A Quick Guide to Letterboxing

A few years ago, I met a lady through Craigslist (no, not that kind of meeting!). She came to our apartment to purchase a bicycle rack that we had for sale. While we installed the rack on her car, she talked about biking with her daughter and the new game they had recently discovered: letterboxing. As she described this game, I could feel my excitement growing. I knew, even before I knew, that we’d be hooked. And we were.

Today, letterboxing remains one of our favorite pastimes. It is also a subject I get a lot of questions about. I’m by no means an expert in all things letterboxing but I thought I’d share with you some of what I do know and hopefully encourage you to give it a try. Letterboxing is a participant sport. The more participants involved, the better the game.

What is letterboxing?

Finding a box at a rest area in Jacksonville, FL
Found this box at a rest area in Jacksonville, FL

Letterboxing is a scavenger hunt (of sorts). It is similar to geo-caching but without the use of GPS technology. Letterboxers hide weatherproof boxes in locations like parks, cemeteries, libraries, parking lots, and other places that are open to the public. Each box contains a rubber stamp and a log book. Using clues found online at http://www.atlasquest.com (or passed from one letterboxer to another), letterboxers search for the boxes and once found, they “stamp in”. “Stamping in” simply means taking an impression of the stamp that is in the box and leaving behind an impression of your own signature stamp in the logbook. If you don’t have a signature stamp, signing the logbook is perfectly acceptable.

Getting started

A typical clue printed at AtlasQuest.com
A typical clue printed at AtlasQuest.com

The first thing you will need to do is register at http://www.atlasquest.com and choose your trail name. We are Operation Pinecone, if you want to look us up. Next, you’ll need a few supplies: a stamp that reflects your trail name, a pen, a small notebook (preferably unlined), and at least one ink pad. We also carry a compass and a bandanna (since some boxes can be dirty). Once you have your supplies, use AtlasQuest to find clues in your area and you’re ready to go!

Tip: When selecting clues, we often use an 18-month rule. If a box hasn’t been found by another boxer in the past 18 months, we exclude it from our search since in all likelihood, it is no longer there. 

Searching for boxes

Angie stamps in at a box in Englewood, FL
Angie stamps in at a box in Englewood, FL

Letterboxing generally takes place in the outdoors or areas trafficked by other people. Non-letterboxes are often called muggles, by the way. Avoiding being spotted by muggles is part of the game’s intrigue and also key to keeping boxes in place. Muggles have been known to remove or destroy boxes simply out of curiosity. When searching for boxes, be discreet and be stealthy, and always return the box to the same location where you found it.

Most boxes are Tupperware-type containers, though some can be pouches or plastic jars. Once a box is found, carefully unpack the contents in an area away from potential muggles. Stamp an impression of your signature stamp into the letterbox’s log book and write in your name and date. You can also include a personal message if you want. Next, stamp an impression of the letterbox’s stamp in your notebook. We also like to add the name of the letterbox and the date that we found it. Once complete, repack and reseal the container, and replace it in it’s original hiding spot.

Tip: Take caution when letterboxing in the woods. Use a stick to poke around areas that are covered in leaves or debris. Always bring your cell phone and remember – a can of bug spray can often mean the difference between a pleasant letterboxing experience and a nightmare.

Hiding boxes

Once you’ve found a few boxes, it’s likely that you’ll want to hide a few of your own. Most boxers carve their own stamps. Though we are somewhat creative, we’re not that artistic, so we’ve yet to carve a stamp (at least not one that’s legible). If you do decide to carve a stamp, AtlasQuest has a great tutorial called Stamp Carving 101 that will help you through the process. The few stamps that we’ve planted (we mostly deploy hitchhikers) have all been stamps purchased from the store.

The first letterbox we ever planted (Bledsoe Creek State Park, TN)
The first letterbox we ever planted (Bledsoe Creek State Park, TN)

Selecting the right container for your stamp is important. We like to use plastic peanut butter jars, which we cover in duct tape. They are generally weatherproof and easy to come by in our household. For log books, we either use tiny notebooks (usually found in the party favor aisle) or Angie makes one from recycled paper.

Once you have your stamp boxed and ready, scout your location and write detailed instructions for finding your box. As you’ll know from having searched for boxes, clues are not always easy to follow, and some are even disguised in a puzzle. How you present your instructions is up to you but be sure that the box can be found by someone using those instructions.

Tip: Hitchhikers are smaller letterboxes that hide inside of another box. If you find a hitchhiker, stamp it in and take it with you to another box. We like to save the local hitchhikers we find and take them with us when we travel. 

Letterboxing has taken us on some incredible journeys to places we might not otherwise have found on our own. We’ve visited hidden Civil War cemeteries, remote hiking trails, and more off-the-beaten-path attractions than we can count…all in the name of letterboxing. As of 6/16, we’ve found 292 letterboxes across 12 states.

Ready to give it a try? We know you’ll be glad you did! Happy boxing!!

For finding letterboxes on the go, we use a mobile app called Box Radar. It links to your AtlasQuest account and shows the location of nearby boxes.

To make the most of your letterboxing experience, we recommend picking up a copy of Randy Hall’s book: The Letterboxer’s Companion: Exploring the Mysteries Hidden in the Great Outdoors.

4 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to Letterboxing

  1. After reading this post to my kids, it inspired us to give letterboxing a try. We used only things we had on hand. Our kids are 8 and 9 years old (and just started summer vacation) so we even had a bunch of stamps to chose from and a stamp pad. We put together our bag and since it’s raining, thunder and lightening on and off today, we set out for a really easy site nearby that was listed as “drive by”. It was great! The kids easily found the 2 boxes without my help and both boxes had hand carved stamps, one of which was particularly intricate and beautiful. They are jazzed to do this again and it’s a great way to fill in those sometimes too long vacation days for only the cost of gas as well as getting us to explore local places we might otherwise miss.

    Oh, and our somewhat copy-cat trail name is Operation Cloud. Don’t expect great originality when you let a couple of little kids pick your name. But on the plus side we had a stamp of a cloud partly obstructing the sun in our collection so it worked out great/free!


    1. That is awesome! I’m glad you and your kids had fun. I love how it worked out that you already had a cloud stamp to go with your newly minted trail name. I’ll be sure to look for Operation Cloud on AtlasQuest.

      Liked by 1 person

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