Tips for Urban Explorers
The hazards of Urban Exploration are many.
Even though you aren't up to anything illegal
or unethical, if you're out adventuring, you're probably going to look
suspicious. As a result, you really need to be careful about being
spotted by cops or "citizens on patrol" who will call the cops, and just
waste valuable resources and your time questioning you instead of preventing
actual crimes. You also have to be careful of wildlife, particularly
of the homeless variety. I'm not saying they're bad, but you don't
want to take any chances.
I know that based on all the fun stuff
on this site that it looks like I've done over the years, it is easy to
get the impression that I am really gung ho about a lot of things, but
I don't charge in very often. There are things I want to do
that I will think about incessantly. However, I am always careful.
It isn't by accident that in all our explorations we have never been 1)
caught doing something stupid or illegal or 2) injured.
As such, here are some tips to follow when
Bring extra batteries.
You don't want to jeopardize your safety or fun by having your equipment
crash. Make sure you have some extra power in your back pocket for
your flashlights, camera(s), and GPS.
Always have more than one flashlight.
If your batteries start to dim and you're down to one light, head back.
You can't chance the last one going out. Personally, I tend to carry
a mini-maglight in my pocket in addition to whatever I am otherwise using.
Charge your cell phone(s).
Thankfully, we've never had a broken leg to contend with, but you never
know when a medical or other(!) emergency could require you to ring your
Know when to say when.
If things look like they are too dangerous, either from the perspective
of getting killed or getting caught looking like you're up to no good,
just walk away from the situation; there are plenty of other places to
explore and you can always come back if things are safer later.
Have a rule of thumb.
I always try to use mnemonics when exploring. For example, when multiple
tunnels are available, I always go with the largest; or if they're the
same size, I usually take the one on the left. This helps me keep
track of where I have been... and how to get home.
While manhole covers might seem like a good place to get out of a tunnel
and take a shortcut home, you're probably going to get yourself killed
by opening up a giant metal disc that is about to be hit by an on-coming
couple tons of steel that, frankly, has the right-of-way. Don't,
Get a tan. Go exploring
during the day if at all possible. The reasons are many: It's safer;
you look less suspicious; you won't be spotted waving a flashlight around
in the dark; and if you're tunneling, you can often find outlets to the
world above by looking for shafts of sunlight from curbside drains and
On the other hand...
Explore areas with vagrants on particularly cold days/nights. They
tend to be holed up out of the weather, so you are least likely to encounter
homeless people. For example, one of the areas we frequently explore
is near the Dallas jail, so there are lots of guys just getting out at
all hours. However, at 3am in the winter, you're free to wander the
streets with little worry about being accosted.
Don't smoke. Nothing
to do with exploring per se... it's just a bad habit.
Set your cell phone to vibrate.
It's a camp movie cliché: the cell phone rings and our heroes' hiding
place is blown! You don't want to be spotted by the cops, vagrants,
and anyone else when you're in the middle of someplace you probably don't
Park nearby, but not too nearby.
You don't want to make it obvious that you're where you probably don't
belong, but you also don't want to create an impossible situation by trekking
miles to a site. I try to hide in plain sight by parking in a business
lot as near as I can to the site.
Have a girl in the group.
Want to know a reliable predictor of criminal behavior? The "Y" chromosome!
Feminists can bitch about this one, but having a female in the group always
implies recreation rather than terrorism, and this assumption has saved
my skin twice (see an account of this at the bottom of this
Limit group size.
Right to peaceable assembly be damned! Even if you've got the girl,
a group of, say, twenty looks like hooligans no matter what you're doing.
Make sure that your group is small enough to be inconspicuous and to move
in and out of a place without taking an unreasonable amount of time.
Formulate a backstory.
...And share it with the group so you will be consistent if called upon
to play a part. Ideally, the truth is always best, but it depends
on the situation. Like a fire extinguisher, you don't have to use
it, but it's good to have handy.
Consider your "costume."
Related to the previous item is the issue of wearing inconspicuous clothing.
You don't want to wear dayglow, but if you're in an area where joggers
are common, you're already on foot, so play the part. Similarly,
if you're going through an area with vagrants, dress down. By contrast,
you don't want to go in with an outfit from a live action roleplaying game,
the Matrix, or a load of commando gear you picked up at the army surplus
Cut the chatter!
You want to keep your voice low, no matter what cool discovery you've just
come across. There have been times when I have suddenly noticed a
drain grate just overhead that could have lead to discovery and had someone
calling the cops or a rescue crew. Alternatively, by making
your presence known, you could also set yourself up to be ambushed by the
denizens of an abandonment.
Walk up inclines backwards.
This sounds like some sort of Zen fortune cookie, but it's just the best
(if unexpected) method for dealing with concrete inclines (e.g., drainage
canals, etc.). If you walk forward on a steep enough slope, you can
only grip with your toes. By walking backwards, your entire foot
lays flat to the surface, giving you the most traction.
Stealth-walking in boots.
Although it is almost impossible to walk silently through water, you can
minimize the splashing by walking on the side of the soles of your boots/shoes.
This cuts the water with the edge of the sole rather than smacking it flat
across the bottom of your foot.
When you're working your way through a "back-breaker" (i.e., a tunnel with
a low ceiling where you have to walk hunched over), put your arms behind
your back as often as you can. This pulls your shoulders closer to
the position they would be in when walking upright. I have found
this is instantaneous relief and prevents aches after the fact.
you're exploring a set of three or more tunnels that look like they will
be parallel to one another, go with the ones to either side, not in the
middle. The ones at the edges are those most likely to have side
tunnels that feed into them. The ones in the middle can only connect
to the tunnels on either side.
Have a reference in the picture!
If you are taking photographs, all tunnels look the same. A 15 foot
high passageway might look like a cathedral when you're in it, but without
a frame of reference, it could just be a crawl space for all a viewer can
tell. Get someone else in the shot to show the scale. If you
are looking at something on the ground, get your foot in the shot.
If it's something on the wall, put your hand next to it. I can't
get over how many galleries I have run across on the web where I can't
tell if the pipe is an inch wide or big enough to pass an 18-wheeler through!
For more on this subject, see this page.
Lose the red-eye.
You can avoid those demonic eyes by simply not looking into the lens of
the camera. I always look a little off to the side. It makes
for a more suspenseful shot anyway. "Ooooh, what's he looking at?"
Variety. You don't
want to have the same person in the same shot every time.
I usually alternate who takes the picture between members of the group,
such that we all get some "exposure." Even though only a fraction
of the pictures end up on this site, on average everyone makes an appearance
in some of the images.
Don't crop your shot.
If you're using a digicam, sometimes it's a little hard to tell through
the viewfinder what you're looking at in the dark. However, you can
usually see the spot of what your flashlight is pointing at. Use
it to center your shot (and to get the focus right), then pass the beam
around the points of interest to see if they're in the frame.
Take more than you need.
I only post a small fraction of the pictures I take. However, I take
a lot of pictures that help me recall what I was looking at and to otherwise
orient myself days, weeks, or months after I've visted a site. If
you only take well-composed shots, you lose track of where you were when
you found something interesting, so it may be hard to identify the exact
location a little later. I post just enough pictures in these galleries
to convey what I need to and then I flesh everything else out in words.
Downstream is where it's at!
Like most rivers, man-made drainage systems are widest at their end (i.e.,
the outfall). If you see a small pipe going upstream, forget it;
it's only going to lead to something even smaller.
Look for canals that go up to the road.
If they are perpendicular to the road but do not continue on the opposite
side, then they are underground, and that means you have a tunnel.
This is how I have found the majority of the tunnels I have explored.
Forget the drains.
Seriously, most of the time you will not be able to find major systems
by looking for deep drains. Typically these run a some distance before
reaching the main system. It could be just a few yards, but it might
also be miles from where you're standing. Of course, it never hurts
to keep an eye (and an ear!) out for running water.
Always be prepared to check something out. Ideally, you ought to
(as a minimum) have boots, a flashlight, and a GPS. This much gear
gets you into a tunnel and allows you to mark the spot so you can find
it again easily. A camera is always nice to have on hand as well
to help you at least remember a spot if you can't explore the whole thing.
Stick to the sides.
Although you might be inclined to take the center tunnel of a group of
them, it is better to go to the sides. If the tunnels are just running
parallel to one another, you won't see any side tunnels. However,
if you're on the sides, you are going to run across any tunnels that feed
into the section you are exploring.
Bird's eye view.
By now everyone on Earth knows about Google Earth. If you follow
waterways in your neighborhood (or wherever) back to their source(s), you
can happen upon outfalls of major drainage systems. This is a hit-or-miss
approach as you may find a lot of disappointment (things can often be more
impressive from above), but it can save you a lot of footwork... and can
be very addictive.
Look for a wall of trees that don't butt
against anything. In other words, you aren't seeing
the edge of a forest.. More likely it's a series of trees growing
along a stream, hence they were never mowed down as sapplings.
This is always a sign there's a ridge on one side of the road and not the
other. In an area as naturally flat as north Texas, this is a good
indicator that there is a tunnel emptying into the ravine even if you can't
actually see what's below.
Check the expiration dates.
If you look around at the artifacts around you, you can establish what
a place used to be and when it was last active. You can usually ascertain
information like that from dates on phone books and fire extinguisher inspection
tags as well as dates on calendars (duh!), catalogs, and newspapers/magazines.
Looking downward and backward.
Look at aerial photos of a site. These are almost always months or
even years old, so you can see what the area looked like sometime prior
to your visit. This is a good test to see for certain if you suspect
something has been built, demolished, removed, or otherwise altered.
The presence of cars can indicate a building or facility was abandoned
recently (or that the picture was taken on a Sunday. Whatever).
How to get your girlfriend to go exploring
with you. Find
the right girlfriend. And hang onto her!
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