Urban exploration (often shortened as urbex or UE) is the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities. Urban exploration is also commonly referred to as infiltration, although some people consider infiltration to be more closely associated with the exploration of active or inhabited sites. It may also be referred to as "draining" (when exploring drains) "urban spelunking", "urban caving", or "building hacking".
The nature of this activity presents various risks, including both physical danger and the possibility of arrest and punishment. Many, but not all, of the activities associated with Urban Exploration could be considered trespassing or other violations of local or regional laws.
Targets of exploration
Urban explorers often attempt some or all of these subsets of urban exploration.
Ventures into abandoned structures are perhaps the most common example of urban exploration. Abandoned sites are generally entered first by locals, and often sport large amounts of graffiti
and other acts of vandalism. Explorers face various risks in abandoned structures including collapsing roofs and floors, broken glass, guard dogs, the presence of chemicals, other harmful substances, most notably asbestos
, hostile squatters
and sometimes motion detectors. Some explorers wear respirators
to protect their airways.
Exploration targets vary from one country to another, but some of the more popular or high-profile abandonments include amusement parks, grain elevators, factories, missile silos, hospitals, asylums, schools, and sanatoriums. Also, due to a marked lack of governmental support of historical monuments under the various communist regimes, some structures may be centuries old, from various architectural epochs and still freely accessible in their unrenovated states.
Many explorers of abandonments find the decay of uninhabited spaces to be beautiful; many of these explorers are also photographers. Some abandonments are heavily guarded with motion sensors and active security. Others are more easily accessible and carry less risk of discovery. Abandonments are also popular among history buffs, 'industrial archeologists,' 'ghost hunters' and fans of graffiti.
Another aspect of urban exploration is the practice of exploring active or in use
buildings. This includes seeing secured or "member-only" areas, mechanical rooms, roofs, elevator rooms, abandoned floors and other normally unseen parts of such buildings. The term 'infiltration' is often associated with the exploration of active structures. People entering restricted areas may be committing trespass
and civil prosecution
Catacombs such as those found in Paris, Rome and Naples have been investigated by urban explorers. The Mines of Paris, comprising much of the underground tunnels that are not open to public tourism like the catacombs, have been considered the "Holy Grail" by some due to their extensive nature and history. Explorers of these are known as cataphiles or Splooshers.
Sewers and storm drains
Entry into storm drains, or draining, is another common form of UE. Groups devoted to the task have arisen, such as the Cave Clan in Australia. Draining has a specialized set of guidelines, the foremost of which is "When it rains, no drains!"
A small subset of explorers enter sanitary sewers. Sometimes they are the only connection to caves or other subterranean feature. Sewers are among the most dangerous locations to explore owing to extremely high risks of poisoning by build up of toxic gases naturally found in all sewers (commonly methane and hydrogen sulfide). There have been large numbers of fatalities from around the world through being overcome by toxic gases from sewers and the only safe way to enter a sewer is if the atmosphere has been tested by a working monitoring device and other confined space entry procedures followed.
This subset of urban exploration deals with exploring active and abandoned subway and underground railway tunnels and bores. Such activities are often considered trespassing, and can result in civil prosecution (unless covered by specific acts of law, such as some railways may make a criminal case of it). As a result, this type of exploration is rarely publicized. Although they exist worldwide, those who partake in this often reside near New York City
, along with many other major cities throughout the world.
and other large institutions, such as hospitals, often distribute steam for heating buildings and autoclaves
from a central heating plant. These high pressure steam pipes are generally run through utility tunnels, which are often accessible solely for the purposes of maintenance. Many of these steam tunnels, such as those on college campuses, often also have a tradition of exploration by students. This was once called vadding
, though students there now refer to it as roof and tunnel hacking
Steam tunnels in general have been getting more secure in recent years, due to their use for carrying network backbones and perceived risk of their use in terrorist activities, safety and liability.
Some steam tunnels have dirt floors, no lighting and can have temperatures upwards of 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46°C). Others have concrete floors, bright light, and can even be quite nice and feature a cool temperature. Most steam tunnels have large intake fans to bring in fresh air, and push all of the hot air out the back.
The rise in the popularity of urban exploration can be attributed to its increased media attention. Recent television shows, such as "Urban Explorers" on the Discovery Channel
, MTV's Fear
, and the ghost hunting
exploits of The Atlantic Paranormal Society
have packaged the hobby for a popular audience. Talks and exhibits on urban exploration have appeared at the 5th and 6th Hackers on Planet Earth
Conference, complementing numerous newspaper articles and interviews. With the rise in the relative popularity of the hobby due to this increased focus, there has been increasing discussion on whether the extra attention has been beneficial to urban exploration as a whole.
Safety and legality
Urban exploration is a hobby that comes with a number of inherent dangers. Storm water drains are not designed with human access as their primary use. They can be subject to flash flooding and bad air. There have been a number of deaths in storm water drains, but these are usually during floods, and are normally not urban explorers.
Many old abandoned structures feature hazards such as unstable structures, unsafe floors, asbestos, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, exposed electrical wires and entrapment hazards.
Asbestos is a long term health risk for urban explorers, along with breathing in contaminants from pigeon feces. Urban explorers use dust masks and respirators to alleviate this danger. Some sites are occasionally used by homeless people and drug users and there may be discarded needles.
The growing popularity of the activity has resulted not just in increased attention from explorers, but also from vandals and law enforcement. The illicit aspects of urban exploring, which may include trespassing and breaking and entering, have brought along with them critical articles in mainstream newspapers.
In Australia, the web-site of the Sydney Cave Clan was shut down by lawyers for the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales, after they raised concerns that the portal could "risk human safety and threaten the security of its infrastructure." Another web-site belonging to the Bangor Explorers Guild was criticized by the Maine State Police for potentially encouraging behavior that "could get someone hurt or killed." Likewise, the Toronto Transit Commission has also used the Internet to crimp subway tunnel explorations, going as far as to send investigators to various explorers' homes.
Jeff Chapman, who authored Infiltration, stated that genuine urban explorers "never vandalize, steal or damage anything." The thrill comes from that of "discovery and a few nice pictures." Some explorers will also request permission for entry.
In the media
Many urban exploration books are available, including:
- Ninjalicious (2005). Access All Areas: A user's guide to the art of urban exploration. PO Box 13, Station E, Toronto, ON M6H 4E1 Canada: Infilpress. ISBN 0-9737787-0-9
- Paiva, Troy (2008) "Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration" Chronicle Books ISBN 0-811-86338-7
- Paiva, Troy (2003) "Lost America: The Abandoned Roadside West" Chronicle Books ISBN 0-760-31490-X
- Wand, Eku and Arnold, Dietmar (2001). CD-ROM: Berlin im Untergrund - Eine interaktive Zeitreise unter den Potsdamer Platz. eku interactive e.K., Berlin/Bad Homburg, Germany. ISBN 3-935709-02-1
- Deyo, L.B. and Leibowitz, David "Lefty". Invisible Frontier: Exploring the tunnels, ruins & rooftops of hidden New York. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-609-80931-8
- Solis, Julia. New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-95013-9
- The Urban Adventure Handbook. Ten Speed Press.
- O'Brien, Matthew (Author) and Mollohan, Danny (Photographer) (2007). Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas. Huntington Press. ISBN 0-929-71239-0
The following two photography books by Chilean-born, New York–based photographer and documenter Camilo José Vergara are not explicitly about urban exploration, but Mr. Vergara uses many of the same techniques as urban explorers to gain access to the abandoned buildings which he photographs to document their decay.
- Urban explorers (termed "creepers") and their culture are at the core of the thriller Creepers by author David Morrell.
- Steven Hall. "The Raw Shark Texts". Canongate. ISBN 978-1841959115: here the author writes widely about an exploration of unspace: a name used in the book to refer to all of the hidden places in cities usually explored by the urban spelunkers.
- F. Paul Wilson's second Repairman Jack novel Legacies includes references to urban exploration.
- 5100: A Canadian Urban Exploration magazine focusing mainly on Western Canada.
- The Cave Clan Magazine: Australian draining magazine.
- Jinx: United States urban exploration magazine.
- Section61: The UKs First and Only Urban Exploration magazine.
- Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979).
- Doom Asylum (1987) - A demented coroner inhabits an abandoned lunatic asylum. When several teenagers trespass on his property, he proceeds to kill them off one by one. Filmed on location at the since-demolished Essex Mountain Sanitorium in New Jersey.
- Pray for Rain's After..., (2006) a supernatural thriller about three urban explorers who get more than they bargain for when they set out to explore the secret world beneath Moscow. It was released in October 2007 by First Look Studios.
- Red Scream Films' "Prison of the Psychotic Damned", (2006) the world's first exploitation style UE film.
- Christopher Smith's Creep (2004).
- The horror film Candyman features the heroine exploring tunnels that connect various rooms in some of Chicago's abandoned Cabrini Green tenements.
- The horror film Session 9 was shot almost entirely in the abandoned Danvers State Insane Asylum in Danvers, MA
- Death Tunnel (2005) was filmed in the abandoned Waverly Hills Sanatorium located in Louisville, Kentucky.
Short films and documentaries
- David L. Cunningham's documentary short, which documents a research trip he and screenwriter Kevin Miller made in preparation for writing "After...", a supernatural UE thriller about three urban explorers who get more than what they bargain for when they set out to explore the vast secret world under Moscow.
- Melody Gilbert's "Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness" (2007), a documentary about some of the world's urban explorers.
- Robert Fantinatto's "Echoes of Forgotten Places" (2005), a visual essay on the allure of abandoned buildings and industrial relics.