Guest Column - February 2006
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The Summer Camp Course Has Grown Up

Professional Ropes Course Association

By Steven R. Gustafson

During the winter months, the Board of Directors for the Professional Ropes Course Association (PRCA) focuses meetings and efforts toward next year's annual conference, workshop offerings, membership services and vendor peer reviews. It certainly didn't use to be this way. Back in the early 1970s, a ropes challenge course was unique and was primarily ropes and cargo nets tied to trees at a kids' summer camp. A uniform code of construction or building materials was not available, nor were training and operational guidelines. Over the last three decades, ropes challenge courses have become more and more popular just as the artificially designed obstacles were favorites of the youth attending summer camps.

A little history

Adventure Education (AE) and Experiential Education (EE) programs have been present in the United States since around 1963 through the first Outward Bound USA. This style of education, or "learning by doing," was the underlying education method for long Outward Bound expeditions in the outdoors, which resulted in increased self-esteem, awareness, motivation, self value, problem-solving abilities, communication skills, conflict resolution, leadership abilities and increased morale for individuals that comprised the expedition groups. AE and EE activities during these programs included backpacking, sailing, camping, rock climbing, mountaineering, canoeing, rafting, obstacle courses and psychological barriers. These activities were used to create artificial stresses and challenges to help participants improve their self perception and abilities. Over the years, studies have been performed that have documented these benefits.

Many of the practices and procedures used in these expeditions came from Paul Petzoldt, who many consider the father of mountaineering. Petzoldt's feats are legendary: At age 16, he stood atop Wyoming's Grand Teton; in 1934 he made an astounding double traverse of the Matterhorn in one day; in 1938 he joined the first American expedition to K2 in the Himalayas and climbed higher than any man had been at that time without auxiliary oxygen. In 1963 he served as chief instructor at Colorado Outward Bound, in 1965 he went on to found the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and in 1977 he founded the Wilderness Education Association. He is the granddaddy of the voice signaling system, the code climbers use to communicate. He also originated many procedures in the Leave No Trace practice of conservation camping and hiking techniques such as the rest step and rhythmic breathing.

While outdoor adventure and experiential education were burgeoning in the early 1970s, the first ropes course companies were formed. Project Adventure and Treeline were two of the very first. (Project Adventure is best known for Karl Rohnke and the many contributions he made to the ropes challenge course industry.) These two companies and a handful of others became the next step in the growth of the Experiential Education profession by designing and building military-type obstacle courses for physical-education departments, camps and adventure programs. These courses were constructed of wood, rope, wire cable, trees and utility poles. Elements were built both close to the ground or high up in treetops. Thus the present-day names were coined: "Low and High Ropes Courses" or "Ropes Challenge Courses." Studies were conducted and began to show that these shorter experiences, usually one to five days in length, could provide some of the same benefits that a longer 30-day Outward Bound, NOLS and WEA course could generate.

In the later 1970s and the 1980s, these companies and other ropes course companies grew in popularity and program development. In the 1980s, the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) was formed, which is the professional organization for individuals and agencies providing AE and EE programming. During this era of growth, entrepreneurs began to offer AE and EE programs to corporations as a means to motivate employees and increase productivity. Over the next few years, the membership of AEE grew, and another professional group formed, Experience-based Training and Development (EBTD), which focused on corporate clientele. AE and EE programs tended to favor more youth and adventure-based programs such as summer camps or wilderness programs for treatment of chemical dependencies, so a more defined subset was required to target corporate America. Borrowing from the AE and EE models, EBTD programs began using ropes challenge courses as a training tool in experiential education for business personnel. The introduction of learning instruments such as Myers Bridges, Decision Making Styles, DISC and other individual assessments provided sound information and feedback, which is directly transferable to a corporate environment.

Ropes challenge course construction, design, inspection and installation practices also have come into their own. In 1993 the creation of the first trade organization for the industry was formed: the Association for Challenge Course Technology. This trade organization was created by a handful of builders from some of the first ropes challenge course companies as a way to set minimum installation guidelines for course construction. The association efforts began under the umbrella of the Association for Experiential Education. In 2003 the Professional Ropes Course Association (PRCA) was created to help represent the broader ropes challenge course industry.

A more recent and profound development in the challenge course industry is that the PRCA has become the first and only association that is American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved as an Accredited Standards Developer (ASD). This allows for the PRCA to develop American National Standards (ANS) for ropes challenge courses, training, climbing walls and other growth areas in the industry. This process is currently under development and should be completed by late spring 2006.

Growth areas

Today, there is an estimated 15,000-plus ropes challenge courses in the United States and untold many more worldwide. Expanding on this market is the introduction of zip line tours, also known as canopy tours. The first tours began in Costa Rica and loosely followed similar activities found in the United States called zip lines, which were a ropes challenge course activity. Today, zip line canopy tours have become very popular in the tourism industry. In 2002 one experience-based-learning firm installed the first tour of its kind on U.S. soil in Maui in Hawaii. Others are popping up in Hawaii and Alaska.

An additional growth area is that of the public recreation or "pay to play" markets. Ropes challenge courses constructed from metal towers and belay systems that track along with the adventure-seeker are gaining popularity. One leader in this new growth market has been developing new and creative designs that are unsurpassed: Courses are multi-tiered, which allows unfettered operation for up to 20 or more adventure-seekers at one time. This is accomplished with a patented tracking system. All of the designs are fully engineered by licensed professionals and carry a warranty period. Portable high-rope challenge courses that can be used for seasonal or weekend events are also on the market.

With all this tremendous growth and memorable experiences for countless adventure-seekers over the years, this growing adventure market is in keeping with the times and demographic demands for activities. Numerous summer camps still operate a more traditional ropes challenge course as part of camp adventure activities, but in these emerging markets, for adventure-seekers of all ages, the summer camps ropes course has certainly grown up.


Steven R. Gustafson, M.S.,is president of the Board of Directors of the Professional Ropes Course Association (PRCA). He is also principal and an instructor/trainer for Experience Based Learning, Inc. (EBL),


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