is an outdoor hobby that combines elements of orienteering
and puzzle solving
. Letterboxers hide small, weatherproof boxes in publicly-accessible places (like parks) and distribute clues to finding the box in printed catalogs, on one of several web sites
, or by word of mouth. Individual letterboxes usually contain a logbook and a rubber stamp. Finders make an imprint of the letterbox's stamp on their personal logbook, and leave an impression of their personal stamp on the letterbox's logbook — as proof of having found the box. Many letterboxers keep careful track of their "find count".
History and origins
Modern-day letterboxing's origins can be traced to Dartmoor
in 1854. William Crossing
in his Guide to Dartmoor
states that a well known Dartmoor guide (James Perrott) placed a bottle for visitors cards at Cranmere Pool
on the northern moor in 1854. From this hikers on the moors began to leave a letter or postcard inside a box along the trail (sometimes addressed to themselves, sometimes a friend or relative) — hence the name "letterboxing". The next person to discover the site would collect the postcards and mail them. The first Dartmoor letterboxes were so remote and well-hidden that only the most determined walkers ended up finding them, allowing weeks to pass before the letter made its way home. Increasingly, however, letterboxes have been located in relatively accessible sites. As a result, the tradition of leaving a letter or postcard in the box has been forgotten.
Clues to the locations of Dartmoor letterboxes are traditionally distributed in print format in the Dartmoor 100 Club's regularly-updated catalogue. Letterboxes can be found in other areas of the United Kingdom including the North York Moors and have now spread all over the world.
Interest in letterboxing in the U.S. is generally considered to have started with a feature article in the Smithsonian Magazine in April 1998. The growing popularity of the somewhat similar activity of geocaching during the 2000's has increased interest in letterboxing as well.
Clues to American letterboxes are commonly published on Letterboxing North America, Atlas Quest, and other websites.
Types of letterboxes
There are now many different kinds of letterboxes, each with some specific distinction. While purists only recognize those letterboxes planted in the wild, many new variations exist. These include: Mystery boxes
- These are usually traditional boxes, but these "mystery" boxes have either vague starting areas, NO starting areas, no descriptions, no clue -- any number of things to make the box extremely hard to find. Cuckoos (Hitch Hikers)
- A travelling letterbox, it is placed in a traditional letterbox for another boxer to find. When found, it is stamped just like a traditional letterbox, but is then carried with the boxer to the next box they find. The Cuckoo's stamp should also be recorded in the host box's log, and vice versa. In the US, Cuckoos became known as Hitchhikers. Personal Travellers
- Much like a traditional box, but instead of being planted, the box is kept with the creator at all times. If another boxer is met on the trail or at a meet it is attainable if requested. In the US this box is usually only attainable if the other letterboxer knows the password or passphrase… which is sometimes cryptic, sometimes straightforward, sometimes almost non-existent, and sometimes simply silly. Parasites
- These are much like cuckoos, except instead of traveling from letterbox to letterbox, they travel from letterboxer to letterboxer in Personal Travellers. In the US they have become known as Cooties and are intentionally planted on letterboxers (or their unattended bags) on the trails or at gatherings. Most people are subtle about planting them — but not all.
In the US, letterboxes have developed new forms — Hitchhiker Hostels
- This is a traditional letterbox with special qualities. Namely, it is a 'hostel' for hitchhikers, sized and specially designated to hold multiple hitchhikers at one time. Normally, there are at least one or two hitchhikers in the box at all times, and any letterboxer who takes a hitchhiker out is required to leave a new one in its place. A hitchhiker hostel has its own stamp and logbook, just like a traditional letterbox, and any hitchhiker that is placed within it should be stamped and recorded within the logbook, preferably with both the date of its being added to the hostel (in order to make it easier to move the older hitchhikers out), and the date it is removed. American Parasites (these should not be confused with English Parasites)
- A parasite is very much like a hitchhiker except, instead of hitchhiking between letterboxes on their own, they hitch rides on other hitchhikers. When a parasite joins with a hitchhiker ('infecting' it), it is stamped into the hitchhiker like a normal hitchhiker. The parasite also stamps into the letterbox that hitchhiker is placed in, 'infecting' the letterbox, as well. In the event of being placed in a letterbox that has multiple hitchhikers in it (such as a hitchhiker hostel), the parasite 'infects' all of the hitchhikers inside. The boxer that has done the moving also has the choice of sending the parasite along with a different hitchhiker. (This is a relatively new variation of letterbox, and has only just recently begun to take off.) Virtuals
- Online letterboxes; actually a scavenger hunt of sorts through different websites, collecting answers to questions posted as the clues to the box. Answers sometimes are unscrambled or simply emailed to the creator, who sends the finder an image of the 'stamp' via email; or the final answer is put in a blank in a web address, which takes the finder to the image online. Postals (or PLBs)
- Boxes that are made just like traditional letterboxes, but instead of being planted in the wild, they are sent via postal mail to the people on signup lists for the box, or around a "ring" of people in a postal ring, which is usually focused on a theme of some sort. Postals are also very often very well designed and organized, as well as ornate. Since the box is very unlikely to be stolen, go missing, or be damaged, creators of PLBs tend to get quite creative.Cooties
- Cooties are another breed of boxes where one tries to sneak a stamp and logbook onto another person or among their possessions such as an open backpack or jacket pocket. Once you 'catch a cootie', you stamp it into your logbook then try to pawn it off onto another unsuspecting letterboxer. Cooties often show up in great quantities at letterboxing gatherings, so be on the lookout. Many smaller cooties do not include logbooks to make them easier to pass off.
Letterboxers also organize events, usually called meets or gatherings. The first letterbox meet was held on Dartmoor, and they are now usually held twice yearly on 'Clock Change Day'. Gatherings in America are usually at parks or places with enough space for a large group of letterboxers to meet up and do exchanges (exchanging of personal stamps and/or personal travelers), as well as talk and discuss box ideas. Gatherings in America usually have a special, one day "Event stamp." At some gatherings, boxes are created or donated to be planted nearby specifically for the gathering attendees to find.
A letterboxer's find count or PFX count is organized as follows:
- The P ("plants") count is the number of boxes the letterboxer has made and placed.
- The F ("finds") count is the number of boxes the letterboxer has found in the wild.
- The X ("exchanges") count is the number of exchanges the letterboxer has.
Some boxers list individual types of boxes in their PFX counts (eg:
P12 F76 X45 E4 HH21 V4 would mean 12 plants, 76 finds, 45 exchanges, 4 events or event stamps, 21 hitchhikers, and 4 virtuals). Some include virtuals, hitchhikers, and other non-traditional boxes in a single find count, while some exclude them. Many letterboxers don't bother to keep count at all.
The "PFX count" is not a term associated with Dartmoor Letterboxing.
- Anne Swinscow has written several popular guide books on Dartmoor Letterboxing, e.g. Dartmoor Letterboxes ISBN 0-9509114-2-9
- Alan Rowland has written a specialised guide to the letterboxes on Lundy published in 2006 (the 20th Annivesary of) Lundy Letterboxes ISBN 0-9506117-8-4
- The Letterboxer's Companion by Randy Hall was published in 2003 and focuses on letterboxing in North America; ISBN 0-7627-2794-2.