An Introduction to Urban Exploration (URBEX)

Casey Botticello

Photo by Echo Grid on Unsplash

What is Urban Exploration?

Urban exploration is the act of accessing locations that are typically restricted to the general public. It’s also known as UE or urbex in some circles, but is often mistaken as simply the discovery of urban decay or abandoned properties. However, the broader definition also includes the exploration of rooftops, drains, sewers, construction sites, or any other location that may have restricted access.

What is the Appeal of Urban Exploration? by Nicolae Rosu on Unsplash

There are many reasons people enjoy urban exploring — below are just a few:

  1. There is something incredibly exhilarating about exploring abandoned buildings, and at the same time very sobering. Seeing nature reclaim land from human civilization is a very powerful experience.
  2. For many people, urban exploration is as much about personal exploration of their thoughts as well as the abandoned structures themselves. The silence of the abandoned places gives people the time to reflect
  3. I personally enjoy documenting places that are possibly slated to be demolished or condemned. There are many fascinating stories surrounding these places that deserve to be told. This is especially true of psychiatric hospitals which often had dark histories that were never fully exposed due to corrupt local officials.
  4. Taking a closer look at your everyday community. Urban exploration allows you to see and experience locations very few people ever have. It gives you a greater appreciation of the local history, and you feel an increased affinity with each location and its surrounding community. We pass by many of these places everyday without ever really noticing what’s there.

How Do I Find Urban Exploration Locations? by NASA on Unsplash

Finding great locations usually comes from looking at various sources and spending time doing research. People in the urbex community are usually reluctant to share exact locations with people they don’t know, in order to help preserve certain sites. Typically, you start by doing some research or exploring new locations near where you live and then venture further out once you take the time to research specific locations. Below are a few suggestions:

  • You can usually find data for high-rise construction sites, demolition permits, old military infrastructures, utility tunnels maps, sewer system maps and storm drains maps online. These records are more or less accessible depending on the city. Sometimes you can find everything online, but otherwise you can consult the city library or access the city archives.
  • When I have a vague idea about a spot but I’m not sure about the exact location, Google Street View and Google Maps are usually very useful. You can even compare different dates to see how the location has evolved over time.
  • Keep your eyes open for industrial buildings, construction sites, or anything that looks abandoned.
  • Blogs and local newspapers are also a great source of information for some special locations.
  • Finally, urban exploration forums and urban explorer contacts are the most reliable way to learn more about new or existing locations. Once you start having friends in the UE community, it’s a lot easier to share information.

Is Urban Exploring Legal? by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

The short answer is it depends. If you have the permission of a property owner or local authorities then it may be legal.

However, in many cases, even if a property appears to have no owner, there is almost an owner or local authorities that can press charges against you for trespassing (and possibly more).

Many urban explorers are well aware of this risk and take precautions to avoid detection. However some sights-especially well known ones often have security who often have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to trespassing. So look into the laws of a specific location before you go exploring and if possible try to find out if you can contact the owner. Every now and again you get lucky and the owner or possibly even the security will indulge a straightforward student or amateur photographer who asks permission.

Is Urban Exploration Safe? by Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash

Typically, no. Urban exploring often brings people to remote or abandoned places, where there are real dangers. Floors collapse, roofs can be slippery, tunnels flood, toxic particles can be inhaled, there are sometimes drug addicts or squatters who may react violently to unexpected visitors — just to name a few.

If you are new to urban exploring, you should never venture out alone due to these safety concerns. You can go with just one person or a group of friends. Just make sure the number of people going is appropriate for the location.

What Equipment is Recommended for Urban Exploration? by Cameron Kirby on Unsplash

The equipment required varies by location, but generally, the gear below should be useful in many situations:

  • Powerful flashlight: A powerful flashlight is essential for navigating through dark and potentially hazardous locations. Obstacles and uneven ground will be more clear. Bring extra back up batteries. You don’t want to get caught in the dark.
  • Pants: Wear a pair of durable jeans or cargo pants you don’t mind trashing. You might be doing a lot of crawling and climbing in dirty unfamiliar territory. Knee pads are also advisable.
  • Rugged shoes: Wear a good pair of tough shoes or boots. Good traction will be essential in unknown terrain.
  • Jacket: A non restrictive jacket will keep you warm and agile on your explorations.
  • Gloves: A good pair of tough gloves keeps your hands safe from sharp objects and surfaces and for added warmth.
  • Backpack: You need a tough bag for carrying all your gear. A back pack that is secure to wear and a waterproof one is even better to keep everything dry.
  • Cell phone: Make sure you have it and it’s fully charged. Be sure to tell people where you are going in case you are in a jam and there is no service.
  • First aid kit: There are many potential hazardous you will encounter while urban exploring. For minor injuries, such as cuts or scrapes, a first aide kit is critical.
  • Water bottle: Stay hydrated during your exploration. Whether it’s hot or not keep water with you. A durable water bottle is essential.
  • Food: You burn a lot of energy while urban exploring and what seems like a small journey can unexpectedly turn into an all-day journey.
  • Respirator: Abandoned places could have a lot of toxic air from material like asbestos and mold. A respirator or N95 mask can be essential in known contaminated places.
  • Carabiners: Great for securing gear and can be used as a safety mechanism while climbing or moving along an elevated surface.
  • Multi-tool kit: Serves a variety of needs, including cutting snagged clothing, filling away sharp edges, or grasping hazardous objects.
  • Door Stops: Door stops are great for holding open doors with questionable locks to prevent you from being trapped inside a building.

What are the “Rules” of Urban Exploring? by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

There are no formal “rules” to urban exploring but many in the community would reference the old adage “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.” In other words — respect the property and leave it undisturbed so that others can enjoy it.

“take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”

Most urban explorers have a lot of respect for the locations they are photographing and rarely cause intentional damage. This is partially why many in the community keep many amazing locations a secret-they fear the location will be overrun with vandals, looters, squatters, or even arsonists.

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I am a digital marketing consultant, entrepreneur, and private equity investor.


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