Seattle's Child

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Try letterboxing for your next hiking adventure

Hiking with a twist

If you’re looking for a fun family activity that combines outdoor adventures, art, and the thrill of a scavenger hunt, look no further than the hobby of letterboxing. With a set of clues, a few simple supplies, and a sense of adventure, you’ll be ready to set off on your own. Read on for tips on how to get started and maximize your letterboxing success.

Unboxing letterboxing

Letterboxing is essentially geocaching with a twist. Letterboxes are typically small weatherproof containers or stand-alone fixtures that can be found by following a set of clues. Most contain both a custom or handmade rubber stamp (which finders can use to stamp their personal notebook) and a logbook used to record who has found that particular letterbox. 

Letterboxing began in the 1850s when an English guide set out a bottle where hikers and visitors could leave their calling cards. Since its humble beginning, the popularity of this activity has crossed oceans and centuries. Thousands of letterboxes are now hidden across the United States, and chances are you’ve walked right by some without even knowing they were there. Boxes can be hidden anywhere the contributor chooses–in urban centers, parks, on hiking trails, and near local attractions. The Seattle area alone has hundreds waiting to be discovered.

Getting started

Letterboxing does not require special equipment or skills, so getting started is simple. First, download an app such as Letterboxing North America. These resources allow users to search for letterboxes by location, get clues and directions, and learn specific information about each one. (If you will be visiting a more remote location where cell service is unreliable, you may want to screenshot or download clues before leaving home).

Once you have your clues in hand, gather a few supplies to bring along on your quest:

  • A small bag or backpack for carrying your supplies
  • A notebook or pad of paper for collecting stamps
  • An ink pad to use with the stamps you find
  • A custom “signature” stamp you can use to stamp in the logbook
  • A pen for writing your name, home location, and date of your find in the log book
  • A compass, compass app, or a good sense of direction! Some clues are given in terms of which cardinal direction you should walk or turn at an intersection, so it’s helpful to have a wayfinding tool available.
  • Comfortable clothes that can get dirty. Some boxes are hidden off the beaten path, so wearing clothing well-suited for walking, climbing, kneeling, or digging is a good idea.
  • Sturdy waterproof shoes
  • Hand wipes and hand sanitizer.
  • A cell phone battery pack. Using a phone to look for clues and directions can tax the battery, so bringing extra charging capabilities allows for longer adventures. 

Find it

Now that you have gathered your clues and supplies, it’s time to start. Begin by choosing a letterbox you would like to find. Use the location search tool on an app or website to find a letterbox in an area you would like to visit, or that is close to home. Most websites will have information about each letterbox, including its findability rating (how easy it is to find that letterbox) and its f-score (a visual of how many people have found that letterbox on each of the last 10 confirmed visits to the listed location). To increase your chances of finding a letterbox, choose one with a “good” findability rating and high f-scores for the most recent recorded visits.

Once you have chosen a letterbox to search for, follow the clues carefully. Most letterboxes will be hidden or obscured, so everyday people who are not letterboxing won’t inadvertently discover them. If you don’t find the letterbox immediately, don’t give up! Look under and around the area where you expect to find the letterbox, considering that you may have to move objects to see it. 

Now what?

After you find a letterbox, open it up. If everything is in good order, you should see a rubber stamp and logbook inside. Use your stamp pad to stamp your notebook with the letterbox’s stamp, and leave your signature stamp inside the letterbox logbook along with your name, location of origin, and the date of your find. 

At the end of each find, carefully return all objects so they will be ready for the next letterboxer to find. Ensure all plastic bags, wraps, or containers are properly sealed to prevent weather damage, then re-hide the letterbox in the exact location and manner you found it.  

Often, several boxes are hidden in relatively close proximity to each other, making it possible to visit several letterboxes in a single outing. Since many letterboxes are hidden near points of interest, adding on visits to nearby attractions can be a fun way to extend your letterboxing adventure.

My family’s adventures

On my recent quest, we successfully located letterboxes at three of the four locations we visited. Our first success was at Bothell’s Hillcrest Bakery, and the stamp we found was even bakery-themed! To celebrate our first day’s success, I popped inside the bakery to pick up a box of (incredibly delicious) donuts for our family.

With donuts in hand, we drove down the road to Bothell’s Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine, where we again met success with some helpful clues from a “special pet” named Ollie.

Our final stop was Rotary Community Park in Woodinville, where we found one of the three letterboxes hidden along the park’s trail and boardwalk. Playtime at Rotary Park’s playground and skatepark is optional but highly recommended. In total, we spent about two hours and drove a combined total of less than five miles between locations.

Creating your own

If this activity gets your creative juices flowing, consider creating your <em>own letterbox to add to the community. Choose a weatherproof container such as a snap-lid plastic container or duct tape-covered plastic zipper bag to use as your letterbox, and be sure to include a special stamp and logbook. Find a publicly accessible location for hiding, and create some clues to help participants find it. Use the “Add Letterbox” feature on one of the major websites listed at the beginning of this article to let other adventurers know where to find your newly created letterbox.

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About the Author

Allison Peterson

Allison Peterson is a former elementary teacher turned full-time driver/chef/tutor/nurse/coach/memory-maker to three children who call her "Mom". She lives in Woodinville, and is always looking for her next adventure!