Modern Historians: Urban Spelunkers

Imagine leaving your house, supplied only with a backpack with a few flashlights, batteries, a basic first aid kit, and some good shoes. You travel through the woods until you find an old concrete drain opening, and you slip into the dark hole. With your flashlight, you walk through the tunnel until it gets so tight that you have to crawl. There are many ways you can go, but to avoid getting lost, you only go straight. Above you, you can hear the faint sounds of traffic, letting you know that escape is possible if you get too lost or clean air becomes unavailable. Armed with a camera, you take pictures and later post them to an Urban Exploration forum online for other explorers to view your discoveries. There is one rule in this hobby, and that is “to take nothing but pictures, and leave nothing but footprints.” You are an Urban Spelunker. Or an Urbexer. Or a Drainer. Whatever they call it.

With this hobby’s many names come many followers, from Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. “Urban” means city, or a well-developed area. To “spelunk” means to explore, normally used by people who explore caves and mines.  Urban Spelunking (Urbex) started in separate places, specifically the ruins of Russia and Japan from World War II, or the abandoned factories of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. In Japan this hobby is called haikyo, which could also refer literally, as “ruins” or “abandoned place”.  If you are interested in draining, or the exploration of drains, you are a Drainer. If you are obsessed with exploring the catacombs under Paris, you are known as a “cataphile.”

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Partly because of the secretive nature of this hobby, the easiest way to find explorers to answer a few questions was on online forums. The interviews in this essay are direct posts and answers from true spelunkers, from all over the world.

When searched on Google, a couple of different forums come up, filled with exploration enthusiasts, sharing tips and pictures of their recent finds.  The rules of the forum are posted to the side, and one user warns to not give specific locations, so as to avoid other people ruining the building. All of the buildings explored are abandoned, and spelunkers make sure to respect the history and not “trash the place.” The other rule stressed by the forum creator is “please, please, don’t steal. It’s not cool and you make us look bad.” Many spelunkers also look for places to explore online by stating their general location. From the catacombs under Paris to your own backyard; on the subreddit “Urban Exploration”, people from all over the world post pictures for everyone to admire.

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In this screenshot from Reddit, the rules of the page can be read on one side, and posts from explorers all over the world are seen right next to each other.

These people might be called “weird”, or “loners”, but they have a specific interest in the historical and dangerous.

For most, this hobby started in an interest in the abandoned as a child. “I think for a lot of people, it’s just a fascination they’ve always had. I remember being a kid, and the coolest thing ever was going into a house that had extensive fire damage and was condemned. It had that slight danger element to it, and also the abandoned feel. It stayed up for about a week before they tore it down, I was in there every day,” says Reddit user Salacious_c.

“I had a mild fascination with ruins. When Google Earth released, I started combing cityscapes for them, making lists of my favorites, etc. I stumbled upon uer.ca [an internet forum dedicated to Urban Exploration] and fell in love with the camaraderie of the community. Also, I’ve only heard it called “urbex” on Reddit. Everyone I know just says ‘ue’,” says CalculatedPerversity.

User Futurestorms said his exploration career also began where he was a kid, in an abandoned dairy factory near his hometown in Westchester, New York. What most spelunkers have in common is an interest in history, specifically the Industrial Revolution. “I’ve been fascinated by the Industrial Revolution and the epic structures that it helped create, which have ultimately been reclaimed by nature. Since then, I’ve been interested,” said Futurestorms.

Most of all, UE people are respectful of the buildings and places they explore. Many posters warn not to disturb the buildings or people near them. Some even worry about privacy invasion, especially when it comes to finding medical records in popular abandoned asylums. Asylums are one of the most popular places to explore, but they are not for the easily creeped-out.

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A box of old medical records found in an abandoned asylum by Reddit user Freaktography. This picture ensued a discussion on the history of old views of mental illness and whether or not this was an invasion of privacy by the poster.

When asked how to prepare for exploring a new place, Reddit user Philal said, “Preparation is key for an urbex. Scouting is important, so checking the place out, researching for security or possible ways in, how safe it is (the state the building is in, for instance). Also check urbex sites to see if anyone has done the place before and what their experiences were.”

Urbexer and Reddit user CalculatedPerversity also pressed that you should, “Google like crazy. Look at all the maps. Discover the history of the site any way you can. See if other UErs have checked it out. Do drive-bys. Do little exploratory expeditions to assess ingress and potential dangers. For me, it’s not about breaching the unknown as much as safely finding a way to appreciate ruins as an artform. Thus, I have a policy of not breaching active sites or sites that have potential dangers (I stay out of drains, potentially chemically hazardous sites, sites with active patrols, etc).”

When exploring new places, most urbexers highlight that it is important to check urbex sites online to prepare. Most urbexers post what they have found online, and answer as many questions as they can. This gives insight to other explorers on whether to avoid the place, if it held potential hazards.

There are many dangers when it comes to exploring a new place, like stability, air quality, and chemicals. Reddit user Hacktheripper666 warns, “Especially in storm drains, gases like CO [Carbon Monoxide] and H2S can accumulate and potentially kill you, especially as CO is impossible to detect without equipment. Aside from that, there’s a lot of extremely poisonous spiders (Black Widows, etc.) in the abandonments and tunnels of my area, so a hat is absolutely necessary. Aside from that, there’s always the risk of cutting yourself on glass, or falling through a bad floor. Just the other weekend, I gashed my hand pretty bad on some glass while crawling through a window.” Ironic when compared to his user name, he ended his post with a “Hope that helps! :)”

Another common rule in the safety of UE is simply, “Don’t f*** with asbestos.” Explorers warn that at the first sign of the toxin, you should leave immediately. A simple mask will not protect you from asbestos, and because most of the buildings UEers like to explore were built before asbestos was banned, this is a real fear for explorers.

The main fear behind Urban Spelunking for most that don’t know the hobby is getting lost. Most spelunkers, though, say that they rarely, if ever, get lost. “I know the area better than I know my parents’ backyard by the time I breach its perimeter, so I don’t get lost beyond, ‘hmm, is the hole in the fence behind that stand of trees, or that one over there?’” says CalculatedPerversity. Many users expressed that the real dangers are wildlife, unstable buildings, hostile people, and gases.

Supplies are essential for a long day (or night) of exploring. Decent footwear and cameras seem to be the most important tools. When asked what tools are essential, forum users said,

“I bring a flashlight, my camera, my hiking boots, and a respirator,” says user 11023517141.

“Good shoes, bottle of water, gloves if I think I’ll be climbing, bare-bones first aid kit, camera.”

“Boots, headlamp, camera, knife,” stated Hacktheripper666.

Some other items might include rope, picks, a lighter, and “loo paper,” courtesy of user SpookyFrank.

While most of the Urban Explorers reside online, there are some tour groups that the public can sign up for to explore historical buildings in their cities. These tours are usually led by historians, who might have the same morals of respect, but not the feelings of adventure that comes with exploring a place alone. Historians, however, may have more information on the building and how it was built, making this option more safe than exploring alone.

In places like the Parisian catacombs, tours are an everyday occurrence, although some parts of the tombs are not open to the public. Because the catacombs are so large, online Urbexers find a way to get inside, and a post about the catacombs, with pictures, is a weekly event.

The most interesting thing about this hobby is that while an Urbexer can be found in every country in the world, Urbexing is widely unknown. This is partly because of the dangerous aspect of being caught trespassing, to wanting to conserve sites and protect them from looters. Most explorers are insanely respectful of ruins, and see them as purely art that needs to be protected.

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