Letterboxing, an activity originating in the 1850s in Dartmoor, England, has gained popularity over the past decade, spreading rapidly across the globe and infiltrating the internet.
The game is simple. Boxes — each containing a rubber stamp and logbook — are hidden, and people use written clues, typically found online, to find them. Upon discovering a letterbox, a person uses the rubber stamp inside to mark their own personal logbook, and in return, they use a personal stamp to mark the letterbox logbook as proof of their find.
In Maine, hundreds of letterboxes are hidden throughout public trail networks and parks, in libraries and at historic sites. They’re all over the place, if you know where to look.
Participating in the game, or becoming a “letterboxer,” is easy. You just need three things: a rubber stamp, a logbook and access to letterbox clues.
While you can certainly pick up a pre-made stamp at a local craft store, a lot of letterboxers prefer to make their own personal stamp. The easiest method for creating a homemade rubber stamp is by carving it. In fact, this is a craft that is simple enough to be a rainy day activity. It’s inexpensive and requires few materials. The only difficult aspect of it is the actual carving of the rubber, which requires special carving tools and a bit of practice and patience.
The materials needed to carved rubber stamp are: paper, a sharp pencil, a square of rubber stamp material such as a Speedball Speedy Carve Block, a linoleum carver set and an ink pad. Other useful tools are scissors and a tape measurer. Then just follow these steps:
- Decide how big you want your stamp to be. Keep in mind that some letterbox logbooks are quite small, meaning your stamp has to be small for its image to fit on the pages. A stamp that is 2 inches by 2 inches will almost always fit on a letterbox logbook.
- With a pencil, sketch your stamp design within the dimensions you chose. You may want to practice and draw your design out several times. (Start simple, as you will have to carve this design.)
- Trace over your design, making sure the lines are dark.
- Cut your stamp material in the size you want your stamp to be, using your pencil design as a guide. Feel free to cut out your pencil design to do this.
- Place the pencil design face down on the stamp rubber cut out and rub the back of the paper to transfer the pencil onto the rubber. Sometimes this transfer doesn’t work, depending on the rubber material and pencil. Another option is to trace your pencil design in ink, and while it’s still wet, transfer it onto the stamp rubber by pressing it carefully down onto it. You can also draw directly on the stamp rubber, but that leaves little room for errors.
- Use the various stamp carving tools to carve your design into the rubber, keeping in mind that everything you carve into the rubber will appear as empty space on paper.
- Press your stamp face down on a pad of ink, then press it onto a piece of paper to test your stamp.
Some letterboxers finish off the look of their stamp by adding a backing to it, such as a block of wood or layer of acrylic. While other letterboxers prefer to leave the stamp entirely rubber so that it’s easier to carry and flexible for stamping on logbooks. Either way, with your personal stamp, you’re almost ready to hit the trails and go letterboxing.
For a logbook, letterboxers often carry small spiral bound notebooks, the kind that can be picked up at an office supply store, but there are certainly other options. Some letterboxers go so far as to make their own logbooks out of thicker paper that will better display ink. It’s really up to you. But in most cases, logbooks should be pocket-sized — not so big that it’s a hassle to carry and not so small that the letterbox stamps won’t fit on its pages.
Now that you have a stamp and a logbook, all you need are the clues to find your first letterbox. Today, clues are mostly found online, on websites such as www.letterboxing.org and www.atlasquest.com. And if you create a free profile on one of these sites, you can keep track of your finds and communicate with other letterboxers using a nickname called a “trail name.” Often a letterboxers trail name has something to do with their personal stamp, but not always.
You can also find letterbox clues on land trust websites and at certain trailheads. For example, Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust offers a hard copy of clues for all the letterboxes within the Great Pond Mountain Wildlands in Orland. These clues can be picked up at the GPMCT office in Bucksport or the kiosks at the Wildlands parking areas.
In addition, the Blue Hill Heritage Trust offers the “Passport to the Trails” program, a challenge to find 12 letterboxes hidden throughout the land trust’s many trails on the Blue Hill Peninsula. Passports for this program are available at the BHHT office, the Blue Hill Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and local libraries.
One last thing
Before you begin your hunt, there are a couple extra items you’ll want to pack in addition to your stamp, logbook and copy of clues. For one, you’ll want a pencil or pen so you can jot down your trail name, the date and a brief message on logbooks. And you’ll also want to bring an ink pad. Most letterboxes in Maine do not contain their own ink pad, probably because for about half the year, the ink will simply freeze.
So now you have your stamp, logbook, clues, ink pad and pen. It’s time to hit the trails and find your first letterbox.