When I visited Chernobyl last year I ran into a young woman from Wales that had been planning the trip for years. While chatting with her, she kept throwing around the word "urbexing". For those unfamiliar with the term, urbexing, or "urban exploring", is the act of going into abandoned locations and taking pictures inside them.
And apparently there's a whole subculture based around it.
For years I have had an interest in abandoned locations, even before I went looking for the old smallpox hospital in New York. As early as my teens I have been going into abandoned locations, and I got caught a few times. Because of this, my mom has plenty of stories about the phone calls she got following these misadventures, and I don't blame them for calling her.
Abandoned houses, barns, factories, shopping malls and other buildings are dangerous locations – and entering them is against the law. For those who have often thought about it, or who explore where they probably shouldn't, here are my safety tips for exploring abandoned buildings.
1. Remember it is illegal
I want to start the list off with this one, since I don't want to get sued, and I don't want you to get sued either. Abandoned locations are usually on private property or are owned by a family – even if the land isn't maintained and the building looks forgotten by time. Somebody owns that land, somebody owns that house and somebody probably doesn't appreciate you being in there. Trespassing into abandoned buildings is against the law.
But hey, what they don't know can't hurt them, eh? I didn't say that.
In all seriousness, this is important to mention because once-upon-a-time, this property belonged to somebody. Was it a pioneer family? Did something happen to the family? At one point the location you're visiting was used for something personal, so you should treat it with respect. When I was in Chernobyl, I saw a couple kicking open apartment doors. I understand they did this not to get radioactive dust on their hands, but I felt it was very disrespectful. Those apartments once belonged to people, even if they can never come back.
2. Investigate why it was abandoned
If there is an abandoned building, there's a reason it ended up that way. Was there a tragic event that killed the family? Did the family move away and leave the property behind? Was there a natural disaster like a flood or fire? Looking into this can not only help you better appreciate the location, it can help you avoid potential injury. If you suddenly found yourself in Chernobyl or Fukushima and you didn't know what had happened, you could easily walk into a radioactive hotspot.
While the chance of radiation poisoning isn't very likely, there could be other health hazards as well. Centralia, Pennsylvania, for example, is a ghost-town because of an underground coal fire that has been burning under the city for over 50 years. Hundreds of houses are abandoned and the ground isn't safe to walk on. While this place would be incredible to explore, it's also highly dangerous.
Sometimes locations can also be abandoned due to war. There are plenty of abandoned hotels throughout Europe that were left during wartime, and several of them have been used to film television shows like Game of Thrones. War bunkers or forgotten military forts are also very popular locations.
Sometimes these locations are also just former movie sets, like the concentration camp from Shindler's List or Mos Espa, the desert village from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. After production, these locations were left to succumb to the environment.
While investigating why an area was abandoned isn't always the easiest thing to do, it can help you better understand and appreciate the location.
3. Check if the building is secure
This might seem like an obvious one, but it's something many people don't think about when they see an abandoned building.
When Chernobyl first opened for tourists, many tour groups didn't have a liability clause. In Ukraine, if you fall through the floor and hurt yourself, that's your fault. In the West though, without properly disclosing if a property is unsafe, your injury is the fault of the tour company. On opening day an American tourist went into a building, fell through the floor and broke his ankle. He successfully sued the company upon getting back to America for his injury.
Nobody will sue you if you fall through the floor in an abandoned building, but you might get seriously hurt or trapped. Buildings that have been abandoned for longer periods of time become more and more unstable and the floors become weaker. Before going into a building always check to see what's inside. Is there a stove or couch or piece of furniture? Is there something heavy that is safely sitting on the floor? If not, you'll want to test the floor by either slowly entering the building or by throwing a large rock into the room first.
This leads me into my next point:
4. Always bring a buddy
If you're alone in a building and something goes wrong and you're in danger, you're out of luck. Bringing a cellphone with you to call for help is always a good idea, but if your arms are pinned or you have no cell service (you know how it is in rural Saskatchewan) you can't always reach it.
If something happens to you or somebody else in an abandoned location, it might be better to leave the property and call for help instead of going to help them. If the floor gave out, it'll probably give out again. One person stuck inside a house is better than two people.
5. Bring proper equipment
Besides a camera and tripod and any photography props you might need, you'll also want to bring a flashlight, whistle and rope. If you're visiting a location like Chernobyl you'll want to bring a Geiger counter to measure radioactivity around you. Tour guides will normally supply them, and provide information about where it is
and isn't safe to explore, which can literally be the difference between life and death.
Depending on your health, you might want to wear a facemask. Dust, pollen or even asbestos could be in the air and could make you sick. Try wearing long sleeves, heavier pants, gloves and boots too. If you aren't looking and step on a nail, your shoe will take the bulk of the blow, not your foot. You might look silly wearing some of that stuff, but it's better than getting hurt or sick.
6. Don't be surprised to find other people
Planning a Halloween jaunt out to the local abandoned building? Chances are you aren't alone in that idea. While sometimes fellow urbexers or thrill-seekers will be there, there is also the possibility of an abandoned building not being abandoned after all.
I was once driving up to a farm near Moose Jaw thinking it was abandoned. I parked my car, got outside and heard dogs barking. A moment later six big dogs came running around the corner with a very angry man right behind them. I put my car in reverse and got out of there as fast as I could. Although I probably would have been fine, he could have also been a psycho axe-murderer and I figured it would be better not to take the chance.
There is also the possibility of running into squatters or homeless people in abandoned buildings. If the building was a former insane asylum, you might even find former patients still living there. It's eerie, but a very possible reality.
7. Don't give away your location
The moment you post a picture of abandoned building online, somebody is bound to ask you where you went. The majority of people are just curious, but the select few aren't. These abandoned buildings have survived years and it would be a shame for them to be lost to an arsonist. If you trust the person, message them in private or offer to take them out there yourself. Not only is more the merrier, but it's also safer.
8. Don't take souvenirs
When it comes to urbexing, taking pictures and leaving footprints are your best bet. The artifacts left in houses once belonged to somebody, even if they haven't been there for years. If the house has some kind of contamination in it, such as Chernobyl, the items would be highly radioactive.
For those who believe in spirts, the items in abandoned houses might be also have a spirit attached to them. While I have never experienced such a thing, I've heard a few stories about people who have. As with the previously mentioned possible axe-murderer, it's better to not take any chances.
9. Wash up when you get home
Abandoned locations are full of dust, toxins, bugs and mould. When you get back home, go for a shower and put all the clothes you wore in the laundry. You don't want to bring insects or asbestos particles home, or have them float around in your house. I've come home with dust, slivers and bugs on me several times, not knowing where I picked them up. It's all too easy to get dirty while exploring these places, so make sure you get cleaned up afterwards.
10. Check if there are tours of the property
If you're interested in going into an abandoned location, chances are somebody else is too, and chances are somebody wants to make money off that. Plenty of abandoned locations have tours in them. These include former jails, insane asylums, hospitals, churches, schools, houses, apartments or even entire cities. There are dozens of tours in some cities like Detroit which have an influx of abandoned buildings. While this article focuses on going at it alone, this is always an alternative.
Do you explore abandoned buildings? Or do you just like to look pictures of them? Either way, let me know what other tips you'd include in the comments below!
Don't forget to pin it!
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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