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Frugal Family Fun: Letterboxing

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I hadn't heard of this before but it's SO MUCH FUN!Now that most kids in the U.S. are getting out of school for the summer, many families are looking for fun activities to keep the kids busy.  It’s a great bonus when those activities also help to keep their minds engaged, get them outdoors, and cost very little.  Our family has been enjoying an activity that fits all of those criteria.  Letterboxing!

What is letterboxing?  Well, you may have heard of geocaching and it’s a similar idea, but letterboxing is usually less about a difficult hunt and more about stories, history, and the art of stamp-making.  You can find out more details on how to get started on Atlas Quest, but I’ll fill you in on the basics.

What is a letterbox?

It is a box, usually a small plastic container, that is hidden somewhere (sometimes indoors, often outdoors). Inside the box is a logbook (notebook of some sort) and a stamp (usually handmade). When you find a letterbox, you stamp your own personal “signature stamp” into the box’s logbook and you stamp the box’s stamp into your personal logbook (to keep a record of your finds).

How do I find a letterbox?

Generally, you can find a letterbox by first searching through the directory on Atlas Quest to find what’s in your area.  When you find a box listed that looks good, pay attention to the “last found” information to make sure the box isn’t missing.  If you’ve decided to search for it, click the “view clue” link.  Then read the clue and go find the box!  Note that some clues may require the use of a compass.

What supplies do I need to get started?
You will need:

  1. A logbook. You want a notebook with thick paper that won’t let the ink soak through and that has no lines so the stamps look their best.  I’ve found that mixed media sketchbooks work very well.  Of course, a more frugal option would be to make your own.  Since we have a comb binding machine, we’ve made some of our own logbooks out of 4×6 index cards, so the cost is less than $1 each.  There are lots of ways you could construct your own logbook!
  2. An ink pad. The dye-based inks look great but can stain hands, so if you’re letterboxing with young kids, I would suggest opting for a washable variety. Note that letterboxes generally do not include ink pads because they can not survive outdoors very long, so you must bring your own.  Occasionally, the clue may specify that you should bring a certain color of ink to make the stamp look best, but this is optional.  It may also suggest colored pencils so that you can color in the design if you desire.
  3. A signature stamp.  You need a stamp that represents yourself or your letterboxing team.  It is acceptable to just sign your name to the letterbox’s logbook if you don’t have a stamp, but the stamps are half the fun!  The majority of stamps are handcrafted, but you can start with a store-bought stamp.
  4. A pen. You should take a pen so you can write your trail name, date, and hometown in the logbook by your signature stamp.
  5. A rag or cloth. Stamping can be messy and it is courteous to wipe the excess ink off the letterbox stamp before putting it back in the box.
  6. Optional:  A compass.  A compass is only required for some letterboxes and you can skip those if you don’t have one.  You’ll need a compass with a turning dial with degrees on it.  We have a Coleman one that the kids enjoy using.  Gadgets make everything more fun, right?
  7. Optional:  An account on Atlas Quest. You don’t have to sign up on the Atlas Quest web site to get started, but you do need an account if you want to be able to log your finds and comment.  It’s a great community and if you participate you can help improve things for everyone, so I recommend signing up.  A basic account is totally free.  You will need to decide on your “trail name” before signing up, though (this can be changed later if needed).  Another advantage to signing up for a free account is that some letterbox listings are restricted to only members of the site and others are restricted to only members who have found a certain number of boxes or planted (created) a certain number of boxes.

What do I need if I want to try handcrafting my stamp?

If you’re at all crafty, you will likely enjoy the stamp-carving process.  Altas Quest has some tutorials to teach you the basics.  To get started, you will need:

  1. A design idea.  This is often the hardest part!  Think about what image would represent you or your letterboxing team well and also make a pleasing stamp.  After you have an idea, you can search the web for graphics to use for your idea. I like to play with it in photo software and then print it on paper.  Then I transfer it to the stamp medium by coloring over it with a pencil and pressing it on to the rubber.
  2. Stamp medium.  The most popular stamp medium is affectionately called “the pink stuff” but is officially named Speedball Speedy-Carve.
  3. Carving tools.  The Speedball carving tools are the most popular and I really enjoy large set of carving tools, but there are also less expensive, smaller sets.  Or you can opt for a starter kit that includes some medium and a basic tool.

You could get started with letterboxing with nothing but a pen to sign your name, so it’s a hobby that you could begin with almost zero start-up cost.  Even if you went all out, though, the most you’d probably spend would be around $40 if you bought stamp-making supplies.  That’s pretty inexpensive for a hobby that could offer endless fun and adventure for the whole family!

The thing I love most about letterboxing is that it gives us a reason to go to places we may never have visited otherwise.  It has led us to new parks, a Confederate cemetery, and even our Statehouse.  You  never know what adventures you might find along the way!

If you want to read more about letterboxing, you can pick up a copy of The Letterboxer’s Companion.

After you find a few letterboxes, you also might want to plant your own boxes. The kids and I planted our first box this week and we can’t wait to see who visits it!

Happy letterboxing!

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