Is Wilderness Therapy or Adventure Therapy A Better Choice?

If you or a loved one needs to make a change in their life while experiencing the great outdoors, a wilderness or adventure therapy program is a good start. But which one is right for you?

The concept of using experiences in nature to enhance the mental condition of people with specific health and mental health conditions has been around for over one hundred years.

The positive effects of nature on the human psyche are well-documented. Wilderness and adventure therapy help teens and adults face their challenges and overcome them.

Let’s explore how these experiences can help.

What Is Wilderness Therapy?

Growing up in today’s world is stressful for teens, and as a parent, you want to find a way to help them. If your child is interested in nature and likes adventure, they might benefit from wilderness or adventure therapy.

People often use the terms wilderness therapy programs, adventure therapy programs, outdoor therapy programs, and nature therapy interchangeably, but some distinct differences set them apart.

Campsite with tents at the base of a mountain

Outdoor therapy is an all-encompassing term that people use to include any type of therapy that uses nature and takes place in an outdoor setting. Wilderness therapy is a type of program where teens and young adults are away from their everyday environment and placed in an unfamiliar one in the natural world. 

They are challenged by learning to survive in nature. During this process, they learn strategies for coping with the mental stresses and challenges of the family and society. It is a treatment that focuses on taking them away from familiar triggers to focus on the issue or behavior.

One of the most significant advantages of wilderness therapy programs is that teens learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. They learn to draw on their inner resources to overcome the challenges they face individually and as a group. 

They learn to build and maintain relationships through shared experiences and to work together. A wilderness therapy program increases a teen’s belief in their ability to overcome challenges (self-efficacy), and it builds self-confidence and resilience.

How Long Are the Programs?

You can find shorter and longer programs according to your child’s needs. Many of them use the nomadic model, an uninterrupted nature therapy experience. There are no cell phones and no distractions. The staff is their only interaction with the outside world. 

These programs are usually longer, with most between three and four weeks. Some programs are as long as 6-10 weeks. During this time, the teens must work with their group to build shelters, cook their food, and learn primitive survival skills. Then, they tear down camp, move to a different location, and set it up again.

They will learn to tie knots, build a fire using primitive methods, and have experiences like hanging off a 100-foot cliff or exploring a cave. They must work with their group to create a comfortable, sturdy shelter in the backcountry. It teaches them accountability, trust, and how to interact appropriately with others.

What Is Adventure Therapy?

Adventure-based therapy focuses on shorter programs and often employs a base camp model. This therapy often uses man-made obstacles that the teens must confront as individuals and in groups.

These challenges are designed to help them overcome their fears, work as a team, and to help them learn to provide constructive encouragement to others.

Woman rock climbing for adventure therapy

Adventure-based therapy uses more physically challenging activities and has a higher perceived element of risk. The activities can include rope courses, rock climbing, ziplining, canopy walks, rappelling off cliffs, crossing high rope bridges, and other similar tasks. They might go white water rafting or on a long-distance hike. Some of the activities require them to rely on others and develop trust.

These programs can run from one to three weeks. They are also higher in cost because they involve specialized equipment and facilities. The instructors are well-versed in counseling and the physical demands of the courses.

As with wilderness therapy programs, the activities will give the teen self-confidence in managing life’s daily stresses. After facing your fears of heights by zip lining or rappelling, it tends to put other challenges in perspective.

Similarities of Adventure Therapy and Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness-based therapy and adventure-based therapy are similar in their goals and take place in nature. They both take teens out of their everyday daily lives to focus on introspection and self-development. Both take them away from their usual coping mechanisms and influences.

These therapies can teach them methods to solve their problems themselves. A better alternative than turning to the outside world for answers.

Guide leading hikers for wilderness therapy

Many teens today have never spent any real time out in nature. Through these programs, they understand the natural world and how they fit into it. They can develop a sense of connection with something larger than themselves. 

Whether you choose wilderness or adventure-based therapy, the programs are focused on meeting the individual’s specific goals. A licensed counselor will develop the programs and work to ensure each teen is a good fit.

Entrance into the programs is based on the specific needs of the teen and what they can gain from the program. Both programs are goal-oriented, using nature as a teaching model.

What Is the Difference Between Adventure Therapy and Wilderness Therapy?

The main difference between adventure-based therapy and wilderness-based therapy is the types of activities offered.

With adventure-based therapy, the programs are more physically challenging. Teens must overcome their fears, such as the fear of heights or falling, and they must learn to push through physical struggles. The challenges in adventure therapy are both physical and emotional.

Feet on an adventure therapy course

With wilderness therapy programs, the challenges are more mental and less physically demanding. Wilderness-based therapy focuses on physical and emotional self-reliance. The teen will learn to survive in the wilderness. 

They will build shelter, forage for food, learn to build a fire, and discover other necessary skills for survival. In the end, they always know that they have the basic skills required to overcome any challenges that they face in the world. It is more about building a functioning community and living in it as a group for the common good of all.

Both wilderness and adventure-based therapy require teens to work as a group. The main difference is the type of challenges that they face. When out in nature, they will have time to think and reflect on how they can apply the skills learned to their daily lives when they return to their families and communities.

Benefits of Outdoor Therapy

Outdoor therapy has many benefits. We have already discussed building self-confidence and learning to overcome fears. The staff acts as role models, providing an example of how to respond to different situations.

Teens can see that they are not alone and that other teens face the same challenges they do. They learn to work together as a team and learn to take responsibility for their actions.

Wilderness therapy calms our minds

Adventure and wilderness-based therapy are not a cure-all, and it is important to continue to work with trained counselors and psychologists.

Mental health and behavioral issues cannot be overcome in such a short time, but these programs can enhance the therapy modes with which your child is already familiar. The adventure can give your therapist a new tool to build on to achieve the long-term results you desire.

Is Wilderness or Adventure Therapy Better?

Most teens come out of these experiences changed in a way that will stay with them for a lifetime. You will be surprised to find that many counselors and staff members were once-troubled teens themselves who participated in one of these programs.

Your teen will form bonds and friendships that can last a lifetime. These are only a few ways that wilderness and outdoor programs can help troubled teens.

Benefits of wilderness therapy

As far as which one is better, it all depends on your teen and their needs. If you have a teen who is active and likes physically challenging things, then the adventure route might be the best one for them.

If your child is more intellectual and likes to solve complex problems, then a wilderness therapy program might be better. It also depends on therapy goals and finding a program that is a good match in terms of the desired outcomes. 

Wrap Up

Many different programs are out there, and they all have a slightly different focus. Take your time finding one that is a good fit. Your teen’s counselor might know some good programs that would be the perfect match.

The main thing to keep in mind is these programs are fun, but the primary purpose is to help your teen grow and overcome their challenges. You should always keep your goals in mind when looking for the right program.

If you are an adult or have a teen with particular challenges, you might want to check out a few of the available programs in your area.

Both adventure-based therapy and wilderness-based therapy are transformative, and you might be surprised at the person who comes back from the adventure. It is a proven treatment model that is perfect if your teen is up to the challenge.

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