Families can take to the trail with this modern-day treasure hunt
by By Carol Rifka Brunt with additional reporting by Aili Petersen
When my family moved from the woods of western Massachusetts to southwest England about a year ago, we knew we were headed for Hound of the Baskervilles territory, a land of brambly hedges, thatched cottages, and legendary moors. What we didn't know was that moving to a town on the edge of England's Dartmoor National Park would land us right in the birthplace of the letterboxing craze -- and turn us into stealthy sleuths to rival Sherlock Holmes himself.
For those of you who don't already know, letterboxing (like its high-tech cousin, geocaching; see our sidebar on Letterboxing Lingo) combines hiking with the added element of treasure hunting. Participants get clues online -- they might be straightforward directions, clever riddles, or something in between -- then follow them to hidden boxes containing a logbook, an ink pad, and a rubber stamp. Upon discovering one, you document the find by "stamping in," marking the box's logbook with your own rubber stamp and a brief message, and stamping your own logbook (a passport of sorts) with the box's stamp.
Letterboxing got its start in the mid-1800s, when Englishman James Perrott placed a glass jar within a mound of stones at Cranmere Pool, a remote spot in Dartmoor. People who made the arduous trek after him could prove they'd been there by leaving their calling card in the jar. Perrott's idea took hold and spread throughout Dartmoor and, eventually, beyond. In 1998, an article in Smithsonian helped spark interest in the hobby outside of England, and today there are thousands of letterboxes around the world, including more than 23,000 in the United States. In fact, it turns out my family had been hiking right past plenty of letterboxes during our eight years in Massachusetts. With some in every state, chances are many other families have done the same.
The whole idea of letterboxing had instant appeal for my husband, Chris, and our kids, Maddy, age 10, Oakley, 7, and Julia, 4. Here was our chance to be Harry Potter searching for the Sorcerer's Stone, Indiana Jones in pursuit of ancient treasure. By the end of our first day, our logbook was filled with stamps, including two different butterflies, a horseshoe, and a Dartmoor pony.
We were hooked. Besides being a fun excuse for families to get outside and get moving, letterboxing hunts come in a wide range of lengths and difficulty levels, making them a great activity for Scout troops and other groups as well. Tracking down the hidden boxes also offers a sense of accomplishment, the thrill of the hunt, and the excitement that comes with exploring new territory.
Although many U.S. letterboxes are found in parks and woodsy areas -- providing a fantastic way to draw reluctant hikers outside -- letterboxing has spread beyond the wilds and into suburban and urban areas. You can seek them out while sightseeing in Manhattan, buying treats in a pet shop in Park City, Utah, or while taking a peek into the past in a South Dakota ghost town.
"It's like a guided tour," says Boston-area letterboxing enthusiast Michelle Lee, who was introduced to the sport at a Girl Scout leaders' training weekend. "I've been to places I never knew existed." Letterboxing novice Cindi Huss agrees. Cindi and her daughters, Linore, age 10, and Jana, 7, found their first letterbox, a fake book, cunningly shelved among the real volumes in a library near their home. "It's like the kind of thing you want to play when you're a kid, spy stuff," says Cindi. "It's brought us to places we would never have thought of going."
For us, letterboxing is simple fun at its finest. All we need is the five of us, a stamp, an ink pad, and a notebook. Although we've barely begun to explore Dartmoor, we're already thinking ahead to the next time we'll get back to the States. We'll follow our favorite trails through familiar woods, but this time we'll be on the hunt and looking at everything with the eyes of Sherlock Holmes.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR OWN OUTING
Ready to try letterboxing yourself? With hunts in every state, there are bound to be some close by, no matter where you live. Here's how to get started.
Go Online Start with a visit to Letter boxing.org. The Web site offers clickable maps that make it easy to locate hunts in your area, as well as a comprehensive FAQ section, glossary, and much more.
Choose Wisely If you have beginning hikers or young kids in your troop, pick a hunt labeled "easy" or "good for kids." Many give approximate distances and time allowances too. Note the date the box was placed. The more recently, the more likely it's still there and in good shape.
Gather Your Gear Be sure to bring a printout of the clues, a rubber stamp, an ink pad, a logbook (any blank book or notebook will do), and a compass if your hunt requires one (read the clues!). You should also bring hiking essentials such as drinking water, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and a first-aid kit.
Practice Responsible Letterboxing Try to disturb the environment as little as possible, and always take any belongings or trash away with you. Be discreet (try not to let nonletterboxing "muggles" see what you're doing) and be sure to put the boxes back just the way you found them.
As letterboxing's popularity has grown, so has its jargon. Here are a few key letterboxing terms to help you get started.
Bonus Box: A letterbox whose clues are discovered inside another letterbox.
Geocaching: High-tech letterboxing in which handheld GPS units are used to locate hidden boxes. As with letterboxing, the clues (the coordinates) to the boxes are exchanged online.
Hitchhiker: A surprise, transient letterbox that's found inside a stationary letterbox; upon discovering it, a letterboxer moves it to another box.
Microbox: A miniature letterbox sometimes in a container as small as a film canister.
Stamp in: To make an impression of your personal stamp in a letterbox's log and record an image of the box's stamp in your own log.
Trail name: The alias used by a letterboxer when stamping in.
Store-bought stamps are perfectly acceptable, but creating your own design couldn't be easier. You can use a single image to represent your whole family, or let everyone create their own personalized stamps.
To get started, first use a pencil to draw a design (the simpler the better) on a piece of adhesive craft foam, then cut it out. Peel off the backing and stick your design onto a handle such as a bottle cap, a plastic laundry detergent lid, or a small wooden block (found at craft stores for about $1 or less). You can add some tacky glue for better adhesion, if you like.
For one-stop shopping, the Speedy-Stamp basic stamp-making kit by Speedball (ages 10 and up; about $11 at art supply stores) includes almost everything you'll need to carve your own signature stamp. The 4- by 6-inch carving block is large enough to make several big stamps, and the included tools cut the block with ease. The only thing missing is a craft knife.