Letterboxing, questing, and geocaching are different takes on a similar theme: treasure hunting in the outdoors. Each form combines the art of navigation with puzzle solving, in which participants follow clues to reach a special spot—and, often, a special reward. The navigation can rely on simple, handwritten notes or clever riddles, or on the standard orienteering tools of map and compass, or on expensive high-tech GPS systems. The thrill of discovery is the same.
Letterboxing, the earliest of the forms, began in England in the mid-nineteenth century. Hidden letterboxes usually contain a notebook and a rubber stamp. Finders make an imprint of the letterbox’s stamp in their personal notebook or on a postcard, and leave proof of their success with their personal stamp on the letterbox’s logbook.
The first public questing program in this country got off the ground in the mid-1990s in the Upper Connecticut River Valley around Hanover, N.H. “Valley Quest” took the letterbox idea and combined it with clues related to local geography, history, and community lore. “It was like peak-bagging for kids,” says Delia Clark, one of the organizers and a member of AMC’s board of directors. “They’d say, ‘I want to get 20 different ones!’ Without being aware of it, they were learning at the same time.”
The idea has caught on. Today, you can find more than 200 quests across just New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Many of them are educational, tied to Colonial or Civil War history, for instance, with clues scattered throughout cemeteries and villages.
Clark offers these tips to families interested in questing:
1. Have children choose individualized rubber stamps before they start their quest.
2. Engage them in the stories behind quests and caches.
3. Ask questions: If you could make a quest, what would you do?
4. Create your own. Back yard or neighborhood quests can be fun and also less intimidating for very young questers.
“Geocaching” takes the treasure hunting into the twenty-first century by using Global Positioning System, or GPS, devices to search for “caches,” durable and waterproof canisters of varying sizes that often contain small trinkets as rewards for finding the cache.
This year, John Lennon, naturalist at AMC’s Cardigan Lodge, used geocaching to solve a problem. Two nearby trails were not well used, even though Lennon and other naturalists had created self-guided nature walks along them. He wondered if placing geocaches on those trails would create more interest in them.
Lennon, a professor at Plymouth State University, had created geocaches for his students before by hiding containers (often metal canisters) behind boulders, in the middle of swamps, or in the crooks of trees at specific GPS coordinates. The students then used GPS devices, maps, and compasses to locate the hidden containers. “The skills required mean that geocaching is considered an activity for experienced hikers,” Lennon says. “I wanted to see if I could make geocaches for children five years old and younger.”
He hid five large wide-mouthed jugs “in plain sight” along the two little-used trails. Each jug contained three sets of nature questions, from easy to hard. An easy question from a jug next to a bog bridge: “What are you standing on that protects the environment? The first word rhymes with ‘log’ and the second word rhymes with ‘fridge.'” Other questions covered map knowledge—”What town in England is at 0 degrees longitude?”—and local wildlife—”Why is summer moose scat different than winter moose scat?”
Lennon has discovered that he can use the “cool new technology” of GPS to draw children and families onto the nature trails. He shows them how to read the devices and starts the search for the geocaches by following the GPS. As they search for the jugs, he demonstrates the limits of the devices and why it’s still important to know how to use a map and compass. “GPS devices have only about 30-foot accuracy,” he tells his searchers, “so when we get within a hundred feet or so, start using your eyes to look for the cache, or you might walk right by it.”
“If I’m really lucky,” Lennon says, “my battery runs out while we’re searching.” Then he can pull out a map of the trail and a compass and use them as back-ups. “You can instantly get your bearing,” he says. “And their batteries never wear down.”
Lennon also explains to his young geocachers that GPS devices rely on information from other sources. While they may work really well on roads and in towns, the information may not be accurate on a trail or in the woods, away from roads. “That’s why you always need to add your own intelligence” to any device, he tells them.
The nature trails at Cardigan Lodge have been much busier this year. Lennon likes to think that some young hikers have a better sense of how to find their way in the woods, as well.
– Family and educational quests are available around the AMC region, from Maryland to Maine.
– Find geocache sites around the AMC region or search an international directory of sites.
– Read “Geocaching in Urban Parks” by Alex Schwab (AMC Outdoors, August 2011).
– AMC’s Cardigan Lodge and Highland Center offer geocaching as a family activity.
“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.