Hunting for Treasure - Frugal Fun, Rich Rewards

By Mary Webber on 20 August 2008 12 comments
Photo: Shad Bolling

Who doesn't love a treasure hunt?   From the mysterious map where X marks the spot to the chest full of gold and jewels, the idea of solving a puzzle and receiving a rich reward is still tempting. 

There are three kinds of modern-day treasure hunts popular now,aa letterboxing, geocaching, and orienteering.  While all three involve computer, GPS, or compass use, they also get participants outdoors, and thinking!


Letterboxes containing a notebook, an on-site stamp and maybe a few trinkets are hidden in your hometown, throughout the country, and even worldwide.  Access to a computer, a notebook, and your own personal stamp are all that's needed to begin your hunt.  Start at the website where you can search for box locations by city/town, county, state or country.  

The clues to find each box vary widely.  For example, to find the Pine Tree Island box in Livermore CA, you follow directions until "Under a tree you will spot a dark rock about the size of a small loaf of bread.  Move rock aside and pull back the pine needles to find the box."  This box was placed by the Take a Hike Club on November 18, 2006.

Using the site stamp, you mark your own notebook and make any notes about the day, the site, etc.  Then you stamp the site notebook with your personal stamp, leaving comments if you want, and adding a trinket or taking one if this box offers any.  

We leave Maine stickers and buttons when we visit out-of-state boxes. The notebooks offer an incredible connection as the comments usually note where the boxer is from along with sometimes more personal musings.  It is clear from these notes that boxers are from all ages!

People put great care into selecting their personal stamps, and because this is a great, inexpensive travel activity, many use travel journals as their notebooks.  And, you can set up a letterbox yourself just by putting a stamp and notebook in a small watertight box (plastic food storage containers are perfect), hiding the box and posting your clues on the website.  

My grand-daughter Katie asked our library if she could set up a letterbox in their Centennial Garden.  She donated the box and notebook, the library staff put in their stamp and posted the clues, and Katie was absolutely thrilled to be the first to stamp the new book at "Grannie's Box".  

Geocaching (geocashing)

Geocaching is a little more complicated and can be much more challenging than letterboxing, but it's still an inexpensive activity.  To get started, you'll need access to a GPS devise, a notebook, and a few treasures to leave at boxes that are designated treasure caches.  

Geocaching is a recognized sport all over the world, and some of the caches are quite elaborate.  If you plan to visit a cache in another country, try to leave something American, such as a Boston subway or San Franciso trolleycar token.

Like letterboxing, the website has all the basic information and search help you'll need.  Just enter your search parameters (can even be latitutde/longitude figures), then enter the given coordinates in your GPS, and you're good to go.  According to the website, there are currently 635,478 active caches worldwide including one recently placed at the Beijing Olympics!  

Geocaching often involves more remote locations and rugged outdoor terrain than letterboxing does, but it is an excellent teaching activity and is now part of the math curriculum in many American middle and high schools.


Orienteering takes the treasure hunt to another whole level of outdoor adventuring.  Here you use a map and compass to follow a course, at the end of which there may - or may not - be a treasure.  Equipment needed is pretty minimal:  primarily a good compass and whatever outdoor gear the course location suggests.  While it can be just a leisurely stroll, orienteering as a race is also a highly competitive individual and team sport, recognized worldwide, and proposed for inclusion in future Olympics.

Check out the website of the U.S. Orienteering Federation for all the information you'll need to get started or even to compete in international competitions.   Following map and compass clues, participants follow a course with set stops or flags where you punch your participant's card and get further directions.   It's a perfect way to teach/learn some valuable outdoor skills and is perfect for inter-generational teams.   

Like letterboxing, orienteering is part of the math and social studies curricula at many middle and high schools nationwide.  As a middle school teacher, I used it as a beginning-of-the-year ice-breaker, randomly assigning kids to teams.  

Then at the end of the year I'd have those same teams run that same course.  The kids loved that tangible evidence of all that they had learned, first about orienteering but also about their classmates.

For good books on orienteering including how to set up your own courses, look in the children's section of your library, check your local bookstore's outdoors section,  or visit Amazon which has a comprehensive selection of books covering not just orienteering but also letterboxing and geocaching.

Oh, yes, there is something inherently exciting about treasure hunts, the promise of that pirate's chest of plunder at the end of the adventure.  During Gram and Gramp Camp this summer, I set up a treasure hunt for Baxter (10) and Katie (7), one that started with a clue on the breakfast table.

Following more short, rhymed clues (on 3x5 cards sealed in snack-size bags and hidden around town that morning by my husband Bert), we headed first to the high school sign next door to us where a note under the flower box sent us down to the memorial green and from there to the old railway station.

That clue directed us to "in the middle of the street, a watering trough of flowers" where the final clue was hidden under the petunias.  They were  instructed to walk 100 steps north on Main Street, and there was the treasure.  A $10 gift card for each of them at the brand new bookstore right across the street from where we were standing.

But certainly, don't dismiss letterboxing, geocaching or orienteering as just for kids or just for fun.  Consider this:  The New York-based company Treasure Hunt Adventures offers these activities, especially orienteering, for corporate teambuilding (ABC News Money Matters recently highlighted THA's work in that area).  And, Treasure Hunt Adventures will debut The Great Central Park Treasure Hunt™ at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  

Any place, any time, any age or ability level, there are treasure hunts anyone can enjoy.

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Guest's picture

Ohmygosh! I'd only ever heard of orienteering! These treasure-hunting exercises are right up my alley. I love, love, love puzzle solving. I mostly do pencil puzzles, but I'm on my way to these three web sites to see what there is locally! What fun...

Guest's picture

Excellent! I hope you find some letterboxes right in your own backyard! Let me know...

Guest's picture

More info on Gram and Gramp camp, please! What a great idea!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Great launch post, Mary!!! Wahoo!!! I KNEW you'd be fabulous here on Wise Bread.

Guest's picture

My wife and I tried letterboxing for the first (and only) time a month or so a go and had a great time. The one we found was in a planter in a hotel lobby, so we had to be EXTREMELY discreet. It was great because there was an element of "danger" in it.

Linsey Knerl's picture

We love it and it's a good way to get the kids out of the house.  They call it "treasure hunting" and their favorite part is putting a new trinket in.  We have quite a few in our neck of the woods (plus, you can always plant your own if you want.)  What a great article!


Guest's picture

Your family fun activities are fresh and worth forwarding to folks with active families.
Keep up the good work.

Guest's picture
Guest Anne

This is a fascinating article with lots of new info for me. A great job, Mary!

Guest's picture

I agree! What a fun, frugal family thing to do!!

Guest's picture

Nothing beats good old fashioned family fun like this

Guest's picture

I've been geocaching for about 9 months. We've had such great fun and had many adventures. Thanks for the excellent idea about the custom swag. I linked your article on my site.

Guest's picture

Although you need to pay for a membership and pay for a GPS machine, it's SO MUCH FUN! I usually mooch both the membership and the GPS machine from my family and friends, but it's such a great way to get out with friends/family without having to dump loads of $$. Plus, you usually get to discover some cool places and get some exercise as well.