"Aid" is something that diminishes one's accomplishment.
Ski lifts are aid. If you take a lift to the top of the mountain you can't claim to have climbed it.
Skis are aid going down a mountain. How hard could it really be to stand on those two planks and arrive at the bottom? The only hard part is waiting for me to hike down.
And of course, cars, motorcycles, helicopters, snowmobiles, and transporters are all aid when getting somewhere far away. Don't tell me you hiked the PCT if you were beamed from camp to camp by a starship in orbit. (I'm looking at you, Kirk.)
There are times when aid is acceptable. I will, someday, likely ride the lift on Mt. Bachelor to get to the summit with ease to check it off my bucket list. I'd rather spend a day hiking up Broken Top than Bachelor. And I'd gladly take another helicopter ride over Alaska's glaciers to get a view you can't get any other way.
However, aid blurs the definition when the activity is fun in itself. Like letterboxing.
Usually, I describe letterboxing as geocaching without the GPS. Instead of a set of coordinates you get a clue. On a trail, you might get this clue:
Go through all of the rocky field, to where there is a small copse of trees. There will be a felled log to your right, and large snags on both left and right of the path, like sentinels. To your right will be a path going down...
In an urban setting, you might read this:
The Lady of the Lake at the Riverwalk orients you. As you gaze from this spot to a spot across the water, you will notice a triangular wooden viewpoint with 5 lampposts. This is a lovely spot to gaze at the full moon on a clear night...
And if the person planting the letterbox really wants you to work for it, they'll encrypt the clue and provide you the key. You need to do the work to decrypt the clue and then actually find the box.
Regardless, the letterbox almost always includes at least a stamp, often hand-made, and a log book. As a letterboxer, you have your own stamp and a log book, plus a marker or ink pad. You sign the box's book and stamp it with your stamp, then use the box's stamp to stamp your book. There are sites online to record your finds, too, but not everyone uses them. (See the "tools" section below.)
So why is letterboxing "aid"? Simply because it's a great way to trick your kids/spouse/friends into going hiking with you. Or occupying them on a long road trip.
Hiking is something I've done with the kids with the occasional company of my wife. I love it when she comes along, but there's often more pressing matters. (I'd like to think she sits on the couch and eats bon bons, but I know she uses time alone to get things done.) However, since we've been letterboxing she's been on a couple of hikes. I see it as a hike with a few stops. She sees it as letterboxing with a little walking. We all win.
On those days when the kids aren't particularly interested in clocking a few hours on the trail, the simple sight of the little blue backpack that holds all our letterboxing gear is enough to get them scurrying for shoes. Each of them has their own log book so there's a sense of ownership. We also have a family log book that is probably a little less prone to being lost.
Perhaps the biggest win for us courtesy of letterboxing was making the long hours on the road from the Seattle area to Central Oregon manageable. Many of the rest stops and parks along the route have letterboxes hidden at them and even a 10 minute stretch of the legs and the mind is enough to break up the monotony of I-5. On our Oregon road trip, we found 13 letterboxes and tried for another five or six.
(Not every letterbox that's registered can be found. Some have bad clues, but more have been removed by park staff or people that don't realize what they've found.)
It seems that we've been able to find letterboxes that are a good fit for each member of our family. Strenuous hikes, hard decryption, tricky clues, funny clues, and even some with simple directions for the beginning reader.
Among the more interesting boxes were a "micro" letterbox hidden in a lamp post at IKEA in Portland, a letterbox with a "hitchhiker" inside (a micro letterbox meant to be moved around), and a box with an ever growing collection of stamps. (There were over 20 when we found it and I'm sure it will be even more by the end of the summer.)
We haven't placed any letterboxes yet, but there's a Girl Scout Brownie badge for letterboxing so I'm sure we'll work on that this upcoming year.
Given the sheer volume of letterboxes (more than 42,000 on letterboxing.org) it's unlikely we'll run out of boxes to look for any time soon. And if letterboxing keeps us doing things together as a family, I'm ok with a little aid now and then.
There are two web sites where you can search for clues and register your finds. atlasquest.com and letterboxing.org. Both are excellent sources of information and work well. (Their databases of letterboxes differ a bit so you might want to use both.) Unless you know the specific name of a box, use the location search tools.
For iPhone users, take a look at the Clue Tracker app. It's one of the rare apps that's actually worth its list price of $4.99. It integrates with both Atlas Quest and Letterboxing.org as well as the iPhone's GPS. In other words, wherever you are, open up Clue Tracker and it'll show you what's within a few miles of you.