Maximum Participation

By Kurt Podeszwa

Setting its sights on enriching the lives of children and adults with challenging illnesses and special needs, Camp For All wanted to make sure its activities were as barrier-free as its facilities. Doing so meant there were multiple ways to participate in activities, and all campers were able to succeed. So how does one make a high-adventure course universal?

When the camp opened its gates in 1998, it contained a 30-foot climbing tower that included a two-element pole approach with a two-line bridge and a multi-vine, a vertical wall, an incline wall, and two zip lines. To increase accessibility, a boom arm was added that allowed a 4:1 pulley to transport campers who could not climb on their own to the top of the course. There was also a mid-ropes course 15 feet off the ground with an incline-wall entrance, a catwalk, and a two-line bridge going one direction to a zip line, and a two-pole catwalk and multi-vine going in the opposite direction to a zip line.

However, after realizing that the mid-ropes course was not in line with the rest of the universal programming and barrier-free facilities, it was decided a high-ropes course would be built to accommodate all campers.

The Process
To create a course that was less staff-intensive and allowed more campers to participate at one time, leadership, program staff members, and a builder collaborated. It was decided a two-level course with 4:1 pulley options up to both levels and between levels was the best option.

A three-year, three-phase project was selected to:

  1. Provide a large ropes course that could be used in multiple ways with the ability to open different parts of the course based on the size of the group and the time allotted in the schedule.
  2. Allow time to train staff in the new process, and learn each phase independently from the other phases.
  3. Make changes to the design and implement them.

The initial design was to have a two-level ropes course with a central tower. There would be three “spokes” coming off from the center, and each spoke would represent one phase of the course. Each spoke would have two lower and two upper elements, with the final course having six lower and six upper elements.

Phase I
The first phase included a central tower with one string of elements attached, and two satellite towers, each of which contains a platform at 20 feet and 35 feet, a metal shed roof, and an accessible boom at each level. The far satellite tower has a zip line; this phase also included a stand-alone giant swing built on 50-foot poles. On the bottom level, a magic carpet and cross ropes were built, while a trolley and a horizontal zip line graced the top level.

Phase I was completed one month before the summer of 2009. Full-time and seasonal staff spent training time on the course with the builder, Ropes Works. Adjustments were made almost immediately to the height of the belay cable, and some additional staples were added to the pole for staff. Participant tethers also were added to single pulleys to make the tether move more smoothly on the belay cable; this additional equipment also assisted staff members in getting a participant to the next platform if someone would fall.

Phase II
The second phase of the project included two additional satellite towers. Each tower has a platform at 20 feet and 35 feet, a metal shed roof, an accessible boom at each level, and an additional zip line. Some simple adjustments also were made to Phase I, based on how it was being used. Simpler elements were added on the lower level to allow campers to challenge themselves at different levels, while staff members moved between elements more quickly, if needed. An incline wall also was added for access to level one because it was determined that the ladder and pole climb up to level one was intimidating for some campers, while the tower with the incline wall proved to be successful. DuringCampDreamcatcher, an oncology camp that uses the facility, I watched a camper climb the incline wall. When he got to the top, he stood up, put his hands in the air, and said, “I did it!”

Phase III
The third phase of the high ropes included two more satellite towers. Each tower has a platform at 20 feet and 35 feet, a metal shed roof, and an accessible boom at each level. The third phase had the most drastic changes from the original design. Instead of the three-spoke design, we decided Phase III would be an extension of Phase II, so when the entire course was used, there would be a natural flow for the campers to complete the course without doubling back. It is noteworthy to mention that the design adjustments were made by staff who used the course regularly and not by administrative staff. The final elements selected for Phase III were a catwalk, net walk, plank bridge, and tarp bridge.

The Future
We will continue to make adjustments; in fact, we already want to add a second stand-alone giant swing.  We also would like to share our design and process with any camp that is interested. We are always willing to give tours, and are planning to host training on an adaptive high-ropes operation, as well as share what we have learned from this project:

  1. The planning process made building the facility easier. Not only was the course planned in advance, but knowing that changes would be made once the course was used made it easier to make adjustments.
  2. Administrative staff did not make all of the decisions; on the contrary, program staff using the course made most of the suggestions for the final design.
  3. A partnership with the builder helped to minimize costs and plan for the training and adjustments ahead of time.

Regardless of the planning and design, campers had the final word; one camper said it best last summer: “I knew I could do this. I was brave just like Percy Jackson!”

Learn The Lingo:
Two-line bridge --It contains a cable for the feet and one rope at waist level to help with balance.

Multi-vine -- A series of vines hang down, requiring participants to move from vine to vine to traverse while walking on a 3/8-inch cable.

Vertical wall -- Climbers wear a harness attached by a rope to a belay. As they move up the wall, the belay takes in the rope to limit any falls to only a few inches.

4:1 pulley -- This device makes it four times easier for a person with upper-body functioning to haul himself or herself up an element.

Giant swing -- This swing has an anchor point about 30 feet long.

Source: The Summit and Wikipedia

Kurt Podeszwa , the director for Camp For All in Burton, Texas, has been a camping professional for more than 17 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in education, and has spent much of his adult life working in outdoor and adventure education. For more information, contact Kurt at or visit .