being able to have my own, hand-carved personal stamp soon enough.
I have seen several really awesome personal stamps in my travels. However, it seems to be more of an etiquette to avoid posting people’s signature stamps, so I won’t share any on the blog. But, if you get out to do some letterboxes, definitely look through the log books. There are some fantastic stamps. And whatever you do, if you are going to go letterboxing — have a personal stamp. Whether store-bought or hand-carved, leave your mark with something other than a signature. This isn’t geocaching. Part of this game is the stamp.
From my research, it appears that letterboxing differs quite a bit, depending on what side of the pond you are on.
The game, itself, started in England in 1854. According to Wikipedia, the first box was placed in Dartmoor, Devon, England. A guide, James Perrott, placed a bottle for visiting cards on the northern moor. Hikers then began to leave a letter or postcard inside a box along the trail. That appears to be the start of the name “letterboxing.” The next person to find these cards, which were addressed to people, would mail them.
This seems to be the mecca for letterboxing, much like the spot for the original geocache, which was placed in 2001.
These Dartmoor letterboxes were extremely remote, however, and not everyone would find them. Weeks would pass before these letters would find their destinations. Up until the 1970s, there were about a dozen of these sites throughout the moor.
But as the game grew, this spot became bigger and bigger. The postcards or letters has long been forgotten, it seems. Though Dartmoor has grown to massive levels (depending where you look, there are claims of anywhere from 2,000 to 40,000 letterboxes being hidden there). Some are published. Some are boxes where you get clues in other boxes and some are by word of mouth.
The game grew, however, and is now worldwide.
The Letterboxing North America site notes the American/North American version of letterboxing seemingly started in about 1998, when the Smithsonian Magazine published an article about the game. Since then, the game has grown with more than 5,000 boxes placed on this side of the pond. The kicker is that there is a major difference between American letterboxing and that on the opposite side of the pond, including terminology and the way things are full played. The American version, as I stated earlier is somewhat like geocaching. The clues are posted on websites rather than by word of mouth or out in the field.
Finding the boxes
On this side of the pond, I’ve found several websites that will give you all you need — Letterboxing North America and Atlas Quest.
Each of these allow you to sign up for free, access the info and get all the clues you need. Most of the clues you get will be straight forward and lead you to the box. Some can be harder. That’s the beauty of this game. You have the opportunity to really dive into something.
Sometimes, additional clues are part of the hunt. There can be clues that still run word of mouth, or in the boxes or something else. So make sure you pay attention to clues. There might be something in the box that helps you find something else, such as a mystery box. There might be puzzles or other things. Unlike geocaching, letterboxing can be very cryptic in doing things. You might need a compass or a map. You might need something else all together. You never know!
Apparently, in Dartmoor, there is a catalog that lists many of the boxes in that park. That would be a cool companion to get if you visit there.
If you are a geocacher, note that it’s possible that the “letterbox hybrids” you may find might also be letterboxes listed elsewhere. From the geocaching.com website in regard to letterbox hybrids:
Letterboxing is another form of treasure hunting using clues instead of coordinates. In some cases, the letterbox owner has made their container both a letterbox and a geocache and posted its coordinates on Geocaching.com. If there is a stamp inside a Letterbox Hybrid, it is not an item intended for trade; the stamp is meant to remain in the box so that visitors can use it to record their visit.
Letterboxes, like geocaches, are often in neat spots. However, it doesn’t appear as letterboxing has the same sort of approval process as geocaching. Also, some letterboxes might become trashy and in bad shape if owners don’t take care of them. The same can be said about geocaching, but with certain measures in place, these caches can be archived and not searchable. Though some boxes get archived and such through letterboxing, I don’t see how it happens (without the owner doing it) as I haven’t dug deeply into the game. As I get further and further into it, I will look and see what I can come up with in regard to things like that.
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