If you've been following ISG for any period of time, you've probably seen us in rotted out old buildings in the middle of the city wandering around. You might have asked "why?" or simply dismissed it as a source of entertainment for angsty teens with high-dollar cameras, mooks looking to paint their next masterpiece of phallic graffiti, or transients looking for a place up off the ground and out of the elements.
it doesn’t seem like it would have much value for those interested in self reliance.
The gray area you tread in legally likewise makes people leery, paranoid, and unmotivated when you mention URBEX. There’s no doubt that this makes people roll their eyes, and ask questions like “why would you want to do that?” or dismiss it as playing around in 'haunted mansions'.
The truth is: it is sketchy and we do it so you don't have to. We go out and deal with the mold, the broken glass and jagged metal, the homeless, and the phyiscal obstacles so when we tell you a piece of equipment worked well in that environment, you can trust us that we've used it in a real-world setting.
But there are other benefits, as well.
Gray Man Stuff
We talk a lot about blending in. About looking like we ‘belong’ in any given environment. "Being gray" as the cliche goes. Most of all, we're talking about being comfortable in that environment.
Part of that is being able to move through places struck by emergencies without looking tactical, nervous, or like an authority. During URBEX, you will run in to homeless people, and signs that you’ve just walked into their home will stop you in your tracks.
You don't want to look like you're there to cause them trouble. These guys are the ultimate invisibles in society. They don’t run around carrying ID or social security cards, and if they bashed your head in with a hammer they stole off a job site and left you to rot, no one would find you for a good minute.
Said another way, you’ve got to be alert without looking suspicious, give off a neutral vibe, be able to navigate dark and dirty areas that lack traditional infrastructure and use your equipment while physically navigating obstacles.
You've got to be cool. Collected. You've got to be able to think on your feet, and be flexible as you move through the abandon environment.
...URBEX can be the ultimate practical evaluation of all of your soft skills: You will have to plan, use security, use communications, reconnoiter, move through and react to an environment that’s non-permissive...
If you think about it, URBEX can be the ultimate practical evaluation of all of your soft skills: You will have to plan, use security, use communications, reconnoiter, move through and react to an low-light environment that’s non-permissive, and you have very little local knowledge of.
Likewise, there are real threats if you’re not careful.
Ranging from trespass and altercations to falling or getting cut, the process of setting up and conducting an expedition does challenge us to give thought about many of the hard skills as well. It can also test your nerve. No lie, walking alone through a pitch-black hallway with rusted walls, open shafts and doorways all around you on a path that leads to a morgue is sufficiently creepy.
So in this sense, being “gray” is not a tactical buzzword, but a legitimate demeanor that doesn’t scream you’re a cop, ex-military, or some sort of authority. This is a test. It is to physical movement what carrying your gun is to shooting. If you’re nervous, picking (at your piece), or looking guilty, it will be noticed. If you’re not careful, you will be noticed.
You'll encounter locks and locked doors. Spatial challenges - such as 12' drops with no obvious path down without risking a broken leg. This tests our ability to move with our sustainment bags and challenges us physically.
To cap this off, URBEX has often been a way for us to test our critical thinking, our gear, and our demeanor in a real world laboratory that has consequences… outside the “training” environment, but not within the high-threat environment.
It is to urban "survival" what hiking is to woodland survival, and it’s a valuable tool for experiential learning for the ISG mindset.
While we'll certain make posts on this topic in the future, here are a few general takeaways from the Urban Laboratory.
Bring several light sources. Not just chemlights, unless you're sure no one else is coming along. They don't give off much light.
In any case, if don't want to be leaving “breadcrumbs” indicating where you’ve been, where your going, or where you’re likely to come back through, they're not ideal. Conversely, if you *do* want those things, a handful of chemlights have a place. Remember light discipline with your flashlights or headlamp.
Another mandatory component is a plan that includes backup communications and a rough timeline.
Don’t avoid people. IPCs (interpersonal communication skills) are critically important. Carry cigarettes even if you don’t smoke. Homeless people categorically smoke and the gesture is an easy way to show you’re not hostile. Don’t stare them down. Be cool. They’re sizing you up, too. Finally, trust your instincts. If you see something that looks out of place, is 'too new' or not dirty enough, view it as what it is: a sign of someone's passing through. Be aware.
Watch out for rotted or collapsed floorboards, and for overhead hazards. Debris comes loose from ceilings and can fall silently until it hits. For an explorer, that could be deadly.
Bring a respirator, mask, or at an absolutely minimum, a shemagh or similar. Get it wet and it’ll work better. Use it immediately if you smell mold. If you’re underground and smell that rotten egg smell, head the other way… Could be hydrogen sulfide, which is a lethal gas.
More commonly, asbestos is everywhere in these places. It should go without saying that having a change, and washing your clothes afterwards is good idea.
Act normal if the situation is normal and don't draw attention to yourself. If you’re made, roll with it. The worst thing you can do is stare someone down, while hiding in some dark corner. Get good with ropes. Most of the time you won’t even need them, but being able to abseil or rappel 10-20 feet is a useful skill.
We've really become fond of wearing an emergency descender, but the often worn, and rarely used rigger's belt can work as well.
Bring gloves. Full finger, leather gloves.
Lock picks, shims, and under the door tools shine in these places and most of the locks you'll encounter will be low security types to keep out vandals and thieves. Be aware of what that means and how it affects your movement once you’ve passed the locked threshold... That lock probably isn’t the only way in, and guys who know their stuff know it will keep people out. Because of this, you'll often find locked thresholds and camps inside those buildings, and often the access point is a window or concealed entrance.
Watch out for footing, broken glass and jagged metal, additionally, make sure you're traveling with training partner. It's wise to have both the medical equipment and knowledge to deal with injuries that come up. Disinfecting any cuts immediately is a good idea. Wear stout clothing.
Physical fitness and Mobility training is a tremendous asset, so If you can’t sprint, climb an 8’ wall, hurdle a 4’ wall, or pull your body weight up with a pack on, spend some time on fitness.
Have local knowledge. If you’re going to Dayton or Detroit, recognize that leaving your car sitting around is stupid, that there are people who will kill you out there, and that not everyone is a bad guy. Conversely, if you run into some nosey tourist at a well known site, they're probably just curious about how you got in.
A good plan, a solid packing list and a switched on team mate or two will go a long way towards maximizing your time moving through the urban decay. Make sure anyone you knows the plan, and establish how you'll deal with the potential problems talked about above. Don’t take on a tough, high exposure site for your first experience. Hit a few lightweight areas and get used to the feeling before going for something in a high passage area.
Be safe, and play it cool.