Looking for fun in the letterbox

Published: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 10:04 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

I felt a little conspicuous shuffling through the dead leaves on the University of Florida campus, poking at the ground with a stick and looking for something that probably wasn't there.

In fact, I think a few people crossed the street to avoid having to walk past me.

The next time I try letterboxing, I'll do it in a more secluded spot.

In letterboxing, clues lead you to a container that holds a notebook and a stamp.

When you find one, you make a mark with your stamp (which you carry with you on letterboxing adventures) in the log book and use the enclosed stamp to mark your own notebook.

Letterboxing is an inexpensive and exciting way to keep kids interested on hikes, or to get them outdoors when they're entranced with video games or television.

It also makes a great diversion on road trips: With more than 20,000 letterboxes hidden throughout the country, you can plan stops strategically along your route. (Moreover, only a few are in Gainesville, so if you get hooked, you'll have to venture beyond the city limits.)

When you're first getting the hang of letterboxing, you'll want to start with a box that's less exposed than our very public first venture on campus, and for two reasons: One, you don't want to feel so foolish that the fun is compromised, and two, the idea is to keep the letterboxes a secret.

If "muggles" people who aren't in on the concept discover a letterbox, chances are it won't be there the next time a letterboxing family comes by to find it.

It's also a good idea to be discreet because, let's face it, in this day and age, anything out of the ordinary is suspicious, and you sure don't want to end your letterboxing experience with your name on the terrorist watchlist.

To get started, you'll need just a few things: A blank book for collecting stamps, a rubber stamp of your own (you can have a family stamp or individual rubber stamps for each person) a trail name to sign in with once you find the letterbox, and, if you choose, a pen to sign your trail name, hometown and the date.

It's a good idea to carry an ink pad, as not all of the boxes contain them.

If you're into scrapbooking, you might prefer to stamp an index card or loose paper so you can include it in a page about your trip.

You could spend a bundle at the craft store on blank books, stamps and ink, but all of these things are usually available at the dollar store, which is a big plus if you're outfitting multiple kids with their own sets of supplies. (Purists hand-carve their stamps, but there's no rule against using store-bought ones.)

Some letterboxers also carry a compass for orientation.

You'll want a stick for poking into crevices and overturning leaves in search of the box, but you can usually find one on the trail.

Once you've collected your gear, you need to know where to start looking. Find clues with at www.letterboxing.org, where you can search by state or region.

You'll also find a FAQ section and a guide to rules and etiquette.

The most important rule is to respect the place where the letterbox is hidden.

Don't break the rules of the park by going off the trail or digging around in the woods.

When hunting for a box covered with leaves and twigs, overturn them gently without leaving an obvious mark.

Once you've found the box, be sure to reseal everything thoroughly so the contents aren't damaged by moisture.

Let the hunt begin!

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