Three ways to calculate the real cost of a ropes course

When it comes to paying for a ropes course, the great danger lies in solely focusing on the false economy of upfront costs. Getting something in the ground cheap doesn’t mean you get your course cheap. It’s about much more than construction.

The real cost of a ropes course includes what you pay to have it designed, built, operated, inspected and maintained over time.

A well-designed course generates revenue and savings the longer it operates. One simple example: a good course that requires just one less operator can save a business at least $50,000 a year in staffing costs. That’s a quarter million dollars over five years.

On the other hand, a poorly designed course becomes a financial drag on the business. More staff, more inspections, more maintenance … the list of potential problems is long.

Let’s walk through three concrete examples of what to consider when it comes to price.

The cost of consumables

Say you’re putting in a zip line and the ‘cheapest’ option is a bungee break at the end of the line. Problem is, you now have another ‘consumable’ to worry about. A consumable is something that wears out with use and needs to be repaired and eventually replaced. Every time someone thumps into that bungee break, your consumable is wearing out a little more.

When you start upping your throughput your problem becomes even more acute. Then, someday, a new, proprietary zip break comes onto the market, establishes itself as best practice, and now you’re under pressure to buy and install that.

Maybe that zip line wasn’t the cheapest option after all.

What’s the alternative?

What if you take a little more time to properly survey the install site, and spend more design time to control the descent? Then your zip line could use a gravity stop, with no moving parts, no consumables and no potentially expensive future upgrades.

Now you’ve factored in the real price. And it’s safer to run and cheaper to maintain, which brings us to our next ‘price factor’ to consider.

The cost of inspections and maintenance

If something is hard to inspect you can bet it will be expensive to maintain. And if your high ropes course is expensive to maintain, it will never be cheap, no matter how little you paid up front.

Time for another example: when we do inspections it’s common to see courses which have been built by enthusiastic instructors or perhaps riggers with some experience in industrial rigging of some type. It is perfectly acceptable, and in many cases the work is of passable quality. But is it cheapest in the long run?

For starters, the parts used are often of inferior quality, they are likely to have been selected from what is available at the local hardware store. We often see commercial grade lifting products used on critical life lines, and compatibility problems with the type of wire used and the parts used with it.

It is also not uncommon to see 3, 4 or more types of termination used on the same ropes course, and though this may not be bad in itself, it is certainly more complicated and confusing than necessary.
We’ve visited sites where installers have specified that the facility they built needs to be inspected (presumably by themselves) 4 times per year.

Some times we see facilities which although recently built use construction methods which have not been industry best practice for some time, the installers have seen it years ago on a similar ropes course and assumed that this is still the right way to do things.

The real problem with this? In the not too distant future the builder may not be in business any more and they may not carry product liability insurance. Where does this leave you?
If you ever decide to change you ropes course builder the cost of bringing things in line with best practice is likely to end up making your “cheaper” facility more expensive in the long run.

And finally, perhaps the most real of all costs …

The cost of critical failure

Obviously the cost of a critical failure could be catastrophic, in human and financial terms. But the real cost of your outdoor education facility also includes the cost of preventing critical failure.

One last example: if you plan to hang someone from a belay point, the so-called cheapest option is probably to weld an anchor on. But now you have a critical point that should be inspected by a welding inspector, and more paper trails are needed.

The quality of any weld depends on the welder. If your guy had a hard night the night before, and he’s the apprentice, the weld might look good but how reliable is it really?

Again, the alternative is superior design, this time ‘designing out’ any points of critical failure, and ‘designing in’ redundancy. In the case of the belay point, a better option may be a metal bracket bolted into your surface. As opposed to a weld, anyone can inspect and tighten a bolt.

Got questions about price?

If you’re grappling with budgets and want to talk about pricing issues, give us a call on 0488 662 734 or email us at