Looking for Letterboxes
By Marie Sherlock

“It’s just like a treasure hunt!”

My 11-year-old’s description of his first letterboxing experience is right on the mark. Letterboxing is about as close as you can get to a modern day treasure hunt – minus the pirates and the chests of gold.

Letterboxing involves hunting, typically in parks, public gardens or other outdoor destinations, for “letterboxes,” small plastic boxes containing custom-made rubber stamps. When you’ve found a letterbox, you use the stamp to mark your letterboxing notebook, indicating that you’ve discovered that particular letterbox. (The notebook becomes, in essence, your letterbox passport.) Each letterbox also contains a small notebook in which the hunters can imprint their own stamps, which can be store-bought or customized. The general locations and specific clues are found at the letterbox Web site:

If this all sounds a little hokey to you, I have to admit that it did to me at first too. I didn’t see how scouting around for a plastic box with a rubber stamp in it could keep two adults and two kids (one of them a teenager!) interested for any length of time.

Then my family gave letterboxing a try. After printing off some clues and stocking a backpack with a small notebook, our “personalized” stamps – gleaned from a long-forgotten box of art supplies – an ink pad, compass and snacks, the four of us set out on a sunny afternoon to look for the Rocky Butte box.

We had a blast. The clues took us up to the summit of this popular viewpoint and had us counting off lamp posts, using our compass and seeking out other landmarks that were not as obvious as they first seemed in the clues.

We were all pleasantly surprised by the rush we felt when we discovered our treasure. After neatly imprinting the lantern-like Rocky Butte stamp on the first page of our letterbox passports, we inspected the Rocky Butte notebook. We were fascinated by the dozens of impressions made by finders’ stamps depicting forest scenes, Hawaiian ghosts, fleur-de-lils, whales, palm trees and dinosaurs. Notes beside each imprint indicated that the hunters hailed from Rhode Island, Florida, Connecticut, Canada, even Maui, making it obvious that letterboxing is a far-flung pursuit.

It’s also a relatively young pastime. While the hobby actually started some 150 years ago in England, it didn’t migrate across the Atlantic until 1998. There are now literally thousands of these treasure chests hidden in all 50 states, over 200 in Oregon alone, and dozens in the Portland area. 

The clues are really the heart and soul of the letterboxing experience. Some are pretty straightforward but, more often, solving them involves a dose of ingenuity and a large measure of perseverance. There are wordplays and literary references, multiple choice questions and a good number of double entendres. Clever poetry is common as are compass directions. (The kids will love this part of the experience and it’s a valuable orienteering skill as well.) Many letterboxes have themes with clues that require some knowledge or research in the theme area. For example, a letterbox hidden at Powell’s Bookstore - yes, in the store - requires a solid grasp of fantasy fiction, and the Musician Series Letterboxes will test your knowledge of B. B. King and Janis Joplin.

Others are perfect for young children. For example, the Blue Lake Letterbox directs clue-solvers to enter letters into a grid to unveil the hints and includes a supplemental clue that code-breaking kids will love. You’ll need to browse through the various clues to letterboxes in your area – easily found at the Web site – to discern which ones make sense for your family to tackle. Along with the requisite clues, the Web site contains details on everything from how to read a compass to how to design your own rubber stamp. The FAQ section is a good place to start.

You can take your letterboxing habit to different intensity levels. My family is still at the casual letterboxing stage, choosing to look for a new cache every few weeks, much like one might decide to picnic or go for a hike.

Serious letterboxers can go much further. Instead of using off-the-shelf rubber stamps, you can make your own or have one produced according to your original art or specifications. You can, as we intend to, incorporate letterboxing into your vacations. You can develop letterboxing goals, for example, attempting to visit every letterbox in the tri-county area or Oregon, with your letterbox passport as your proof. Many folks decide to hide their own letterboxes, finding a spot, developing clues and designing a unique and sometimes geographically appropriate stamp. The fact that there are thousands of letterboxes – and counting! – hidden across the country is testimony to the fun and creativity involved in taking the leap to letterbox creator.

My family is seriously considering taking that step. We’re scouring local parks, seeking out a good hiding place. When we find the right location and finish devising some fun clues, there will be one more treasure hunt available in the Portland area. 

Letterboxing Basics

Clues:  Go to and click on Oregon to find letterboxes in the area.

What you’ll need:
  At a minimum bring a rubber stamp, ink pad, notebook and clues from the Web site.

Tips:  You’ll definitely want to read through the clues before you strike out on your letterboxing quest. Some clues lend themselves to younger children; others do not. You may also want to look on the discussion boards at the site – there will be a link to – to see if any mention is made of the destination you’re considering. Occasionally letterboxes are “lost” or moved and the discussion boards may reveal that.

Finally, remember to follow that old scouting motto: Leave a place as you found it – or better. That goes for the natural surroundings and for the letterbox itself. Make sure that it’s closed securely and tucked away where you found it, ready for the next treasure hunter.