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Example of a high ropes course at night

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.


Ropes courses are refered using several different names, including Challenge Courses, Ropes Challenge Courses, as well as more idiosynchratic names such as Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience or Challenging Outdoor Physical Encounters (COPE) course (used by the Boy Scouts of America). Other related terms include Obstacle Courses, Assault Courses and Commando Courses, although these terms also have have slightly different meanings, often more associated with military training than with education and training for the general public.


It is unclear where and when the first ropes course was created. Obstacle courses have been used by the military to train soldiers as far back as the ancient Greeks. These courses, however, were primarily used for the training of extremely fit individuals and not necessarily aimed at the development of the whole person as is common practice on ropes courses today. The use of belay and risk management systems on such courses was limited or often non-existent.

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 stlye courses similar to the modern day ropes course prior to World War II and annecdotal evidence pointing to camps in New England using ropes course type elements as early as the mid 1920's.

Modern courses

Since the 1960's, ropes course sophistication has evolved considerably. Modern ropes courses incorporate sophisticated belay and safety systems using wire rope, friction devices, and climbing harnesses to manage what before were unmanaged risks. Recent technological advances in pole hardware and climbing equipment along with industry-accepted installation and design practices have greatly reduced the risk to end users and to the natural environment. Modern courses make use of a variety of materials other than trees, including utility poles and steel structures. Today’s courses can be found in a variety of locations, including wooded areas, open fields, or inside heated buildings.

A recent trend of themed courses (i.e. ropes course meets Disney World) has created a whole new genre of challenge course aimed at recreational pay-to-play users. New, mobile ropes courses 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.

High course

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 is attached to different trees.

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 the ability to need less facilitators, and to be 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.

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.

Image of a challenge course taken from the second level

Students climbing up a cargo net

Low course

Low ropes courses consist of a series of real and imaginary obstacles designed to challenge groups and individuals to work together to accomplish a task. The classification of low ropes courses can be further broken into several types of activities:

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 Activity: 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, 1:2 Trust Fall, 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.


Ropes course programs can be designed to meet a number of educational, developmental, and recreational goals. High ropes course and climbing programs generally focus on personal achievements and ask participants to confront their personal fears and anxieties. Challenges may be physical and/or emotional. In certain cases, high element programs involve the development and mastery of technical skills to manage rope belay systems used to secure other climbers as they move through the course. In such cases, outcomes often include exploring the fundamentals of trust, craftsmanship, and coaching. Programs using low ropes course elements or group initiatives are most often designed to explore group interaction, problem-solving, and leadership. Some of the commonly claimed outcomes include enhancement of:


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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 scientific evidence supporting the many claimed psychosocial training benefits of ropes course participation.

See also

External links


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