I began building challenge courses in the early 1980s at a camp that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities. I had a few mentors that got me started, but for the most part, my teachers were the supplies I had in the maintenance barn as well as whatever ideas I could come up with to challenge our camper groups.
Now, I travel around building cool things, training people how to use our industry’s toys, and doing annual inspections on elements that we—my team and others—have built. Many things have changed in the last 40 years, but one of the few things that remains the same is: people still love to “do it themselves” when it comes to course and element design and construction.
If you are truly going it alone, well then, you may be unwilling to hear my advice, or anyone else’s, for that matter. If you are willing to learn a few things, however, this may be a good read for you. My goal is to help you consider the components and steps involved in a build process so that you can decide which aspects of the process you can DIY, and which you may need to outsource.
It surprises me how many people tell me they are not allowed to build things themselves. When I ask why (because asking questions is what I do), they usually have one of several reasons: their vendor told them they couldn’t DIY; their insurance company said they needed to hire a professional; or their peers told them to hire someone experienced.
Do you need to hire a pro? The answer depends on who is asking, and why. If you are in a jurisdiction that requires a licensed contractor to build adventure elements, then yes, you need to do that. If your boss is directing you to use a professional, then I would also recommend following those instructions. But most of all, I would suggest that building things, fixing things, and designing things in our industry can be dangerous and have serious consequences. Thus, we must all ensure it is done correctly.
So, what I would like to do is offer some things for you to consider as you determine which parts of your project you can and want to handle yourself, and which parts you must and want to partner with a professional for.
A bit about you. It is my assumption that you have some experience in the challenge course, zip line, and/or adventure park industry. You probably know the difference between things like fall protection and fall restraint, a fist grip and a cable clamp, and a load cell and a tension meter. I assume going it alone appeals to you because you like to save money, have creative ideas, and/or feel pride in doing “it” yourself.
There isn’t enough space in this entire issue of API to provide all the information a person would need to fully understand the complexity of designing elements, engineering those elements, installing elements, understanding anchors and anchoring systems, figuring out how to commission a new product … you get the point. But here are some skill sets and tasks involved in any build:
Let’s look at a few of these a bit closer:
This whole endeavor begins with the initial questions “What should we build?” “Is this the right place?” “Will people come?” and “Will we make money?” There is a lot riding on this set of questions, and unfortunately, many folks jump into a build without fully researching the demand in their area. If you are skilled in market research, then make sure you spend some time studying and analyzing the region and the potential ROI for your proposed project. If you are not skilled in this area, you may want to bring in an expert who understands the industry and can use their history, wisdom, knowledge (and the internet) to conduct a feasibility study and help you create a business plan.
Pick a standard—ANSI-ACCT, ANSI-PRCA, ASTM—you plan to follow. (Note: your authority having jurisdiction [AHJ] may have done this for you.) This should be your first step, as the standard will be a road map through the commissioning/construction of the project and for future ongoing training and changes to the course.
Having no standard is not a good option. Any jurisdiction that requires a permit or registration will require that you identify and follow a standard for your project, if the AHJ hasn’t already made that choice for you. A third-party inspector will need to know which standard you are following so that he or she can inspect your course correctly. Additionally, in the unfortunate event of an incident or accident on your course, experts will need a standard to point to for their reports. (If you don’t identify a standard, they may choose one that you don’t comply with.)
It is not a smart idea to piece together different standards, either, unless you have a very good reason—and you can justify it with solid documentation. Multiple standards complicate expert inspection and analysis (and legal arguments). If you come up with a very good reason, though, please let me know, as I have never seen one yet.
Design marries the standards and your operational goals. This is where you look at throughput, program flow, getting around a site, and staffing needs. In addition to meeting your operational needs (identified in your business plan) and chosen standards, your design must be structurally sound. Soundness must be proven—on paper—with math.
If “design” is what you want to build, engineering is the proof that it will work. This proof is important—very important. You may be an engineer. You may have some engineering training. You may have years of experience building cool things. Perfect. We tend to design in-house (although this is another area where outside consultation can be valuable), but I hate proving math. So, I get help. We rely on three engineering firms to provide expertise and proof for our builds.
If you are building it, you have liability for it. Talk with your insurance company and let them know your skill set, your plan, and who you are partnering with on a project. Identify what parts of the build you are doing and what parts others may be handling. Once you are insured, make sure you’ve read through the policy, especially the exclusions. Keep in mind that commercial liability insurance for operations may not cover you for professional design, construction, major modifications, or even in-house training.
When you are finished with your build, you should not only know your course, but also the exact materials you used
to build it. Gone are the days when you could stroll out to the old maintenance shed and piece together a belay termination with things that “seem to work.” When we are putting lives at height, the cable, bolts, and hardware you purchase need to be trackable back to the manufacturer, have undergone third party testing, and carry some insurance, as do the ropes, harnesses, and fall protection gear your purchase. Track what you buy and when.
If you are building in the trees, you will need to undertake tree work ahead of construction and then ongoing throughout the life of your course. From working around the roots and pruning limbs to understanding how and with what we attach our element to the trees, this work requires the highly specialized skill set of a consulting arborist with a lot of experience and a nimble ability to access trees.
Perhaps your design calls for poles rather than tree attachments. How deep should you set them? There is a rumor going around that if you set your pole 10 percent of the length of the pole plus two feet, your poles will be set correctly. Try this in a swamp and watch your poles sink as soon as you add load.
Geotechnical advice is always helpful in determining the stability of the ground in order to calculate anchor pull-out loads. Many engineering firms have a geotech (geotechnical engineer) that they work with. If you are piecemealing together your own team, it will be important to find a geotech. Six years of schooling to become a geotech could also suffice for those of you who want to do everything on your own—but that’s a lot of homework.
Pull test them. How much? For how long? Great questions. It depends on soil type and load. How do you figure this out? Easy. Take a structural engineering class and a few classes in soils, then grab a few years of experience under a watchful eye. Or go the easy route and ask a qualified engineer. They can look at the soil in your area, specify an anchor, and then prescribe a pull testing procedure for you. Then your job is to follow the procedure and document it.
Document your anchor tests—what did you do, who did it, when did they do it, how did they do it, and what tools did they use. Take pictures, videos, and drawings (on 8.5 in. X 11 in. sheets of paper, with lines and arrows, and a descriptive paragraph on the back of each one). The idea is to show someone (like an inspector) a year—or many years—after the fact what you did and how you did it. If you are unsure what and how to document, either get some help or just document everything: pictures, receipts, conversations, etc.
Setting up a cable in the air, for a zip line, for example, is easy. Getting it to work with different body types, wind speeds, and ground and tree issues is tough. Different cables work differently, so know your tensions, get a good tension meter, and test the cable. Test it again, and when you’re done testing, retest it. A good engineer will be able to get you close on a tension reading, but field work typically needs to be done for final adjustments.
I can stop myself on most zip lines without a commercially installed brake. I do this regularly, as do many other builders and guides in our industry. This does not mean that everyone—guests, guides, operators—can or should. We have brake systems for a reason. Ensure the brake system you choose for your build aligns with the standards you are using, your program goals, and most importantly the laws of physics. It is imperative that you understand your brake system, the materials it uses, its design, and the appropriate use, as determined by the designer, engineer, and trainer (all of them, and not just some of them). Then document these things.
Consider how staff will get up and down safely during construction and then during normal operations. Staff need to access the course in ways different from participants, and most always need different fall protection points and accompanying gear, which often includes things like LEAP anchors, load limiting devices, cable grabs, and access climbing systems.
Competent or Qualified?
You may be a competent operator, designer, or builder, but if you aren’t qualified (e.g., a person with training, a documented portfolio of work or experience, and, where appropriate, credentials) a qualified person should be looking at your work. If you are not a qualified trainer, builder, or inspector, that is fine—it does not mean you have to completely outsource your build. But you will need to reach out to a qualified person at various stages in the process to review your designs, check your work, and ensure you’ve properly documented your design, training, and installation. Think you are qualified for some or all of this work? Just ensure a jury of your peers would agree.
I am a big proponent of folks doing it themselves. Doing it yourself can be fun, educational, exciting, and most likely, less expensive (in the short term, anyway). But none of us are excellent at everything. I hope you can step back from your projects and recognize that even if you can do some of it on your own, for parts of a build, you should get help—real help, professional help, by a qualified person or company.
That doesn’t mean you need to hire one individual to do it all. I’m a big believer in developing a strong team for a build, and a build team should include you! Find vendors to work with that complement your abilities by filling gaps in your expertise. Get those folks on your team, co-create a project, identify who is going to do what, divide up the tasks, and then work together to create something better than you all could have created individually.