A challenge course offers opportunities for visitors to explore, develop new skills, and gain confidence in their abilities. A challenge course may also help some overcome a fear of heights, strengthen relationships in groups, or develop new relationships. Before designing a course, discuss whether one is viable for your area, as well as who will be using it.
“Determine what other recreational opportunities are already available in your community, and if there is a market for a challenge course,” says Sylvia Dresser, executive director of Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), which serves the challenge-course and zip-line tours industries. “Develop a business plan to guide you in developing a challenge-course facility that is reasonably self-supporting.” The business plan should include the cost of installation as well as long-term maintenance and training.
“Sometimes people don’t think beyond the installation and physical maintenance of the course when developing a business plan,” says Dresser. “Keeping staff on and properly trained can sometimes be a larger expense than the physical maintenance of the course.”
A Purposeful Design
“Once you’ve determined the goals and objectives, the design of the course depends on who will be using it and what type of area you have to install the course,” says Rich Petteruti, director of the Lord Sterling Outdoor Recreation Center. “Each challenge course is designed differently based on the terrain, climate, desired outcomes and clientele.”
A challenge course can be designed for campers, corporate retreats, or people with disabilities; a good course and its instructors will be flexible enough to handle a variety of visitors. Most challenge courses are located at schools, parks, camps and outdoor recreation/education facilities.
The primary design goal is for participants to challenge themselves outside their comfort zone. “The goal isn’t to just complete the activity,” says Craig Veramay, challenge-course director with Westminster Woods, which hosts between 150 and 200 campers a week. “We strive to use what the participants have learned as a metaphor for real life.” At the end of the activities, the group members review what they learned and how they can apply that to their life.
“The goal of the challenge course is to elicit a response,” says Veramay. “We might want to work on trust, or we might want to frustrate a group so that they can learn from the experience in a safe environment.”
To provoke a desired response, a well-trained staff is needed to manage the participants. “Staffing is important to making sure the challenge course operates safely and effectively,” says Petteruti. “Hire trustworthy and responsible people.”
“Proper staff training is an important component of risk management because accidents occur from human error, not equipment failure,” says Dresser. “Don’t send one person to get trained and then expect them to come back and be able to properly train the rest of the staff.” The ACCT, with over 1,700 members, recommends that challenge-course staff be trained directly from a certified professional trainer.
Bits And Pieces
The physical elements of a challenge course can be divided into two categories--high and low courses, which include on-the-ground activities. “By being creative with the design elements, a course can be made to allow for more universal access,” says Veramay. “This provides the opportunity for anyone to go on that activity if they choose to.” It is important to allow people to determine their own level of challenge, no matter what they are physically capable of accomplishing.
“High challenge courses incorporate ropes, harness and belaying, which is the act of controlling the rope for the participants’ safety,” says Petteruti. These courses can include zip lines and, more recently, climbing towers.
But all challenges don’t necessarily mean dangling from a rope in mid-air. Low challenge courses have a variety of options, including a few that never leave the ground. “Several activities are very portable,” says Veramay. “We do blind-trust walks in which one participant wears a blindfold as their partner guides them around.”
A search-and-rescue activity makes team members concentrate, trust one another, and cooperate as their three-person team works to retrieve items from a field. The person retrieving the items is blindfolded, and can only take verbal directions. The person giving the verbal direction has his or her back to the field and interprets visual directions from a person who is not permitted to give verbal directions. What makes this activity even more confusing is that several teams are participating at the same time. “This activity teaches people to concentrate even in the midst of chaos,” says Veramay.
Trying on a new set of shoes can also bring a group together, especially when the “shoes” are two 4-inch-square beams 8 to 12 feet long with ropes passing through holes drilled a foot apart through the center of the boards. The participants have to step on top of each board and grab hold of a rope. Then, as a group, they walk to the finish line on the boards.
Feeling woozy? The activity--also called the low V--uses two cables in a V-shaped formation. Participants face each other, one on each cable. “The goal is to transverse along the cables as far as possible,” says Veramay. “The participants will need to make an A-frame to support each other the farther out they go.”
Challenge courses and the names of the challenges can be diverse, but safety and positive participant outcomes are the primary concerns.
Selecting A Designer
“Challenge courses don’t come out of a box; there are different systems and different belay systems that work with the groups,” says Dresser. “A good challenge-course designer will take all of these factors into consideration when designing a course appropriate to your programming and participants.”
“Talk to individual vendors and builders, and see their work firsthand,” says Don Stock, president and co-owner of The Adventure Guild, which specializes in designing, building and training for challenge courses, zip-line canopy tours and aerial adventures. “You can find vendors through the Professional Ropes Course Association and the Association of Challenge Course Technology, both of which have developed accreditation standards.”
“We have 37 vendors that have completed the accreditation process successfully,” says Dresser. “The process takes about 12 to 18 months, and includes onsite reviews by two different members that observe training and programming before making recommendations to the committee.”
“Keep in mind you are going to have an ongoing business relationship with the vendor you select to build the course, train your staff, and provide operational maintenance,” says Stock. “Take the time to make sure that you really connect and will work well together.”
“Challenge courses should always be fun,” says Veramay. “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.”