A ropes course is a challenging outdoor personal development and team building activity which usually consists of high and/or low elements. Low elements take place on the ground or only a few feet above the ground. High elements are usually constructed in trees or made of utility poles and require a belay for safety.
Many practitioners cite George Hébert as the originator of the "modern" ropes course. A French naval officer in the early 1900’s, Hébert developed his own method of physical education, apparatus, and principles to train in what he called the “Natural Method,” which included the development of physical, moral, and “virile” qualities in an outdoor environment. Drawing from his naval background, Hébert patterned some of his obstacles on obstacles found on the decks of ships. “Hébertism” grew during and between the World Wars, becoming the standard for physical education training for the French military. Many ropes courses and challenge course programs in French Canada and Europe are still known as Hébertism courses today.
Marble, Colorado, the site of the first Colorado Outward Bound course is cited by many as the location of the first ropes course in the USA, although this is highly unlikely. Patterned after a military obstacle course and similar to the course in use at the Outward Bound school in Aberdovey (Wales), the course was constructed of hemp ropes. Belay systems were minimal or non-existent (Rhonke, Wall, Tait, & Rogers, 2003, p. 4). There is evidence, however, that the USA military was using commando style courses similar to the modern day ropes course prior to World War II and anecdotal evidence pointing to camps in New England using ropes course type elements as early as the mid 1920's.
A recent trend of themed courses (e.g. ropes course meets Disney World) has created a whole new genre of challenge course aimed at recreational pay-to-play users. New, mobile high ropes courses (originally designed by Jim Liggett of Ropes Courses, Inc.) and climbing walls built on flat bed trucks have made challenge courses more readily available to the public for recreational purposes and are generating increased publicity. Recent estimates by builders on the ropes-online listserv estimate that there are more than 7,500 challenge courses in the USA and that an additional 200 to 400 are built each year.
A High Course can be a pre-fabricated course, built of utility poles, cables, and bolts, that is built by a contractor, or it can be a course that is hand built in a wooded area, where ropes and wire are attached to different trees. Whether constructed by a contractor or personally, to make the course open to the public, strict regulations set in place by the Association for Challenge Course Technologies (ACCT) must be adhered to and the course must be inspected regularly to ensure its safety.
Ropes courses can also be described as static or dynamic. With a static course, participants are attached to an upper wire, belay cable, with ropes and carabiners for safety. If the participant dangles, they will be caught by the wire. On a dynamic course, participants are connected to a rope, which someone on the ground will be holding onto and belaying the participant on the course. Advantages of a static course include needing fewer facilitators, and being able to get more participants up on the course at one time. However, a dynamic course allows for participants to be lowered to the ground much more easily and can double as an additional element in the challenge course as it requires an overt show of trust in the belayer.
Usually participants must sign a waiver before being allowed to participate on the course. Some participants may have a hard time completing the course due to its height and the physical challenge. Courses usually range from 25 feet through 50 feet tall. In order to climb up onto the course participants usually must climb, such as by using a cargo net, ladder or an artificial climbing wall.
Cooperative Game, Socialization Activity, Ice-Breaker: a fun activity designed to reduce inhibitions and break down barriers. These activities are often not based on a defined task but on a sequence of events. Users are often placed in positions where they are encouraged to try new things that may place them outside their normal comfort zones. Examples include: name games, people to people, raccoon circle...
Group Initiative: problems involving real and imaginary ground-based obstacles (either natural or constructed) that challenge a group to pool their resources and work together to find solutions. Success is achieved only when all members have contributed to the outcome. Examples include: The Muese, Spider's Web, Carpet Maze, Crocodile Pit, Whale Watch, Peanut Butter River, Ragging River, T.P. Shuffle, Nitro Crossing, and Group Wall
Trust-building games: activities designed to provide members the opportunity to demonstrate their trust in other members of the group through a series of sequenced actions. Examples include: Willows in the Wind and Trust Fall.
Low Ropes Elements: a series of cables, ropes, and obstacles strung between trees or poles, 12 to 18 inches above the ground, low rope elements present tests of physical strength, stamina, agility, balance, and flexibility, and invite participants to confront such emotional issues as the fear of falling, the fear of failure, and the fear of losing control. Risk is managed by group members who assume critical spotting roles. Examples include: Swining Balance Beam, Triangle Traverse, Tire Swings, and Mohawk Walk.
Definitions from "A Facilitator's Guide to Adventure Challenge Programming" by Mike Smith and David Brassfield.
Despite the rapid development of ropes course programming during the latter part of the 20th century and the increasing sophistication and professionalism in ropes course construction, there remains a lack of clear scientific consensus about the many claimed psychosocial training benefits of ropes course participation. A key resource is Aram Attarian's 88 page annotated bibliography of research on ropes challenge courses.