If you like dark, confined spaces but hate nature, perhaps the sport called urban exploration, urbex or UE, might be the activity for you. To participate in urbex, individuals in Dallas, Houston and elsewhere in Texas spend hours examining the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban landscapes. Urban exploration may also be referred to as “draining” (when exploring drains) “urban spelunking” or “urban caving,” “vadding,” “building hacking,” “reality hacking” or “roof and tunnel hacking.”
Trips into abandoned structures are perhaps the most common example of UE. Abandoned sites are generally entered by locals, and often sport large amounts of graffiti and acts of vandalism. Explorers face various risks in abandoned structures, including collapsing roofs and floors, broken glass, guard dogs, the presence of chemicals and other harmful substances, most notably asbestos and hostile squatters. Some explorers wear respirators to protect their lungs. Some abandonments are heavily guarded with motion sensors and active security. Others are more easily accessible and carry less risk of discovery.
Exploration targets vary from one location to another. Some of the more popular or high-profile abandonments include: amusement parks, grain elevators, missile silos, hospitals, asylums and sanatoriums.
Most, if not all, explorers who are also photographers find the decay of uninhabited spaces beautiful. Abandonments are also popular among history buffs, “urban archaeologists,” “ghost hunters” and fans of graffiti art.
Another aspect of urban exploration is the practice of exploring active or in-use buildings. This includes exploring secured or “member-only” areas, mechanical rooms, roofs, elevator rooms, abandoned floors and other normally unseen parts of such buildings. The term “infiltration” is often associated with the exploration of active structures.
Catacombs, like those found in Paris, Rome and Naples, have been investigated by urban explorers for centuries. The catacombs under Paris, for example, have been considered the “Holy Grail” by some, due to their extensive nature and history.
Sewers and storm drains
Exploring storm drains, or draining, is another form of UE. Groups devoted to the task have arisen, such as the Cave Clan in Australia. A small group of explorers enter sewers. Sometimes they are the only connection to caves or other subterranean feature. But be forewarned, sewers are among the most dangerous locations to explore.
Draining has a specialized set of rules, foremost among them being “When it rains, no drains.”
Another subset of urban exploration deals with searching active and abandoned subways, underground railway tunnels and bores. Since these tend to be in major cities, there can be stiff penalties if you’re caught trespassing, especially after the 9-11 attacks. As a result, this type of exploration is rarely publicized. Although explorers exist worldwide, those who partake in this often reside near New York City, Toronto, London, Sydney and Moscow, as well as some of the other major cities throughout the world.
Universities and other large institutions often distribute steam for heating buildings from a central heating plant. These steam ducts are generally run through utility tunnels, which are often accessible only for the purposes of maintenance. Many of these steam tunnels, such as those on college campuses, also have a tradition of exploration.
Steam tunnels in general have been getting more secure in recent years, due to their use for carrying network backbones and the perceived risk of their use in terrorist activities, as well as safety and liability issues.
Some steam tunnels have dirt floors, no lighting and can have temperatures upwards of 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46° C). Others have concrete floors and bright light, and can be quite nice and with a cool temperature. Most modern steam tunnels have large intake fans to bring in fresh air, and push all of the hot air out the back.
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