Wilderness therapy is a type of adventure therapy that is offered through many drug abuse, addiction, and mental health treatment programs. It is generally designed for youths, adolescents, and young adults.

It is a nontraditional form of therapy that takes people out into nature with trained professionals to learn survival skills through camping and hiking. The therapy addresses mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and negative behaviors and actions.

Wilderness therapy can improve self-esteem and self-confidence while showing participants that they can learn to rely on themselves in nature. Connections with peers can enhance communication and interpersonal relationship skills.

Wilderness therapy can be an effective method for improving quality of life, gaining sobriety, and enhancing recovery for adolescents and young adults.

History of Wilderness Therapy

The wilderness is an area that has been used to achieve personal development for decades. Something as simple as walking along the beach, climbing to the top of a mountain, drifting through whitewater rapids, or sitting on a park bench can help someone recognize the benefits of outdoor activity.

Over the last five decades, there have been varying research efforts to demonstrate the efficacy of using the wilderness as a therapeutic intervention. The wilderness is a powerful way to build character in teenagers and those entering young adulthood.

The earliest research into wilderness therapy identifies four benefits of wilderness therapy and treatment that takes place in a natural environment.

These include:

  • Develop resilience
  •  Develops internal control
  •  Builds self-esteem
  •  Promotes personal growth and maturity

Students that were enrolled in programs including a  therapeutic approach often internalize their insight and emotional resilience at a more rapid rate. In addition, it lasts longer than those enrolled in programs that are more recreationally focused.

Pros of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy involves taking a person away from all the pressures of everyday life. It can provide an outlet for a person to open up and get out of the confines of traditional therapy settings.

Individuals are taken out into the wilderness for several weeks, usually between eight and 10, and taught how to survive. There is literally nowhere to hide out in nature, and trained professionals spend every hour of every day supervising and encouraging the group.

The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes that wilderness therapy can provide a way for defensive barriers to be broken down more easily, encouraging people to open up more than they might inside the walls of a residential treatment center.

The total escape and hiatus from screens and everyday life pressures can provide new insight and a higher level of consciousness.

In Wilderness Therapy, A Person Can Learn and Gain the Following:

  •  Appreciation for nature
  •  Self-reliance and improved coping strategies
  •  Better communication and social skills
  •  Improved physical state through healthy eating, physical exertion, and decent sleep
  •  An understanding of how specific thought patterns are negative and ways to modify them positively
  •  Greater self-confidence and self-awareness
  •  Improved depression and anxiety
  •  Success-oriented strategies and goals
  •  More developed self-control and emotional regulation

Participating in a wilderness therapy program can help a person understand what actions and thoughts may have led to drug use initially. They can learn how to manage potential triggers, develop healthier habits, and minimize instances of relapse going forward.

When people feel better about themselves, recognize that drug use is unhealthy, and see that it is creating negative behaviors and outcomes, they are less likely to return to using drugs.

According to studies published in Psychology Today, the majority of wilderness program participants (83 percent) showed sustained positive emotional and behavioral results a year after completing a program.

The Ins and Outs of Wilderness Therapy

Generally speaking, a person entering a wilderness therapy program is not there by choice. Parents often use one of these programs as a way to reach a seemingly unreachable teenager.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that drug abuse and addiction treatment can be just as effective when it is involuntary as when it is voluntary.

It doesn’t seem to matter how a person gets into a treatment program. It only matters that they stay in it and participate fully. Wilderness therapy programs can ensure this.

This is what is involved:


The first step in wilderness therapy is an initial assessment wherein the person is evaluated and placed into a group of peers with the right combination of counselors, therapists, and trained professionals. Teenage groups are typically single-gender, while young adult wilderness therapy groups may be co-ed.

Similar individuals are placed in groups together to enhance peer support. This encourages participants to open up to each other and find those positive connections.


Groups are taken out into the wilderness for a period where they will engage in survival skills, physical activity, and group and individual therapy sessions. The New York Times explains that wilderness therapy programs provide a space where individuals only have themselves to think about and can, therefore, focus solely on personal recovery.

During the program, participants will camp, start fires, cook their own food, and spend time during the day in group and individual therapy sessions talking to professionals and each other. They learn how to build healthy connections and improve negative thought and behavior patterns.

Therapy and counseling can be provided exactly at the moment, as the program is “on” 24/7. Professionals are always on hand, able to intervene, and offer support and care when needed.

Phone calls home may occur once a week, often on a set schedule through satellite phones. Parents are regularly apprised of a child’s progress on at least a weekly basis.

Self-reflection and peer support

There is ample time for self-reflection and opportunities to gain insight into oneself that might not have been garnered in a traditional setting. Peer support can encourage individuals who may have been hesitant to open up to let down their guard more and receive positive feedback.

Wilderness therapy can help participants discover who they are, how they fit into society and with others, how to rely on themselves first, and how to take pride in themselves.

This kind of therapy can help to decrease drug use and minimize relapse. It can also improve a person’s overall quality of life and sense of well-being.

Exposure to the Therapeutic Wilderness Setting

For most, living in the wilderness is a significant change in their daily environment. Some of us live in big cities and have never been exposed to the wilderness. The opportunity to immerse yourself in the beauty of nature presents an opportunity for people to try something new and overcome obstacles. Research has also shown that exposure to the outdoors can drastically reduce anxiety and depression. It can also improve:

  •  Better executive functioning
  •  Increased problem solving
  •  Critical thinking or decision making
  •  Reduced ADD/ADHD symptoms, which contribute to depression and anxiety
  •  Improved clarity

Therapeutic Group Living

Group living is one of the aspects that is most effective in battling depression or anxiety.

Depression in adolescence typically stems from unresolved developmental conflicts, issues relating to separation, and the search for identity or development of the true self.

Wilderness therapy can be used to address developmental, intrapsychic, and relational factors that contribute to depression. It is achieved with therapy, group living, and adventure activities.

A primary cause of emotional and behavioral disturbances in our youth is linked to a lack of significant relationships with the social and natural world.

Wilderness therapy is a powerful means of treating adolescent depression.

It will address helplessness, feelings of worthlessness, dependency, and all of the negative emotions stemming from depression.

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