Caves, tunnels, hallways, buildings, churches, or just your backyard, things are always mysterious when few people ever visit them. While all newer cities will have sleekly designed sewer systems that consist of multiple pipes that could barely fit a dog, this isn’t true everywhere. Sometimes the urban explorer will be met with the enticing prospect of a sewer system that’s larger than life, and the legality of exploring a truly secret world.
It is not legal to explore any city’s sewers without permission as they are strictly access-controlled and require permission to enter. Only sewer workers and those given special permission may enter the sewers to do maintenance, fix blockages, or look for missing items.
While it is illegal to do, in most cases leading to arrest and a few large fines, there are still secrets to be had by exploring older cities’ sewers. New York, Paris, even London have had urban explorers delving into places that almost no one has seen. You may be wondering how to enter these domains, where to find them, or even just how someone can manage the smell in the one place where we put everything bad.
Here’s everything you need to know about exploring sewers!
How to legally enter a sewer?
Despite what many think, some cities allow people to enter their sewer systems legally, allowing you to see a world with a guide or just in relative safety. Sometimes sewers that are constantly being maintained and rebuilt require that there be constant overseeing of the process.
This means for urban explorers that there may be a few people with whom you can talk to legally enter a set of sewers without the fear of being arrested. You can talk to sewer workers to be allowed to visit sewers during their daily work as well; however, this may be rarer as some cities will have laws forbidding the workers from taking people with them.
The only real way of entering sewers legally as an urban explorer is finding old unused sewers that have been entirely removed from the main systems. While access may be forbidden to these, it is not illegal to explore them, only dangerous beyond belief.
Why do people want to explore sewers?
Now that you more or less know that it is illegal or you know someone that can give you legal access, you could be wondering why anyone would want to go and explore sewers at all. The answer is complex, and as the urban exploration bug bites you, then chances are you won’t care. However, there are a few good reasons to explore in the sewer systems of some of the world’s largest cities.
- Ancient Cities: The most famous ancient city under a normal city is the catacombs under Paris. Under the hustle and bustle of the normal city, entire hidden cities lie in waiting. However, most experienced explorers will want to visit the hidden city of Derinkuyu hidden beneath a province in Turkey. Sewer systems are always accidentally crossing these cities and give easy access to an urban explorer, access to cities that have not seen humans in thousands of years.
- Old Sewers: New sewers are all a lot smaller and less interesting than what they once were, usually only being cement tunnels that you have to crawl into access. There are some larger systems with central meeting locations that can be amazing; however, older sewers were built entirely differently. One prime example is the sewers in Rome, with tunnels so large that small boats were used in them during the ancient world.
- Missing Persons: One of the more gruesome aspects that attract urban explorers to sewer systems is the never-ending hunt for missing people. These are people that may have been lost in floods or simply gone missing, and many times legal entry is granted to search parties to go search through larger sewer systems.
- Missing Items: An odd thing that most sewer workers will do is go hunting for items that have gone missing in sewers. This has led many urban explorers to do something similar, braving the world of pipes and water to see if they might be able to find something interesting that has fallen. Just don’t get your hopes up on striking gold while walking through sludge.
- Exploring Forgotten Worlds: Most cities in the world today are young, only being a few hundred years old. Others are much, much older, and these are the cities that have sewer systems in them older than civilization itself. By exploring the sewers, you can discover forgotten realms of the world around you. There have been reports of urban explorers discovering modern plumbing systems that have tunnels built by Romans.
What are the differences between a sewer and a storm drain?
While these two can certainly feed into each other, they are not the same thing, and both are equally dangerous when the weather decides to turn bad. Knowing what the difference is before deciding to go exploring might mean the difference between becoming lost forever or being washed away by the next small drizzle.
As the name says, storm drains are for storms and can be deadly even when the sun is shining. A brief explanation of them is that when it rains, the water on the street needs somewhere to go, and it usually flows into a gutter. This gutter leads to a central draining system that eventually leads out to a storm drain.
These storm drains almost always connect up to already existing rivers or into a trench system that eventually ends in a lake or dam. This is where people usually gain access to a storm drain, however, this is also what makes them so exceptionally dangerous.
Some storm drain systems are as large as entire cities, which means that you would never know when it rains somewhere a few miles away. So when you enter the drain, it may be dry and safe, but after only a few minutes, a flood of water too large to imagine will go through the drain and wash you away before you can think.
Sewers are not always connected to storm drains, owing to many storm drains just washing water into a nearby river. This means that you cannot gain access to a sewer as easily, requiring you to find some other way of gaining access.
Sewers are where all the waste from houses go. This includes toilets, showers, or even just the washbasin. Most houses are connected to the system through simple PVC pipes, leading to larger PVC pipes. It is only at the main street level where these systems become larger, cement or ceramic type pipe systems.
Most urban explorers that gain access to sewer systems do so through central control structures. These are the little building above ground that hide massive caverns beneath them, where all the wastewater eventually leads up. However, it should be noted that most of these can be boring and contain deadly gases from the waste in the water; it is only a select few cities around the world that are worth exploring.
What are the dangers of exploring sewers?
The biggest danger for sewers is not a flood of water; instead, it is the human waste that is contained in the water that becomes dangerous to urban explorers. Many times explorers are unaware of this danger and will scoff at any warning signs that may belay this.
Sewers are dangerous for two main reasons, methane and other gases that build up from human waste and the bacteria that grow in these environments. While sewer workers face these same problems, they are usually pumping fresh air down the system and walking around with gas meters.
The danger of exploring sewers is that you will die not from floods but from the waist we all produce in our daily lives.
What to take with you when exploring sewers?
When you are sure about the sewer you want to go exploring, there are few unconventional things that you need to take with you to ensure that it is safe.
These may be things that are merely suggestions when you want to go exploring an abandoned building a few blocks from your house but are musts when you go to explore sewers older than your hometown.
- Walkie Talkies: Your cell phone can do a lot of things lately, play videos, take pictures, access Wikipedia in a second. However, it cannot penetrate hundreds of feet of solid earth, which means it will be useless when you are exploring an ancient sewer system. When you go down, it will be better to take high-quality walkie talkies to ensure you can always talk to anyone who has come down with you.
- Flashlights: This is plural as one flashlight will not be enough; having one or two extra in your bag will help you never to get lost even if your main one breaks. As you explore deeper into the sewer system, you may also find that the one you are using is not effective enough, either casting light too close to you or not casting light enough in your immediate area.
- Boots: As much as you want to ignore what you will be walking through, a normal pair of running shoes will not keep your feet dry when walking through a sewer system. Having rain boots with you or simply a good pair of waterproof ones will ensure that you stay dry on your toes, and you stay above whatever may be on the bottom of long-forgotten sewers.
- Batteries: Your flashlight may die, your walkie talkies could run flat, you may need to power your phone, a friend may not have enough for his kit. The list of things that you may need an extra set of batteries for is endless; it may be more useful to have your bag halfway filled with batteries to ensure that you never lose power.
- Water: Sewers are hot and humid when you first enter them. As you explore more, they may become freezing. Either way, what you will need to take with you is enough water to compensate for everything. Even if you are only planning a short two or three hours trip, you will need to bring something with you to ensure you never dehydrate.
- A Friend: The most important part about exploring any maze-like structure is to bring a friend, either on you’ve traveled with for a long time, or just one that you know has already explored the sewers. There is nothing that can excuse you from going into a system like this without someone there to help if something bad happens to you.
The last thing you need to take with you when exploring ancient sewer systems, or even new ones, is your wits. Too many people have thought they would be able to go a bit further, take an extra turn down another passage, and have gotten lost. Unlike virtually anywhere else on earth, there is no way of finding someone in these systems until it is too late.
Sewers, even modern ones, are some of the most dangerous places on earth to explore; making stupid or brave mistakes will lead to death or worse.
When is the best time to explore sewers?
There is no real answer that will be correct here as it will depend on what type of sewer you are planning to explore. Sewers like those that lead into the catacombs beneath Paris are always easy to explore, owing to only a short trip requiring the sewer itself.
While other sewers like those in New York or beneath Las Vegas should only be braved when there is a negative chance of rain. These sewers can become flooded when it rains too heavily and being caught in them will mean you have washed away to your death.
Checking local weather reports, finding some other explorer to accompany you, or just learning more about the city will mean you can easily and safely explore a sewer system. Just be sure you don’t get caught up in any arguments that may be taking place about the sewers and who should access them.
Does it smell bad in sewers?
The most surprising thing about working and normal sewers is the smell. Many people go in thinking it will smell like a latrine that’s been left too long in the sun. However, this is seldom the case, and many sewers that are worth exploring may not even have water in them.
However, for the modern ones that do have water in them, the smell will be closer to dishwater or bathwater than anything else. This is owing to the majority of all water in sewers coming from these sources, creating a mixture of chemicals that usually overpower any of the bad smells that might appear.
For much older sewers that may not be used anymore, the water could be natural pools formed from rainwater. This creates a damp, musty smell, but not one of a foul variety, meaning you may not have to take a can of air freshener with you.
Exploring the world means exploring everything beneath us as well, with many people finding that the secrets hidden in the earth can be more interesting than anything on the surface. To explore the underground world can be slightly more rewarding as well, even if the only thing you ever discover is a hidden tunnel that runs beneath your very own house.
Just be sure to take a deep breath when you first head in; you never know just how well the smell can be masked with some watered down shampoo!
Feel free to check out our article on “6 Ways to Get Arrested While Urban Exploring.“