“It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

Have you ever asked your staff to stop and really consider that adage? What does it actually mean? One interpretation is that you should minimize injuries in order to maximize fun and games. At camp: fun and games = good; injuries = not good. Often, equipment can make or break the success and enjoyment of an activity and equipment management is a critical component of managing risk at camp and specifically of minimizing injuries. In addition, ACA accreditation standards require overall equipment management and regular maintenance management and safety checks. Accreditation standards covered here are specifically PD 8.1–8.5 (Program Equipment and Maintenance); PD 24.1 (Annual Inspection of Adventure/Challenge Course Elements); and PT 11.1 (Equipment Maintenance Trip/Travel). Accreditation standards covered more generally include SF 10.1 (Playgrounds); TR 10.1 (Emergency Equipment); OM 4.1 (Personal Property Policy); and OM 14.1 (Rental Group Agreement).

What Are We Talking About Here?

This article addresses all program equipment specialized and other — from playground balls, archery bows, and water filters to canoe paddles, backpacking stoves, and mountain bikes. All camp equipment needs appropriate management and oversight. Proper management can extend the life of equipment, will positively affect the camp’s budget, can lead to a safer experience, and teaches campers and staff important skills and knowledge. Win!

Proper Equipment

First, it is critical that campers are using the appropriate equipment for the activity. This means the equipment must be specific for the activity and the correct size and fit. It is not okay to take shortcuts by assuming that gear used in one program area can be used in another program area. Many activities offered at camp have their own industry standards which dictate design specifications — often based on safety — for the equipment to be used in that activity. For example, a rope used for a tug-of-war should not be used on the climbing wall. Much equipment used for specialized activities or aquatics are subject to industry standards for use and maintenance. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) also provides standards for much of the equipment used in specialized activities. This includes equipment used for climbing and adventure/challenge course.

Other key equipment to consider are helmets and personal flotation devices (PFDs). Helmets are designed for specific activities and have industry-specific design characteristics for their use appropriate for the type and nature of a potential impact. It is important to use the proper helmet for each activity. Some newer helmets are acceptable for “multi-sport” use.

A similar concept of specificity applies to PFDs; there are varying types for the different watercraft activities. For protection in the water, consider your “A-GAME”: PFDs need to be Coast Guard approved. They must be worn in accordance with their weight rating and the jacket needs to be appropriately adjusted to fit snuggly when worn.

The important take-away is to know and follow the specific equipment requirements for each activity, purchase the activity’s proper gear, and have the right gear — and enough of it that each participant is equipped with gear that is the proper fit. Equipment shortcuts can lead to injury.

Equipment Maintenance

Proper maintenance includes inspection of equipment for safety and defects, cleaning, repair, and storage.

Inspection: The ultimate purpose of equipment maintenance is the safety of the user. With regular and thorough inspection of equipment, you can identify equipment flaws such as broken buckles, frayed materials, damage from rodents, and general wear and tear from regular use. All equipment is susceptible to the rigors of children, exposure to sun and weather, and regular use. Even though some equipment appears to last forever, it should not be used forever. That piece of equipment that is still around from the ’70s should by now be retired and hanging on the wall as a memorial to the good ole days and the source of whimsical stories. Camps should have policies in place that dictate regular inspection of all your equipment to include guidelines for identification of equipment that needs to be cleaned, repaired, or retired and replaced. It may include a thorough inspection prior to the summer season and periodic checks throughout the summer. Document what is checked when and the condition of said equipment. This includes the red rubber playground ball, the tetherball (and rope), equipment used in the craft shed to the saddles and bridles in the bar to the climbing rope and helmets.

Cleaning: Proper cleaning of equipment should be part every camp’s equipment maintenance routine. When I was a kid at summer camp in the Colorado Rockies, I loved to backpack for three, four, and five days. Back then, we carried those wonderful old orange external frame packs. Cleaning out all the packs and all the other group gear was scheduled into program time at the end of the trip. We emptied the packs (making some impressive discoveries in the process!), rinsed them thoroughly inside and out with a hose, and hung them to dry. We washed the grit out of buckles and pins, cleaned up things like spilled jelly, toothpaste, and tree sap, and saved the pack fabric from accelerated deterioration. This pack bath also meant a lesser chance that critters would chew holes into the pack, and the next user started anew. We used those packs, and other equipment which we treated with the same attention, for several summers and many backcountry miles, because we took such good care of them. Such a thorough cleaning also extended the camp’s bottom line. Check the manufacturers guidelines for the proper cleaning method of your equipment.

Repair: Cleaning and inspecting the gear after each backpack also taught us to look for flaws or defects in the equipment, so that it could be repaired (or replaced if needed) for the next trip. Because I was taught so well in my camper days, I continue to inspect and clean all of my equipment after a trip, and I have the skill and knowledge to make minor repairs. Camps should train staff (and campers where appropriate) to know how to spot needed repairs in equipment, to distinctly mark or tag the equipment for the repair, and to separate defective equipment from the general stock until the repair is made. While it can be cost-saving to make repairs, make sure your repair does not damage the integrity of the item being used. Is the new strap as strong as the original? If no, consider replacing the item.

My backpacking tent, pack, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment has had a long life because of proper maintenance, repair, and storage over the years. In addition, a lot of outdoor gear comes with a limited, and in some cases, a lifetime warranty. I recently pulled my tent out for an overnight backpack and discovered the sealant on the inside of the rainfly was peeling off. I sent it back to the manufacturer and received a brand-new tent, because my old one was discontinued. Save receipts and copies of warranties. And yes, my old frame backpack hangs in my shed as a reminder of the days of yore.

Storage: Unfortunately, even in storage, equipment manages to accrue damage. During long-term storage (winter and shoulder season) and short-term storage (between activities and camp terms in the summer), equipment that is not properly stored (and sometimes even when it is) is susceptible to damage from burrowing and nesting animals, water, insects, mold, vandalism, and other hazards of storage. Not only is it important to store equipment appropriate to its type, it is just as important to inspect, clean, and make needed repairs after it is retrieved from storage. Fortify your cabinets, bins, sheds, and bags as best you can from all types of intrusions, including human, animal, and weather. Teach staff to clean, dry, repair, and inventory all equipment before putting it away. Such pre-storage maintenance is practically a guarantee of savings in time, money, and manpower at the start of the next session or camp season.

Retirement: Finally, even with the best, most diligent, and thorough care, some equipment simply needs to be pulled from the line-up and retired. Some gear, like climbing harnesses, have industry standards for retirement after a specified period of time (follow the manufacturer’s warranty) regardless of how many times the piece of equipment has been used. Some industries provide guidelines for testing the longevity of gear, like fabric inspection guidelines. Regardless of the activity, if a helmet has sustained an impact, remove the damaged helmet from use. Often contacting the place of purchase or the manufacturer to share the story will result in a replacement helmet.

Most equipment, certainly equipment that has a safety function, should be modern and should incorporate current and up-to-date technology. When I was guiding canoe trips on the San Juan in southeast Utah, the ranger at the put-in (laughingly) commented that maybe it was time to deposit our old Grumman metal canoes at the recycle bin at the take-out. On day two of four on the river, one of the canoes literally wrapped itself around a rock – fully bent in half, gear hanging on for dear life, kids bobbing to shore. We managed to bend the darn thing back, duct tape the bends inside and out, and reload the dry bags, so that we could get to the take-out, and yes, make a deposit into the recycle bin. In retrospect, what ended up being a funny story could have had a different outcome in both human safety and program cost, and it is very likely those canoes should have been retired and replaced much sooner for more current technology. Innovations and improvements in technology are not only reflective of improved performance or an aesthetic; many gear innovations also incorporate elements that improve safety.

A note about selling or donating your old gear: Before donating any of your used equipment, it is worth conferring with an attorney who knows your program and the laws applicable in your state to learn whether any liability may attach to your camp if a person is injured as a result of using gear they acquired from you. Be particularly wary of donating gear with a safety function such as helmets, personal flotation devices, climbing ropes, climbing harnesses, etc. In a program in which I worked, we cut old climbing rope into much shorter lengths, and marked and separated it prior to using it for initiative games and other purposes. Consider dismantling, destroying, and at the least clearly marking such gear before putting it in the trash or re-purposing it.

Equipment Records

After reading about proper maintenance of equipment, the importance of maintaining accurate and up-to-date records should shine through. Camps should keep thorough logs of gear including, at the least, purchase date, use (e.g., days the gear was used in the field), needed/completed repairs and maintenance (what was done and when), planned and actual retirement date, and whether the gear has a warranty. As mentioned above, there is a lot of gear and equipment that comes with some kind of warranty, and some brands offer lifetime warranties. Your records should indicate whether the equipment has a warranty, whether you must register the equipment or take some other action for the warranty to be valid, and the nature and length of the warranty. Taking advantage of brand warranties can also save you a great deal of money. Finally, most camps will purchase many identical pieces of gear, so it is also important to tag or label your equipment with system that works for your organization and that distinguishes each piece of gear so that it can be clearly identified for your records.

Someone Else’s Equipment

Intentional management of equipment your camp owns/maintains is critical. But what about the equipment of others, like the beloved personal equipment that staff and campers bring to camp and the equipment of vendors or contractors you hire to lead your campers in an activity?

Camp- and Staff-owned Equipment: Both staff and campers may bring personal equipment to camp and potentially purchase equipment at camp once they arrive. For all equipment that is not owned and provided by the camp, consider a policy that addresses issues related to personal equipment, including whether use of personal equipment on camp program is allowed by the camp and/or if campers and staff may bring such equipment to camp. The nature of the equipment, i.e., a mountain bike versus a day pack or flashlight, which might be required equipment, should help inform this policy. The policy should address equipment storage, security, and potential loss and/or damage and replacement. This is another area where you should consider consulting with an attorney familiar with your program and the applicable laws in your state to help draft your camp’s policy and, when appropriate, draft a release for addressing the camp’s potential legal exposure for loss, damage, or injury resulting from camper or staff use of personal equipment while at camp.

For vendor or contractor equipment: Generally, you are not responsible for the management or maintenance of the equipment used by vendors and contractors. That said, when vetting contractors who you plan hire to guide an activity, it is wise to include questions about equipment management. For example: Do you have an equipment management policy and/or protocol? (If so, ask to see it.) What guidelines do you follow for gear safety checks? Keep track of your questions and the contractor’s answers, and prior to asking, consider the answers you would like to hear from the contractor: What would disqualify a vendor based on their equipment management?


Thorough management of camp equipment can have a positive effect on camper enjoyment of and comfort in camp activities, on the safety of camp activities, and on the camp’s bottom line. Know and train your staff to follow ACA accreditation standards, industry standards and guidelines, and your own camp policies.

Ann McCollum is an attorney at Adams+Crow Law Firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where her law practice has a focus in tort and recreation law. Prior to practicing law, Ann was a risk management consultant for schools’ outdoor programs and summer camps, a school and outdoor educator, and spent many days and nights guiding kids in the backcountry.

This article contains general information only and is not intended to provide specific legal advice.

Photo courtesy of Camp Stella Maris, Livonia, NY