4 Keys to Building Passionate Outdoor Communities

UAB Outdoor Recreation Center in action on the rapids.Introduction:

Navigating the opening of an Outdoor Center can feel like an immense task. While many aspects of recreational programming remain consistent no matter where you are or who your students are, an Outdoor Center can take on many different identities and serve a variety of purposes. Below are four key considerations for opening a successful Outdoor Ccenter. These can be used as guidelines to ensure that no matter the identity and role your Outdoor Center plays on campus, the quality of its function will remain high and consistent.


One (1) Big Choice for Your Outdoor Center


When opening an outdoor center, it’s important to understand its intended purpose and alignment with the university’s mission and vision. No one outdoor center is the same. Therefore, it’s very important to understand that what might work in one area or on one campus, might not be the most appropriate at another. Needs and goals vary by campus, and the user groups of these spaces should serve as the direct guideline for how you craft your Outdoor Center. There are typically two main approaches to an Outdoor Center’s function.

Outdoor Resource Center

DePaul Outdoor Recreation patrons enjoy nature and community together.

An Outdoor Resource Center operation focuses primarily on providing its users access to surrounding outdoor areas. This is generally accomplished through a diverse offering of equipment rentals and access to educational resources for both equipment uses and the local areas in which you can enjoy your rentals.

These educational resources include online databases customized to the specific programs, a library area with literature, guide books, maps, and manuals in outdoor recreation, and a designed space to plan and map out your experience.

A secondary focus of this approach would be the intentional education of how to use the equipment in your rental inventory. Through technical skill integration, this would allow an outdoor resource center to engage more invested users through clinics, seminars, courses, etc.

Traditional Outdoor Program Approach

On the other hand, an Outdoor Program approach to the outdoor centers function is often seen as the more traditional choice for campus Outdoor Centers. Similar to an Outdoor Resource Center, these programs include rental services along with means to educate and develop users’ technical skills.

What differentiates the Program approach from the Outdoor Resource Center approach is the addition of outdoor programs that allow users to take these newly acquired or refined skills and extend them into meaningful experiences through an off-campus trips program.

Both of these options can be implemented successfully at your campus. The most successful option is the one that best serves your university’s mission and vision. It is important to note however, you must at first identify the type of Outdoor Center approach you want to take before you can accurately decide on the facility design that best fits your outdoor center’s needs.

Two (2) Important Stakeholders to Consider in Facility Design


When considering the needs and function of your Outdoor Center’s facility design, there are two main perspectives you must consider, the users and the staff.

City kayakers at CENTERS at DePaul.

User-Centric Design

The first and most important consideration is the user’s perspective of the facility spaces.

It’s important that the designed space caters to the equipment rental process as seamlessly as possible. Plenty of room and space for equipment to be checked out, cleaned, dried after being washed, and even repaired are all important factors that every Outdoor Center will encounter.

Additionally, making sure that there’s enough space for these operational necessities will ensure that your users will spend less time in the check-out line and more time engaging in the outdoors with their rented equipment. A positive equipment checkout experience is the key to greatly increasing the likelihood of first-time users returning to the Outdoor Center.

Another important factor to consider from a user’s perspective is the ease of passage from the Outdoor Center to the user’s mode of transportation. For example, if an Outdoor Center is located centrally within a facility on the bottom floor, but the doors to access the parking lot are on the second floor by the entrance, a patron can have a fairly difficult time maneuvering around with all the equipment they just rented. Items such as camping equipment would be challenging enough, but lugging around a bike or a kayak would be all but impossible to do. Therefore, it is extremely important to ensure that the facility design prioritizes exterior access adjacency to the Outdoor Center.

Designing for Staff Satisfaction

The second perspective to consider in facility design is the staffing perspective.

As we previously mentioned, intentional spaces for cleaning equipment are very important for proper operational functionality and customer experience. Spaces like these often serve as a multifunctional-area for reserved equipment, equipment that needs repair, and any equipment that’s pulled for an upcoming trip.

In addition, for both Outdoor Resource Centers and Traditional Outdoor Programs, access to a washing machine and an area for meal preparation is extremely valuable.

With cleanliness and hygiene being a key element of risk management in any outdoor program, having the ability to clean equipment and prepare meals for trips, clinics and more at a high-quality level will set staff up for success, which will positively impact staff satisfaction and ultimately the user’s experience.

Three (3) Keys to Operational Success of Your Outdoor Center 

When developing policies and procedures for the outdoor center, it’s important to focus on the factors that make an outdoor centers operation sustainable.  Equipment, users, and risk management are all key ingredients for a successful outdoor center.  

CENTERS at employee at JSU adventure rec department check out a backpack to a patron.

Rental Agreement 

The first consideration to addressing each of these is the use of an equipment rental agreement form.  

An equipment rental agreement is a legally binding document that is used to rent equipment from one party to another for a fixed period of time.  Its purpose is to define in clear and thorough terms each party’s responsibilities and obligations.  This agreement includes terms such as the rental duration, rental rates, damage, replacement, and late return fees, and instructions on how to use and return the equipment.   

The rental agreement also serves as a reference to enforce late, damaged, or replacement fees.  Depreciation is something every Outdoor Center has to manage, so the more detailed you can make your rental agreement , the better you will be able to manage depreciation and extend the life of the rental equipment.   

Quality Control 

Developing consistent policies and procedures will extend the life of the rental equipment.  For example, when a user rents a canoe, it’s simple to immediately assess the condition of a canoe.  There are no parts or pieces, it’s just one single boat.   

A tent on the other hand has three parts, with other components such as stakes.  It consists of multiple types of fabrics and is generally housed in a stuff sack.  Rather than simply checking out a tent to a user, procedures should include user set up of the tent (with a staff member) upon check out and return of the tent.  This allows both parties to evaluate the condition of the tent and ensure that all the pieces and parts are accounted for.  This not only assists staff in consistently keeping track of the condition of the equipment, but it also allows the user to learn how to set up the tent, see the condition of the tent so that both parties can expect the same upon return, and so the user can be confident in the quality control of the equipment before using it in the field.  A simple policy such as this can really ensure that the staff, the users, and the equipment are all in sync.   

Staff Training 

When you consider Outdoor Center operations, the first thing that should naturally come to mind is staff onboarding and training.  This is integral to your user experience and creating returning customers. 

Often, you will be staffing individuals for your program that have limited to almost no outdoor experience.  That’s ok!  Even in the most robust outdoor centers, it is a rarity to have applicants with a ton of outdoor experience apply for a part-time position.  It’s important to understand that looking for someone with outdoor experience is a secondary goal.  The main quality to find is their ability to interact and relate with people.   

Outdoor knowledge and skills can be taught.  Being able to engage with people in a quality way is unique and perhaps the most important skill one can have while managing an outdoor center.  Even if hard skill training methods need to be outsourced from local providers, zeroing in on the staff’s ability to “outfit” versus “selling” items to a user is going to be the top priority of the managers.   

For example, if a user were to rent a backpack, virtually anyone can grab the item, ring up the total, have the user fill out forms, and then that’s the end of that transaction.  However, if that same user were to rent a backpack and the staff member began the interaction by asking questions about what activity they are planning to do and where they are going to do that activity, the staff member is able to use their expertise to “outfit” the user with the best backpack for the user’s stated needs. With “outfitting” the staff are gaining more information with each question and then providing the users with the necessary recommendations, suggestions, and education about what they need and how to best use the equipment for their adventure.   

This is the difference between a simple transaction and a high-quality customer experience.  Users who are engaged in these meaningful experiences will continue to find ways to stay engaged in other aspects of the Outdoor Center, ultimately creating a community.  Once that community is created, you’ll have the foundational following to take your Outdoor Center to new heights. 

Four (4) Planning for Program Evolution

Now that the cornerstone pieces of opening an Outdoor Center are put together, recognizing and managing growth is essential for long-term success.   

CENTERS at JSU Adventure Rec Center

Open Spaces  

Do not be tempted to fill “open” or “empty” spaces with more equipment and additional furniture.  As a program grows, it will be important to have open spaces for programming.  These areas are flexible and can be great spaces for clinics, meetings and special events. 

Balanced Equipment Offerings 

Resist the urge to acquire advanced types of outdoor equipment for your users.  As a program grows, it will feel natural to try and mimic the growth you’ll see in your community, in what you’re offering to your users.  Chances are, when a repeat user comes to rent equipment, perhaps go on a trip, or attend a few clinics, their competence in equipment knowledge and use continues to grow along with their confidence in their outdoor skills.  At some point, they may not feel the need to utilize your Outdoor Center for its rentals, trips, and clinics.   

It’s incredibly important to keep your rental equipment inventory accessible to first-time users.  Equipment should be accessible to users in how to use the equipment and accessibility from an affordability perspective for the population in which you’re serving.  If equipment becomes too expensive or if there’s a large learning gap in how to actually apply the rental outdoors, chances are you’ll be turning away a lot of first-time users.   

Managers will still be able to engage with their more experienced users through festivals, special events, expeditionary-style trips, and hosting affinity groups.  However, focusing on the first-time and newer users will support the goal of sustaining a healthy Outdoor Center community in your area or on your campus.   

In conclusion, a well-crafted Outdoor Center evolves with strategic approaches, thoughtful facility design, and sustainable operations, creating a vibrant community around outdoor recreation. 

Paul Killen, Associate Director of Adventure Recreation of CENTERS at Jacksonville State University climbing rock wall.

About the Author:  Paul Killen, the Associate Director of Adventure Recreation of CENTERS at Jacksonville State University is a foremost authority on climbing. Paul holds certifications such as the Climbing Wall Instructor Provider Certification and the Professional Climbing Instructors Association (PCIA) Top Rope Climbing Instructor Certification. These credentials empower CENTERS to not only train climbing instructors but also to uphold the industry-recognized standard of practice, surpassing the competence levels typically found in commercial gyms across the United States. Paul is dedicated to ensuring that CENTERS’ climbing program remains at the forefront of excellence.  Read more.