Urban Spelunking Gear

For the most part, the gear utilized by urban explorers is much the same as that which is used for caving. I've listed some of the typical urbex items below.

Caving Pack - Professional caving packs are usually made of rugged materias like ballistic nylon. They're light weight and pretty slim for squeezing through tight spots. If you're planning on carrying lots of gear, you may want to look for something a bit larger, like a durable military "web pack" from an army surplus store.

First-Aid Kit - A must have. If you don't have one, get one.

Flashlights - It's always a good idea to bring several. Lots of cavers use LED-equipped Maglites, but there are cheaper alternatives that are just as rugged and bright. I also like to carry one of those "as seen on TV" Faraday flashlights with me as a backup. They're shock resistant, waterproof, don't require any batteries, and sell for about $13 at Wal-Mart. You just shake them for a few minutes to recharge.

Compass - It's useful to know which direction you are heading (aside from down). Satellite signals are few and far-between when you're several feet below solid concrete, so GPS is usually not an option. An old fashioned compass should work, provided that you're not crawling through a strong magentic field.

Helmet - Protect your melon! In some urban underground environments, you'll see screws and jagged rusty pipes protruding from overhead. I'd rather be stricken with helmet hair than tetanus. You can use a bike or skateboard helmet until you're ready to invest in a professional caving helmet.

Helmet Light - Although flashlights are great, there's nothing quite like hands-free illumination. Opt for a high power LED headlamp for long battery life and bright light. Mine's even got a nifty red light in case I feel like developing some of the photos that I've taken while I'm down there. Which brings us to our next spelunking pack essential...

Cameras - Record your journey. Bring a decent digital camera with a flash and neck strap. Mine fits into a zippered pouch and hangs from my belt. To use a video camera, you'll need one with it's own spotlight or a powerful "night vision" mode. Amazon also sells some pretty cheap headcams that I've been thinking of trying out. If you can align the lens with the beam from your headlamp, they may work well. Best of all - if you die while exploring, you'll have left behind a Blair Witch-style record of your spelunking faux pas. Supercool!

Audio Recorder - When you don't feel like carrying a camera, this is the next best thing. Simply hit "record" and drop it in your pocket. Some have tiny clip-on mics that you can fasten to your collar so that you can narrate your explorations like Jacques Cousteau.

Batteries - Bring extra batteries for everything - flashlights, headlamps, cameras, etc. You can never have enough batteries! Store them in a ziplock bag.

Kneepads / Elbowpads - Crawling around on your hands and knees for a few hours can be rough. There's always the possibility that you'll kneel on something sharp and rusty, too. So get some pads. The last thing you need is helmet hair and tetanus!

Gloves - Pretty self-explanatory. No sense in bloodying up your knuckles and ruining your manicure.

Hiking Boots - I started out wearing some expensive Doc Marten boots, but didn't want them to get messed up. So I bought a cheap pair of hiking boots that are waterproof and oil resistant with non-slip soles, steel shanks, and steel toes. $25 from Wal-Mart. You probably won't get past airport security with them, but they're great for safe urban exploration.

Extra Socks - Nobody likes to explore with wet socks. If you have the space, bring an extra pair in your pack. But keep in mind that if your socks got wet coming in, they'll probably get wet again on the way out, so you may want to wait to change them until you've left the last wet area behind, on your return trip to the surface.

Wading Boots - Unfortunately, wading boots aren't very conducive to crawling and probably won't fit in your pack. Bring them only if you know you'll be wading in deep water.

Poisonous Gas Detector - Okay, so this falls more into the realm of paranoia, but it is something to consider when exploring urban tunnels like sewers and storm drains. You can find inexpensive battery-powered carbon monoxide detectors at most hardware stores, similar to what you might install in your home. There are also pricey professional hand-held devices that can detect the presence of lots of different gases if you're so inclined. Or you could just bring a canary.

Journal / Sketchpad - Even Indian Jones carried a small sketchpad with him. You never know what kind of notes you may want to take while you're down there. It's also useful for writing your last will and testament if you become critically injured while spelunking. Don't forget your pencil.

Measuring Tape - Getting distance measurements in caves and urban caverns is difficult. You can try a traditional tape measure, but you may be limited by the tape distance. I've also tried laser tape measurers, but have had trouble with cobwebs and uneven surfaces. If you bring a laser measure, bring a piece of cardboard (like from the back of a notebook) for someone to hold against the opposing wall, so that your laser has a flat surface to bounce off of. If you carry a journal or sketchpad with you, you can probably use the back cover.

Rope - You can use rope for lots of things - measuring, climbing, tourniquets, etc. You may want to bring something strong enough to hold your body weight in case you need to climb in/out of a precipice. Rappelling rope and harnesses work great if you know what you're doing. Caving ladders are also an option, although they can be a bit bulky and expensive.

Chalk - Rock climbers often use chalk on their hands to help them grip rocks and to prevent moisture (sweaty hands). You can also use it to mark your way in caves with multiple passages, or leave notes for the next exploration team (i.e. "Cave-dork was here!"). I've also seen some glow-in-the-dark chalk on eBay that I've meaning to try out.

Plastic Bags - Ziplocs are good for keeping batteries and other supplies dry. Grocery and garbage bags can be used as makeshift ponchos or duct-taped around shoes for temporary waterproofing.

Swiss Army Knife - Just like in scouts, it's always best to be prepared. Carry a sharp knife and some basic tools. A swiss army knife is a good space-saving compromise.

Heat Source - This one is arguable. Assuming that you're not exploring old factory meat lockers, most urban underground areas remain a constant temperature that is probably not cold enough to cause hypothermia or frostbite. None-the-less, it is often advocated to bring some sort of backup heat source when spelunking. I sometimes bring those shake-to-activate heat packs that you can slip into your gloves. I shy away from using matches or a cigarette lighter in case there are any explosive gases present, which is something that you need to be more aware of in urban explorations than natural caves. I've also heard that you can sit back-to-back with another explorer to help keep each other warm in an emergency.

Water Bottle - Crawling on all fours is hard work, and it's easy to get dehydrated. Better to bring a water bottle than to risk drinking urban "cave water", which could be sewage for all you know.

Snacks - Just in case you get hungry. Granola and energy bars work well. Beware of indigenous strawberries.

Batteries - Yes, I'm mentioning batteries again because they are just that damn important.

And there you have it! I'm sure there are a few items that I've forgotten, but these are some of the basics.

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