Choose Your Own Adventure
Climbing, Challenge Courses, Ninja Courses & More
According to the annual Gyms & Trends report recently released by Climbing Business Journal, 2021 saw 53 new climbing gyms open in the U.S., the most for a calendar year ever. And only eight facilities permanently closed—also a record—despite ongoing effects of the pandemic. These numbers suggest that the climbing industry has weathered the COVID storm better than other fitness industries; in 2020, 3% of climbing gyms closed, compared with 20% to 25% of general fitness locations, according to the report. And while there are myriad reasons for this, one could surmise that some people simply prefer their fitness pursuits with a shot of adrenaline. This could help explain why there are more types of facilities featuring climbing walls, challenge courses, ropes courses and zip lines than ever before.
Mix & Match
Andrew Miller is COO and vice president of new business development at North Carolina-based Challenge Towers Aerial Adventures and their family of companies. He sees challenge courses, climbing walls and zip lines across several different industries, including camps, conference centers, colleges and universities. "In addition to the conventional industry segments, municipal parks and recreation programs are increasingly utilizing these amenities as part of outdoor education and parks programs. These features have also proven successful on military bases as part of MWR programs, offering healthy options for high-adrenaline activities."
Miller explained that the project development cycle varies based on the type and scope of the project. "Most projects start with a remote project evaluation, a quick and low-cost way to identify feasibility and site-specific considerations. We use a combination of geo-data and satellite imaging to assess elevation, distance, major utilities and site access points, highlighting design possibilities and limitations. Using 3-D modeling software, we can overlay concepts on the client's site, giving them a visual point of reference about the facility and its relationship to landforms and adjacent structures."
And do these adventure sites seek to attract different visitors by offering various skill levels on their attractions? "Yes, this is very common in the industry," said Miller. "Even with different skill and difficulty levels, we often build separate facilities to accommodate young children and other user-groups with special or unique needs."
Scott Hornick is CEO of Adventure Solutions, based in Baltimore, specializing in the design, build, installation and maintenance of adventure parks, aerial ropes courses, challenge courses and zip lines. He described a huge indoor park they're building in Durham, N.C., slated to open in March 2022. "I believe this park is very different from almost anything I have seen in the U.S. The park includes a massive ninja course, aerial ropes park, climbing gym, zip lines and slides that launch you into air bags."
A lot of the current adventure trends are multi-attraction facilities, according to Hornick, who said their indoor and outdoor projects are pretty equal. And while there are still plenty of projects in malls and trampoline parks, etc., that are geared toward younger kids, the focus is often on attracting older clientele. "Our courses are more like extreme and a little more adventuresome. The whole design for the Durham project is really focused around teenagers and adults more than around a little kids' place."
Climbing Gets an Olympics Boost
Many in the climbing industry feel that the introduction of climbing into the 2021 Tokyo Olympics gave the sport a shot in the arm. Nate Postma is president of a St. Paul, Minn.-based company that designs and manufactures climbing walls and climbing accessories. He also operates six climbing gyms in the Midwest—Vertical Endeavors—and said that business has been great. "We have hundreds of visitors and thousands of climbs a day in each facility."
Bouldering is one type of sport climbing, and is performed on relatively low "boulders" or rock climbing walls, without the use of ropes. Postma's firm manufactures a glass-fiber reinforced concrete rock climbing system originally based on decorative concrete rock work. "We took that material and modified it in a way that we can add the T-nuts or the threaded insert locations so you can bolt handholds onto it as well. It's designed to stand up in the weather and it wears really well, indoors too." He said that in addition to summer camps and community and rec centers, they've installed many of these in large universities. "They want a showpiece, something really dominating and commanding, and they love the look."
Rope climbing is also popular. Postma's firm makes a polymer-coated climbing wall system using Baltic Birch plywood. "It's almost a finished cabinetry plywood but it's very clean and strong." He points out that the concrete walls are harder to set routes on, with fewer locations for the T-nuts. "With plywood you can drill thousands of holes all over and pepper it with the plastic handholds."
And route setting is imperative. "You've got to be changing those routes around all the time, that's really important to the climbers. That's where you derive your pleasure, from your experience interacting with the wall." In fact, route-setter training is one service offered by Postma's company.
With rope climbing, belaying is necessary, which typically involves a two-person team: A climber ascends while a belayer takes in their rope slack, ready to catch and arrest their fall. Most facilities also offer auto-belay devices, which take up slack during a climb, negating the need for a belayer on the ground. But human error is still possible. "What people do is go over to the auto belay and forget to clip in, they just start climbing up the wall," said Postma, who developed a belay safety system that alarms you if you forget to clip in. "We're now working on the fourth-generation version. There's a flashing light and then there's a horn that goes off, so if you forget to clip in and you climb up the wall, you know about it."
When it comes to landing surfaces, Postma recalled how far things have evolved from the past few decades, when some facilities were using pea gravel. He believes that recycled shredded rubber is still a great choice, as long as it's clean and not made from tires. But he stressed that it needs to be thick, at least six inches and up to a foot deep in some places. There are also many crash pad variations available now, and Postma's company offers a continuous system that uses 12 inches of open cell foam covered by vinyl or ballistic nylon, with no seams. "There's a high correlation of injuries with people falling and landing on those seams."
For climbing facilities to be successful, it's important to cater to all ages and skill levels and experiment with different offerings. Postma's facilities offer group and private lessons, summer camps, clubs and leagues, competitions, birthday parties, fitness offerings and guided outdoor climbs. Postma described their Friday Night Lights Out events: "They shut off the lights and everyone climbs with their headlamps on—people love it! Boy Scouts even have a climbing merit badge," he added, "then the Girl Scouts did it too."
Zip lines are booming, with their annual income now estimated to be nearly $200 million in the U.S. and Canada. Zip tours might utilize trees, platforms, ledges, cliffs, rooftops or towers. Some stretch across water or canyons, and soar a half-mile or more, at speeds of up to 130 mph. There are seated or "Superman" harness styles, and they're sometimes integrated into challenge courses or aerial ropes adventures. Different braking systems include self-regulating magnetic braking and semi-automatic guide-operated systems.
Hornick said they've installed a number of indoor zip lines as well. "From just barely off the ground all the way up to the Mall of Dubai, which went from the fifth floor all the way across the mall, like a thousand feet."
"Zip lines are very popular and require keen attention to operations and risk management," said Miller, who advised anyone interested to find an experienced vendor to help them understand all the variables related to design, installation and operations. "Zip lines rely on elevation changes to work, and sites with minimal natural elevation change typically require large built structures. Canopy tours are usually installed on trees and come with a whole other set of considerations for design and installation to minimize adverse impact to tree health."
Obstacle or challenge courses have been around a long time, but when the Ninja Warrior television series debuted more than a decade ago, they really took off. "Challenge courses have been used extensively by camps, conference centers, colleges and outdoor education programs for more than 50 years," said Miller. "There has been strong growth of pay-to-play challenge courses in the last decade, also referred to as aerial parks. They can be found on cruise ships, in shopping malls, museums, parks, and as stand-alone business operations. Course design and the scale of installations have evolved significantly."
Courses combine features from parkour, rock climbing and ropes courses. Modular frame systems allow for quick changeovers of different obstacles. Hornick discussed one project in New Mexico that was configured like a fitness trail, with different challenges set up at 20 stations along a trail. Another customer is building courses at malls and similar locations as a chain, and Hornick said they've designed them with route-setting and the ability to reconfigure the courses. "They basically have routes and difficulty levels, like a climbing gym, where you work your way through. They assign a numbering system and you can follow a route." They also offer a mobile course they can transport for different outdoor events.
Kent Callison, marketing director for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based manufacturer of playground equipment, said their challenge courses are truly multigenerational. "Every course we've installed in a park or community setting has attracted people of all ages, particularly families. In many cases, the challenge course is an anchor destination at the park, the attraction that draws people to the site; it's something that brings people back again and again. We've seen communities install both a youth and a pro series adjacent to one another to give all generations an opportunity to join the fun."
Schools have also embraced the challenge course concept, according to Callison. "It adds an additional dimension to PE classes or athletic training. In elementary schools our youth series is compliant with standards for playground equipment for ages 5 to 12." The pro series caters to those ages 13 and up. "In middle and high schools we see coaches and PE teachers utilize challenges courses for team and athletic training or keeping older students active." He said sports teams use them to enhance balance, agility and endurance. "In Green Bay, the Packers added a challenge course outside Lambeau Field as part of a fan experience."
If you have a specific amount of space and want a simple, straightforward ordering process, Callison recommends a predesigned course, but custom designs are also an option. "Many customers like the flexibility of choosing their own challenges and designing a course to fit their unique space and budget requirements."
Timing systems are popular add-ons. "They give the experience a pro-level feeling. Not only does the timer give participants instant bragging rights when they see their time displayed on the scoreboard, it also motivates users to push themselves and work toward a goal."
Aquatics facilities are also in on the adventure, offering attractions including inflatable obstacle courses and poolside climbing walls. Kyle Rieger, managing partner and vice president of sales for an Overland Park, Kan.-based company offering retractable obstacle courses for pools, said many opportunities exist to boost attendance and revenue with these systems. "Facilities are marketing our system on social media to generate awareness, entice new user groups or reactivate dormant members who may not otherwise have reason to visit the facility."
Competitions—complete with photo-ops, awards, prizes and T-shirt giveaways—are one way to draw visitors, and Rieger explained how the city of McKinney, Texas, hosted a members-only preview of their new system, with 298 people registering for 300 available spots during three time slots on a typically slow Sunday. "The pool was packed, especially with people you would typically find elsewhere at their rec center, not in the water."
Besides entertainment and competition, Rieger said the systems are also being used for training and fitness pursuits. He described a project under construction in Idaho in collaboration with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. "Members will be injured military, police, fire, veterans, blind, deaf, etc. We're also designed into the new Student Wellness Center expansion in South Dakota for students, rec sports and athletic teams."
Indoors, the systems are mounted to the existing ceiling, retracting in 60 seconds. Outdoors, a four-leg truss system is utilized. "For municipalities, YMCAs, waterparks, etc., the arch we erect provides a great marketing billboard at 27 feet high," said Rieger. They provide full installation without draining the pool, though their new mini-systems can be installed by owners themselves using hand tools and no heavy equipment. Interchangeable obstacles can be easily swapped. "We started our Obstacle of the Month club, so owners could keep the experience fresh for their members, varying the difficulty level of each lane based on various user-groups targeted." This might include obstacle course racing, group fitness or circuit training.
Safety is of paramount concern for designers, installers and operators, and the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) is an ANSI-accredited standards developer for the challenge course, aerial parks, canopy tour and zip line industry. Miller's firm, which is ACCT-accredited, offers staff training, facility inspections, certifications and operations reviews. "Working with an ACCT-accredited vendor is an integral part of an operator's overall risk management strategy, and many insurers now require this," Miller said.
Hornick's company also offers facility inspections and staff training, though some standards are still being created. "Just like there are AS™ standards for the ropes course in climbing, they're developing them for the ninja courses, but they don't currently exist." He explained that everything they do has different inspection criteria, including daily, weekly, monthly, semiannual and annual. "Where we come in is either on the six-month or yearly inspection, depending on what's required for the product."
The nonprofit Climbing Wall Association (CWA) standards state that indoor walls must be inspected every four years and outdoor walls every two years, according to Postma, though he said they cut that in half. His company offers operational audits, instructor training and certification, manager training and climbing wall inspections. "Users of the walls sometimes install dangerous conditions that the operators don't even know about." He cites common examples such as the backof a lead bolt anchor not being connected to a wall's steel frame, or floor anchors attached with only one bolt instead of two, or not in the right direction or operationally being used correctly. "That's why I recommend more frequent inspections because that's where you catch all this stuff."
For adventure destinations to grow their audience, Miller believes marketing is key, and understanding who current customers are. He suggests studying point-of-sale and website analytics, and developing a profile of your average customer and where they travel from. "Target your primary markets with advertising—print, digital, billboards—and messaging that appeals to your target audience. Track conversions, measure campaigns' success and keep your marketing collateral fresh, continually tweaking and refining your marketing strategies. Look for creative partnerships with other businesses that share a similar customer base and incentive participation by new customers."
And let the adventure begin. RM