Are you a camp owner who wants to jumpstart your camp experience with adventure programming but hesitate because you worry that you’ll be sued if a camper gets hurt?
The camper demand for adventure programming is increasing each year. Rock climbing, kayaking, backpacking, scuba diving are activities that attract campers who want to experience the exhilaration of taking a risk and accomplishing a feat that they thought might be out of their reach.
An overnight kayaking trip can provide the satisfaction of being independent and free from their daily obligations that is addicting for adults and children.
As you envision your campers enjoying themselves in adventure activities and looking forward to coming back to your camp next year, you may decide to take the plunge and even start to research the cost of building a climbing wall or to build overnight backpacking trips to the camp offerings. But you may be wondering, “Is there a way to offer what campers want and not lose sleep over putting your camp business at risk?
Pitting yourself against gravity, navigating a river, living in the outdoors without a locked door to keep wildlife away from you and your sleeping bag, all are part of the excitement in adventure programming.
In other words, what is fun can also be dangerous. There are risks in any physical activity and a prudent camp owner should have a plan for risk management.
How these risks inherent in adventure programming are understood and minimized will affect your campers’ safety, your insurance costs, your vulnerability of being sued and being convicted of negligence, and the public perception of your camp.
Managing the Risks
1. Don’t rely on waivers. Campers and their parents cannot waive their right to sue if injuries occur because of negligence. If someone is injured because of an incident that could have been prevented, no waiver can protect the staff, the camp owner, and if equipment failure contributed to the injury, the manufacturer of the equipment.
You might wonder why some camp business owners still use waivers. There are campers and campers’ family members who may believe the language of the waiver and they may not think that they have the right to sue. Betting on people not knowing their legal rights is a huge gamble.
The only real value that a waiver can have is if the language in it describes the specific injuries that can occur and that cannot be totally prevented under the most prudent of conditions.
If it can be demonstrated that the person signing the waiver knowingly assumed the risks of the activity and had a choice of participating with this knowledge, the camp owner may find some protection from a waiver. However, the camp owner would find more protection from an informed consent.
2. Require an informed consent that is signed by the participant who is 18 or over. If the participant is under the age of 18, a parent/guardian should sign the informed consent.
To be effective, these informed consents must clearly describe the typical injuries that do occur and that cannot be completely prevented.
To be effective, the language in the informed consent to describe these inherent risks must be written in terms that can be understood by the person signing the form.
The informed consent should also indicate that by signing the form, the participants are acknowledging that they are choosing to participate in the activity.
3. Have a written plan. The best intentions for safety cannot be demonstrated to a jury when they are not in writing and the plans to maximize safety are more likely to be executed if they are in print for all camp staff to review.
What is the goal of the adventure program? This should be determined first and it should be in written form. Rather than deciding to offer an overnight kayaking trip, think about what results that you want from this activity and who will be the likely participants.
If you have a lot of novice kayakers, it might be better to have it be an afternoon activity when they can focus on learning the mechanics of kayaking and where a good night’s sleep and a nutritious meal is a given. Also, the afternoon ambient temperature is higher and so is the water’s.
What are the developmental levels of the campers? Can they be trusted to remember specific safety precautions, persevere through fatigue or less than ideal weather, and resist staying up to talk all night when they need to be completely recharged in the morning.
What do the campers need to know before they participate? The answer to this question should point to the importance of a pre-trip meeting. They need to have a complete understanding of the goals of the activity and what is expected of them.
They also need to know what fitness levels do they have to have with respect to safely participating, what health history and informed consent needs to be documented and what rules need to be followed.
Constructing a code of conduct with all group members contributing and agreeing is a great way of having everyone on the trip “owning” the rules.
What expertise is needed from the staff? Commitment to the risk management plan, having skills required for the activity, first-aid and CPR certifications, and the knowledge of their role in case of an emergency should all be established before anyone is assigned to an adventure activity.
What should be the camper/staff ratio? This really depends on the maturity and skills required for the activity. No matter how small the number of campers is, there needs to be at least two staff members so that if one becomes ill or has to bring a camper for medical attention, the group still has supervision.
What equipment will be needed? This should be closely scrutinized and once determined, the capacity of what campers and staff can carry, the numbers of vans needed, and the competent drivers that are needed with a backup are all keys to safety.
What should be in the emergency kit? The most important item in an emergency kit is usually missing when a risk management plan has not been developed — the health history and who to contact in case of an injury for every camper/staff on the trip.
If someone is allergic to bee stings or a sulfur drug, if a camper needs surgery and the physician needs a guardian’s written consent, it is just as important that this information is with the group as it is in the camp administrator’s office.
Most emergency kits start off with a good supply of bandages, disinfectants, and pain killers, but as they are used, who is responsible for their replenishment?
How will the base camp know where to find you? A detailed itinerary should be given to a camp administrator and if it changes, it needs to be updated.
What will you do if a camper gets sick or injured? A plan should be in place for who will be the first responder, who makes the call when additional help is needed, and who will stay with the other campers.
What will you do if a staff member gets sick or injured? Hopefully, staff members’ health histories are with the group and that there is enough supervision if the staff member cannot continue or there needs to be a carefully made decision to end the activity early.
4. Have a contingency plan. While credit cards and cell phones can help when the weather turns nasty or medical help needs to be summoned, in remote areas their value may be reduced to the plastic that they are made of.
An exit strategy must be researched in advance so that there is a thorough knowledge of where landline phones, local hospitals, and alternative transportation can be accessed.
A staff discussion about the conditions that it would take to call the trip short from bad weather scenarios to camper fatigue should be part of the risk management and these guidelines should also be in writing.
5. Document every event. Keep records of who participated and use a checklist to show that you were sure that every person was accounted for, log the times of departure and arrival at key points, and if someone suffers an injury, document how it occurred, how it was treated, and any follow-up care that was given.
6. Evaluate with the mindset for improvement. Discuss what went well and what didn’t. Were the campers fit enough and did they have enough preparation? In the case of an overnight adventure backpacking trip, sore muscles because they had not been active enough before the hike, blisters because their socks were too thin, or too ambitious a distance was required to hike so that the tents were erected in the dark. These developments all need to be problem-solved before another trip is planned.
While you know the most about how your camp operates, the capabilities of your staff members, and the nature of your campers, once you have a risk management plan in place, it would be really smart to review it with your insurance company.
Most companies are eager to help you because injuries that are prevented produces a healthier bottom line for both of your businesses. Also, many insurance companies have experts who can help you to identify risks that you may not see.
Also, to help you get started, you might like to look at the risk management information on the Web. From manuals, best practices, and research articles, there are a lot of great insights from professionals who are committed to making adventure programming more fun and less risk. Here are a few to get you started:
On the Web
American Camping Association’s Knowledge Center www.acacamps.org/knowledge/program/adventure.htm
Best Practices in Outdoor Education
Outdoor Network’s Site on Risk Management
University of New Hampshire Outdoor Education Center
Isaac, J. (1998), The Outward Bound Wilderness First-Aid Book, ISBN 1558216820
Coutellier, C. & Henchley, K (2000), Camp Is for the Camper: A Counselor’s Guide to Youth Development, ISBN 0876031688
Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 25 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.
Craig Roderick is a licensed athletic trainer and has extensive experience in adventure programming for youth camps and weekend retreats for adults.