Learning The Ropes

“Congratulations on your new job of Challenge Course Manager! Your first group of 100 students will be here in seven days. Good luck!” While this may seem like a slight exaggeration, there are some course managers who may walk right into this situation. Whether you have had some experience managing a course before, you are relatively new to challenge courses and have to step in, or if your organization is thinking of starting a course, there are a few things to keep in mind. If the ingredients are right, managing a course will be like having the keys to the chocolate factory.

Define The Program

It’s important to keep in mind the concept of a challenge course and what types of programs you want to offer. The more you understand about the program and the industry, the better your offerings will be. If the program is geared toward elementary students, taking on a corporate group may not be appropriate. Those able to better explain a program and answer clients’ potential questions will be better able to market a challenge course. It’s important to continually ask yourself what the program is about in order to define what it is going to be.

Know Yourself

Ask yourself, “What is my skill set?” Are you able to handle multiple roles in the managing and upkeep of the course, or do you need outside assistance? While you should not assume you know everything, do not sell yourself short either. Even if you may not know all of the nuts and bolts of running a challenge course, an organized person with the right assistance can do wonders. Just be willing to learn.

The Bigger Picture

The structure of an organization--park district, camp or private entity--can go a long way in determining the success of a program. What does the governing body of the program require you to do, and who is the insurance provider? Clearly defined objectives and goals--coupled with a shared vision--help move you and the program forward. You can start to develop a short-term and long-term strategy for the program and determine the available resources within the organization. Is there someone on staff that can help with course maintenance, or will you need outside help? For newer programs, or organizations looking to start one, determine funding and set a realistic financial forecast.


Setting an accurate budget can be a difficult task. Newer courses may not have a client base developed yet, and older courses may have more overall annual operating costs. Annual inspections, course maintenance and equipment costs can add up quickly, not to mention the cost of paying competitive wages and finding ways to keep up training. If you are not involved with the final budget, do what you can to ensure that the individuals who are have all of the necessary information. The more you know about the status of the challenge course, the more you will be able to help make a good prediction of needs for the future.

State Of The “World” Today

If you are a new challenge-course manager, look through the records and files on the course. When was the last inspection? Do you have a qualified challenge-course professional who does inspections? In addition to risk management (inspections, log books, etc.) do you have a system in place to track the groups you work with? It is important to review on a regular basis the manuals, policies and procedures that are in place as well. While some courses may have manuals from vendors, builders and trainers, your organization and insurance agency may require additional information, based on the location of the course, the clients, you work with and insurance recommendations. Standards should never be sacrificed. While there are risks in operating a challenge course, good management can reduce those risks and be a valuable asset if any emergency should occur.


Get to know the staff and facilitators who will be working on the course. What is their level of training, and how will you continue to train them? Just as there are audits and reviews for aquatic facilities, make it a point to do the same for your staff. Whether through co-facilitation, observations, outside training or internal skill verifications, good staff is the key to good programs. Members have their strengths and areas for improvement, and ongoing workshops, trainings and feedback can be great tools in developing skills.

Get Involved

Become involved in the Experiential Education Community. Organizations such as Association for Challenge Course Technology, Association for Experiential Education, and Climbing Wall Association are great resources for standards, workshops, conferences, books and networking. There also may be other local networks of Challenge Course Managers and Facilitators in your area, and if there aren’t, then consider starting one. By preventing isolation and staying connected, you can keep up-to-date on trends and issues in the industry.

Remember the Two P’s

Last but not least, remember to be patient and proactive. Managing a challenge course may involve acquiring a great deal of information, but realize that it is going to take time as well. If you look ahead, keep on task, and don’t rush, you can make your program a success.

Frank Palmisano, Jr., is the Assistant Superintendent of Recreation and the Hart’s Woods Challenge Course Supervisor for the Round Lake Area Park District in Round Lake, Ill. He can be reached at (847) 740-9823 or via e-mail at fpalmisano@rlapd.org.