The Urban Explorer’s Guide to Gently Trespassing

Trespassing, or “Urban Exploration” as it is sometimes euphemistically called, has been a hip leisure activity for years. Now this hobby has burgeoned into quite the popular pastime – though as with any field, the influx of trend-surfing amateurs tends to cause problems for the old pros. This article is intended to serve as a rough field guide for those who may be new to this exciting pursuit, but who aren’t sure how to arrange a city safari without risking a night in jail.

Disclaimer: The following is not intended to encourage any illegal acts of any kind. It is a chronicle of learned information acquired over the years through trial and error, and it is related here as a matter of general interest — not as a field guide to misbehaving. Abuse this information or imitate the author in any untoward fashion at your own risk. In other words, I am not responsible for making your bail.

  • There is a vast chasm of difference between Trespassing and Breaking & Entering. Remember this. If you have to break a window, bust a lock, or pry a door — you don’t need to be there. Sometimes places are heavily boarded and sealed for excellent reasons; they may not be structurally sound.
  • Investigate. Look for open windows. Doors that are closed, but not locked, cellars that are open. Seek a point of entry that does not require force. The moment you cause damage to enter a place, you’ve elevated yourself from “nosy bastard” to “vandal.” Don’t. Break. Anything.
  • Structural Soundness. Especially if it is ancient and/or in a warm, humid climate, buildings in the south are prone to roof problems sometimes; and once the roof goes, you can expect extensive water damage within. Extensive water damage means unstable floors and the threat of collapse. Nothing puts a damper on an excellent adventure like having a ceiling fall on your head.
  • Being Observed. Finding a place mid-restoration is lucky. On the weekend it’s probably deserted, and it’s likely to have at least some point of entry available. If any refurbishing is underway, you’ll be able to see at a glance the places that (a). Are being fixed and (b). Need a fixing, and should not be trodden. However, there is also a higher chance that whoever is doing the restoration has set up cameras to watch the (expensive) equipment they’ve left lying around while the workers are gone
  • Don’t Steal Anything. Seriously. Unless you have personal, first-hand, the concrete knowledge that the property is unowned and unobserved (and I bet you won’t), then for heaven’s sake pretend it’s a state park: take only pictures, leave only footprints. I mean it. Don’t. Steal. Anything. You’re exploring, not treasure hunting.
  • Bring at Least One Buddy if Possible. Find an intrepid friend or group of friends to help you assess the situation. If you’re not positive, and your friend has “a bad feeling about this,” reconsider. If all looks good and you proceed, then if someone gets hurt you’ve got a spare pair of legs to go for help. Homeless people and drug addicts tend to linger in abandoned places (trust me on this one); and if you surprise someone, you’re less likely to get chased or attacked if you’ve got the company
  • What Else Do I Bring? NO alcohol, NO drugs, and NO weapons — except for a reliable knife (check state regulations and make sure yours is legal to carry). I recommend a climber’s blade or a Gator knife — they’re very sharp, and they fold closed/open with one hand. They’re nasty looking when brandished, in the event you need to threaten someone away; and they’re sturdy enough to be useful if you find yourself in trouble. Bring ye also a Mag Light. I recommend the little ones. Plenty of light, easy to tote.
  • Anything Else? A cell phone, if you’ve got one. A camera or a sketch pad & pencils (I’ll address this later). Also, a first-aid kit wouldn’t hurt, but you could probably leave that in the car. Ditto your identification — leave it in the car [see comments for an elaborated explanation of why]. In case of worst case scenario: leave a note at home telling someone where you’ve gone, and when to expect you back.
  • What Do I Wear? Combat boots, if you’ve got them. And the thickest jeans/pants you’ve got — I don’t care how hot it is. Stuff a pair of heavy-duty gardening gloves in your pockets, just in case. However, you may want to wear sleeves long enough to cover any tattoos, take out your facial piercings, and leave the “COP KILLER” t-shirt at home. If someone catches you, it is important to look as wholesome and innocent as possible.
  • Getting Caught. So you got caught by (a). The property owner or (b). The cops or (c). Both. Aren’t you glad you didn’t bring any illegal weapons, alcohol, or drugs — and you haven’t been stealing stuff? As long as you’re clean of these things (and spray paint. Leave the spray paint.), seven times out of ten, you’ll be chased off the property with a warning. If you want to boost your “Getting off Scott-Free” ratio to about nine out of ten, then carry a camera or a sketch pad. These things demonstrate that you are there with NO INTENTION WHATSOEVER to vandalise — and indeed, you are there preserving the location on film or paper. Tell them you’re an artist. Tell them you’re a photographer. Wibble sadly at the friendly police officer, who is only doing his or her job by accosting you.
  • If at all Possible, Be a Woman [or have a woman in your party]. In most places, the statistical majority of the cops are men, and this can work in your favour. In my experience (which is by no means comprehensive, but is probably indicative of the general treatment of female trespassers), male officers tend to be dismissive of female trespassers. They assume right off the bat that a woman is probably is only snooping. Sexist? Sure. But if you’re the same kind of benign trespasser I am, then they’re right — and the sooner he reaches that conclusion, sooner he’ll send you on your way.*
  • Remember Why Law Enforcement Officials Want To Keep You Out. They’re not out to spoil your fun; they’re trying to protect nosy people like you. As mentioned early on in this little diatribe, many abandoned places are not safe. The authorities would instead throw you out than be forced to rescue you later because you took a wrong step and fell through the floor. Furthermore, whoever owns the property is not interested in having you sue them because you stepped on a rusty nail and got eaten up with Tetanus.

And as one final note, never forget that you are trespassing at your own risk, which means don’t whine if you get hurt. Only losers file suit against property owners for not having good enough locks to keep out clumsy, ill-prepared explorers. Seek medical attention as needed, and seek it promptly, but don’t pretend that any personal damage is anyone’s fault but your own. Remember this as the cardinal rule of trespassing, and have a good – and safe – time out in the concrete wilds.

* In many places, if a male cop is suspicious and wants to search a woman thoroughly without fear of a sexual harassment complaint, he is forced to call in a female cop. I’ve been nabbed by the police about half a dozen times for trespassing — in several states — but never once has the officer bothered to do this. It’s much easier for him to turn you loose, provided you aren’t up to any apparent badness.

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