Exploring Abandoned Storm Drains: The Wild Art of Draining

Have you ever considered taking your next urbex adventure underground? Draining is a form of urban exploration where explorers discover underground storm drains. It can be exciting and a bit dangerous to explore these underground tunnels and for many, it’s a great way to spend a Saturday. 

Read this helpful guide for everything you need to know about exploring abandoned storm drains. 

About Storm Drains

Storm drains are designed to drain excess water from building up on streets, sidewalks, parking lots and other public places. As cities began to expand excess water needed a place to go and a distinct path to get there. 

City planners and engineers created storm drains to rapidly remove stormwater and wastewater through underground passages out into the ocean or a nearby river. Large tunnels are dug and pipes are laid in place to help remove the wastewater. Drains receive water from gutters, motorways, and towns that have received heavy rainfall. 

Some drains mix sewage and stormwater either intentionally or unintentionally. Many drains also empty directly into a river system or the ocean where there is no filtration system for the water before it is dumped. 

Since drains require maintenance they were built large enough for municipal workers to walk around in them. Of course, walking around in drains is off-limits to the public because drains can be very dangerous. If you are cautious and aware of the dangers of exploring storm drains they can be amazing systems to discover and learn about a particular city’s history. 

Exploring Storm Drains

Urban explorers enjoy going down into the dark, wet storm drain tunnels beneath our cities and discovering what they are all about from a first-person view. This activity isn’t for everyone. 

There is always a degree of risk involved but it is another way to explore the history of your city. 

There are prominent drainers that travel the world and visit different city’s storm drains. You don’t need to be a world traveler to get started draining in your own city. 

Some drainers have found old coins or any other artifacts inside storm drains. Be careful about picking up items found inside a storm drain. Chances are if they are there it is because someone doesn’t want them to be found. 

How to Find Drains to Explore

There are a number of ways to find drains you can enter depending on your city and how your drains are laid out. 

  • Check a topographical map – Drains are likely to be placed where there are gullies but no evidence of a river nearby. 
  • Look at street directories – If you compare older street directories to newer editions you can spot storm drains. Usually, if a creek was shown on an older directory and is no longer shown on a newer edition it’s most likely because a storm drain has taken its place. Also, if you see a creek going along the directory for a while only to disappear and then later reappear it’s quite possible a storm drain was put into that area. 
  • Check a cadastral map – A cadastral map shows the boundary lines of ownership for different parcels of land. In the past postal codes were usually determined by natural barriers like rivers. If you are looking at a cadastral map and you see an odd-looking boundary, one that isn’t square, chances are there may be a river there. This is a prime location for cities to put int a storm drain. 
  • Look through city documents – Some cities keep the location of their drains in public records and annual reports. Generally, there is some transparency about how the city spends your money and often times drains and their locations are listed in these reports. The more localized the map the more correct it usually is. 
  • Keep your eyes open – When you are driving around keep your eyes peeled for drains and their entrances. Keep a notebook handy and write down the address so it will be easy to find again later. 
  • Pop into a manhole – Sometimes there is no better way than to figure out your cities drainage system than to pop down into a manhole and see what you can see. 
  • Look for lumps – If you find a park or piece of public land that has artificially built slopes chances are there is a canal underneath it. Parks and nature reserves are often used as retaining basins or temporary buffers for flood water. Sometimes these systems have drains going into them. 
  • Take a ride along the river – If you ride along your cities river chances are you will find a storm drain and an entrance. Just ride or walk along the river and scan the sides of the shore. 
  • Check the coast – Likewise if you live along the coast walk along the waterfront, beaches, and docks. Chances are you will come across a storm drain. 

Moving Around Inside Storm Drains

Inside storm drains it’s common to find rooms, stepirons,  balconies, slides, ladders,  junctions,  staircases, and waterfalls. Most of these obstacles are easily dealt with by using common sense. We’ll cover the basics of each type of obstacle you may encounter below. 

  • Stepirons – A lot of older drains have stepirons. These are footholds on the side of the walls that are made from old reinforced bars. Some of these bars may be corroded so watch your step. Test them out before stepping down on them with your full weight. Stepirons tend to be slippery so use caution. 
  • Slides – Slides can be tricky to navigate so try your best to stick to the dry patches. If the slide is steep but not very high use your back against the roof to help balance you. 
  • Waterfalls – Scaling a waterfall that doesn’t have stepirons is risky. It may be a better choice to descend the waterfall instead. You may see previous ropes left behind from other drainers but always test them out first before you assume they are sturdy. Ropes can often rot quickly in storm drains and snap when you put your weight onto them. Waterfalls are the main reason we don’t go draining when it’s raining. You might survive being flushed down a tube or violently pushed out an exit but it’s less likely that you will survive being thrown over a concrete waterfall.
  • Stairs – Be careful when using the stairs in drains. Take each step one at a time. They are slippery when wet. Always test handrailings before you trust them. 
  • Ladders – Again, be sure to inspect any ladders before putting your weight onto them. (Are you catching the theme here?) Shake the ladder if possible before getting on to make sure all of the steps are still attached. 
  • Balconies – Balconies generally have hand railing next to a shaft. Use common sense when navigating balconies. 
  • Pits – If possible always step over pits. Pits in storm drains can range from knee-deep to over your head deep. They can often have sharp rubble at the base of them so becareful if going into a pit. If you choose to stick your hand into a pit for any reason wear gloves and use a small shovel. 
  • Natural formations – It’s not unusual to find geological formations such as stalagmites and stalactites or animal habitats inside storm drains. Leave them intact so the next explorer can check them out too. 
  • Safety chains – Some rains have safety chains to help municipal workers navigate the underground tunnels and make repairs. If you use a safety chain be sure to put it back where you got it from so the next person can make use of it too. In general, these are reliable but once again, check them to be sure. 

Tips For Exploring Storm Drains

The time of day you decide to go urban exploring in your cities drains could have a few advantages. Some drainers like to explore the storm drains during the day. Day-draining gives you a better idea of the cloud conditions above so you can keep your eyes peeled to any potential showers. It’s also cool to have a bit of sunlight peeking in from the above-ground world. A new meaning is given to sunlight after exploring underground drainage systems for hours. 

Nighttime draining is usually done to be harder to be seen by authorities. There are some places you can’t get to in the daytime hours without having someone ask you a bunch of questions. Try to be quiet to avoid calling unnecessary attention to your group of explorers. 

Drains are slippery. The surfaces are covered in mold and slime and are smooth from erosion. You will find a wide variety of conditions inside storm drains from rough concrete and rocks to cement, pipes, plastic, and broken glass. You might find that you fall over a lot when you first go urban exploring in your city’s storm drains. Wearing appropriate footwear is vital. Choose a shoe with a rubber sole and a lot of tread. Sneakers are okay but they often don’t handle slime very well. 

Some drain tunnels will be shorter than your height. This may require you to crouch down in order to move forward. Sometimes there are some large tunnels that can only be reached by using smaller tunnels. Squatting or crawling on all fours may require you to get wet. Some drainers like to use a standard skateboard to help move them along in tight spots. The usual technique is to lie face down. Put your hair up if you have longer hair to avoid it getting caught in the wheels and wet. 

Supplies to Bring When Draining

The basic supplies you will need to start exploring storm drains includes a good pair of shoes. Make sure they have good tread on the bottom and non-slip grip. Bring at least two flashlights with you or even a headlamp. You may want to bring along some water to drink. A hat is also a good idea because sometimes stuff is hanging from the ceilings. Once you explore the drains you will find out if you need other specific climbing equipment. 

A Word on Drain Exploration Safety

Never go into a storm drain if it looks like there is a chance that it might rain. This is how accidents and deaths occur. Be aware that all surfaces will be very slick. There might also be “bad air” in smaller, more confined drains. It’s also a good idea to know how to swim just in case you stumble or slip into an area that contains a deep pool of water. 

Can I Get Caught?

There is a small percent of a chance that you may get caught venturing into a storm drain. It does happen. Usually people who are loud or pop in and out of manholes on busy streets are the groups that get caught. As long as you are kinda slick about it and you’re not making a lot of noise you should more than likely be okay. 

In some cases you may get caught and be able to talk your way out of it. Tell the police or municipal worker that you didn’t damage anything or deface public property. You simply find it interesting to look at the storm drainage system in your city. They could give you a ticket for trespassing but they might also let you off. Still use caution when draining. 

Can I Get Injured?

Yes, absolutely. Storm drains are full of low overhangs and slippery surfaces. It’s pretty easy to get injured inside of them. Some drainers suggest wearing a helmet, but either way just watch out where you are going and be careful not to hit your head. 

Exploring Storm Drains Can Be a Fun Hobby

Urban exploring your cities underground storm drains can give you a new respect for modern day architecture or the history of your city. Always explore with a group and never go into a storm drain if it looks possible that it will rain. 

Don’t leave anything behind and be careful of slick surfaces. There are plenty of drains for you to enjoy in your own city. Some people even travel the world to explore other city’s’ storm drains. Be safe and have fun draining!  Browse our other urbex articles to find other interesting articles.