Camp Facilities Development

By Dr. Susan Langlois and Craig Roderick

If you haven’t invested in a challenge course because you thought it would be too costly or put you at a high risk for camper injuries, you might be surprised to learn manufacturers have traveled light years in course design, effectively nullifying (or at least minimizing) these perceived risks. The new designs are not only safer and more durable, but they are also more affordable and environmentally friendly.

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Historically speaking
Over the past ten years, the number of challenge courses in camp settings has grown tremendously. Some of the growth is a direct result of these product improvements. But the real driving force is actually the sheer number of positive experiences campers have had on this equipment.

Just listening to campers talk about their challenge course experience you can tell they loved it and are justifiably proud of their accomplishment—a real sense of amazement that “yes, I did it!”

Interestingly, this positive experience is not unique to the individual. Outdoor education researchers have found challenge courses activities capture positive momentum in the group dynamic as well. Having campers cooperate, concentrate and persevere together to meet a specific challenge produces tangible and immediate results. As it turns out, it’s a great tool for building individual confidence (and self-esteem) and team cohesion.

Who can benefit from a challenge course?
Most camp businesses would benefit from a challenge course because it broadens the types of groups interested in renting or using your facility and may work to strengthen your shoulder seasons—when camp is typically not in session.

The types of group’s known to be attracted to challenge course programs are: new campers, corporate employees, athletic teams, civic organizations, at-risk youth, and public physical education students. However the true market is much larger. Literally any group looking to offer its people a change of pace and provide them with an experience designed to strengthen their relationships is a viable prospect which means, just about any group you can think of.

And, don’t forget your staff. Challenge course experiences are a very viable component of any staff orientation.

How much is a challenge course going to cost?
The average cost for each element of a challenge course is about $1000. A ballpark figure for the design of a new challenge course with a combination of low and high elements, equipment, installation, and training is difficult to quantify but as a starting point you can think about spending $10,000. This will vary with the type of elements and the site work necessary before the installation of the actual challenge course.

For instance, if you want to use existing trees (rather than manufactured poles) to maintain the look of a natural setting and to keep your participants sheltered from the sun, you will probably have to pay an arboreal inspection fee. This will ensure you select the best trees for the course for both the health of the trees and to reduce the cost of course maintenance.

How to get started
You can offer challenge activities with something as modest as a low ropes course or shoot for the facilities of a full-blown challenge course offering both low and high elements. Even though starting off modestly may seem more reasonable from a budget standpoint, there’s nothing like a ride down a zip line to feel like you are the master of your destiny. The more sophisticated and extensive elements of a challenge course are so much fun. However, deciding what you would like to build should come only after you’ve done some investigating. The following steps can help you to be successful in this process:

Conduct a web search for companies who design and build challenge courses. Key terms to use in your search are: challenge courses, ropes courses, adventure programming, experiential learning, and experience-based training. Or, check out the list of camp-specific challenge course companies in the Camp Business Mar/Apr Buyer’s Guide available online at www.camp-business.com.

Create a short list of the top three or four companies you were impressed with (and what you learned about them)—make sure to consider variety and design flexibility. Other factors to look for are: phasing options offered, environmentally friendly strategies of design and construction, and what they can deliver to make a course accessible to all types of participants. Also, see if they mention that they are affiliated with the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) and Association for Experiential Education (AEE). Both these organizations have developed widely accepted industry guidelines for design, construction, and programming. Even though there are currently no federal requirements or standards necessary to operate a challenge course in the United States, it is critical to use best practices and follow what has considered optimal by the experts in this field.

Once you have a short list, contact the challenge course manufacturers and ask them:

  • What factors are most important for you to consider for your camp?

  • What improvements have they made (product, installation & training) over the last five years?

To provide a list of their latest clients (last three years) and contact information for those clients.

If they would be willing to travel with you to the challenge course installation most like the one you are interested in developing?

Contact the clients each challenge course manufacturer offered and ask the facility directors what they would do differently, how the company they worked with made a difference in what they accomplished, and have them identify what elements of the challenge courses are the most valuable to their camp operations.

Visit/participate in the challenge course site that seems most relevant to your ambitions. It also might be helpful to bring your digital camera to take shots of what you like and don’t like and use these photos when talking with the company you eventually will work with.

Ask each manufacturer to develop a preliminary budget. Initial costs should include design, site prep, construction, staff, training, certification and inspections, annual maintenance and life cycle repair costs, and insurance coverage. Don’t forget to include up-front marketing costs to kick off the program.

Most professional challenge course vendors offer detailed instructions and provide professional training so staff members will understand the proper use of equipment, rescue, and programming in accordance with ACCT standards.

Ask if they can they help you to secure external funding? Ask about the external funding strategies they have helped other clients secure. Sources could include: grants, local service organizations, foundations, and corporate sponsorships.

Before you make your final decision, you may also want to discuss how to apply for accreditation of the challenge course. This usually requires an on-site visit from a professional association. The accreditation process helps to ensure your programming is of the highest quality and works to reassure potential participants you know what you’re doing. There are several components that are usually required for this accreditation: A manual that states your camp mission, a challenge course curriculum, training procedures for staff, screening/orientation for participants, course inspections schedule and documentation, an emergency medical system, and methods of evaluating pedagogy and participant outcomes.

In the end, challenge courses done right can add an invigorating dynamic to your camp and, if you do your homework, the investment can pay great dividends. Good luck!

Dr. Susan Langlois has over 25 years experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sports facilities consultant. She is currently a professor of sport management at Springfield College School of Human Services. She can be reached at susanlanglois@comcast.net.

Craig Roderick has extensive experience in the field of health fitness, sport management, and athletic training. He teaches sport venue management for Endicott College and has been part of several design teams for sport and recreation facilities. He has written numerous articles for Parks & Rec Business and Camp Business.