Guest contributor Don (of the letterboxing duo Don and Gwen) knows a thing or two about security. In this special article, Don outlines some basic tips for protecting yourself from some of the hazards that you might encounter on the trails or in the woods while letterboxing.
I have spent the majority of my life running a security business providing physical security to corporations, small businesses and individuals. During the same period, I also conducted private investigations. My hobbies (prior to letterboxing) have been hunting, fishing, white water river rafting and many other outdoor activities. The experience I’ve gained from my vocation, as well as from my various recreational pursuits, has provided a unique perspective on personal security while letterboxing.
The following reminders about security are not meant to scare off new letterboxers. Many new letterboxers are “city folk” who have very little experience in the outdoors. While this article is generally directed at these new letterboxers, it may be worthy of a look by those who are already addicted to our hobby. You may not agree with all of the points that I raise, but many of my suggestions certainly have merit for those who are less experienced in coping with nature.
A great deal of what you’ll read in this article is pure common sense. For instance, the same security concerns you have in your city life should be carried over to your pursuits in the country and wilderness where many letterboxes are hidden. If you lock your doors at home, why let down your guard when looking for a letterbox? While the typical location for an auto burglary in the city might be the local mall parking area, a typical location in the woods might be the trailhead parking lot. A setting in the pristine wilderness doesn’t mean that crime won’t occur.
Letterboxing can take you to places that are special to the planter and often into unfamiliar turf for the finder. You must be prepared whenever you venture into the unknown. While trails are generally well marked, they may be traveled by critters of all kinds, adding another risk to be on the lookout for while hiking.
Never let your guard down just because you are on a search for a letterbox. Maintain a focus on your surroundings to pay attention to your personal security.
Here are some additional tips for safe letterboxing.
Keeping Private Information Private
Personal information of any kind does not belong in your clue sheets, letterboxes or hitchhikers. Do not include your home or office address (including P.O. boxes) or phone numbers (cell or land line) in any of your letterboxes or clues, or in your email or message board messages. Instead, use your trail name and direct people to use the “Contact the Placer” system on letterboxing.org to send reports on your letterboxes.
Use the chat lists (either the main LbNA list or regional lists) if the “Contact the Placer” system isn’t functioning or you want more input from other letterboxers. When posting on the LbNA chat list, you must realize that your post is open to anyone on the Internet who wishes to read it --
regardless of their reason for reading it, and regardless of whether or not they are even subscribed to the LbNA chat list. The LbNA chat list is archived by Google, so all messages -- and any personal information you include in them -- remain accessible long after they’ve been posted. (If you inadvertently post private information in a LbNA talk list message, you can log in to the Yahoo! Groups site and delete your own message from the archive, however.)
This topic has been rehashed time and again on the LbNA talk list. However, usually the first thing I carry to be prepared is never mentioned -- a very reliable handgun. Since my background is in protection, I have had sufficient training and I’m also a certified firearms instructor. As a result, I would feel very uncomfortable without a firearm. That being said I certainly would not advise anyone to carry a weapon unless they have received proper instruction and carry the weapon legally.
Gwen and I generally carry a fairly large daypack, which typically includes the following: more water than we think we will need, a few granola bars, matches, flashlight, cell phone, bandages, extra baggies, extra log books, two or three pens, two compasses, our multitude of stamping paraphernalia, some money (paper as well as change), a Leatherman type of tool, a supply of Tums (I get leg cramps), and, probably most importantly today, insect repellent to protect against West Nile Virus (and Lyme Disease for letterboxers in the East). Other letterboxers add first aid kits, sunscreen, lip balm and various products for comfort or personal safety, which might include pepper spray or mace. Bear spray, a very concentrated pepper spray in an aerosol can, should be considered when hiking in bear habitat. These products have a limited shelf life, so be sure that your supply hasn’t expired. Don’t bury the can deep in your pack, though -- make it easy to access either in a holster on your belt or in an outer pocket of your pack. You should also consider carrying bear bells on your pack or boots to warn off any bears before you surprise them on the trail.
Before setting out, go through a gear list and determine what you think you will need. After a few letterboxing searches you can modify your gear to your needs.
Before Looking for a Letterbox
Obviously, you should print out the clue sheet. More importantly, print out two sheets. Why two sheets? You should never letterbox alone, particularly in a secluded area, and with two sheets you will never fight over who gets to read it.
If you have any questions about the clues or the area, use the “Contact the Placer” system to get first hand knowledge from the placer. If the planter doesn’t respond, then maybe you should consider looking for another letterbox. Check out the various topographic maps for the area, either online or on paper, and trail maps of the area. If you are still concerned about information included in the clue, send a note out to the regional or main LbNA chat lists for anyone who has information about the letterbox. When in doubt, try another letterbox.
Searching for a Letterbox
I approach our search by thinking “stealth.” Not only are we extremely careful not to divulge letterbox locations to anyone passing by, but also I like to remain unseen to the hiker who just is out for an afternoon’s walk. You don’t have to wear camouflage to blend in, though. White and blue shirts stand out, while grays, browns, and green blend in -- particularly in some Hawaiian shirts. I like to size up someone coming down the trail before they know I’m there. Sometimes I let folks walk right by my nearby location and never make contact.
In their zeal to increase their F count, many letterboxers set out for a letterboxing junket that consists of searching for many letterboxes in one day of hiking. While most of us are guilty of this, it is often a fool’s errand. Some hikes become longer than expected, requiring more drinking water than you packed, and the weather may be either too hot or too cold for such a long hike. Most planters are not interested in your F count, and want to take you to a place that they think is really neat or has special meaning to them. When planting the letterbox, they probably took most of the day to hide the letterbox, figure out clues, recheck clues, and then spend some time enjoying the location themselves. Without even counting the time to carve the stamp, make the logbook, and write and post the clues on the LbNA site, it seems as though you should take the time to enjoy their gift to you.
Confrontations with Animals
Black bears really do not like dogs, so we hike as much as we can with our two Brittanies. A black bear will probably run from you when you yell and look real big (unless it is momma protecting her cubs). When yelling, back off slowly, but do not run (unless your letterboxing partner is a slower runner than you).
Grizzlies will eat dogs for hors d’oeuvres prior to the main course, so it’s best not to letterbox in their turf. Most words of wisdom tell us not to run, but to yell and back off slowly. If that doesn’t work, get into a fetal position and protect the back of your neck with your clasped hands. The only grizzlies I have seen were on a riverbank in Canada as we were rafting by, and upon seeing their size, I was happy we were rafting by.
Why cougars are protected in California is beyond me, since the Fish & Game department could have limited their kill numbers by limiting tags for hunters. That may change in the future, but for now these cats have become bolder and less afraid since the ban on hunting them took effect. Their numbers have exploded, and both the deer population and man have suffered for their increased numbers. Don’t letterbox alone, even in the suburbs close to the Southern California foothills where attacks have occurred. You will probably never see this cat even when he is watching you. When confronted look big, yell and throw rocks or sticks while you are backing off. If attacked don’t be passive, fight like hell. Cougars don’t like dogs either, but they may attack the dog first.
Most rattlesnake bites occur when someone is trying to kill or capture the snake. Before you put your hand into a letterbox hiding place, put a stick in first. Once bitten, an adult has a long time before the venom becomes fatal, and in some cases the snake injects little or no venom. A doctor who specializes in snakebites advised me to stay calm if bitten by a rattler, and proceed directly to the hospital for observation and anti-venom. If you can kill the snake bring it with you to the hospital, but be careful in handling the dead snake. Do not cut the bite and “suck out” the venom, do not apply a tourniquet, just get immediate medical help. For those of you with dogs, there is a new vaccine available for about $17 plus the vet visit. Yearly re-inoculation would reduce the costly treatment for dogs that get bit by a snake.
Confrontations with Humans
Trust the stranger in the woods as you would trust them in the city. Better said, perhaps, is to ”distrust the stranger in the woods as you would distrust them in the city.” This is another reason to hike and letterbox with a buddy and/or your dog. Most bad folks want easy targets and you should make yourself a difficult target. When passing another hiker do make eye contact -- victims tend not to make eye contact.
Valuables in Your Car
As stated earlier, trailheads and campgrounds can make cars easy targets. Don’t leave cameras, binoculars, purses, radios and other goodies visible in your car. Lock them in your trunk.
Some Final Tips
Be aware of your surroundings and try not to stick your nose into the clue sheet so much that you are oblivious to what is going on around you. Know when to give up the search, and plan to return another day instead. Use stealth in your searching as well as in your finds, and always replace the letterbox better than you found it.
Hopefully this hasn’t turned you into a “virtual” letterboxer. Just remember that your security is your responsibility. Now let’s letterbox!