If you know anything about urban exploration, you’re probably familiar with the most fundamental tenet of this increasingly popular hobby: “Take nothing but photos; leave nothing but footprints.” At its core, urban exploration is about appreciating and documenting the hidden side of urban life while leaving it undisturbed for future explorers.
However, in addition to this critical ethos, there are other important guidelines that urban explorers should observe to avoid injury and legal trouble while ensuring a quality experience for fellow urbex enthusiasts. Next time you set out on an urban adventure, keep the following rules for urban exploration and urban exploration tips in mind.
On your first few forays into urban exploration, it’s not a bad idea to start with a small, simple structure. Exploring abandoned buildings and other new-to-you environments can be more complicated and potentially hazardous than you might expect, and most explorers end up in over their heads at some point.
Getting some experience under your belt before you try to tackle a massive, multi-level industrial space is just good common sense. Once you’ve explored a few places, you’ll be better prepared to encounter potentially hazardous materials and you’ll have an idea of what you need to take with you—such as a face mask, headlamp or first aid kit—when you begin taking on bigger challenges.
Don’t force your way into secured structures
If you can’t find an easy, safe way into an abandoned building or other structure, keep moving. Breaking down doors, smashing windows or otherwise forcing your way inside a space is not only dangerous, but probably illegal. If you’re caught, you could face breaking and entering charges that can carry large fines or even jail time, which can have lifelong consequences.
(By contrast, if you’re caught inside a building that you entered through an open door or crumbling wall, at worst you might end up with a trespassing charge.) Breaking the law isn’t just bad for you—it also damages the reputation of urban explorers as a whole.
Don’t push your luck
In a similar vein to the previous rule, you shouldn’t force your way into areas of a building that are locked, potentially dangerous or otherwise off-limits. Respecting the boundaries of the property you’re exploring will keep you safe and protect you from possible legal repercussions. That said, you will be incredibly tempted to push past the limits of where you know you should go. Resist that temptation.
Don’t damage anything
When you enter an abandoned building with the intention of causing damage or vandalizing structures or other items inside, you’re no longer an urban explorer—you’re a criminal. Even if the building is already deteriorating or has been damaged by someone else, its current condition does not give you license to break windows, knock holes in walls or paint graffiti. Remember the cardinal rule of urban exploration and leave nothing but footprints so the next visitor can enjoy the space too.
Don’t take anything you didn’t bring with you
You’ll come across some fascinating things during your urban expeditions, from antiques and art to décor and the detritus of everyday life. It’s understandable to want to take a souvenir from your visit, but if every urban explorer gave in to that impulse, there would be nothing left but empty shells of buildings, and the hobby would lose the very qualities that make it so compelling. Feel free to take photos of the interesting artifacts you see as you explore, but respect the space—and your fellow explorers—by leaving them where you found them.
Keep location information on the down low
While it’s natural to want to tell other explorers about the cool place you’ve just discovered, sharing the location of your most recent outing can end up backfiring in unexpected ways. Whether it’s on urbex forums, social media or another site, once a location becomes public, it opens the door to crime and other activities that can quickly spoil the place for other explorers.
It’s generally fine to share must-see sites with close friends or people you know personally, but don’t just dump the information online for anyone to find.
If you’re discovered, don’t panic
Inevitably, every urban explorer will eventually get caught pursuing the hobby, regardless of how lightly you tread. It’s a fact you need to accept if you plan to keep exploring. How you handle getting caught can determine whether you go on to explore another day or end up in a legal or civil bind that could bring your urban exploration journey to a screeching halt.
The worst response to being discovered while exploring is attempting to flee the scene. Not only are you likely to get caught—very possibly by law enforcement—but you also run the risk of getting hurt. Abandoned properties often have unstable flooring that can be littered with junk, increasing the likelihood that you’ll fall and injure yourself, possibly seriously.
When you get caught, simply apologize and offer to leave. Be respectful to the person who finds you, especially if it’s a police officer or security guard, and they’re much more likely to let you go with a warning.
Document your journey
Photography is the best way to capture the places and things you see while exploring. You can keep them as part of your own memories or share them with the world on blogs or social media, giving others a glimpse of a world they probably didn’t even know existed. Your photos give life and relevance to a place that most people never take the time to notice, and they’re often aesthetically complex and unexpectedly beautiful.
Taking photos can also help you if you do get caught exploring, since photography provides a (relatively) valid reason for being on the property. It shows that you’re there to document the site, not cause damage or participate in nefarious activity. You may still be asked to leave the site, but you probably won’t get into serious trouble.
Relax and enjoy yourself
While it’s important to be prepared for unexpected scenarios and treat the places you’re exploring with respect, don’t let these considerations rob you of the carefree joy that makes urban exploration such a unique and rewarding hobby. Use good common sense and be safe, but then relax and allow yourself to soak up the sights and sounds of your newly discovered environment.
Use your time exploring to be with friends or escape the stresses of everyday life. Appreciate the strange and unorthodox beauty of the buildings you enter. Capture the scenes with photos and share them for others to experience. No matter what, remember that you’re there to have fun.
Final Thoughts on our Urban Exploration Tips and Rules
While a few members of the urbex community chafe at the suggestion that there should be any rules at all, most urban explorers agree that mutual respect is essential for the hobby to continue to flourish. The guidelines above are not burdensome and won’t impede anyone’s ability to enjoy exploring a given location.
They’re intended simply to keep you safe and out of trouble and ensure that those who come after you will have the opportunity to enjoy a space the same way you did. When you think about it, that’s not much to ask of any of us.