Continue for a few switchbacks and there will be a large group of boulders on the left. Go to the top side of the topmost boulder. In the middle, there is an opening under the rock, reach deep and you will find it!
I first heard the term Letterboxing a few weeks ago on the popular #HikerChat tweetchat on twitter and I was immediately intrigued. As you can imagine, I am always trying to find new and exciting ways to keep my 3 year old’s feet and mind motivated on the trail, so I made a beeline over to John Soltys of moosefish.com with an invitation to explain it to us all! Luckily, he accepted and now we have one more tool in our arsenal!
I have three kids. That means there are nine possible answers to the question, “Who wants to go outside?” Regardless of the destination, it always seemed there was some dissent when I tried to rally the kids for an adventure.
Kids aren’t as motivated by views or nature as adults. They don’t feel the need to disconnect from their screens or push pause on their responsibilities. I want to reestablish my place in the natural world. They want to do something.
So now we letterbox and everyone wants to go almost all the time.
Letterboxing is akin to geocaching in that you’re looking for a hidden container. However, unlike geocaching it doesn’t require a GPS or an understanding of coordinates. Instead, you find letterboxes by following clues like this:
(More devious letterbox planters will encode the clues requiring some work to figure them out. Plan for an extra few minutes deciphering 19-07-04 18-04-02-17-04-19 12-04-18-18-00-06-04. (Hint: It’s a substitution cipher where A=00, B=01, etc. If you have trouble, try the rumkin.com tool: http://rumkin.com/tools/cipher/substitution.php))
Each letterbox holds at least a stamp and a log book. (90% of the stamps you’ll find are hand carved and some are true works of art.) When you search for a letterbox you should bring your own log book, your own stamp, and an ink pad. When you find the letterbox you use the box’s stamp to mark your log book and your stamp to mark the box’s log book. Then you rehide the letterbox for the next person to find.
But wait! Some letterboxes will have a mini letterbox inside the main letterbox. These are hitchhikers. The stamps and log books are tiny and they’re meant to be moved from one letterbox to another. We’ve moved hitchhikers between Oregon, Washington, and Arizona and it’s always nice to think we helped them on their way.
You can find letterboxes near you by using AtlasQuest.com. AQ is the best of the letterboxing sites with over 163,000 active letterboxes listed. There are over 80,000 in the United States alone and even letterboxes in places like Antarctica! (Pro tip for iPhone users: Get the app called Clue Tracker. You can ask it for any letterboxes within a few miles of your current location.)
We have a small bag that holds all our letterboxing gear. In addition to a family log book, each of the kids has their own log book and ink pad. (You wouldn’t expect the kids to all like the same color, would you?) We also carry a pair of gardening gloves, a small flashlight, baby wipes (almost as useful as duct tape), and a backscratcher for reaching letterboxes where there might be creepy crawlies.
In the summer of 2013 we took our first family road trip. It took six hours to drive from our home to Bend, Oregon. I’m not sure we’d have made it without letterboxing. We found boxes at rest stops, in parks, and even at Ikea. We found 13 letterboxes over the course of 10 days. Getting out of the car even for just a few minutes to stretch their legs and minds kept the kids sane and that kept my wife and me mostly sane, too.
In addition to finding letterboxes you can plant them, too. Get a waterproof package, carve a stamp, write the clues, and register it on AQ. Don’t forget to make sure you have the permission of the land owner even if it’s a National Forest or wilderness. (Bonus: When you plant a letterbox you get access to “Restricted” boxes.)
Most importantly, letterboxing allows us to have fun outside together. My kids never move down a trail faster than when they’re looking for a rock that looks like a face or a tree with a beard. I don’t know how long they’ll enjoy letterboxing, but while it lasts you can be sure we’ll be carrying our gear whenever we leave home.
About the Author
I’m a father, a husband, an adventurer, and a hacker. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and I never consider leaving, even when it rains for 100 days straight. I dream of days when I can turn off my computer and explore our amazing world with my family.
You can find us where the road heads up into the mountains, tucked against the river, at the end of a dirt road. I write at moosefish.com, tubbssnowshoes.com, and wta.org. I’m on twitter as @moosefish and instagram as mrmoosefish.