What Is Urban Exploration? The Ultimate Guide for 2020

Urban exploration is one of the fastest-growing hobbies you’ve probably never heard of. In urban exploration, also shortened to urbex, participants scout and explore abandoned structures like warehouses, factories, schools, underground utility infrastructure, drains, and other places that most people wouldn’t even give a second glance.

Many urban explorers document their expeditions on social media, sharing fascinating and often haunting photos and videos that provide a rare glimpse into a world frozen in time, left behind to crumble and decay by the rest of society.

Common Motivations for Urban Exploration

While motivations among urban explorers vary, the desire for adventure and discovery is as old as humanity itself. From Christopher Columbus to Lewis and Clark to Neil Armstrong, there’s something in our DNA that compels us to seek out hidden places and learn what they hold.

Even though urban explorers are usually visiting buildings or structures that are right before our eyes, most of us don’t take the time to wonder what’s inside—much less take the time to find out. The everyday nature of these locations makes urban exploring highly accessible to the average person: it doesn’t cost much to pursue, and the sites are typically as close as our hometowns.

For people who enjoy history, urban exploring can be a way to travel back in time to an earlier era and observe the culture of previous generations. In some cases, abandoned residences, schools and businesses still contain the artifacts of daily life, such as books, clothes, artwork and other items that speak to the values and issues of that time. Abandoned factories can convey volumes about a once-thriving sector of the economy and a lost piece of the American dream.

Urban exploration also provides a bit of escapism for participants, allowing them to leave behind the stresses and tasks of their everyday lives and be transported into a still, silent world free of the usual distractions. Many explorers describe feeling a profound sense of peace inside these abandoned places, where they can be alone with their thoughts and simply observe and appreciate their unusual surroundings.

Finally, photography enthusiasts appreciate the striking scenery and unique composition available to them inside the crumbling buildings and gloomy sewer systems common to urbex. They often share their work on social media accounts and websites devoted to urban exploration, and a few have even published books of their photos.

Urban Exploration: Who’s Doing It?

Urban exploration is available to almost anyone, although people with physical limitations or disabilities may have trouble navigating the abandoned structures and difficult-to-access tunnels common to the hobby. Due to safety concerns, it’s also probably not appropriate for young children. Beyond those caveats, it’s a sport with relatively few barriers to entry.

Currently, the demographics of urbex participants tend to skew toward the younger end of the spectrum, generally between the ages of 15 and 40. Urban explorers are fairly evenly split between men and women.

People with an interest in photography are also drawn to urban exploration due to the opportunity to capture unique scenery and subjects that relatively few people will ever see in person.

Similarly, people with an interest in history or anthropology often find urbex to be a good fit with their passions.

Legal Considerations for Urban Explorers

When it comes to the legality of urban exploration, there isn’t really a cut-and-dried answer. It really depends on the specific location you want to explore. If you’re interested in going into a private residence or business, even if it has been abandoned for years, what you’re doing probably technically qualifies as trespassing.

The owner likely isn’t paying enough attention to catch you. However, local law enforcement might. If you damage a window or door to get inside—which we strongly caution you against doing—your behavior has now crossed into the territory of breaking and entering or vandalism (or both). If you are carrying a weapon of some kind, or a dangerous self-defense tool, then you could be in for a world of trouble.

You might try doing a quick online search—your county property appraiser’s site is a good place to start—to see who owns the property you want to explore. Depending on what you discover, it might be possible to ask permission to enter the building. Although, in most cases the answer will probably be no due to liability and other concerns.

If you let the owner know you’re simply an amateur photographer or historian who enjoys documenting abandoned places and that your intent is to leave the site in the same condition as you found it, they may relent. Or you may find it advisable to act first and apologize later if you get caught.

Some abandoned sites may technically be public facilities, such as old schools or libraries. Sewer tunnels and other infrastructure likely also fall into the category of publicly-owned properties, although access may be restricted by local ordinance. A little research here can also give you a better sense of the legality of entering and possible consequences of being discovered inside.

urban exploration

Potential Consequences of Getting Caught

The most likely consequence of getting caught, whether by the property owner or police, is that you will be asked to leave. If and when this happens, be respectful, apologize and comply. You may feel frustrated at not getting to finish your expedition, but remember you don’t really have a right to be there in the first place. Arguing or responding rudely creates a negative perception of urban explorers as a whole and also increases the likelihood of facing more serious consequences.

In rare cases, you may find yourself facing a trespassing charge (or breaking and entering if you forced your way into the building). Depending on whether you have a history of trouble with the law, you may be let off with a warning, a fine or community service hours. You’re not likely to face more a more severe penalty like jail time unless you have a long criminal record or other complicating factors.

For more insights, please see our post Caught Trespassing? Staying Out Of Trouble When Urbexing.

Safety Risks in Urban Exploration

While urbex is a relatively safe hobby—especially compared to pursuits like skydiving or even skateboarding—it does carry the very real possibility of bodily harm. In most cases, you’ll be walking through buildings that haven’t been well-maintained and have been exposed to the elements.

Floors and staircases may be rotting and on the verge of collapse. Ceilings can cave in and walls can crumble. Broken glass, rusted metal and other potentially dangerous items may be concealed until you discover them with a hand or foot.

In some locations, even breathing could be dangerous, with toxic dust and fumes or deadly substances like asbestos floating in the air (which is why many urban explorers wear face masks).

You also don’t know whom you may encounter when traipsing through a sewer pipe or abandoned building. Due to their generally undisturbed nature, these locations are often attractive to drug dealers, addicts, sexual predators and other unsavory characters. They may also be a haven for homeless people who—while not inherently dangerous—may be angry at having their refuge be discovered.

To mitigate these safety risks, it’s important to be alert, take precautions and bring the proper gear when you go exploring.

For insight into safety in numbers, please see our post Take A Friend: Reasons To Not Urbex Alone.

Essential Gear for Urban Exploration

While no specific gear is required for urban exploration, carrying a few specific items can help you protect yourself from potential threats. You should always bring a cell phone in case you need to call for help (and you may want it for taking photos as well). Additionally, consider taking some or all of the following gear on your next outing:

Looking for a full gear list? Please see What To Bring When Urban Exploring: The Urbex Gear List.

What to Wear During Urban Exploration

Your choice of clothing for urbex can go a long way in preventing injury. Jeans or a sturdy pair of long pants can help protect your legs from abrasions; the same goes for a long-sleeved, close-fitting shirt. Avoid loose clothing that can catch on wood or other objects. A pair of work gloves can help you avoid cuts or other wounds on your hands and fingers while improving your grip.

If possible, wear work boots that will protect your feet in case you step on broken glass or an exposed nail; they will also provide essential traction to help you maintain your footing on unstable surfaces. Above all, make sure you wear something you don’t mind getting dirty or torn.

For more information, check out What To Wear When Urbexing: Urban Exploration Apparel.

Unwritten Rules of Urban Exploration

Within the urban explorer community, there is a small camp of people who believe that urbex shouldn’t have any rules, arguing that these restrictions detract from the adventurous, freewheeling nature of the hobby. However, a vast majority of urbex enthusiasts at least agree on a few basic guidelines for the good of the sport and the safety of its participants:

  • Never enter a building by force. If you have to break down a door, smash a window or otherwise damage the structure to get in, you shouldn’t be there.
  • Leave no trace. Don’t damage walls, floors or other structures inside the building or vandalize it in any way. Leave it in the same condition you found it. The quote goes: “take only pictures, leave only footprints”.
  • Don’t take anything with you that you didn’t bring inside. Leave any artifacts in the structure for future explorers to appreciate.
  • Don’t post location information on social media or public sites. Share details only with people you know personally. Keep it to smaller groups. This is why you will never see location information posted here on Killer Urbex.
  • If you’re discovered, don’t run. Instead, apologize and respectfully offer to leave.
  • Take photos or notes to document your journey. There is no telling what you might want to reminisce upon later. These are also useful for remembering where you went in case you return in the future.

For more insights, please see our post The Most Important Rules for Urban Exploration.

Finding Abandoned Locations to Explore

Once you’re ready to start exploring, you may find it challenging at first to find good locations to fulfill your urbex aspirations. However, there are a few tried-and-true tricks to help you get started; once you’ve completed a few expeditions, you’ll have a much better idea of what to look for in an urbex structure and soon you’ll be spotting them regularly in your daily life.

Keyword Searches

To find places to explore in the real world, it helps to do a virtual search using specific keywords or phrases in Google. Let’s say you live in Baltimore. Simply entering “abandoned buildings in Baltimore” into your search engine will likely turn up plenty of hits, but very few of them will be accessible or desirable for urban exploring.

You need to further refine your search using operators: keywords or phrases framed by quotation marks and joined together by the plus sign. For example, a search for “Baltimore” + “vacant buildings” + “urbex” or “Baltimore” + “abandoned warehouse” will only return results that contain these exact words and phrases together, which can ultimately help you find good candidates for urban exploration.

Google Maps

Once you’ve identified a few potential sites in your search, head to Google Maps with the addresses or general locations and change your settings to “satellite view,” which will show you aerial and street-level images of the places you’re considering. Google regularly updates its Street View images, so what you see in the Maps application should be fairly accurate to the current condition of the building or structure.

A deep dive of this can be found in Finding Abandoned Places With Google Maps: A Guide.

Drive-by Discovery

If you want to confirm a location you’ve found on Google—or you want to skip the online search and get out into the field—physically scouting for sites can be an effective, if time-consuming, method for identifying urbex targets. However, you can narrow your search by hitting industrial districts or commercial areas where a large number of businesses have shuttered. Look for these signs that a building is likely abandoned:

  • Graffiti on walls or windows
  • Tall grass and weeds on the property
  • Broken windows or doors
  • Windows covered with plywood or paper
  • No lights on inside
  • No cars parked in the lot or driveway
  • No lights inside buildings

Make note of promising prospects and record their address and location. You’ll want to do some additional research before you try to go inside.

Doing Your Homework

Once you’ve found a place you’d like to explore, do your due diligence before showing up with your urbex gear. At the very least, conduct a cursory online search of the address and any other related information to see if any intel is available—for example, what the building was used for, how long it’s been vacant and any criminal activity that may be associated with it.

You should also check your county property appraiser’s site to see who owns the building and how long it has been in their possession. This information can help you avoid putting yourself in potentially unsafe situations, whether from structural dangers or nefarious people.

Before you head out to explore the site, make a plan. Know where you will park and have an idea of how you will get inside. Identify potential exits and escape routes in case the unexpected happens. If at all possible, let someone know where you’ll be and when to expect your return—just in case.

Don’t Just Read About It—Get Out There!

For many of us in the urbex community, our first foray into the strange and compelling world of urban exploration began online, browsing urbex social media groups and watching video footage of other explorers in their element.

It can be tempting to simply observe from this safe distance, but you’ll never get to taste the excitement and adventure of discovering and unveiling these obscure sites in person. While urbex is not without its risks, the vast majority of explorers pursue the hobby without experiencing any injury or legal issues.

If you find yourself fascinated by the prospect of traveling back in time and seeing places most people don’t even know exist, use the information here to take action. Find your location, grab your gear and get going!