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SAFETY & RISK MANAGEMENT SERIES: Challenge Ropes Course & Zip Line Construction

Posted by Andrew Stuart on


SAFETY & RISK MANAGEMENT SERIES: Challenge Ropes Course & Zip Line Construction

[This post is part of a series of related articles on the outdoor adventure tourism industry and also safety & risk management practices]

Challenge ropes courses are facilitated outdoor adventure programs that offer individuals the opportunity to participate in a group of activities that involve physical, mental and even team challenges. A ropes course is generally an aesthetically designed obstacle course that simulates challenges that might be found in a natural setting. A series of activity structures consisting of wood, galvanised steel cables, and rope provide challenges at varying distances above the ground. Site and course design may incorporate low and/or high elements. There is no set design and virtually no two courses are exactly the same.

Some of these principles also have useful merit for focussing on ‘safety’ issues for those individuals that wish to construct similar kids backyard zip lines and/or also incorporating a module or two of this type of low ropes challenge course elements on their own property – or even constructing something similar on their own campsite.

The Challenge Course Standards

The Association of Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), in conjunction with the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), has developed some International standards for ropes course technology. The services of an experienced ropes course builder (or someone similarly qualified) should be utilized for the design, construction, and the inspection of your course. The following items should also be considered:

  • Course development should involve a challenge course professional with experience in the design, construction, and inspection of ropes courses. ACCT Challenge Course Installation Standards should be followed in both the design and construction of the course.
  • The course should be inspected at least annually (specifically, before the start of the season, but also after a severe storm, or after acts of vandalism, etc.) by an experienced builder (or someone similarly qualified) following standard ACCT inspection guidelines.
  • The course should be checked daily by the facilitator, who should note excessive wear and tear on the course or equipment and any item that is out of place. Any necessary corrections or adjustments should be made before the course is used.
  • Trees, poles, buildings, and other support structures must be of the size and type that will support a ropes course. If trees are to be included in the design a qualified arborist or horticulturist should be consulted to determine if the trees in the area are appropriate for challenge course installation.
  • Poles should be decay resistant; if they will come into contact with human flesh, they should be the treated type. Utility company standards provide a good guideline for pole installation.
  • Local Council and jurisdictional zoning and building codes must be followed when erecting a structure. The presence of underground utilities must be determined before any digging for pole or structure construction is begun.
  • All cable systems, bolts, anchors, belay cables, cable terminations, guys, and fall protection anchors should be installed according to ACCT Challenge Course Installation Standards. Outdoor installations should utilize corrosion resistant cable systems and anchor hardware.

The Challenge Ropes Course Inspection Process

An outside contractor should be utilized to perform a complete inspection of the course at least annually.

Who should do the inspection: The individual should be an ACCT experienced builder (or someone similarly qualified) who is familiar with both the ACCT Installation and Inspection Standards. Because of the diversity of element types, the wide range of construction techniques that have been used over the years, and the diverse array of belay devices, pulleys, shear reduction devices, climbing harnesses, carabiners, ropes, and helmets, experience in inspecting challenge courses is essential. With the potential need for structural evaluation of poles, buildings, trees, and hardware, the inspector also needs to know and acknowledge his or her own limitations, and must have access to other professionals in the area such as arborists, structural engineers, utility pole inspectors, hardware and equipment manufacturers, etc. The company (or individual) should have a solid reputation. Do not be shy about asking for references and credentials. Also verify workers’ compensation and adequate limits of automobile and general liability insurance.

What should be inspected: All elements of the course should be inspected, up close and personal. A satisfactory evaluation of components that are 6 to 8M in the air cannot be performed from the ground; aerial inspection is critical for the safety of your participants and staff. Evaluation of the soundness of the wooden structural members, including the below-grade portions of posts, and of the structural integrity of metallic components, including cables and connecting hardware, is necessary. Soft goods, such as the harnesses and ropes, also need a thorough evaluation.

What type of report should you require: A written inspection report should be received upon completion of the inspection. This inspection report should include at least the following items:

  • date of the inspection.
  • name of the inspection company and the of the person(s) conducting the inspection.
  • history of the course, including the original construction date, name of designer(s)/builder(s), date and extent of any additions or modifications, including name of designer(s)/builder(s).
  • summary of previous inspections (if any), including date(s), name(s) of inspector(s), listing of any recommendations and status of the recommendations.
  • a listing of all elements and/or activities of the course that are included in this inspection; any elements and/or activities not included should be specifically noted
  • each element inspected should be graded to specifically indicate if it can or cannot be safely used in its current condition.
  • if appropriate, additional evaluative information may be included, such as an indication of:
  • minor repairs or modifications that should be completed soon, but that are not serious enough to prevent the safe operation of the element.
  • anticipated future repairs.
  • design and operational alterations that might improve the safety of an element for the population that uses it.
  • things that need on-going monitoring to ensure safe operation of an element
  • a list of all the equipment used on the course, including whether or not the specific piece was acceptable; this should include peripheral gear such as ladders, spare equipment, etc.; if any equipment was (known to be) unavailable for the inspection, it should be so noted.
  • any apparent misuse of equipment should receive comment by the inspector (e.g., actions that normally cause the specific equipment defects found).

The Components

A competent inspector will be familiar with the various components of a challenge course and with the retirement criteria associated with each. The basic areas of his/her evaluation will involve the following areas. Access to original design specifications and previous inspections is of significant value to him/her in the evaluation of the current condition of the facility and its elements.

Support Structures:

Trees should be evaluated for appropriateness of species, size, health, and strength reducing factors. The assessment should include both inspections from the ground and at height. Items to note include damage from lightning or windstorms, excessive lean, infestation or disease, soil erosion and/or exposed roots, heart rot, v-crotches, and poor canopy health. More detailed evaluation such as drilling and coring by an arborist may be required.

Poles should be thoroughly evaluated for appropriateness of class and treatment method, properness of installation, structural soundness, and adequacy of guying and bracing systems. The assessment may include visual and tactile inspection from the grade and height, sounding, sub-grade inspection, increment core and drill analysis, etc.

Buildings and structures should be evaluated for location and additional load factors generated by the existing elements. Generally, an element will exert forces in different directions than the structure was originally designed to handle. That does not mean that buildings are unsafe component anchors, just that they must be properly evaluated from both the standpoint of structural design capability and physical condition.

Cable Systems:

  • Bolt connections should be evaluated for adequacy of the original design (sized for the load, properly aligned, appropriate connector, importance of the connection) as well as current condition (looseness of the nut, deflection or distortion caused by load, bent or distorted eyes, severe nicks, cracks, or gouges, signs of wear or abrasion, corrosion or pitting, and plant growth that interferes with the operation).
  • Wire rope (cable) inspection should focus on the termination points, where the rope goes around or through another object, and the centre of the span. Proper tension (adequate sag under load without excessive looseness) as specified in ACCT Installation Standards is important. The inspector will look for signs of overloading, reduction of wire rope diameter, corrosion, kinks, protruding core, broken wires, and lightning strikes.
  • Cable Terminations should be closely evaluated, as their strength and integrity affect that of the entire cable system. Swaged eyes should be checked for cracks, splits, pitting, galvanic action, broken wires inside the eye and where the cable enters the ferrule, improper swaging, and appropriate ferrule material in critical applications. Strandvises® (although whilst we would NOT recommend these) should be checked for correct model type, signs of corrosion, distortion, cracking, gouges, or slippage. Wire rope clips (cable clamps) should be checked for appropriateness of design and material, stripped threads, and rust pitting.
  • Guy wires can present a challenge. Existing loads should be measured and compared with the safe working load of the cable, anchor bolts should be checked for bending from excess loading, corrosion, damage from equipment, etc., and the suitability and condition of the guy anchor should be checked. Because the guy anchor is often below ground, it can be difficult to inspect. If it shows signs of pulling, it should be replaced.

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  • Harnesses, helmets, carabiners, pulleys, access ladders, etc. should be checked by the inspector for proper wear, function, and signs of stress or damage. You should keep a log for each piece of equipment that indicates the date of purchase, names and contact information of the manufacturer and supplier, and the guidelines, if any, recommended for the retirement of the equipment. Never exceed the manufacturer's guidelines concerning the retirement of equipment. Those guidelines should be considered the maximum duration of service. In case of doubt, immediate retirement of the component is prudent.
  • Ropes should meet the Union of International Alpine Associations (UIAA) standards or the Community European norm (CE) for climbing equipment. It is important to select rope of the fibre type and construction that are suitable for your intended use. Each rope manufacturer provides suggestions regarding the specific applications of their various types of rope, often with retirement guidelines, etc. It is important that you match your planned usage with the specifications and recommendations of the manufacturer.
  • Rope Inspection should be done before and after every use. It is the facilitator’s responsibility to inspect the rope and verify its usability before the class begins and again before the rope is put away for the day. The rope should be permanently retired immediately if:

* the rope has been exposed to any chemicals (acids, alkalis, bleach, etc.).

* the sheath has become overly fuzzy (looks ugly).

* the rope is deformed (stretched, is lumpy, has hard or brittle spots).

* the core is visible because of sheath separation or abrasion.

  • Rope cleaning with a mild detergent should be performed on a regular basis, as a clean rope is less susceptible to damage by internal abrasion from dirt, grit, rock particles, etc. Machine washing using the gentle cycle should be followed by air drying away from direct sunlight, as ultraviolet rays will cause rope deterioration. Ropes should never be dried in a dryer or at elevated temperatures.
  • Rope storage should be maintained in a cool dry place, away from direct sunlight, moisture, elevated temperatures, and chemicals. Ideally, the rope should be stored in a bag to protect it from accidental damage.
  • Rope Logs (i.e., records) are a practical means of assuring the condition of a rope and ensuring the rope is not used beyond its safe life. The heading of an individual rope log should include: the rope identifier, the date new, the maximum number of allowable climbs, the maximum years of use, and a place for date of retirement and name of the person who retired (and destroyed) the rope. Items that should be recorded for every group that uses the rope are:

* date of each usage,

* group (including type of use and location),

* number of climbers during the use,

* running total number of users,

* number of falls, and

* unusual conditions (i.e., weather, temperature, etc.).

Prudence would also have columns for the facilitator to initial or sign-off both pre- and post-climb inspections, as a rope log is not a substitute for rope inspection. The rope manufacturer should also be consulted for other possible items to include in the log.

Some Further Safety Considerations

Preliminary issues:

Documentation of each adventure or challenge-related-activity leader’s current training certification should be in your files.  Written operating procedures based on information from authoritative sources should be established for each type of adventure activity. The procedures should include:

  • eligibility requirements for participation,
  • staff-to-participant supervision ratios,
  • appropriate personnel protective equipment,
  • equipment maintenance procedures,
  • safety regulations, and
  • emergency and/or rescue procedures.

A thorough safety orientation should be provided for all participants before they engage in any adventure activities.

Spotters and belayers should all be fully instructed in appropriate procedures; testing and certification should be utilized to assure competence.

Activity elements such as zip lines, climbing walls, giant ladders, and elevated challenges should have controls that preclude unauthorized access when they are not in use. All areas housing course elements should be clearly marked as restricted areas, with utilization of components permitted only with properly authorized supervision.

Documentation of a preventative maintenance schedule with periodic inspections of all elements and equipment used in ropes or other adventure related activities should be kept.

Documentation of daily pre- and post-inspections of the elements and equipment by the facilitators should be maintained.

Basic program standards:

  • The course should be inspected each day before use.
  • The staff-to-participant ratio on the course should meet or exceed that specified by the designer/builder of the course.
  • Minimum age requirements should be established and strictly followed. Generally, that limit should be at least 10 years of age for high elements. If the course facilitator allows, younger children may participate with individual assistance from an experienced adult. If the course is to be used by younger children, its design should be compatible with their skill levels.
  • All participants should complete (signature and date, including that of a parent for minors) the following forms (contact the course designer/builder or your insurance provider for examples):

* Informed consent

* Assumption of risk

* Medical information and authorization

  • A buddy system should be used so that all participants will have a partner at all times.
  • Anyone on a high course element or climbing to one should be on belay.
  • Intentional jumping from any high ropes element should be prohibited.
  • Spotters should be used as required by the designer, especially on low ropes elements.
  • Trails in and leading to the challenge course area should be free from roots, loose rocks, or other debris. Slip, trip, and fall accidents are avoidable!
  • Smoking, alcohol, or drugs is always inappropriate on a challenge course.
  • Any type of horseplay should not be allowed. Any such activity or any blatant disregard for safety should result in the violator being excluded from the activities. The facilitator should always be firmly in control of the individual and group behaviour of all participants.

Appropriate clothing:

  • All participants should wear comfortable, durable clothing.
  • Clothing should be layered and suitable for the various seasons.
  • Long pants and sleeves are preferred. The more skin exposed, the more possible abrasions.
  • Shoes should fully enclose both toe and heel, and should have composite or rubber soles with little or no heel (e.g., sneakers, athletic sports shoes, some hiking boots, but no sandals, spiked athletic shoes or boots, leather-soled shoes, etc.).
  • Clothing and shoes should be suitable for various weather conditions, including rain and cold.
  • Jewellery, watches, and non-prescription glasses are inappropriate on the challenge course. These items should be removed before the participants are allowed to participate.
  • Prescription eyewear users should use an eyewear-retaining strap to protect both themselves and their glasses

FURTHER READING: for more information on ropes course building and facilitation ideas, checkout the following resources that we stock:

Please email us at to discuss this information or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at  to learn more about outdoor adventure safety & risk management issues and ropes courses.