Police call it trespassing, moms call it dangerous, Instagram calls it urbex, I just call it exploring.
I’ll do my best in this article to teach you how to urban explore, in what I consider, the right way.
I’ve been fascinated by the stories abandoned building can tell, and have been photographing the decay for a long time now. I’d like to share this as a resource to help people new to the hobby get a safe head start into this unique and rewarding hobby.
If you’re looking for an answer to a specific question, use the table of contents below to find what you’re looking for. If you still have questions, post them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help.
Is Urban Exploring Illegal?
Urban Exploration is about exploring what is generally not seen, overlooked, or off limits to most people. There are certainly places that you can explore that are accessible to the public such as shipwrecks, historic landmarks, and heritage sites.
On the flip side there are just as many off limits areas to explore, such as storm drains, abandoned hospitals, and city rooftops. I’d be lying if I said I don’t get a rush from being somewhere I’m not supposed to be, but everyone explores for their own reasons.
Getting caught while urban exploring can have varying consequences ranging from trespassing tickets, to being arrested for breaking and entering. What you carry with you, how you enter, and how you present yourself if caught can make all the difference.
If you love the idea of urban exploration, but the illegal aspect is keeping you from starting, check out my guide on how to get permission to visit abandoned places.
So in most cases, urban exploring is considered trespassing which is illegal.
Is Urban Exploring Dangerous?
Urbex is definitely not a safe hobby and has many dangers. These dangers all vary depending on where you chose to explore. Many people have died while exploring, so being knowledgeable, prepared, and self reliant are traits all good explorers have.
Dangers could include drowning from flash floods, falling through structures, tetanus, leeches, ticks, suffocation, getting robbed, radiation poisoning, asbestos, chemical inhalation.. I could go on.
So yes, depending on where you want to explore determines the hazards you’ll face. Dangers can never be eliminated, but can be mitigated with proper planning and having the right equipment. What you bring with you to explore an abandoned sulfur mine is drastically different than what you’d pack to visit an abandoned hospital.
I have an entire section dedicated to gear I recommend and use. Under the safety gear section I include types of masks that protect against different hazards as well as clothing, first aid, and other helpful tools that can protect you, or get you out of a jam.
Here’s a few common rules explorers follow to stay alive.
When it rains, no drains. Check the weather multiple times before entering a drain system. Reschedule if rain is a possibility.
Tell someone where you’ll be. Worst case scenario if you and your friend become trapped or are unable to call for help, someone will know where you are. This is incredibly important when exploring caves or abandoned mines. Leaving GPS coordinates with someone you trust could be life saving.
Don’t explore alone. Bad things can happen even to the most experienced explorers. Having at least one other person with you could make all the difference depending on your location. Having an extra person with you can help fight off an attacker, call for help, treat an injury, or escape a locked building.
Don’t run from police. If a cop catches you, just stop. There are way too many misunderstandings with police as it is, especially in the states. Police have mistaken tripods for long guns, and made other errors in judgment. Running could literally cost you your life. I covered this more in depth in “Should You Run If You Get Caught While Exploring?”
Street smarts goes a long way, but is unfortunately something that can’t be taught in a single article.
What To Bring Urban Exploring?
We’ve determined bringing the right safety gear is paramount to being prepared, but what about the other urban exploration gear? You’re going to want to bring the essentials and not too much else. Overpacking can weigh you down which can impact your ability to maneuver through buildings or leave an area quickly if needed.
Once again it really boils down to how long you plan to be gone, and where exactly you’ll be. But below are a few items I almost always have with, or on me for general explorations. You can find reviews on most of these items on the gear page.
- Durable but comfortable shoes.
- External battery pack.
- At least two flashlights.
- Proper layered protective clothing depending on the weather.
- P100 respirator.
- Portable first-aid kit.
- Camera with multiple batteries.
- Battery charger.
- Tripod (If I know I’ll be in low light areas)
- Bug spray (Seasonal)
- Water bottle.
- Cash & snacks (For bartering)
- Strike anywhere matches.
Never bring weapons with you. If you’re genuinely concerned about your safety, check out this article on alternatives for self-defense while exploring. Carry these items in a reliable comfortable backpack, and you should be all set.
I’ve included my personal gear bag below. 90% of what I carry is there. The other 10% is very situational, such as my dosimeter, climbing gear, and full-face covering respirator.
The Explorers Code
I’m not a huge fan of rules, but there is a kind of ethos the community follows to protect certain abandoned places, and keep them just as interesting for the next person who decides to visit. There are two main rules, one can be summed up in a quote I once heard.
Take nothing that will be missed, leave nothing that will be noticed.
When you leave a place, no one should be able to tell you were ever there. This allows other photographers and explorers to have the same experience you did.
It doesn’t matter if the place is falling apart, it’s not our property or within our right to vandalize places. Treat the place like your home, but never forget you’re just a visitor.
And lastly, keep vulnerable locations private.
Not all locations are equal. An abandoned parking garage is incredibly different than an abandoned church from the 1800s. If a place feels like a time capsule, or it’s filled with antiques and rich with history, keep it to yourself.
It may be tempting to post the locations online, or tag the coordinates in your photos, but this can lead to places being vandalized, or completely burned down.
You can’t guarantee a stranger online will follow the same ethics and respect the first rule in this section. Only share these places with other explorers you know, like and trust.
Certain locations on this site have been left out, or not mentioned. That is by design.
Where To Go Urban Exploring
So now you should have a decent understanding on how to urban explore, but where do you find the places? I get asked this a lot, so I put sometime into this answer, and I hope it help.
Most people want to photograph and explore abandoned buildings, so I’m going to assume that’s what you’re after. Check out our Ultimate Guide On Finding Abandoned Places. In that article I cover different tools you can use to find abandoned buildings, and other oddities around your town.
To sum up that article, here are a few tips to finding abandoned places to urban explore
- Follow railroad tracks.
- Follow rivers through industrial areas.
- Use Google Maps to find places that look abandoned.
- Search online through foreclosures and property auctions.
- Look for vacant vehicles in the driveway.
- Take rural back roads and drive slow
- Become known in your local exploring community.
- Search our growing database of abandoned places!
Traditionally inner city places have the most abandoned places, but some of my all time favorite discoveries have been rural homes tucked away in the country side.
If you live out in the country, don’t fret! Often times what you lack in number of places to explore, you make up in quality. Less people in the area means that the home or building has likely decayed naturally and is mostly untouched.
How To Urban Explore
Part of learning how to urban explore is how to actually get into the building once you found it. Assuming you’re not looking to get access to active buildings rooftops, this will cover vacant structures like homes, factories, abandoned malls, ect.
Another major part of having good time is keeping a low profile. The last thing you want is a nosy neighbor calling the police, or getting confrontational with you. Here are some tricks I use to keep a low profile, and find entrances or ways into places.
Plan Your Exploration
You should always try to plan out your adventures. Planning will determine what gear you’ll be bringing with you, as well as where you’ll park, and how you enter. If you have these three things covered before you arrive, your entry will go a lot smoother. Trust me.
Use Google Maps, or scout the location first. For some locations such as Six Flag New Orleans, this was pretty much mandatory due to the level of security and dangers present inside. You don’t want to be parked out front wandering around the perimeter for 10 minutes.
Some places will require boots on the ground and a bit of work to find an opening. You’re going to want to do this preferably ahead of time and usually at night. Some of the most rewarding locations I’ve filmed have also been the most challenging. They required some scouting during the night, so allow for a quick and hassle free entrance before sunrise.
Find Your Parking Spot
A bad parking spot can really ruin your whole day. One of the only time I’ve been given a trespassing charge is when we parked on private property. When it comes to finding a safe, inconspicuous place to park keep these few things in mind.
Scout it ahead of time. A big part of how to urban explore is planning. In your planning phase, use Google Maps to find a place to park. You’ll want to generally avoid parking on the actual property itself. Your best bet is to park at a local business that is open and doesn’t have a customer only parking policy in place.
My favorite locations to park are gas stations, strip malls, and 24 hour stores. These places are often well lit and have cameras, so you know your car is safe, as well as low key because your vehicle doesn’t look out of place.
Avoid private property, parking in front of residential homes, parking on the side of a highway, or parking in an odd place such as the end of a dirt road. Often times patrol cars will hang out behind abandoned buildings or park their cruiser down dead end roads. If they see your car as out of place, they’ll investigate.
I’ve seen people pretend to be broken down by putting a their hood up and parking across the street from their target location. I don’t know how effective that is, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’d easily walk a mile to park safely, than risk getting towed or caught.
This reminds me of an old thread on UER called, “I’m Parked In Front.” If you’re an OG, you’ll remember.
Finding An Opening
Once you’re parked and settled you’re going to need a way in. 90% of the time you’re already going to have an opening.
Never break anything to enter a location.
If you’re caught prying off a board or cutting a fence you’re going to be charged with criminal trespass, breaking and entering, and criminal tools. Have fun fighting that in court.
Often times someone has already done the work for you, this saves you the additional legal trouble. I know this sounds obvious but just try the doors.
You would be surprised how many doors I’ve come across that had a lock on them, but swung right open. If the area if fenced off and for whatever reason you can’t scale it, check the back for cuts or holes in the links.
If you’re still at a dead end after trying all the doors, windows are another overlooked point of entry. Boards will sometimes appears to be nailed shut, cut swing to one side to allow access.
Windows without boards may not be locked or have the glass missing completely.
Lastly, get vertical. If you’re comfortable with climbing, get creative and see what opportunities there are on the second or third floor. The quicker you can get out of sight and inside, the less likely anyone is to spot you.
You’re In, Now What?
You made it, you’re in. The first thing I like to do is stand quietly for a few minutes to listen for anyone inside.
I walk around and note if there is power to the building, if so, alarms could be in place. Be mindful of tripwire alarms and motion detectors.
Some alarms are triggered by doors opening, and can sometimes be seen towards the top of the door frame itself.
Motion detectors are usually present in front of entry points and in stairwells. Not all alarms make noise, so if a light on a detector indicates it’s been tripped, it’s best to leave for some time and see if anyone shows up.
If everything seems fine I begin to look around and take pictures. I’ll cover photography tips and lighting in another article.
Have fun inside. Explore, take photos, and enjoy yourself!
Here are a few tips to keep a low profile once inside an abandoned building.
- Avoid windows facing highways or where others can see you.
- Avoid shining lights that will draw attention outside. Use a red flashlight at night.
- Avoid going on the rooftops. If you want to photograph on the roof, do it right before you leave.
- Take exterior shots last. This is when you’re most likely to encounter police, or nosy people.
- Mind your noise. You don’t have to whisper, but sound travels far in empty places.
If you followed the tips above, you should have plenty of time to photograph inside. There’s nothing worse than feeling rushed when photographing an incredible location. That’s why often time’s I’ll try and get permission.
Wrap up your trip grabbing exteriors and rooftop photos last, and leave the same way you entered.
It’s also a good idea to check outside to see if there is any new security presence that has showed up since you last checked.
And that should cover it! If you have any other questions on how to urban explore, post them in the comments below and I’d be glad to answer them.