Urban exploration

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Abandoned Salbert fortifications

Urban exploration (often shortened as UE, urbex, and sometimes known as roof and tunnel hacking[1]) is the exploration of manmade structures, usually abandoned ruins or hidden components of the manmade environment. Photography and historical interest/documentation are heavily featured in the hobby, sometimes involving trespassing onto private property.[2] Urban exploration is also called draining (a specific form of urban exploration where storm drains or sewers are explored),[3] urban spelunking,[4] urban rock climbing,[5] urban caving,[6] building hacking, or mousing.

The activity presents various risks, including physical danger, the possibility of arrest and punishment if done illegally and/or without permission, and the risk of encountering squatters. Some activities associated with urban exploration may violate local or regional laws, certain broadly interpreted anti-terrorism laws, or can be considered trespassing or invasion of privacy. Encountering squatters, who are unauthorized occupants in abandoned or unmonitored properties, can lead to unpredictable and potentially dangerous situations.

Exploration sites[edit]

Urban explorers at the entrance of a technical gallery under construction in Paris, France


Ventures into abandoned structures are perhaps the most common example of urban exploration. Many sites are entered first by locals and may have graffiti or other kinds of vandalism, while others are better preserved. Although targets of exploration vary from one country to another, high-profile abandonments include amusement parks, grain elevators, factories, power plants, missile silos, fallout shelters, hospitals, asylums, prisons, schools, outmoded and abandoned skyscrapers, poor houses, and sanatoriums.

In Japan, abandoned infrastructure is known as haikyo (廃墟) (literally "ruins"), and the term is synonymous with the practice of urban exploration.[7] Haikyo are particularly common in Japan because of its rapid industrialization (e.g., Hashima Island), damage during World War II, the 1980s real estate bubble, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.[8]

Željava underground military airport

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a large underground facility abandoned since 1992 is Željava Air Base, situated under the Plješevica mountain, near the city of Bihać. It was the largest underground airport and military air base in the SFR Yugoslavia, and one of the largest in Europe. The complex contains tunnels in total length of 3.5 km (2.2 mi), and other large facilities. Nowadays, it is popular for urban exploration, although it is risky due to the possibility of anti-personnel landmines being located in unexplored areas, remnants from 1990s Bosnian War.[9][10][11]

Many explorers find the decay of uninhabited space profoundly beautiful, and some are also proficient freelance photographers who document what they see, such as those who document the infrastructure of the former USSR.[12]

Abandoned sites are also popular among historians, preservationists, architects, archaeologists, industrial archaeologists, and ghost hunters.

Active buildings[edit]

Light painting inside an abandoned limestone quarry in France.

Another aspect of urban exploration is the practice of exploring active or in use buildings, which includes gaining access to secured or "member-only" areas, mechanical rooms, roofs, elevator rooms, abandoned floors, and other normally unseen parts of working buildings. The term "infiltration" is often associated with exploring active structures. People entering restricted areas may be committing trespass, and civil prosecution may result.


Catacombs (France)

Catacombs such as those found in Paris,[13] Rome, Odessa, and Naples have been investigated by urban explorers. Some consider the Mines of Paris, comprising many of the tunnels that are not open to public tours, including the catacombs, the "Holy Grail" due to their extensive nature and history. Explorers of these spaces are known as cataphiles.

Sewers and storm drains[edit]

Storm drain outfall in Saint Paul, Minnesota

Entry into storm drains, or "draining", is another common form of urban exploration. Groups devoted to the task have arisen, such as the Cave Clan in Australia. Draining has a specialized set of guidelines, the foremost of which is "When it rains, no drains!", because the dangers of becoming entrapped, washed away, or killed increase dramatically during heavy rainfall.

A small subset of explorers enter sanitary sewers. Sometimes they are the only connection to caves or other subterranean features. Sewers are among the most dangerous locations to explore owing to the risk of poisoning by buildups of toxic gas (commonly methane, hydrogen sulfide, or carbon dioxide). Sewers can contain viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and parasitic worms. Protective equipment is recommended for people who enter sewers.[14]

Transit tunnels[edit]

Diesel trains in a tunnel of Metro-2 D6 line in Moscow, Russia

Exploring active and abandoned subway and railway tunnels, bores, and stations is often considered trespassing and can result in civil prosecution due to security concerns. As a result, this type of exploration is rarely publicized. An exception to this is the abandoned subway of Rochester, New York, the only American city with an abandoned subway system that was once operational. The Cincinnati subway is also abandoned but was never completed. London has a number of stations on the London Underground network that have been closed over the years, with Aldwych tube station a popular location for explorers.

Utility tunnels[edit]

Utility tunnel in the center of Zürich, Switzerland

Universities, and other large institutions, such as hospitals, often distribute hazardous superheated steam for heating or cooling buildings from a central heating plant. These pipes are generally run through utility tunnels, which are often intended to be accessible solely for the purposes of maintenance. Nevertheless, many of these steam tunnels, especially those on college campuses, have a tradition of exploration by students. This practice was once called "vadding" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but students there now call it roof and tunnel hacking.

Some steam tunnels have dirt floors, poor lighting and temperatures above 45 °C (113 °F). Others have concrete floors, bright light, and more moderate temperatures. Most steam tunnels have large intake fans to bring in the fresh air and push the hot air out the back, and these may start without warning. Most active steam tunnels do not contain airborne asbestos, but proper breathing protection may be required for other respiratory hazards. Experienced explorers are very cautious inside active utility tunnels since pipes can spew boiling hot water or steam from leaky valves or pressure relief blow-offs. Often there are puddles of muddy water on the floor, making slips and falls a special concern near hot pipes.

Steam tunnels have generally been secured more heavily in recent years due to their frequent use for carrying communications network backbone cables, increased safety and liability concerns, and perceived risk of use in terrorist activities.


The rise in urban exploration's popularity can be attributed to increased media attention. Recent television shows such as Urban Explorers on the Discovery Channel, MTV's Fear, and the Ghost Hunting exploits of The Atlantic Paranormal Society have packaged the hobby for a popular audience. The fictional film After... (2006), a hallucinatory thriller set in Moscow's underground subways, features urban explorers caught up in extreme situations. Talks and exhibits on urban exploration have appeared at the fifth and sixth Hackers on Planet Earth Conference, complementing numerous newspaper articles and interviews.

Another source of popular information is Cities of the Underworld, a documentary series that ran for three seasons on the History Channel starting in 2007. This series roamed around the world, showing little-known underground structures in remote locales and right under the feet of densely packed city-dwellers. Websites for professional and hobby explorers have been developed to share tips and locations.[15]

With the rise in the hobby's popularity, there has been increasing discussion of whether the extra attention has been beneficial.[16]


A partially collapsed tunnel in the Kyminlinna fortress in Kotka, Finland
Hill 60 bunker. On the right is a corridor leading to the bunker complex, and on the left is the "mushroom tunnel".

The activity's growing popularity has resulted in increased attention not just from explorers but also from vandals and law enforcement. The illicit aspects of urban exploring, which may include trespassing and breaking and entering,[17][18] have had critical attention in mainstream newspapers.[19]

In Australia, lawyers for the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales shut down the Sydney Cave Clan's website after they raised concerns that the portal could "risk human safety and threaten the security of its infrastructure".[19] Another website belonging to the Bangor Explorers Guild was criticized by the Maine State Police for encouraging behavior that "could get someone hurt or killed".[19] Toronto Police, called for an "end" to rooftop photography in 2016, citing similar concerns about the possibility of death or injury.[20] The Toronto Transit Commission has used the Internet to crimp subway tunnel explorations, going as far as to send investigators to various explorers' homes.[19]

Jeff Chapman, who authored Infiltration, writes that genuine urban explorers "never vandalize, steal or damage anything". The thrill comes from "discovery and a few nice pictures".[19] Some explorers also request permission for entry in advance.[21]


Storm drains are not designed with human access as their primary use and can be subject to flash flooding and bad air.

Many abandoned structures have hazards such as unstable structures, unsafe floors, broken glass, stray voltage, entrapment hazards, or unknown chemicals and other harmful substances (most notably asbestos). Other risks include freely roaming guard dogs and hostile squatters. Some abandoned locations may be heavily guarded by motion detectors and active security patrols, while others are more easily accessible and carry less risk of discovery.[22]

Injuries and deaths[edit]

Date Result Description
June 2008 Death A 26-year-old man died in hospital two days after falling off a catwalk at the abandoned Richard L. Hearn Thermal Generating Station in Toronto. The man entered the building with a friend intending to take "artistic photographs" of the building.[23]
26 April 2009 Death A man was inside a tunnel along the Mississippi river when it began to rain heavily, and the rain swept him down the tunnel to the river. The man was found in the river and later died in hospital, having drowned.[24][25]
June 2013 Death It is thought that a 9-year-old boy fell 6 metres (20 ft) from a spiral staircase to the ground inside the ruins of Ragnit Castle and died from his injuries.[26][27]
21 March 2015 Death A man was kayaking through a storm water drain when he became trapped by rising water from heavy rain and drowned.[28][29]
12 January 2017 Death An 18-year-old boy was on Mulatière railway bridge taking photos, when he fell from the bridge and died.[30]
October 2017 Death A Memphis photographer and urban explorer died after a 14-story fall off a hotel in Chicago while trespassing.[31]
December 2017 Injury A 13-year-old boy was seriously injured when he fell 4 metres (13 ft) through the roof of an abandoned building.[32]
May 2018 Injury A 16-year-old boy fell 3 metres (10 ft) from the first floor of an abandoned building, received a head injury and chest injury, and was hospitalised in serious condition.[33][34][35]
May 2018 Injury A 19-year-old boy climbing up a rostral column fell from it,[36] receiving injuries including an open head injury, brain contusion, fracture of bones in the right orbit and contusion of the right eye, fracture of the lower jaw, damage to the left lung, and pelvic fractures.[37] In July 2018 he began to recover and regained some movement in his limbs.[38][39]
June 2018 Death A 30-year-old photographer and urban explorer died in Philadelphia after being swept away in a flash flood while exploring a storm drain.[40]
July 2019 Injury A 17-year-old boy was standing on a ledge on the second floor of an abandoned building when a piece of the ledge broke off and he fell head-first to the ground, receiving multiple injuries including an open head injury and suspected fracture of the limbs.[41][42][43]
August 2019 Death A 16-year-old boy was walking on the roof of a one-story abandoned building and was killed when the edge of the building collapsed.[44][45]
January 2020 Injury A 17-year-old boy climbed to the roof of an abandoned shed and fell through it when it collapsed. He received multiple injuries.[46]
15 March 2020 Injury A schoolgirl fell from the third floor of an unfinished building and suffered injuries including fractures of the ribs, calcaneus, and air congestion in the pleural cavity (pneumo­thorax).[47]
July 2020 Death A 22-year-old man died after falling from the roof of an abandoned factory.[48]
September 2021 Death A 34-year-old YouTuber suffered a fatal fall while filming a YouTube video in an abandoned building in Moscow.[49]


Rooftopping in Hong Kong

Rooftopping and skywalking are the ascents of rooftops, cranes, antennas, smokestacks, etc., usually illegally, to get an adrenaline rush and take selfie photos or videos. Rooftopping differs from skywalking as the latter is mostly about taking panoramic photographs of the scene below, and safety is more important than the thrill.[50] Rooftopping has been especially popular in Russia.[51] Buildering has a similar goal as rooftopping and skywalking (to reach the roof), but involves climbing the building from the outside rather than infiltrating from the inside.

Methods and technology[edit]

  • The location-based games Ingress[56] and the following Pokémon Go[57][58] based on the former have urban exploration elements. While some are concerned with keeping certain sites secret from the public at large, mainly to prevent vandalism, several apps dedicated to urban exploration exist.[59][60]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ninjalicious (2005). Access All Areas: A User's Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration. Infilpress. p. 223. ISBN 9780973778700. Retrieved 29 August 2022.
  2. ^ Nestor, James (19 August 2007). "The Art of Urban Exploration". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 20 June 2008.
  3. ^ Stevenson, Seth (15 October 2000). "Forgive us our tresspasses". The Independent. London. p. 105. Retrieved 31 August 2022.
  4. ^ Lyons, Sheridan (6 July 1981). "Storm drains vital for a rainy day, but at times they're overwhelmed". The Baltimore Sun. p. 32. Retrieved 29 August 2022.
  5. ^ Scott, Michael (1 March 1993). "Hacking the Material World". Wired. Vol. 1, no. 3. Retrieved 29 August 2022.
  6. ^ Lipin, David (January 1997). "Circling the Drain". Los Angeles. Vol. 42, no. 1. p. 18. Retrieved 29 August 2022.
  7. ^ Gakuran, Michael (23 March 2010). "The Hazards of Haikyo and Urban Exploration". Retrieved 21 June 2011.
  8. ^ "Haikyo: Abandoned Treasure". Weekender. May 2010. Retrieved 18 November 2010.
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  10. ^ "Underground Aircraft Dispersal Bihac Airfield, Yugoslavia 44-50N 015-47E" (PDF). National Photographic Interpretation Center. 17 June 1968. Retrieved 28 July 2022 – via nsarchive2.gwu.edu.
  11. ^ "Zeljava-jna_jedinice". Retrieved 27 April 2017.
  12. ^ Shevchenko, Vitaly (11 February 2014). "The urban explorers of the ex-USSR". BBC. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  13. ^ Paris Underground Map (Map). Michel-Eugène Lefébure de Fourcy. 1841.
  14. ^ Water, Municipal Sewer and (22 June 2020). "How to Keep Sewer Workers Safe". Municipal Sewer and Water. Retrieved 9 December 2022.
  15. ^ Mele, Christopher (27 July 2020). "Urban Explorers Give Modern Ruins a Second Life". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 16 August 2020.
  16. ^ "Urban explorers risking lives and arrest for social media glory, say experts". the Guardian. 18 March 2016. Retrieved 9 December 2022.
  17. ^ "Urban exploration - Richard Shepherd photographs derelict buildings in the North East and further afield". BBC Tyne, Broadcasting Centre. 20 August 2008. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
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  19. ^ a b c d e Batz, Bob Jr. (7 September 2003). "Urban explorers dare to investigate seldom-seen Pittsburgh sites". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 20 June 2008.
  20. ^ "Edge walkers: police call for end to 'rooftopping' before it's too late | Globalnews.ca". Global News. 7 November 2015. Retrieved 10 December 2022.
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  22. ^ Reinhart, Anthony. "Urban explorer pays for his hobby with his life". Retrieved 1 December 2022.
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  24. ^ Heron Marquez Estrada (26 April 2009). "Man dies, another rescued in drama along Mississippi River". Star Tribune. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 27 September 2020.
  25. ^ "In Neman, a 9-year-old boy fell from the stairs of a destroyed fortress and died". klops. 17 June 2013. Archived from the original on 25 November 2020. Retrieved 25 September 2020.
  26. ^ "In Neman, the police found the corpse of a 9-year-old boy". new Kaliningrad. 17 June 2020. Archived from the original on 30 July 2013. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  27. ^ "Man exploring Brisbane city tunnels dies in heavy storm". Byron Shire News. 23 March 2015. Archived from the original on 24 November 2020. Retrieved 27 September 2020.
  28. ^ "Man exploring Brisbane city tunnels dies in heavy storm". The Courier Mail. 23 March 2015. Archived from the original on 7 July 2021. Retrieved 7 July 2021.
  29. ^ Noble-Werner, Baptiste (15 January 2017). "Lyon: Since the disappearance of Maxime, tributes have multiplied on the networks". 20minutes. Archived from the original on 12 November 2020. Retrieved 27 September 2020.
  30. ^ "Man taking photos falls 14 stories to his death at Chicago hotel". Retrieved 1 December 2022.
  31. ^ "Teenager seriously injured after falling from a roof in Aubel". RTBF. 29 December 2017. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 1 July 2020.
  32. ^ "A boy of 16 years old, injured in a serious fall in the void when he played in a building abandoned in Palafrugell". el punt avui. 21 May 2018. Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  33. ^ "Hurt serious as a teenager of 16 years on falling into the void while playing in an abandoned building in Palafrugell". catalunyadiari. 21 May 2018. Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  34. ^ "A boy of 16 years injured in a serious fall in the gap while playing in an abandoned building in Palafrugell". gerio. 21 May 2018. Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  35. ^ "In St. Petersburg, the famous ruffer fell from the Rostral Column". 78 news. 30 May 2018. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 9 April 2020.
  36. ^ "In St. Petersburg, a famous photographer who tried to take a picture from a height collapsed from the Rostral Column". KP.ru. 31 May 2018. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 9 April 2020.
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  38. ^ "Semak and his wife visited the rufer who fell from the Rostral Column". Petersburg Diary. 28 November 2018. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 1 June 2020.
  39. ^ Scotti, Ariel. "Urban explorer who died while photographing Philadelphia storm drain remembered as 'bando queen'". Retrieved 1 December 2022.
  40. ^ "In Arkhangelsk, a 17-year-old man fell from the roof of an abandoned building". News Of Neva. 22 July 2019. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  41. ^ "A teenager was injured after falling from an abandoned construction site on the island of Khabark". Dvina Today. 22 July 2019. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  42. ^ "Dangerous selfie: on Khabark a teenager broke from the second floor of an abandoned building". 29.ru. 22 July 2019. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  43. ^ Zabailovich, Julia (5 August 2019). ""One brick collapsed": details of the death of a teenager who crashed at Moscow". e1.ru. Archived from the original on 7 March 2021. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  44. ^ "In Yekaterinburg, a teenager crashed to death by falling from the roof of a one-story building". e1.ru. 3 August 2019. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  45. ^ "He climbs onto the roof of an abandoned shed and the roof gives way: rush to hospital for a 17 year old". Quotidiano di Puglia. 4 January 2020. Archived from the original on 8 July 2021. Retrieved 29 June 2020.
  46. ^ Serebryakov, Alexey (16 March 2020). "In Volgograd, a schoolgirl fell from the third floor of the Moryatnik". V1. Retrieved 10 June 2020.
  47. ^ Smith, Daniel (2 August 2020). "'I cannot let him die in vain' Mum pays tribute to 'urban explorer' son who died after falling from roof". WalesOnline. Archived from the original on 7 August 2020. Retrieved 13 September 2020.
  48. ^ Ningthoujam, Natalia. "34-Year-Old Russian YouTuber Falls To Death From Fire Escape While Shooting Video". Retrieved 1 December 2022.
  49. ^ "Meet the rooftoppers: the urban outlaws who risk everything to summit our cities". The Guardian. 17 February 2015.
  50. ^ Lucy Ash, Article in "BBC News" March 23, 2017
  51. ^ "Afraid of heights? You'll still want to watch this". Red Bull. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  52. ^ a b "The Hong Kong urban adventurers for whom nothing is too tall, or deep, or spooky". South China Morning Post. 14 April 2016. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  53. ^ "Meet the Place Hackers". Time (magazine). Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  54. ^ Ives, Mike (7 February 2017). "Using Stealth, and Drones, to Document a Fading Hong Kong". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  55. ^ Harris, Jesse (30 January 2015). The Practical Guide to Ingress: What you really need to know without the extraneous junk. Jesse Harris. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  56. ^ "Why Pokémon Go will surprise you in your own city". Newsweek. 19 July 2016. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  57. ^ "Pokémon Go - A New Avenue for Urban Exploration » CSBE". Center for the Study of the Built Environment. Archived from the original on 12 February 2017. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  58. ^ Walker, Alissa (13 November 2014). "5 Apps That Help You Find Your City's Hidden Gems". Gizmodo. Retrieved 12 February 2017.
  59. ^ "Abandoned App Leads You to Local Urban Exploration Sites". WebUrbanist. 26 February 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2017.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]