Monday, July 31, 2006


There are obvious differences between geocaching and letterboxing and then there are the not-so-obvious ones. I started out as a geocacher (contain your boos and hisses, please) but converted to letterboxing because that was what I had really wanted all along. But I did learn a lot from geocaching, both good and bad.

There is something to be said of cutting your teeth on geocaching. I learned that some boxes were good and some were not so good at keeping water out of your stuff. Those that lasted and were fun to find were located in natural hidey holes, tree trunks and rock crevices. Those that weren’t so fun were under a fallen log with lots of forest debris covering them. The best one I found was actually hitched up a tree top by a pulley system that you had to use to get it down. I wish I was more of an engineer to produce a letterbox like that.

The obvious differences between the hobbies are that one requires a GPS and the other doesn’t, one requires a stamp and the other doesn’t, and that’s about it. Geocaching uses a GPS receiver to pinpoint coordinates. The GPS can be followed like a compass almost and you follow the arrow to the hidden cache. Once at the cache, you sign the log to prove you were there, and then you can make a “trade”. A cache is usually full of small trade items, everything from dollar store toys to individual signature items, to geocoins and geobuttons. You take something out and put something of equal value in. Replace the box as you found it and there you go.

In letterboxing, the process is the same. However, you don’t use a GPS to locate coordinates. You follow written clues to the box, more like a treasure hunt. A letterboxer carries his own personal stamp and a logbook with him. Once you find the box, the only thing you exchange is a rubber stamp image. A letterbox contains a stamp and a logbook at minimum. You exchange your stamp image (by putting it in the box’s logbook) for the letterbox’s image which you stamp in your own logbook. In essence, the letterbox is like meeting another letterboxer and you exchange your stamp images by stamping them into each others log book.

As I did more letterboxing, I discovered that the obvious differences weren’t the only differences. The more subtle differences are more a matter of personal preference and individual experience. Perhaps, it’s just the few bad experiences I have had that have made me prefer one over the other.

For one, I find letterboxing to be a much more creative pastime. I have to write out clues to lead someone else to find my box. I have the freedom to put these clues in any written form I wish. I can put it in code, or write it into a story. I can list it out step by step or I can make it a series of photographs to follow. It is not “follow the arrow”. Clues feel like the planter has come along on the trip with you and is silently, invisibly whispering in your ear. That is a whole lot better to me than swearing at my damn GPS because it can’t get a good satellite signal.

Not only do I have to write out my own clues (and being an aspiring writer/author that is a great writing exercise), I can make my own logbooks and carve my own stamps. I make my own logbooks because in my neck of the woods it is hard to find blank books with good heavy weight paper. So I construct my own. That way I can make them as big or small as I wish and decorate them to match my box. I find it enjoyable, rather than a chore. Hand-carved stamps are actually preferred in this hobby. I can pick my own image and put it into a block of medium for others to enjoy. Give them a little memento of their trip and let them savor the memories in the future as they look back through their logbook. I discovered the appeal of this when I noticed that the “trade” items in geocaches that I always wanted were the “signature” items, those that were unique to a certain individual cacher. The stamp of a letterbox is exactly that and there’s one in every box!

Another overlooked difference between letterboxing and geocaching is the search area. I find that geocachers search a much larger area than letterboxers. Why is that? You’d think the GPS would be better at pinpoint accuracy but it isn’t. The GPS relies on satellite signal and you don’t get good signal under a leafy canopy. So when a geocacher steps off the trail, he’s still following an arrow. He may go left or right or wherever the arrow points. So he meanders around until he finds the “spot”. Not all cachers just study the arrow, most will look around for likely hiding spots but in general they sweep through an area. Unless, they have already established a “herd” trail, which I have seen on many occasions. It’s a dead give away that there’s a cache at the end of it.

Letterboxers tend to be more accurate in their searches. Because they must write their clues, they have to use natural landmarks to guide you to the box. Naturally, some coded or harder to decipher clues may lead a boxer astray but in general, letterboxers leave the trail only when they're told to and are looking for particular landmarks. If these natural landmarks (such as a certain tree) changes, then the finders may have to broaden their search area. But if the clues say the box is in a tree trunk, you won’t be looking under any rocks…whereas geocachers might.

As my sister-in-law, joystar, once noted, “Cachers are more about the technology.” I must agree. Logs are all done through the website. I couldn’t tell you all the caches I’d been to unless I checked the computer. As a letterboxer, I can simply review my logbook…with all those beautiful pieces of artwork. Premium members at get coordinates first, can download them directly to the GPS unit, and map them at googlemaps. Everything can be done through the computer. A lot of stuff can be done through the computer in letterboxing but you still have to write those clues and make that stamp. You just can’t do that on the computer! You can research clues there and download images to carve but the computer don’t do the work for you!

I have found that cachers are about the “First to Find”. While letterboxing has it’s first to find certificates or special prizes, I don’t think letterboxers are too enthusiastic about it. Because geocaching is more widespread and has a greater population, there is more competition. But letterboxing, like my area, can be very limited as to who is available to find your box when you post it. All of the boxes I have planted have the same First Finders, TheIrwins. That’s why I don’t put a first to find award in my boxes. Imagine how boring it would become to the only other letterboxers native to my area. But caches…oh my God, what a competition to be the FTF. I’ve read local logs where people have been up and out at 5 AM looking for a cache just to say they found it first. I’m no longer impressed with it. I’m no longer into that. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

I’m not trying to bash geocaching. I still cache and still enjoy some of the better, more challenging caches. But letterboxing will always be my first love. I recommend it more than caching. You don’t need to invest in an expensive GPS. All you need is a mind and the motivation. You’ve got the one, don’t you?


  1. Well said! Ditto to your comparisions and differences!

  2. I enjoyed the piece you wrote. I think it holds up for us, as well--letterboxing has more appeal because it's an indoor hobby (creating clues and stamps) and an outdoor one (the obvious part). I can get into it much more because it engages me more holistically.