The Nuts And Bolts Of A Challenge Course

By Daniel Walker

Swages, fish plates, thimble-eye bolts and double-coil lock-washers -- these words probably don’t mean much to those who are unfamiliar with challenge courses.

For those who do have a challenge course on their camp grounds and are still unfamiliar with those words -- you should be more aware.

Why should you ensure that the course is well constructed and receiving a passing grade for safety? Liability and trust are the two biggest reasons.

Parts wear out, ropes break down, and cables become stressed. Both a woodpecker searching for bugs or a thunderstorm producing lightning can damage a pole on the course. Daily, quarterly and annual inspections will sharpen your knowledge of what is acceptable on a course.

Camps that use a challenge course operated by an outside company still have an obligation to ensure safety precautions are followed. Administration should periodically review inspection reports to keep the course manager accountable. The manager should see that daily and quarterly inspections are completed, and have an outside, knowledgeable and insured inspector perform the annual inspection.

All of these inspections may seem like extra work, but they are worth it.

Watching participants chase their fears right off the edge of a zip-line platform, or learn to trust their teammates is definitely worth the effort in providing a safe environment and managed “perceived risk.”

A daily inspection usually takes fewer than 15 minutes. Depending on the course size and the use of proper tools, a quarterly inspection may take a couple of beginners several days. Even for a large course, a properly trained inspector will only take a full day, as long as everything is in good repair.

Getting Started
If the course has never been inspected because nothing has broken, and your insurance agent hasn’t requested it, count your blessings and start inspecting.

Look for excessive wear, especially on bolts and ropes. A small amount of rust generally isn’t bad. Try to determine the last time a rope was replaced, and begin keeping records. Become a member of the Association for Challenge Course Technology in order to have access to the organization’s recommended standards. Find a provider or vendor of building, training and inspections, and develop a partnership.

Providing a safe haven that encourages participants to get outside, focus on personal growth, and embrace teamwork is an awesome responsibility.

If you still have questions, find other course managers who maintain their facilities well, and ask for advice or send me your questions.

Climb on!

Daniel Walker is the manager of The EDGE--a challenge course at Windermere Baptist Conference Center at Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. He has 12 years of experience operating challenge courses and canopy tours in Colorado, Arkansas and Missouri. He can be reached via e-mail at

Note: The Association for Challenge Course Technology will host its 22nd annual symposium and conference Feb. 9-12, 2012, at the Westin Boston Waterfront in Massachusetts. For more information, visit .