Growing up, I didn’t live in a neighborhood. We lived off a busy street. We only had a handful of houses next to us, and none of them had kids, so trick-or-treating was never an option. Instead, my parents got creative and we had a costume party with family friends, complete with an in-house candy scavenger hunt. 

I figured that this year, with everything so up in the air, trick-or-treating may not be an option. And so I decided it would be a great time to share some of my unique experiences with this holiday and help get your creative juices flowing!

Even though I enjoyed my mom’s creativity with a scavenger hunt, there was still a part of me that wished we lived in a neighborhood and could participate in actual trick-or-treating. But one of the key elements of the scavenger hunt that captivated me was the fact that my mom didn’t mess around with fun-sized candy bars and Tootsie Rolls. We didn’t get a bag full of mid-quality candy—instead, we ended up with a smaller amount of full-size candy bars in our favorite flavors. I happily traded a handful of fun-size Twizzlers and Lemon Heads for a full-size Butterfinger. I think that impressing your kids is the key to success in substituting trick-or-treating with something else. If your kids aren’t impressed with full-size candy bars (because I know that Halloween candy standards have changed since the ‘90s), then throw in something else to surprise and delight them! Maybe that’s as simple as adding in some soda, sugar cereal, or non-candy dessert. Maybe it just means throwing in a small gift that your child wouldn’t expect to normally get at Halloween. I think that this year, you get full license to mix things up and throw in some curve balls while still holding on to some of the quintessential activities (i.e. getting candy). 

To upgrade this scavenger hunt for DIY, I’m building a treasure box to hide the candy in at the end. This, of course, isn’t a requirement—but it does help make this experience feel special and enjoyable in its own way (rather than just the negative result of not getting to do the good old traditions). After we walk through the steps of building the box, I’ll get into the process of planning the hunt, making the clues, and various other fun activities you can add to the night to make it memorable.

But first, let me share something I learned during this project. DIY is always a journey, and even six years in I still find myself running up against the unexpected and learning something new. This project was no exception. I figured the finishing touch to building this treasure box was to add some fun metallic paint on the inside to make it look more interesting, and to stain the outside to add some sophistication. It all seemed to work in the moment, too, but when I came back to the box after the stain had dried, it was completely impossible to open. I expect that the moisture from the stain caused the wood to expand ever so slightly, and the sliver gaps I so carefully added in closed up and became pointless. I still think that stain adds a lot to the finished product, but I recommend you apply it before assembling your box. Allow it to fully dry so any expanding is complete, then assemble your box. Now that you're armed with the knowledge gained from my mistakes, let's jump into the tutorial.

Step 1: Cut wood for the treasure box

I used clear vertical grain Doug fir for this treasure box because of its beautiful appearance, and because it comes in half-inch thickness which I consider a plus (but not necessary) for this project. 

Whatever wood you’re using, you’ll make the box by cutting your board into three square pieces by measuring the width and copying that measurement down the length of the board—for our half-by-eight inch board, this was approximately 7 ¼”. Cut one piece 1/16” less than your square measurement: This piece will be the lid. And lastly, cut two pieces that are 1” longer than square (or 1 ½” longer if you’re working with a one-by-eight board).

To cut the wood, use a square to make a straight line across the wood, clamp down the board with the pencil mark hanging off of your work space, and make the cut with a handsaw. I like to clamp the square next to the line as a guide for my saw so that my cuts are as straight as possible.

measure wood for diy treasure box
wood for halloween treasure box
cut wood for treasure box
saw wood for halloween treasure chest

Step 2: Sand

Sand all pieces with a fine/medium sanding sponge or 150-grit sandpaper. Doug fir has a tendency to splinter because of its tight vertical grain—so pay particular attention to the edges. 

sand wood edges
sand doug fir wood

Step 3: Assemble box

In the photos, you’ll see that I started out by attaching the sides to the bottom of the box, but I realized during the building process that it would have been much easier to attach the bottom of the box last. 

So instead, start by pre-drilling holes with a 1/16” bit through the sides of the two longest pieces. Drill two holes per side, about ¼” from the edge. Now line up two of the square pieces sandwiched between the two pre-drilled pieces to create a square. Clamp the pieces together and hammer in 1 ¼” nails. (We’ll add in the bottom piece in the next step.)

drill holes in doug fir wood
clamp treasure box pieces
nail treasure chest pieces
attach diy treasure box
nail treasure box pieces

Step 4: Attach lid with hinge

In this step, we’re going to attach the lid of the box to the sides with one nail in each side so the nails create a hinge for the lid to rotate on, then finish off the box by adding the bottom.

With the box sitting upright, measure in from the corner 2” and down from the top ¼” and mark with a pencil. Pre-drill through this mark with a 1/16” drill bit. Repeat on the opposite side of the box so that a straight wire could be threaded through both holes without being bent. 

Flip the box upside down (so that the pre-drilled holes are near the bottom). Slide the lid piece in place so that the 1/16” gap is not on the same side with either of the pre-drilled holes. Without the bottom of the box, you’ll be able to see down and position the lid so that there’s a slight gap on the end near the pre-drilled holes, and a larger gap at the opposite end. These gaps give room for the lid to freely open and close, so they’re pretty important. Once the lid is in place, hammer in nails through the pre-drilled holes in the side. Open your lid by pressing down on the side close to the nails. If it’s difficult to open or close the lid, grab your sanding sponge and sand down the edge that’s sticking. 

Lastly, pre-drill a couple holes on either side of the base of the box, then slide in the bottom of the box and nail it in place.

attach wooden lid
measure wooden treasure box
build halloween candy box
attach diy treasure box hinge
halloween treasure box hinge

Step 5: Add stop

Use a small piece of scrap wood as a stop to keep the front of the lid from pressing down into the box too far. Measure and mark ½” from the top of the box. Add glue to your scrap piece and with the box on its side, place the piece just behind the mark. Close the lid until it’s flush with the top of the sides and then open it back up. This should push your piece into exactly the right place. 

I used fast-drying wood glue for this step so that I’d have less time to wait before staining and painting.

measure from top of box
glue wooden stop
halloween diy treasure box

Step 6: Paint and stain

I decided to stain the outside of the box and then paint the inside of the box to create some contrast and to make it feel more like a treasure box. First, I stained the outside of the box with a Varathane stain in the color American Walnut. After waiting for the stain to dry, I painted the inside of the box in a copper colored paint. I love this paint because unlike so many metallic paints,  it really does look like copper—and the reason that it does is because there’s actual copper ground up in the paint!

varathane stain
stain box hinge
treasure box outside
stained halloween treasure box
paint for treasure box
paint box hinge
halloween candy box

Step 7: Write or draw clues

Now that your treasure box is built, it’s time to set up your scavenger hunt. You’ll want to decide how you’re going to map out the hunt—this does depend on how you’re writing the clues, so let’s jump into that first.

The way my mom wrote clues for us was by coming up with a two-line poem that took us to the general vicinity and gave us one hint about how to look in that area. So she might send us to a bedroom and then tell us to look high and low, and that meant that the next clue would be hidden either high or low (but definitely not in between). If you’re going vague like this, I recommend only hiding one clue per area. My mom did a great job at writing clues this way, but I also know that she hated trying to come up with words that rhymed. So, assuming that others of you out there feel similarly, I came up with two different ideas. 

The next way to give clues comes from Todd’s childhood. His dad used to send him on scavenger hunts by drawing him a picture of something in their house. So he might sketch a picture of the mantel clock and then when you went to the clock on the mantel, there would be another clue tucked underneath it with another drawing. And so on and so forth until you reach the end.

The last idea came to me as an alternative for those who feel neither poetically nor artistically gifted. This final idea is fairly simple, but can be made more complex—it’s simply the idea of writing down several objects that would be found grouped together in one section of the house. A lamp, a tissue box, and a book might refer to a bedside table or a desk somewhere. I like this idea because it can be used to create easy clues for younger children by naming objects that one would only find one or two places; or it can be made more difficult by naming items ambiguously (a bottle and a box could refer to a bottle of soap and a box of garbage bags under the sink or to a bottle of olive oil and a box of toothpicks). Or you could mix things up by moving random objects around so that you have a whisk and a toothbrush next to each other. Just make sure you’re keeping your clues separate enough that if they mistakenly look in one place they’re not going to stumble across another clue.

I wrote/drew all of my clues on 3x5 cards and slipped them into Halloween-themed treat bags so that they’ll be noticeable if I tuck them between some books. 

write halloween clues
scavenger hunt clues
halloween clues
halloween treat bag

Step 8: Hide clues

The last step in this hunt is to hide the clues. This is when you’ll need to decide if there will be treats hidden with every clue or if the treats will only be at the end (the former can be a good way to make it feel a bit more like a trick-or-treat experience). 

I highly recommend waiting to hide the treasure box until your kids have started on the hunt—ideally in or near a spot they’ve already looked. That way they won’t accidentally find it before they reach the end. 

hide scavenger clues
halloween candy clues

Step 9: Add to the fun

A scavenger hunt can be a lot of fun, but it probably won’t take up very much time, so I recommend filling the rest of the evening with other fun-filled activities to boost morale and make this Halloween a memorable one!

Because I’m familiar with a “stay-at-home” Halloween, I’m going to pull from some of my fond childhood memories. Of course we celebrated in a lot of classic ways with carving pumpkins, sipping cider, and bobbing for apples, but it was always when we (and by we, I mean the kids) got creative that things got really fun. One of my most memorable Halloween traditions started one year when we were bobbing for apples and my friend, who was around six at the time, decided her costume was getting in the way and left the room to come back in a swimsuit and goggles. This resulted in half the kids changing into swimsuits and everyone putting on swim goggles and us bobbing for apples, and then satsumas, and then grapes (which, in case you were wondering, don’t float). This really takes bobbing for apples to another level, and I highly recommend that you engage in the silliness of this activity because it really creates memories. 

My second great Halloween memory was the year that we pulled a game from some party book that we had. The game was hanging doughnuts from the ceiling just out of reach of the mouths of the contestants. Contestants then had to stand with their hands behind their backs and try to eat the doughnut off the string. Because of a lack of planning, we didn’t have any doughnuts, but I really wanted to play this game. So instead, my dad tied a fun-size Butterfinger from the ceiling. The hard candy bar was significantly harder to bite into than a doughnut, and it just swung around, making the game nearly impossible. I was the only one who participated, and I was forced to leap about the room, trying to fling the Butterfinger up into the air and then leaping up to try to catch it hoping that the momentum would be enough that I could actually get a bite. By the end, I had my entire family in tears they were laughing so hard. And I did finally eat the Butterfinger!

I think both of these stories illustrate that the most fun comes from creativity and throwing yourself into the fun, so pull from your own creativity—and your kids'—and get ready to have a Halloween night to remember! Some other fun ways to make this Halloween special include making apple pie floats, a pumpkin drink dispenser, and a trick-or-treat banner.

celebrate halloween without trick or treating