How Letterboxing Works

By: Jonathan Strickland
Dartmoor, England
Image courtesy AtlasQuest

The thought of following a series of clues to a hidden treasure has captured imaginations for hundreds of years. You can find it in books like "Treasure Island" and "The Da Vinci Code" or in films like "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." More than 150 years ago, an Englishman inadvertently inspired a hobby that today has thousands of people playing along: letterboxing.

While hiking in Dartmoor, James Perrott decided to put some of his personal calling cards in a bottle and hide it on the bank of Cranmere Pool. Anyone finding the bottle could use the cards to contact Perrott and let him know his bottle was found. People began to put their own calling cards in the bottle as proof of their find, and the only way to learn about the bottle was by word of mouth. Few found the bottle, but the number of search attempts increased steadily as time passed.


A few decades later, someone decided to replace the original bottle with a tin box, and the hobby finally got a name. Visitors began to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard in the box that the next person could take home and mail. The receiver could then show the postcard as proof that he found the box. Since mailboxes are called letterboxes in England, everyone started to call the hobby letterboxing.

The game continued to evolve. Eventually, someone put a logbook into the box to let people record their find. In 1907, a man named James H. Strother suggested including a small stamp and inkpad in the box so that visitors could stamp their own personal logbooks as proof of their discovery. Today, almost every letterbox has a unique stamp inside it. In turn, letterboxers carry their own stamps to mark letterbox logbooks.

People began to hide other letterboxes in Dartmoor, using the box on Cranmere Pool as a model, but the hobby grew very slowly. This was probably because letterboxing enthusiasts in England were (and still are) very secretive. In English letterboxing, being tight-lipped is all part of the art. Most of the time, a letterboxer in England would keep his identity secret. You might see the same stamp in logbooks around Dartmoor, but you aren't likely to figure out to whom the stamp belongs.

At first, clues about the various letterbox locations circulated by word of mouth -- later, enterprising letterboxers would collect clues and publish them in guides. Despite a short span of time when officials worried that letterboxers were damaging historic sites and park lands, letterboxing exploded from a rare activity to a regional craze. Today, Dartmoor National Park is home to more than 10,000 letterboxes.

In the next section, we'll look at letterboxing in America.


American Letterboxing

Cranmere Pool, the first letterbox
Image courtesy AtlasQuest

American letterboxing is similar to the English tradition, but is far less secretive. In the United States, the hobby really got started in 1998 after an article in Smithsonian Magazine described the peculiar English pastime. Before long, Americans began to carve stamps, hide letterboxes and invent devious clues. Unlike English hobbyists, American hobbyists often show others their stamps and reveal their identities.

While some clues are still passed around by word of mouth, most American letterboxers publish clues on the Web. There are many sites that host letterbox clues, such as the Letterboxing North America (LbNA) and Atlas Quest. Clues can take practically any form, from simple directions, to rhyming couplets, to fiendishly clever riddles. Letterboxers take great pleasure in collecting stamps in their personal logbooks.


In order to find and log a letterbox, you'll need the clues to the box's location, a personal logbook and a personal stamp. Some people buy a pre-made stamp they feel represents them in some way. Others order a custom-designed stamp, or carve one for themselves. Your stamp should be unique so that others will know you've visited a letterbox when they see your stamp in the logbook. It's a good idea to bring along an ink pad as well, just in case the box doesn't have one in it.

You may need additional gear for some hunts. Read the clues carefully and think about where you'll be searching. If you'll be outdoors in warm weather, you may need to bring sunblock, bug repellent and even a first aid kit. You might also find a map and compass useful on your search. Most letterboxers will include any additional requirements, like park entry fees, in their clue post.

Depending on the provided clues, you might need to solve a puzzle, break a code or do some research to figure out where to start. It's always a good idea to have as much information as possible before you head into the field. Half your search may take place in your own home with a pad of paper and a pencil.

­Once you follow the clues, solve the puzzles, hike through the unknown and search out the hidden box, it's stamping time. Stamp the box's logbook using your own stamp and use the box's stamp to mark your personal logbook. Now everyone will know you've found the box, and you will have proof of your own to show off to everyone else.

After you have exchanged stamps, you should re-seal the letterbox and hide it for the next person to find. Many letterboxers believe you should hide a box better than the way you found it, but at the same time you shouldn't move the box to another spot. Make sure the clues for the box will still be valid.

In the next section, we'll talk about how to hide a letterbox.


Hiding Your Letterbox

A selection of stamps
Image courtesy Xandert/MorgueFile

There are several steps to hiding your letterbox. First, you should make sure the container you are going to use is waterproof and weather resistant. Just in case moisture gets in anyway, put each item going into the letterbox in its own zip top bag. Every letterbox needs a logbook, a stamp (preferably a unique stamp carved for that letterbox) and probably an ink pad. Other items are optional.

Pick a hiding spot for your letterbox. You want your letterbox to be well hidden and unobtrusive, but at the same time you should avoid harming the surrounding area while hiding it. Once you've hidden the box, you can start working on clues. It's a good idea to work your way backwards from the letterbox to an area you think works best as a starting point -- this can help you create better clues. The clues don't have to be easy, but they should make sense and have a logical solution that leads to the letterbox.


Once you've hidden the letterbox and worked out your clues, decide on whether you want to create any puzzles or riddles from your information. Check your work carefully for any inaccuracies and then post it to a letterboxing Web site. Before long your letterbox's logbook should have a collection of stamps from enthusiastic hobbyists.

It's important that you maintain your letterbox after you hide it. Sometimes a letterbox is dislodged due to ­weather, animal interference or human intervention. It's always possible that someone mistakenly thought the letterbox was trash, or that a previous letterboxer didn't return it to the proper hiding place. You may also need to add a new logbook if the existing one has run out of empty pages.

If for some reason you need to remove your letterbox, you should notify the Web site you use so that people don't keep looking for something that is no longer there. You may have to remove a letterbox if it is damaged or if too many people have visited the area, putting it in danger.

In the next section, we'll look at the rich language of letterboxing, and what all those crazy acronyms on letterboxing sites mean.


Letterbox Lexicon

Image courtesy AtlasQuest

Letterboxers use lots of acronyms and odd terms that can baffle outsiders. Here's a quick rundown of some of the terms you might encounter when on a letterbox site.

100 Club - an old Dartmoor organization that only admits people who have found at least 100 letterboxes. Members have access to an official book of Dartmoor clues. Some American organizations have similar clubs for people who reach specific milestones in letterboxing.


Bonus box - a bonus box is a letterbox located near a second letterbox. The second letterbox contains the clues to the bonus box's location.

Cooties - small letterboxes that encourage players to be sneaky. Letterboxers try to sneak cooties into the possession of other letterboxers. If you receive a cootie, you should stamp it (some letterboxers use their thumbprint instead of their normal stamp) and then try to hide it on someone else.

Cuckoo clue - a clue found within a letterbox that leads to a different letterbox (a variation of a bonus box). However, when you find a cuckoo clue, you should take the clue with you and put it in yet another letterbox (not the cuckoo clue's own letterbox, obviously) for someone else to find.

Hitchhiker - a letterbox that fits into other letterboxes. When you find a hitchhiker, you can stamp the accompanying logbook (and use the hitchhiker's stamp on your own logbook), then take the hitchhiker with you to put in a different letterbox later.

Muggle - a non-letterboxer, a mundane, also known as noxers.

Mystery box - a letterbox that has very broad, vague clues. Initial clues are intentionally obscure, challenging letterboxers to determine the correct starting point for a hunt.

Pace - a measure of distance, for example 20 paces from the old tree stump. Letterboxers disagree on whether a pace consists of one or two steps as well as how long an individual step should be, so many people avoid using the term at all.

PFX - stands for planted, found and exchanged. A PFX count tells you how many letterboxes someone has hidden, discovered or made an exchange with another letterboxer (most often an exchange of stamps). For example, if you had hidden five letterboxes and found 45, your count would be P5F45.

Scavenging - looking for letterboxes without the benefit of having any clues. To get clues to Dartmoor letterboxes, you need to be in the 100 Club, but to be in the 100 Club you need to find 100 letterboxes. Most people search around likely spots in Dartmoor for letterboxes to reach 100 finds.

Spoiler - something that gives away the location of a letterbox that should have been kept secret.

S.P.O.R. - a suspicious pile of rocks, often marking the hiding place of a letterbox. Letterboxers will often use rocks to both obscure a letterbox and secure it in its hiding place.

For more information about letterboxing, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Atlas Quest
  • Granstrom, Chris. "They live and breathe letterboxing." Smithsonian, Vol. 29 Issue 1, 1998.
  • Letterboxing North America
  • Letterboxing 101
  • Letterboxing.Info