Feature Article - April 2021
Find a printable version here

Entice the Adventurous

Build Interest & Create Community With Climbing Walls & Ninja Courses

By Emily Tipping


When a workout not only tests your physical strength and stamina, but also your mental acuity, it's hard not to get hooked. Fitness facilities, wellness centers, recreation centers and more are always looking for new and engaging ways to not only get people in the door, but keep them coming back for more, and climbing walls and ninja courses provide that one-two punch of physical and mental stimulation, with a little adventure added into the mix.

A Diversity of Opportunities

Dr. Tracy Paino, vice president of operations for Vertical Endeavors, which has six climbing facilities in Minnesota and Illinois, and also for a climbing wall manufacturer based in St. Paul, Minn., said he's seeing more versatility in climbing, with new ways of adding variety to existing walls.

"The ability to change an existing climbing wall by using 'volumes' has become an easy and affordable way to add variety," he said. "Volumes are large wooden or fiberglass structures that can be secured to the climbing surface by bolts or screws to most existing climbing walls. They can be added, moved around or adjusted to create an infinite number of modifications. Climbing handholds can be attached to them, bringing complexity and deviation to a wall, route or problem. If you have a simple vertical climbing wall, volumes can provide exciting features to keep climbers engaged."

Paino also pointed to the growing popularity of bouldering, and with the upcoming Tokyo Olympics featuring Speed Climbing, Lead Climbing and Bouldering for the first time, this trend is likely to keep expanding.

Garnet Moore, interim executive director of the Climbing Wall Association, agreed, citing "a real rise in the number of bouldering gyms."

Because no rope or harness is needed, and the walls are usually less than 15 feet high, bouldering is much more accessible for first-time climbers and much easier for facility owners to manage, Paino said.

Climbing is also getting more diverse in terms of where you might typically find a wall. "We are seeing walls pop up all over the place, maybe in places you wouldn't expect," said Luke Winkler, product manager for a manufacturer of auto belays and other adventure products based in Louisville, Colo. Being featured in recent movies and the upcoming Olympics, he said, means more people are familiar with the sport and looking to give it a try. "New walls are being built at astonishing rates inside shopping malls, schools, community centers, traditional fitness facilities, offices and even in people's houses," he said.

Get Started

While it's not necessarily cheap or easy to add a new state-of-the-art wall to a facility, our experts pointed out that there are plenty of ways to add climbing to your facility without breaking the bank or breaking new ground.

"Smaller facilities might not have the space or the budget to create a large climbing wall. They might not have very high ceilings or the ability to have a custom-made climbing structure installed," Paino said, adding that pre-made climbing panels are one easy solution.

"These panels can be attached to existing structures, or anyone with some carpentry skills can create a supporting frame on which to attach them," he added. "Usually they come in 3-by-3-foot or 4-by-4-foot squares with predrilled holes, T-nuts (for attaching handholds) and texture already in place. They can also be trimmed or cut to fit a specific space, unusual dimensions or to add features such as angles, roofs or corners. Utilizing and installing panels can be more cost-effective for smaller spaces and bouldering walls."

Winkler added there are plenty of less expensive options on the market, and explained that "it's also possible to start small and expand as interest in the wall grows." He added, "Things like untextured wooden walls or towers, bouldering-only walls or even used walls from other facilities are all ways to kick off a climbing program on a smaller budget."

Paino also suggests that smaller facilities with an interest in adding climbing options to their programming lineup should look for local partners that might provide access to their climbing space, such as dedicated climbing facilities, schools or fitness centers with existing climbing walls.

Once your wall is up and ready for use, whether it's a wall with ropes or a bouldering wall, you need to get climbers engaged and interested. While you can simply build a wall and expect that to generate some interest, if you really want to be successful, you need to build engagement and community, and that's really all about your staff.

"If you are going to go that route of a wall with ropes, it's important to have the knowledgeable staff who can teach climbing skills and might be plugged into that community more broadly," said Laura Allured, marketing and communications manager for the Climbing Wall Association, which supports these professionals with a certification program.

"Finding the right person is pretty key," Moore agreed. "You should invest in having a dedicated staff member on the team," instead of adding those duties to an existing staff members' to-do's.