A Swinging Good Time

By Trystan Reese

The signs of a nearby ropes course are often easy to recognize—there’s lots of yelling and laughing and high-pitched screams from distant trees; there might be posted “warning” signs or harnesses hanging near a forest or dirt path. “Challenge courses” have long been an integral part of summer camps and team-building activities. They first came on the scene in the 1960s through Outward Bound programs, and over the past 50 years, have grown in popularity for participants of all ages and backgrounds. Summer camps, schools, small businesses, and even huge corporations often utilize them for their benefits. But what exactly are the benefits, and what would it take to implement a ropes course somewhere?

The Course
There are several elements and ranges of difficulty within challenge courses. Low elements are activities that vary from one to 12 feet off the ground, often utilizing an entire group or team effort to achieve common goals. High elements require harnesses and ropes, and usually consist of a series of cables, platforms, checkpoints, and balancing wires that challenge participants more on an individual level.

At Camp Namanu in Sandy, Ore., there are several challenges to choose from—a low-ropes course, high “V” ropes, a climbing wall, and team-building exercises. According to Program Manager Natalie Lindsey, groups typically start out on the ground doing icebreakers, talking about their comfort zones, and doing team challenges together. They then move onto the higher ropes, which are more difficult. Groups typically have a minimum of eight participants and a maximum of 20, with the high-ropes course culminating in a zip line.

“Our goal on the ropes course is to get everyone out of their comfort zone and do something that challenges them without feeling so unsafe that they shut down,” Lindsey says. She adds that, in the last few years, Namanu has a high circuit up and running that extends over a ledge. “You start on the ground, walk out, and all of a sudden you’re 30-ish feet in the air.”

According to Lindsey, the zip line at the end of the program is usually the most fun for the kids. Afterwards, the group usually debriefs, reflecting on how it felt for everyone and how they can support one another.

Benefits Of Ropes Courses
Ropes courses have many benefits for both kids and adults.

“Ropes-course activities are just plain fun,” says Andy Lindberg, Director of Programs and Facilities. “Whether cooperative or individual, participants are using exotic equipment, often up in the air, and facing challenges that simply do not exist in everyday life.”

Obviously, there’s the fun factor—getting outdoors, experiencing camaraderie with teammates, swinging several stories up in the air from a harness—but there’s far more to it than that, Lindsey says.

“It’s really talking about how we each react when we’re presented with a challenge, and the different tools we can use in order to meet that challenge,” she says. “[We] stretch ourselves by doing things that are scary, and finding the people that can support us.” For some participants, finding and asking for support can be terrifying—“scarier than going off a 30-foot drop,” Lindsey points out.

Lindberg agrees that being vulnerable and asking for help is sometimes the biggest obstacle that kids face. “The physical and mental challenges on the ropes course help remove some of the filters, or masks we wear, when relating to others,” Lindberg says.

One huge benefit with ropes courses in camps is that kids can be seen improving mentally and physically, Lindsey says.

“I had a kid last summer who was really afraid of heights, and was not sure about this ‘whole ropes deal,’” she says. He walked out onto the first platform, and was ready to turn around, but with some support from his teammates, he kept going. “He made it through the zip line at the end, and was a bit shaken, but had this huge grin on his face,” Lindsey says. “Afterwards, he was like ‘I’m so proud of myself, I was too scared to do it last time, and I just did it.’”

According to Lindsey, the debriefing at the end of the course is vital because it encourages participants to take what they learned and apply it to a real-life setting. “We ask—what are the challenges you come across in day-to-day life? What do you need to ask help for?” she says.

What To Consider Before Building
Ropes courses are a valuable addition to almost any camp, but there are certainly obstacles associated with them. If you’re thinking about bringing a challenge course to your camp, consider the many important factors of money, time, needs, and people.

“Ropes courses are expensive to build, run, and maintain,” Lindberg explains. Courses typically cost thousands of dollars to implement, and also take several years to build in stages.

Much like navigating a ropes course, there are many ways to work through these challenges. For example, government grants and programs are available to help cover the costs. Plus, there are tons of high- and low-level courses to choose from, all of which have valuable lessons and benefits for kids and adults.

Another issue to consider is the need for a physically solid foundation to build on. If your camp simply doesn’t have the trees or space needed to implement a high-ropes course, it poses a problem.

“You need a good place to put your course,” Lindberg says. “In the Pacific Northwest, and at Camp Namanu in particular, we are blessed with strong trees in which to build our elements.”

According to Lindsey, it’s also crucial that the ropes course fits campers’ needs physically, mentally, and emotionally. Most camps have a wide range of kids, from all ages and backgrounds, so the skill levels can vary drastically.

“It has to be doable—not easy, but not too hard,” Lindsey says. Most of the challenge is mental and emotional—confronting fears, working with others, asking for help—rather than physical, she says.

“Being able to facilitate it in different ways [is important] so that kids who want it to be a physical challenge can turn it into one … but less-fit kids still have the opportunity to experience it,” she says.

Last But Not Least
Training and safety are the most important factors, according to Lindsey and Lindberg. “Our staff [members] go through hours of training and keep up their skills in order to maintain their certification,” Lindberg says. “We seek out new and existing staff who show the talents necessary for leading people through a day on the course, and we cultivate them, train them, and value them.”

Lindsey says that, in addition to the hours of training the staff goes through, the equipment itself is above and beyond what would be necessary to simply support the course and participants. “It’s a very safe activity to do,” she says. “It seems like it’s dangerous, but it’s not.”

“Ropes-course activities often create a perceived sense of peril,” Lindberg says. “Facing this safe danger offers insights into how we interact with others, or how we treat ourselves.”

Ultimately, participating in a ropes course lends to the fun and adventure of both camp and real life.

“Camp is about learning more about yourself and your community through fun and play,” Lindberg says.

Trystan Reese is the VP of Development and Communications at Camp Fire Columbia in Portland, Ore. He is a dad and fundraising professional living. Reach him at TReese@campfirecolumbia.org.