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Is Wilderness Therapy Effective During Rehab?

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.

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 health through exercise and sleep
  • Understanding negative thought patterns
  • Greater self-confidence and self-awareness
  • Improved depression and anxiety
  • Success-oriented strategies and goals
  • Developing 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 in wilderness therapy:


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 a single gender, while young adult wilderness therapy groups may be co-ed more often.
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 of time 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 a 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.


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.

Wilderness 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.