Urban exploration is the act of entering, experiencing and photographing abandoned buildings or areas. Fenced off areas, otherwise inaccessible to the general public are great under the right conditions.
Many of these places are dangerous due to a lack of maintenance over a long period of time. Councils, governments and private owners leave these buildings standing as knocking them down is expensive.
This is a fascinating area, as you can delve into history. I have visited an abandoned hospital where Adolf Hitler found himself during WWI.
I have also spent countless hours in an abandoned military installation where deer would roam freely.
Who Are We?
Urban explorers, Urbexers, or those who follow urban decay are pioneers, not criminals. Their motto is “take only pictures and leave only footprints”.
They don’t break, steal or otherwise make the areas more problematic for others who will also want to experience these areas.
We often spend a great deal of time and effort in researching an area to visit. How to enter without disturbing entry points is one of the most important things.
Other people graffiti, destroy or even create small exhibitions in these empty spaces. But urbexers just observe and soak in the atmosphere.
The why comes from interest. An abandoned building or area can tell us a lot about our history, culture and how we make things.
Those who enter these spaces have an interest in what goes on behind closed doors. Even the decor, furniture or equipment used isn’t really known until seen.
In the abandoned Iraqi embassy in Berlin, we came across many interesting items.
Typewriters, books about the Middle East and countless images of Saddam Hussein were all over the place.
The building still exists and gives the brave viewer a chance to look back and image what the history was like.
Locating a few images online may grab your attention. The first question might be “where is that?”.
Many urban explorers prefer to keep the locations a secret. They know that shouting out an abandoned location can bring vandals and illegal raves.
Research & Planning
There are many online forums dedicated to the act of urban exploration. Here, photographers and explorers alike share stories, images, and locations.
These forums are a great place to start, giving you a feel of what urbexing entails.
Flickr has always been a great source of information for me. People leave comments on locations, with tips and difficult on how and when to enter.
They also include dates, where a more recent capture shows you what the area looks like currently.
People also give the name of the area, which makes it easier to search for and find on google maps. From there, you can use street views to search for the best entry. Your own area might have local websites devoted to urban exploration.
By researching areas in your immediate location, you can begin to get a feel for what is possible. You may have to look further afield.
Capital cities have their fair share, as that’s where the majority of empty buildings reign. But don’t overlook the countryside.
What you need to look out for is safety. Is the building falling apart and have there been accidents in the past? Look at how to gain entry and from where, as that will denote your arrival place and time.
Do the buildings have security, private tours or workmen operating in the area?
From visiting Teufelsberg in Berlin, we stumbled out of the area just as a private tour was taking place. Boy, they were not happy and threatened to call the police. The first time we went to Krampnitz, we had to hide from a security car many times.
Also, look at the best time of year. Spring and summer will bring a lot of vegetation, which is great for green, juxtaposition shots. It also brings mosquitoes and the chance to meet others on your exploration.
Winter will be cold, so take this into account.
Urban Exploration Gear
Safety is your first priority, and your gear will change from location to location. You need to think of urban exploration in two areas of what gear you need. On one hand, you need to think about your safety.
This is paramount and will ensure no problems arise.
Gloves, tough clothing and heavy-duty footwear are standard and you should leave without them. Others will need a mask, goggles, a raincoat or umbrella.
I desperately needed mosquito spray the third time I went to Krampnitz. You really don’t want mosquitoes hindering your happiness.
A first aid kit can go a long way. Make sure to include some Betadine and tweezers for scrapes and splinters. Yet, if you do cut yourself on glass or metal, get it checked out as tetanus is not friendly.
Always carry a torch.
But, you need to think about your camera gear. A small amount of camera equipment allows you to move fast and hide. Yet, there might be situations where you feel like you need a tripod and many lenses. Maybe some other devices too, such as flash units.
Remember, you may need to climb, duck and crawl through many spaces. Your equipment can slow you down. First pack your safety items, then any space should be for your camera equipment.
You can take many bags, leaving one in a secure yet hidden place when you enter.
One of the most talked about items to take with you is identification. This is tricky, as someone might stop you and demand it. When the police have stopped me, they just asked us to leave, and they never asked for our IDs.
Personally, I wouldn’t take it, as that means they know exactly who you are.
As I have said, safety is key. Make sure you have the personal items that you need to carry on you at all times. An EpiPen is for severe allergic reactions, so if you need to have it on you, take it with you. The smaller items are necessary, depending on where you are going.
Contaminated areas or ones known to use chemicals may need you to use a mask. We recommend the 3M Reusable Respirator 7503. For a headlamp, we recommend the Durapower Headlamp. Keep them on you at all times, just in case.
The thing I can’t stress enough is to never go alone. Always take someone who is as interested as you.
If you bring someone who isn’t really interested, they might want to leave after an hour. This will drastically shorten your exploration.
Having an extra person will help you check areas and help if something does happen. Make sure your phones are fully charged, and you can ring out. So service is important, as is having credit.
Don’t do anything silly. This means don’t run around, jump on floors or act in a way that might bring attention to yourself or cause something to hurt you. Test the ground before you walk on it heavily. Be cautious and use common sense!
Take water, as having to leave early due to insufficient hydration would really suck. Especially if you travelled far to get there. You can also use this for cleaning if needed.
There are some legal drawbacks to urban exploration. Many abandoned locations have an owner of some sorts. This means you are likely trespassing. Usually, this means that someone may just ask you to leave. In some cases, the owners have pressed charges.
There might be patrols and police surveillance of the areas, done for the safety of those interested folks. Arrests are rare, but they do happen. Fines are more common, yet also rare compared to being asked to leave.
This is truer if you are not getting up to mischief. If you are just photographing, and not vandalising, no one is going to care. Show them your images if they are in doubt.
There may also be restrictions and implications for sharing the images online.
Be Patient and Have Fun!
Once you get involved, you are going to fill with excitement. Don’t run in there, camera firing in all directions. This field of photography needs patience, researching, planning and finding the right time to enter.
A few times, we accessed the situation when we arrived and felt it wasn’t the right time. Once was due to there being too many people around the local area. So we returned at a later date. Other times we felt we were being watched, and decided to do more research first.
In the end, all the risks and planning is going to be worth it. You are going to experience and photograph locations few people ever see. It gives you a deeper understanding of the local history and the local community.
I have many memorable moments photographing with friends. There have been a few horrors (wall-to-wall spider webs) but all in all, I had a great time. I saw a few scenes used in films I love, and even sold a few prints of my work.