Do’s and don’ts of urban exploration

Because urban exploration is a kind of photography that requires proper preparation, gear and things to take into consideration, I thought it might be helpful to share some basic do’s and don’ts for urban exploration here:

Do’s

  • Be sure to wear some kind of rugged shoes or (military) boots with ankle supports and a thick non-slipping sole so that you can climb and don’t need to worry too much about stepping into pieces of glass or other sharp objects.
  • Wear discrete clothes in layers so that you can take off or put on extra pieces of clothing when required.
  • Wear clothes that you don’t bother getting dirty, as abandoned places might be covered in dust, sand or even chemical residues.
  • Always wear gloves (especially in abandoned industrial structures) and wash hands carefully with anti-bacterial hand-wash before eating anything.
  • Take a basic first-aid kit for minor cuts and bruises.
  • Take a dust mask or respirator, because old buildings can contain asbestos (make sure you can identify this!) or other hazardous (building) materials.
  • Take a proper flashlight (I personally use a LED Lenser) and wear it where it is easily accessible. If not used to manoeuvre through cellars and dark rooms, it can be used as artificial light source for taking photos as well.
  • Spare batteries for the flashlight are also a good idea (and a reason not to buy one with built-in rechargeable battery).
  • Take a Swiss army knife or Leatherman tool just in case you need to cut or repair anything.
  • Bring enough water and food for the time you are planning to be away. You are using a lot of energy doing urban exploration, so think of bringing some energy bars or chocolate as well.
  • Don’t pack too heavy. It is okay to take some premium (= heavy) glass, but consider taking only the glass you think you will be really using that day. Also consider that you might have to climb several feet/meters with the gear you take.
  • Because there are mostly a lot of dark corners in which you need to open up the shutter a bit longer, consider taking a sturdy tripod. The more sturdy the tripod, the heavier and the more noticeable it will be, so also take this into consideration.
  • Take at least one spare battery and memory card for your camera.
  • Make sure to take a fully charged mobile phone and check network coverage regularly.
  • Try to see if there is a way of visiting a location legally. Some locations have an owner which doesn’t bother photographers walking around (sometimes after paying a small fee), they just have to know you’re there.
  • Always inform at least one person about where you are going and send them your location (e.g. via WhatsApp) when you arrive on-site. Doing that they have your location and the time you arrived there, in case something goes wrong. Inform the same person when you exited a location safely as well.
  • Park your car away from the place and enter the vicinity by foot. There is nothing more obvious than an abandoned place with a car parked right in front.
  • Walk around (1) the place before you enter any building. Find the best spot to enter and look out for signs (make sure you know if there is any or not in case you get caught) and observation cameras.
  • Walk around (2) once you have entered the place without taking out your camera, to see how it is constructed and to look out for potential danger-areas and observation cameras.
  • Watch your step and always test the stability of stairs, walkways and floor panels, especially in abandoned industrial environments. Also in other abandoned environments it is better to tread carefully as floors can be rotten, even though it is not visible at first sight.
  • Watch your head. Not only for hitting your head against anything, but also for hitting anything against your head (e.g. a piece of ceiling or an already bent-through or rotten supporting beam).
  • If you encounter other trespassers, say hi and tell that you are taking photos only. This of course always depends on the kind of trespasser you encounter; there is no need to say hi to drug dealers or thugs, better sneak out of the place in that case.
  • After returning home, take a shower as soon as possible and put your urban exploration clothes in the washing machine (to make sure that no asbestos or chemical dust is spread through your house). It is also good to clean off the dust on your photo gear.

Don’ts

  • The first and most important don’t in urban exploration is to never, ever go alone. Abandoned places are (as the name suggests) abandoned and therefore there are no means to ensure your safety. This means that there is always an increased risk of getting injured. You don’t want to be stuck somewhere with a broken arm, leg (or even worse) and no-one around to help, so make sure to go at least in a pair.
  • Don’t steal anything; “take only photos, leave only footprints”.
  • Don’t make too much noise when you are in an abandoned building. Even if it looks abandoned in the first place, there can be guards or other trespassers walking around.
  • Don’t climb obviously unstable constructions, even if you think it is worth the photo.
  • Never enter confined spaces (vessel, tank, container, pit, bund, chamber, cellar or any other similar space) without clearly seeing or feeling that it is vented. Be aware that oxygen deficiency is a very quick and silent killer and dust masks or respirators don’t protect against this! If you are visiting industrial locations a lot, consider purchasing an oxygen meter to be safe.
  • Never touch electrical components unless they are clearly de-energized.
  • Never run away when caught trespassing. Running away only makes things worse, especially if you kindly explain that you were only taking photos instead of vandalizing.
  • To make sure that you tell the truth when being caught (but of course also in general), don’t vandalize!
  • Don’t force entry by breaking windows or doors (this is considered breaking and entering).
  • Don’t take marker pens, paint or anything else that can be suggesting you are not there for taking photos.

I hope this will help some of you urban explorers a bit in preparing your trip and above all, to do urban exploration safely!

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