Took a bit longer to get around to posting this than I had planned but, I wanted to talk about different kit I bring on explores. Everyone is different and have their own ideas of what they need but there is a lot of common ground.
As an urban explorer, you will likely be choosing clothing according to two criteria: Safety and stealth. Given the unfriendly nature of many derelict buildings, you can find yourself coming into contact with all sorts of hazards from broken glass and razor-wire to corrosive acids and pigeon shit – Hey, nobody ever said it was glamorous. You need clothing that is tough and covers you while not being too pricey – I work on the assumption it will get ripped because, sooner or later, it will. Site visits might require you to keep a low profile and, for this, dark clothing is better. Counter-intuitively, in low light black clothing can actually cause you to stand out a little. Dark greens, blues or greys are often better. Even better still is dark disruptive pattern material (AKA cammo) as this helps break up the lines shaping the body against a background. layers will help especially if you will be out for some time.
Boots always win out over trainers. The thicker the sole, the better. Last thing you want is a nail going into your foot so, if you can find them, I recommend boots with metal plates in the sole. If exploring drains or culverts, wellys or even waders may be required. Nb. Never explore these when it’s been raining and never alone.
I almost always explore wearing thick leather gloves. As a photographer, I want to be able to use my camera easily so I have a fingerless pair that do the job while allowing me easy use of the camera buttons. Climbing through a broken window is not unusual and the frame will often have glass shards in – Getting the odd cut in your finger is fine but it is the cut being exposed to the chemical and biological nonsense that you find in these places that concerns me most.
I always tell people, if you only bring one thing with you on a ‘splore, make it a torch. Not your Poundland cheapo rubbish either, this could be what determines whether or not you notice that 15ft drop down an uncovered manhole or that rusty bent-down roofing support at eye-level. You want a good bright, long-lasting torch that is light and able to take knocks and drops. For these reasons I only consider LED torches. I currently use the LED Lenser P7. LED light is more directional and closer in colour to daylight than a halogen bulb so it is ideal for our purposes. LEDs also draw a lot less power from the battery than halogens therefore you should save on batteries (or just use rechargeable). I like to err on the side of caution and as well as bringing spare batteries. I also pack an LED head torch which, while not as bright as my P7, allows use of both hands to operate my camera or search through my bag. If that were not enough, I often bring a small spare LED torch just in case (There is always one person who forgets theirs).
Screwdrivers, wire clippers, wrenches, pliers – That all sounds useful for getting into buildings, right? Well, yes in theory. However, as I have said before, that puts you into breaking and entering territory which is not recommended. Neither is a night in the cells or a criminal record as far as I’m concerned. Even if you bring them along and never use them, should the police happen to search you, whatever your excuse, you can be charged as ‘going equipped’ (I.e. for breaking and entering) and we are back to a night in the cells. I don’t mean to be preachy but every explorer caught with this stuff is giving the rest of us a bad…OK…slightly worse name. We are not saints but we are not criminals either. Or at least shouldn’t be in this writers opinion.
While breaking and entering is criminal, there is no law against wearing a generic high-visibility vest and hard hat. While this type of getup is not discrete, its conspicuousness is something that you can use to your advantage. Very few people will give a second thought to such people hanging around a hole in the ground or entering a fenced off site. Clipboards are also a great prop. The whole charade is a tower of cards that can fall down under the slightest questioning but the point is that these things prevent the questions in the first place. I know of some chaps who took this to the extreme and, dressed in high-vis and carrying cameras, informed the site manager of a team of builders that they had been asked to take photos for ‘the database’ and needed access for an hour. Worked a charm because they looked (and likely sounded) the part.
OK, this is where opinion really starts to deviate. I know explorers who are mainly about the explore itself and just snap the occasional shot on their compact camera or phone. That’s fine. However, many explorers are serious camera geeks. I can only really speak from my own experience and about my own preferences. I have friends who are all about the antique cameras and others who use stupidly expensive top-of-the-range DSLRs. I began exploring using a bridge camera. It just about did the job but had real limitations – particularly in low light. Kinda a problem in most boarded-up buildings.
These days I have upgraded to the Canon 600D which is a nice mid-range DSLR released last year and has served me very well so far. I am slowly coming to the conclusion that, far more important that the camera body itself, are the lenses you use. I spend most of my time shooting with a Sigma 10-20mm lens. A an ultra-wide lens like this is just great for shooting inside as you can include much more of the room. I also use a Canon f1.8 50mm (or nifty-fifty as it is known). While the Sigma captures the whole room, this lens is perfect for shooting little details (see my Artefacts post). Due to the low-light a tripod is another must. I use a lightweight Hama Traveller Compact Pro. Low light means the shutter is open for longer and using a tripod can avoid those blurry shots you would otherwise get from hand movement.
I also carry various camera accessories. I pack a spare camera battery just in case, lens cleaning bits to keep the lenses free from all that dust and grime. I use a cheap infra-red remote control for taking that self-portrait shot too. Everything is packed into a good sized DSLR rucksack. This has compartments at the bottom for keeping my camera and lenses protected as well as somewhere to keep all my other exploring bits and bobs.
If I suspect that a site has an asbestos problem, I pack a filter mask. These all come graded based on the level of protection offered. Anything lower than FFP3 will offer no protection against asbestos fibres so this is what I bring. With all the dangerous structures and broken glass, an issue which is often overlooked is hygiene. I always bring some antibacterial hand-gel and some antiseptic wipes to clean off all the disgusting things once I leave a site. A basic medical kit is a good idea. Nothing fancy, just a few plasters, painkillers etc.
Fun and Games
Urban explorers wanting to photograph themselves at sites but who prefer a little anonymity often go for various masks. A staple choice is the good old gas mask and you can find hundreds of photos of people in old buildings with gas masks on within Flickr or the UE forums. Assuming this is becoming passée, I am waiting for shots of explorers in full radiological protection suits – only a matter of time, surely!
Light painting – possible fodder for another future article, is a good way to jazz up an otherwise dark and featureless space. Basically, this will mean bringing any sort of light source you can imagine. Common light-toys are wire wool which will emit sparks when ignited, coloured gel sheets to change torchlight colour, lazerpens, candles, sparklers. The possibilities are endless.
Right, that’s your lot. I will post another at the weekend. Meanwhile, post a comment and let me know what you would bring or ask any questions.