Hello, my name is Melanie Muenchinger and I have two sons, ages 9 and 7. As a thrifty stay-at-home Austin mom, I have always been on the hunt for free things to do that would keep my children and me busy and active and, before finding Free Fun in Austin, one of our favorite pastimes was letterboxing. We started this “treasure hunting” about three years ago when I learned about it on a friend’s blog. It sounded like the perfect free adventure and a fantastic way to exercise, see more of Austin, and spend time together as a family. The hunts often include local history and trivia or reference classic literature, so it’s a nice way to sneak in a bit of education, too! Over the years we have found over 100 boxes and are getting close to the end of our list of missions, but thankfully new boxes are being hidden all the time. The special memories we have from these hunts are countless, so letterboxing is something I can passionately recommend to others. Thanks, Heidi, for letting me contribute to the blog today!
Letterboxing is very similar to geocaching in that you are hiking to find a hidden box, but where it differs is that you don’t need a GPS, it is all based on clues. (“Find the tree with three trunks, then go 2×20 paces…” etc., sometimes involving simple math or harder clues and riddles, even original poems or fictional back stories that are often brilliantly written. I’ve gone geocaching too, but just prefer clues over coordinates, makes me feel like one of “The Goonies”!) Then, once you locate the box, instead of trinkets to take and replace with another like in geocaching, you’ll find a logbook and rubber stamp (either store-bought or hand-carved which represents the letterbox’s theme) to stamp into a journal. As a rubber stamp illustrator myself, collecting these images passport-style to remember all the places you’ve been is very appealing!
Recommended gear for letterboxing: water (and snacks if it’s going to be long hike), backpack, journal, rubber stamp that represents you, pen for signing the log book, and ink pad. Some boxes will include an ink pad, but many don’t.
Some of the stamp images are very simple, but we’ve also come across some really impressive handmade stamps! To make your own, draw a design on an eraser. Carefully cut with craft knife, remembering that the stamped image will be a negative of what you are carving. Then ink and stamp. Parents be sure to supervise a child when carving, or do it for a younger child. (The one pictured above is based on the image found in the “Blockhead” letterbox, my older son liked it so much he had to try making one of his own! The red rubber flower is one of my images.)
Be sure to read over the information about the trail and box’s location box before heading out, especially if you are going with kids: it is important to know the distance you’ll be walking and level of difficulty. Some are hidden within a few feet from where you’ll park your car, but others are two or three mile walks, some with steep or treacherous terrain (one box says its hidden “on the side of the cliff”, I’m not even telling the boys about that one!). Use good judgment about whether your family is up to the particular challenge. Most are in parks or the woods, but sometimes they are behind stores, in the middle of downtown. While we have never gotten lost, it is a good idea to let someone know where you are going and make sure your phone is charged if you’ll be heading down unfamiliar trails! Some boxes may also require a little advance research (or phone with Internet access) to figure out a clue, so it pays to be prepared! For example, one box in the Louisa May Alcott series will tell you to “Go up the same number of switchbacks as the number of March sisters. ” (If you don’t know, the answer can be found in a Google search for “Little Women”.) Not being able to decipher a clue once you’re already there, and therefore not finding the box, is a real bummer!
For boxes all over the U.S., check www.letterboxing.org. This site will answer all your questions about letterboxing and you can search for boxes by city or county. This site has far more boxes listed than any letterboxing apps I’ve found, but they are not grouped by location so trying to plan several to find at one time or one nearby can be tricky. With this site, it took quite a bit of planning ahead of time to read over the clues to find the areas we’d be traveling to and printing out lots of sheets.
Now that I have a smart phone, Boxradar for the Android is a terrific free app I recently downloaded that shows all the boxes close to your location, which is perfect for spontaneous trips (but does not show as many boxes as the online site) and the exact distance to each. (These are not Austin, just photos from the site – I don’t know how to get a screenshot from my phone!)
You can also save several boxes to an itinerary, which is so handy when you are out and about! The app also allows you to record the find immediately and leave comments (“had fun”, “couldn’t find it”, etc.) It’s very rare that we don’t find the box, but when that happens, we’ve still had a nice hike and redeem that time by skipping stones, finding fossils, or just enjoying the beauty!
Upon finding the box, enjoy looking through the logbook to see finders that came before you, then sign and date the last page. Add your own stamped image if you brought one. Then stamp the box’s image into your journal, which is a record of all your finds. (After the first year, my boys were no longer interested in stamping the image, the thrill was in finding the box and seeing what the stamp looked like, then they were ready to re-hide the box and move on.)
Be sure to be discreet when pulling out the box and hide it exactly as you found it. Most are sealed inside a Ziploc bag and then again inside a Tupperware container. Be sure seals are tight to keep out rain, dirt and critters. Boxes are often hidden under a SPOR (the one acronym you’ll find in directions, which stands for Suspicious Pile of Rocks!). Some of our favorite trails have multiple boxes: a lot of bang for your buck to go out on one hike and find several boxes along the same trail, each leading to the next! (Try “The Picnic” and “The Haunted Mansion” for very scenic walks with lots of finds centered on a theme which also create a cool picture once stamped.)
Families can also list their own letterbox on the letterboxing site. Factors to consider when creating your letterbox are writing clear directions to make sure people can find your box, choosing a convenient location you can check on frequently to make sure that the box hasn’t been removed, and committing to keeping the box listing updated if something about the landmarks change or the location has been compromised. We still haven’t made one of our own, but it’s on the “to do” list!
That’s about everything you need to know about letterboxing! I’ve lived in Austin for more than 20 years now and thought I knew my way around pretty well, but we’ve discovered so many terrific parks and places I never knew existed before we started this fun hobby. Now any time we visit a new city, we are sure to look up a box or two while we are there! It’s a unique way to hit the hot spots but also discover secrets that perhaps only the locals know about. These boxes are everywhere! Happy hunting!
Melanie is a work-at-home mom who illustrates for Gina K Designs and recently authored the cardmaking book “A Year of Flowers”. Visit her blog “Hands Head and Heart” for her designs, crafty tips and more family fun. Look for a giveaway Melanie will be sponsoring on Free Fun in Austin very soon!