Challenge ropes courses are designed in all shapes and sizes, and each is unique to its location and approach. Some courses are recreation- and camp-focused, while others are involved with coaching and consulting. Regardless of the focus, all participants expect to be safe, have fun, and leave with a sense of accomplishment. To ensure participants get the most from a program, it is important to create the safest possible environment for them to be challenged. While safety cannot be guaranteed, annual inspections, internal inspections, detailed record-keeping, maintenance and retirement schedules, and understanding the potential dangers that may occur are only a few ways to provide the safest possible program.
Decide On Times For Inspection
A program and its facilitators must provide elements, equipment, and space that are well-maintained. An annual inspection performed by a certified inspector will verify that elements and equipment are in proper working order as well as address potential risks. The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT, www.acctinfo.org) is a leading organization in the challenge-course industry. ACCT is a resource for finding current standards or locating a professional vendor to offer training and building expertise, and someone to conduct an inspection. Performed by a certified outside agency, an inspection ensures that a course meets standards and is structurally sound.
In addition to the annual inspection, internal inspections let staff members identify potential issues on a regular basis. Storms, insects, vandals, and other outside forces can affect the status or integrity of a course at any time. Performing an internal inspection is a great resource to identify these issues, concerns, or maintenance needs between annual inspections. Internal inspections can be completed quarterly, monthly, pre-program, or at a regular interval needed to monitor course and equipment integrity.
A pre-program inspection is preferred at Bond Park’s Challenge Ropes Course (Cary, N.C.). Elements and equipment are inspected in three areas:
- Visual inspection
- Loaded inspection
- Ground cover.
In a visual inspection, look to see if the element looks (and feels) like it should. Check for rust, fraying, loose connections, or other oddities. For example, a platform with a broken board will cause concern not only among participants for that exercise but for the entire facility. Conduct a load-bearing test once the visual inspection is completed. Use the element as intended, but with a slightly more force. Stand, swing, jump, pull, tug, and manipulate the element. Finally, check ground cover to remove pine cones, sticks, and other debris. Check in, under, and around elements for wasps, snakes, foxes, poison ivy, or other natural hazards. Remove the hazards, or if this is not possible, choose an alternate safe location. Any staff members who acquire a certification for Course Manager and Facilitators through ACCT—while not required—will ensure they can identify problems and are able to deal with any potential hazards and risks.
Keep Detailed Records
Keeping records of equipment usage is another integral part of maintaining the safest possible program. Documenting equipment usage and their condition helps determine replacement needs. Course managers and program staff members should—at a minimum—maintain a rope log to document belay rope and harness usage. Program staff can use the log to make notes of anything out of the ordinary, and document any falls, the weather, and duration of use. The log indicates when equipment should be retired based on hours or program use as set by the manufacturer.
The Challenge Ropes Course at Bond Park goes one step further by keeping a maintenance and retirement schedule. This documents course history, maintenance, and repairs, as well as upcoming needs. Maintaining and replacing equipment on an as-needed basis works well, but hazards that are unseen and happen over a long period of time put participants at risk. A schedule can help with these hazards. Equipment is retired and replaced if the threshold of use is reached, based on hours of use, significant wear, or fall impact. Managers must always err on the side of safety. For instance, a zip line at Bond Park’s course is replaced every 5 years based on the above criteria unless nature, use, rust, wear and tear, or recommended industry standards dictate a need to retire the line sooner.
In addition to reviewing equipment and course safety, a retirement or maintenance schedule can help with financial planning and budgeting. For example, a belay cable is replaced approximately every 10 years. Within the next year, three high-course events will be replaced, and the following year, three additional events will be replaced. The cost is on a rotating schedule. Check with a certified builder or inspector on the life expectancy of different components of a course. Determine an approximate schedule (nothing is definite and should be consistently monitored year-round). Retirement schedules may need to be modified if participation increases or decreases, or the climate in your area warrants more frequent retirement.
Once a course has passed its annual inspection and subsequent internal inspections, the next element is safety during a program. Facilitators must be competent and confident with sufficient training. While some skills can be applied from one course to the next (e.g., belaying), each course will have specific and unique training requirements that are site-specific. Training ensures uniformity of standards, clear expectations, and a means for staff feedback. An excellent facilitator team will make all the difference in how participants view safety, and how willing they are to be challenged and learn by experience.
Elements on a challenge ropes course can vary from those on the ground, to those 35 feet or more in the air. Zip lines, bridges, swings, and ladders are only a small part of what a challenge ropes course offers. No matter the course or program, safety must be at the forefront. While participants come to a course seeking adventure, they learn and experience much more and leave with lasting memories. The “lightbulb moment” occurs when participants make the connection to something bigger than themselves. It isn’t possible unless participants feel safe!
Tracey Filomena is the Program Specialist-Adventure for the town of Cary Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources in Cary, N.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.