By Laura Newcomer on December 1, 2021 in Travel
Millions of people are spending more time outside exploring new hobbies. From bird watching to hiking to kayaking, outdoor activities are here to stay.
If you’re ready for a new hobby that gets you out of the house, consider geocaching or letterboxing! These activities are like modern-day treasure hunts that can be done locally or while traveling. With geocaching, you replace the treasure maps with GPS and apps. With letterboxing, the treasure hunt is driven by clues rather than maps or coordinates. Both hobbies can be done solo, with family or friends, or in groups of like-minded treasure seekers.
Why should pirates have all the fun? Let’s kick off your treasure hunting adventures with a deep dive into geocaching, letterboxing, and how to get started with each activity.
What Is Geocaching?
Geocaching (pronounced JEE-oh-cash-ing) is a lot like hiking, only instead of setting your sights on a mountaintop or scenic overlook, you'll search for a hidden cache in a natural setting. National Geographic shares that a cache is “usually a small box or item hidden on public or private land, usually with a logbook and trinket.” Caches are hidden above ground and camouflaged to minimize their environmental impact.
You'll start with a set of coordinates, then use an app or GPS to hunt down the treasure. Interpret "treasure" loosely; the cache won't contain gold or other valuables. Rather, the main payoff is the thrill of successfully identifying the cache's location. That said, many caches do contain lower-value items as well as a logbook. In these cases, geocachers bring along an item to contribute to the cache. When they find a cache, they exchange their item for one of the items inside, sign the logbook, then put the cache back exactly where it was found so other geocachers can discover it.
Caches range in size; some are small (like a film canister) while others are larger (a lunch box, for example). There are more than two million geocaches hidden around the world, so odds are good there are at least a few geocaching opportunities within driving distance of your residence.
What Is Letterboxing?
Much like geocaching, letterboxing involves hunting for a hidden, weatherproof box, dubbed a "letterbox," in a publicly accessible place. Instead of using GPS coordinates to hunt down these letterboxes, letterboxers search with the aid of clues posted on a variety of websites and in printed catalogs devoted to letterboxing. Some clues are even passed along by word of mouth within the letterboxing community.
To date, there are approximately 90,000 letterboxes hidden across North America. Letterboxes typically contain a logbook, a rubber stamp, and (less often) an ink pad. When a person finds a letterbox, they stamp the letterbox's stamp in their personal logbook and use their own personal stamp to leave an imprint in the letterbox's logbook. Many letterboxing devotees create their own hand-carved stamps.
Even though letterboxing is less well-known than geocaching, it's actually been around longer. Letterboxing got its start in 1854 in Dartmoor, England, while higher-tech geocaching originated in Oregon in 2000. Today, there's a lot of overlap between these activities. Many new letterboxers started out as geocachers, and vice versa.
Guiding Principles of Geocaching and Letterboxing
Even though geocaching and letterboxing are distinct activities, they share several guiding principles. Here’s an overview.
It doesn't matter whether you're a beginner or a GPS specialist; the geocaching and letterboxing communities welcome people at all levels of skill and interest. Similarly, these activities can appeal to people who prefer to stay close to home as well as world travelers eager to tackle hikes in far-flung locales. There's something for everyone!
Leave No Trace
No matter whether you're hunting for a cache or a letterbox, keep the principles of Leave No Trace in mind. While searching, don't disturb historical landmarks or private property and don't dig into the soil, remove vegetation, or disturb rocks or animal habitats (or the animals themselves!). This will ensure you enjoy all the benefits of getting outside while minimizing your impact on the environment.
Respect for Others
Just as respect for the natural world is a critical aspect of these activities, so is respect for other geocachers and letterboxers. That means handling the caches and letterboxes with care, leaving them as you found them (with the exception of swapping an item in a geocache), resealing the boxes so they remain watertight, and properly re-hiding the boxes.
Geocachers and letterboxers should take steps to preserve the hidden nature of their treasure. When you arrive at the location, wait to open the box until other hikers have passed by. This will help protect the box from people who might not understand its purpose or treat it respectfully. Similarly, don't post the location of a geocache or letterbox on social media.
Geocaching and letterboxing can take you far afield, so it's important to keep safety in mind. Bring along a charged cell phone and a map and compass so you have multiple ways to navigate home. If possible, travel with a partner so you have backup in the event that someone sprains an ankle or has another emergency. While hunting, keep an eye out for poison ivy, poisonous snakes, and other hazards. Bring along the Ten Essentials: navigation tools, a headlamp, sun protection, a first aid kit, fire starters (such as matches or a lighter), extra food, extra water, extra layers, a small knife, and something that could be used for shelter in the (unlikely) event that you need to spend the night outside.
Sense of Adventure
Geocaching and letterboxing enthusiasts tout these activities as great ways to explore new places, get outside in the fresh air, build community, bond with fellow treasure hunters, and satisfy a thirst for adventure. Even if you’re hunting for treasure close to home, you’re bound to discover something new.
Tips for Getting Started with Geocaching or Letterboxing
Getting Started with Geocaching
Ready to hunt for a geocache? Here are some guidelines to help you get started.
- Familiarize yourself with common geocaching terms. This will empower you to better understand the activity and will facilitate connections with other geocachers.
- Choose a geocache at geocaching.com and download the coordinates. Caches are rated by level of difficulty; as a newbie, it's smart to choose a cache that's rated as easy for your first hunt. You can also download the Geocaching mobile app on this site.
- Prep for the excursion as you would for a regular hike. Bring along the Ten Essentials described above.
- If you're hunting for a geocache that includes small items, bring along an item to swap. It's also smart to bring a pen or pencil for signing the logbook because writing utensils often go missing from caches.
- Get out there and search for some treasure! Bring along your smartphone or a GPS unit and use the Geocaching app or GPS to locate the cache.
- Once you've found the cache, sign the logbook, and exchange your item for one of the items in the cache (if applicable).
- Reseal the geocache, put it back exactly where you found it, and be sure to Leave No Trace.
- After returning home, go to geocaching.com and write a log so the cache owner knows it was found.
Getting Started with Letterboxing
Prefer hunting with clues instead of GPS? Kick off your letterboxing adventure with these tips.
- Head to letterboxing.org and/or atlasquest.com, create an account, and search for the location where you want to go letterboxing. This will pull up a list of regional letterboxes. Browse the options and select one that sounds appealing. Take note of the clues associated with that box and read comments from other users to get a feel for the level of difficulty.
- Just as you would for geocaching, bring along the Ten Essentials for hiking safety. Also pack a rubber stamp, a pencil or pen, a small sketchbook, an ink pad, and the clues that you gathered previously.
- Go hunt for that letterbox! When you locate the letterbox, stamp your sketchbook with the stamp found inside the box. Then make an imprint of your stamp in the letterbox's logbook. Write the date beside each of these stamps.
- Carefully reseal the box, return the letterbox to its hiding spot, and remember to Leave No Trace.
- Return to the website where you first learned about the letterbox in question and leave a post about your experience. Don't leave hints in the comments, as this can upset other users.
- Learn more about letterboxing's history, vocabulary, code of conduct, and so on at Atlas Quest, Letterboxing.org, and Letterboxing Info.
Geocaching and letterboxing both offer a ton of benefits — from getting outside in the fresh air to moving your body, developing new skills, fostering connections, exploring new places, and satisfying a thirst for adventure.
It doesn’t take much to get started with either activity. You just need a few tools (which you probably already own), some preparation with an eye toward safety, and healthy respect for the landscapes where you’ll be searching. Happy hunting!