The Truth About Wilderness Therapy: Why It Should Be Considered

Being in nature has a calming effect on us. It has a proven ability to relieve stress and provide a positive environment for traditional therapy. Wilderness or outdoor therapy leverages the impact of nature on the human psyche to provide a secure environment for learning coping skills and helping with a wide range of mental health issues.

Several different forms of wilderness-based therapy exist, each of which has unique advantages, disadvantages, and appropriateness for certain individuals. Let’s explore wilderness therapy a little more and see if it might be right for you or a loved one who is struggling.

Does It Work?

The first thing you will probably ask is if it works. The short answer is yes, but it is not right for everyone. Wilderness therapy is more than just a camping trip. It has a specific goal in mind.

The goal of the therapy is worked out with a professional wilderness therapist, and a program is developed according to the individual’s needs. Outdoor therapy is not a “cure,” but it can give the therapist another tool that they can use to help break through challenges.

Wilderness or outdoor therapy uses many of the same techniques as conventional therapy that takes place in an office, only it focuses on improving one’s self-perception, relationship with the environment, and learning to build positive relationships with others.

It has been shown to be effective for help with troubled teens, addictions, depression, and family issues. A recent article had this to say about this mode of therapy,

“Wilderness therapy does three things very well: assess the issues, help the young person develop coping strategies, and emerge with a more positive sense of self and hope for the future.” Psychology Today

Of course, the best way to decide if this mode of therapy is suitable for you or your loved one is to talk to your professional. It does have a long history of achieving positive results for many.

Why Does It Work?

One of the main benefits of this type of therapy is that it takes the person out of their normal environment and away from the routines and daily triggers that they encounter. This alone can have a positive effect. This break from the typical routine gives the person a chance to examine their feelings and develop new perspectives.

With this different outlook, the person can develop new ways of coping and behaving that they can carry with them when they return to their everyday lives. These programs design challenges that the person must overcome. Some of these challenges are both emotional and physical, such as setting up a camp that will provide protection and comfort.

They build a sense of connection by sharing this experience with other teens who face similar issues in their daily lives. Some adventure therapy programs help build self-confidence through facing fears using activities like white water rafting or ziplining.

The concept is based on building confidence that they can use to manage the challenges that they face every day in their lives. Some of these challenges put the other difficulties in their lives in proper perspective and give them a different way of viewing them.

Who Does Wilderness Therapy Help?

Wilderness-based therapy has been used for those with a wide range of challenges and mental health issues. Here is a shortlist of issues that a wilderness therapy or adventure therapy program might help.

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Divorce and family conflict
  • Self-esteem and identity development
  • Behavioral issues and school failure
  • Emotional trauma and traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Asperger’s and autism
  • Eating disorders and body image issues
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Suicide ideation and self-harm
  • Learning disabilities
  • Anger issues and violence
  • Mood disorders
  • Oppositional and Defiant Disorder

This is only an example of the types of issues wilderness and adventure therapy can help. Many of the programs have teens and young adults in mind. You can find programs for younger children and adults, but these are more difficult to find.

Types of Outdoor Behavioral Therapy

There are many different types of programs, but most of them fall into several different categories. You can find both therapeutic and non-therapeutic programs. Both of these can be helpful, but if you are looking for a program to help with specific issues, you need to make sure the program that you choose meets your needs.


The first decision is whether you need to choose a therapeutic or non-therapeutic program. The key difference between these two types of programs is that a therapeutic program is directed by a clinical psychologist or licensed therapist. They have specific goals and are made to produce a certain outcome.

Some camps center around a theme or are meant for those with particular clusters of issues. You might find programs for those who have suffered loss, are having difficulty in school, or are experiencing depression or anxiety. These programs have activities designed to address specific issues and challenges related to the condition.


Non-therapeutic programs include gap year programs, summer camps, and adventure travel. These programs are not designed to address specific clinical issues and are not designed by a practicing clinician. You will still get some benefits from these programs, like relaxation, stepping away from the normal routine, building self-esteem, and broadening your perspective, but they will not meet certain clinical outcomes.

Programs typically fall into two different types. They are based on either the nomadic model or the adventure therapy model. Here is an overview of both of these types of programs.

Nomadic Model

With the Nomadic Model, teens learn survival skills like fire building, setting up camp, gathering and preparing food, and other skills. The focus is on adapting to the environment and learning to cope with uncomfortable circumstances. This is most often what people mean by the term “wilderness therapy.”

They are typically longer programs and can range from 6-10 weeks. During the program, the group will set up camp and then tear it down, move to a new location, and do it again. Through this experience, they will grow as a group and grow in their confidence to cope with challenges.

Basecamp Model-Adventure Therapy

The Basecamp model is also known as adventure therapy. It is more focused on overcoming physical and emotional challenges. This camp is usually shorter and can range from a week to two weeks in length.

Mountain biking for adventure therapy

During this program, the person will face challenges and develop strategies to overcome them. They might involve long hikes, obstacle courses, rope courses, rappelling off cliffs, and other physical challenges. These programs build self-confidence by learning to self-regulate when faced with challenges that have an element of risk involved.

Things To Look For in Wilderness Therapy Programs

If you think that a wilderness or adventure therapy program sounds right for you or your child, here are a few questions you should ask to choose a program that is the right match.

  • Does a clinical therapist, wilderness therapist, or licensed counselor design the program?
  • What are the specific goals of the program, and how will they be achieved?
  • How often will students shower, and how do they manage basic care?
  • What will my child eat? Who prepares the meals?
  • How do you manage food allergies and medication?
  • How do you handle teens who run from the program, and has this ever happened?
  • Do you have a plan for emergencies and extreme temperatures?
  • Are you prepared to handle my child on his or her worst day?

Outdoor therapy is an excellent way to learn coping mechanisms and ways to deal with the stresses that we face every day. Certain programs are effective for specific issues.

Many people find them to be fun, but they are also able to address their individual needs and develop new coping skills. The most important thing to do is to talk to your professional and find a program that is right for you and meets your needs.

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