Urban Spelunking: A Beginner’s Guide

Urban spelunking, urban exploration, or building hacking (whatever you prefer) is absurdly fun, intensely rewarding, and just a shade dangerous. It’s simply finding isolated, unexplored, or abandoned places, and taking a look. I don’t think the adventure is complete without taking photos to share what you’ve discovered, but it isn’t essential to the process. I’d like to take a moment to try and convince you of the incredible potential of actually stepping inside that abandoned insane asylum you pass on the highway every day going to work. I’m also going to give you a primer on how to get in to these spots, what to do once you’re there, how to keep yourself safe, and the kind of tech you’ll want to bring along if you’re intent on gathering some fantastic photos.

A ferris wheel with dinosaur shown for scale in Spreepark, Berlin.

I got my start in urban spelunking as a kid, exploring a plot of abandoned lots that were once going to become suburban homes. I can recall making up stories about the strange stuff the gaggle of kids I rode bikes with and I found while poking around trailers and peeking into the dark houses that skirted the railroad tracks. There was a bare patch of ground in a glade that had charred and melted bits of tracksuit welded to the dirt in places. We all thought it clearly outlined the shape of a body, that of a kid our age. We spun that one up into wild tales of suburban pranks gone wrong, bottle rockets up butts, and spontaneous combustion. It was intensely fun.

Now, I’m a bit more methodical about peering into abandoned places, but no less enthusiastic. I’ve got better tech, better tools, and am pretty good at climbing a fence or picking a lock when the situation requires. I’ve completed a few dozen successful spelunks and have come out the other side unscathed.

Do your research.

The view across the river from Spreepark, Berlin.

Start your urban spelunking adventure with some research. Gather info on the location you’re scouting out. See if other folks have visited it, what the location is like, what kind of security is around it, and how to get in. Although it may seem that abandoned sites are unloved and unvisited this isn’t the case for most of the places I’ve explored. Chances are someone’s given it a look and posted the results online.

If you see a spot you’re interested and have a little time to check up on it, take a look at its coordinates on Google Maps and see what’s nearby. This might give you the name of the location you want to search for. Also, search for “urban spelunking” along with the town name of wherever your intended site is. Chances are there’s a few locals who have blogged about it, or that it’s listed on a local culture site like Weird NJ.

I’d also recommend searching Forbidden Places, Talk Urbex, and Opacity.

Scope out the location.

Crystals collected in a water tank on the Alameda Naval Base.

Don’t blunder into an abandoned spot before giving it a proper check. Doing your reconnaissance right can save you a lot of trouble, and might even save your life. Do a sweep around the place first looking for fresh tire tracks, food containers or refuse that look pretty new, security personnel or other signs of life.

The main foyer of an abandoned casino in Belmar, NJ.

If there’s security on premises spend some time figuring out their routine. At the decommissioned naval base on Alameda Island the security would make their rounds at sunset, driving from building to building shining their search lights into every window facing the street. Before and after this sweep, though, they’d only ever come around for the occasional drive-by inspection every few hours unless someone called them in specifically. I was the victim of such an inspection one day while trying to learn the limits of my car’s emergency brake on one of the base’s vast stretches of uninterrupted tarmac (a test which, I’m certain, saved my life one icy night taking a blind turn on a darkened highway ramp). This meant that if you showed up just before magic hour you could have three hours of uninterrupted shooting with the sun pouring right into the windows making everything visible without the need for flashlights. Unfortunately if you’re around at night making your way through a building with flashlights will make it super obvious you’re in there to anyone looking from the street.

Squatters are another recurrent issue with your average spelunk. Real estate is expensive. Chances are this abandoned building is going to be valuable to someone. Every place on earth that promises at least a half hour of uninterrupted privacy will have been occupied by necking, drug smoking, beer quaffing teens at some point in the last ten days. Drug paraphernalia, beer cans, graffiti, and burnt things don’t necessarily indicate there’s anyone living in your spelunking destination. Food containers, clothing, furniture dragged from many rooms into a single spot, human effluent, and bedding are all signs of long term squatters who don’t usually take kindly to eager photogs tromping through their living room. If you spot a human nest, stop for a while and just listen for people. If you hear anyone but your friends moving about, it might be time to regroup and make your exit.

There’s always a chance that your chosen destination is, in fact, frequented by spelunkers such as yourself, as was the case for me when I visited Spreepark. If you encounter them be friendly, offer advice on the spots you’ve seen if you get the chance, and warn them if you’ve seen anyone else around the place. If you haven’t been sneaking around like a silent film villain or living out your Scooby-Doo fantasies things should go pretty amicably.

Always walk carefully, especially when walking above the ground level, and test your footing. I nearly fell through a rotting boardwalk that looked fairly solid on a recent adventure. Once a building has started to collapse there’s no telling where the next weakest point is. Your footsteps could send it over the tipping point, and it sucks to be on top of a hundred tons of sliding concrete. When muck and debris pile up it can easily obscure cracks or holes in the floor or hidden snares. Don’t try to photograph and move at the same time. Pick one or face the wrath of tree roots poking up from dirty linoleum catching you by the foot and introducing both you and your fancy camera to a delightful pratfall.

Bring the right tools.

An unused clapper in the belltower of a Baptist church in Trenton, NJ.

Comfortable clothes that offer a bit of protection from the elements are the order of the day. I’m usually in jeans, a tshirt, and a dark hoodie with some army boots on to keep my feet from getting waterlogged just in case I end up in a puddle. Wear something you can run in that you wouldn’t cry over if it got cut up on some exposed rebar.

If you’re going to photograph the site, make sure to pack your gear in a bag that will be comfortable to wear while jumping over fences, getting caught in brambles, picking your way through broken window glass, and extricating yourself from knee high muck. I’d recommend packing a bag that you’d happily wear during a ten mile bike ride that won’t be bouncing wildly against your hip as your leg it away from the fuzz.

In keeping with this theme, reduce your camera gear to the fewest bits possible. Don’t bring along your charger, a dozen lenses, the tripod, and some light umbrellas. I tend towards bringing a 50mm lens for close up stuff and a telephoto lens for things I can’t get to. I bring some cloths, a spare battery, a spare memory card, and sometimes a ring light that fits on the end of my lens. I nearly never shoot on location with a tripod. If you know what to do with it and can get it out and break it down fast, I can picture it coming in handy.

You probably also want to bring spare batteries for your cell phone (mine doubles as my flashlight), snacks, and water. I once turned a quick dip behind a fence into a five hour exploration marathon. Plan for your adventure to get interesting.

If you do meet the authorities.

The control panel for a roller coaster at Spreepark, Berlin.

In my experience, security guards aren’t there to arrest everyone who comes trespassing on their turf. Chances are their job is to show you the door and get back to watching the place. It’s also pretty likely that spending the next six hours down at the station giving a statement while the police book you wasn’t what they wanted to do with their night.

If you do end up getting caught, be polite, tell them you didn’t think that the place was private property, and that you’re there for some reason other than arson, drug use, or ritualistic torture. This is where holding up your fancy camera comes in handy. Do your best to avoid meeting up with them by pausing to listen for engines, keeping on the lookout for flashlight beams pointed at you, and the beeping noise of walkie talkies. However, you can pad your chances even more by researching your site, finding out if it’s guarded, and doing your homework on the pattern of security.

What to take back.

A brace of young fire hydrants on Alameda Naval Base.

Please take only pictures. Leave only footprints. Abandoned sites only last so long before they end up being ground into pebbles and turned into something ordinary. They’re only around for a brief window and it’s your job to make sure other spelunkers have the opportunity to get as much out of their adventure as you do out of yours.

If you plan an art project that integrates the abandoned structure, more power to you. Enhance the experience for another person by leaving something tangible or installing something captivating. However, if you simply have to take that broken porcelain doll you found in the bureau up on the top floor of an abandoned women’s boarding school, please don’t. Leave it for someone else to stumble on and appreciate just like you did. If you suck away the magic from these places and squirrel it away at home it makes urban exploration less magical for every person who comes after you.

Document your experience. Take lots of photos. These sites change drastically year to year as nature and neglect take their toll. It could be that the cool cascade of light falling down over the tiles of a army barracks shower will be a pile of rubble and soot next time you visit. Let the pictures stand in the place of the awesome loot you might otherwise have plundered.

Be good, be safe, and have adventures.

If you’d like to take a look at some shots from my urban spelunking expeditions, you can find them here, here, and here.