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Outdoor Ethics for Letterboxers

by Silent Doug

Have you ever found or planted a letterbox and been disappointed by the amount of trash that you've encountered in the vicinity? With the growing popularity of letterboxing -- and the increasing numbers of people who are visiting public lands -- this experience may become all too familiar in the coming years.

One of the best benefits of letterboxing is the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the great outdoors. However, this benefit comes hand in hand with a responsibility to ensure that wildlands don't become destroyed from overuse or carelessness.

In the outdoors community, a set of guiding principles is becoming increasingly accepted by visitors to natural areas. "Leave no trace" is their credo -- or, as some put it, "Take only pictures, leave only the lightest of footprints, and bring home only memories" whenever you hike or backpack or camp. The idea is for each person to do their fair share to protect and preserve public lands.

Some of the guidelines are obvious. Don't drive nails or carve your initials into trees, be careful with open flame, and don't leave any litter behind, for example.

But you may not have ever considered how other actions can affect wild plants and animals. Picking flowers and removing souvenirs (stones, feathers, archaeological artifacts, shells, petrified wood) prevents others from enjoying those in the future -- and may even be illegal in many parks. A plant that's injured, either because you picked the flower or stepped on a stem, may never recover. Camping or frolicking in a grassy meadow may damage rare and delicate wildflowers. Washing with soap in an creek can poison waterlife downstream.

Also, stay on existing trails so that you don't create new paths, which can cause erosion and destroy vegetation. Don't feed wild animals or disrupt their normal activities. View creatures from afar with respect and caution.

Of course, letterboxing itself entails violating these principles, since you must leave behind a letterbox -- a foreign object -- in a natural environment. There is a long history in the U.S. and Europe of the use of a "summit log" at the top of a mountain peak. Climbers who reach the summit sign the log inside a weathertight metal canister that's left permanently on the mountaintop. Summit logs are still in use today. Nevertheless, it's all the more important for letterboxers to maintain the lowest possible impact a letterbox has on its surroundings.

When placing letterboxes, look for areas with "durable surfaces," such as a rock, sand, gravel or dirt. Don't force people to "bushwhack" through dense undergrowth or trample lush foliage or moss on a forest floor. And when choosing locations and writing clues, consider how those clues could be misinterpreted, and how frustrated letterboxers might damage other nearby areas while searching in the wrong place. You should also take care when hiding a letterbox not to damage the immediate area. Do not tear bark off a tree to cover up a box, or dig a hole to bury a box, for instance.

When searching for a letterbox, be gentle. Watch your step, especially when travelling off the trail.

Another way to do your part is to practice "negative trace hiking." In other words, leave every area you visit cleaner when you leave than when you arrived. Take an extra trash bag, and pick up trash that you find on or near the trail. Then carry this trash bag home with you and dispose of it properly.

These principles might seem unimportant until you consider the combined effects of millions of outdoor visitors. If every letterboxer took the initiative to follow these principles, the activity -- as well as our trails, forests, parks, rivers, mountains, deserts and meadows -- will thrive and flourish.

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