Wilderness Therapy

Calendar icon Last Updated: 06/27/2024

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Wilderness therapy is an alternative therapy for substance abuse that takes place in the great outdoors, and that helps patients overcome addiction by exposing them to challenging situations in nature. Wilderness therapy is often geared toward children and adolescents but can be therapeutic for nearly anyone who needs help developing responsibility, self-esteem, and important life and interpersonal skills as part of addiction recovery.

What is Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy, also known as adventure-based therapy, allows patients to spend the majority of their recovery time outdoors performing a series of tasks and activities designed to build character, confidence, and self-esteem. Patients are placed in an unfamiliar outdoor environment and made to learn primitive skills such as building and starting fires and traveling in the backcountry. The processes used in wilderness therapy are designed to address problem behaviors surrounding substance abuse by fostering personal, social, and emotional growth.

Wilderness therapy programs use many of the same evidenced and practiced methods as those used in traditional rehab settings, such as individual and group therapy, family therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. These programs are often facilitated by licensed therapists and counselors who develop individualized treatment plans for each patient. Wilderness therapy features therapeutic assessment, intervention, and treatment of problem behaviors, and assessment of outcomes. Though wilderness therapy is available for anyone in recovery from addiction, this program is mainly used by younger individuals between the ages of 12 and 17.

What are the Benefits of Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy is a unique mental health and substance abuse treatment that helps adolescents grow in healthy ways both physically and mentally. This therapy teaches individuals how to become more independent and self-aware, and how to work with and get along better with others.

Benefits of wilderness therapy:

  • Develop a greater sense of self, self-control, and self-identity
  • Improve and nurture physical health to help boost mental health and prevent substance abuse
  • Learn important survival skills to help generate feelings of self-empowerment
  • Develop new, healthy, and productive relationships and connections
  • Develop healthier thought-processes and behaviors
  • View previous environments and problems in a new light to promote healing after being removed from problematic environments
  • Learn multiple personal and interpersonal skills, including coping and communication skills
  • Gain heightened awareness and education surrounding drug and alcohol use
  • Learn to avoid negative peer and cultural influences driving addiction and behavior problems
  • Gain a better understanding of the consequences of certain actions
  • Strengthen relationships with family members

The elements of wilderness therapy teach people more about personal and social responsibilities and offer a safe environment in which these valuable lessons can be applied. The activities involved with wilderness therapy help patients develop a better internal focus on control and a greater sense of self-worth. A major advantage to wilderness therapy is being able to go completely outside your former environment to a basic, primal place where you can get to know yourself better at your core. These healthy outdoor environments are usually far different from the places where substances are used and can facilitate full healing.

How Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Wilderness therapy programs often use many of the same therapies as those used in traditional rehab settings, but customize them for outdoor settings. For instance, counselors may chat one-on-one with patients throughout the day as they cook together, go hiking, or perform various other activities. Patients generally report feeling more at ease in these casual settings than in structured, professional clinical settings. Group therapy, however, usually takes place when all patients are present at mealtimes or around the campfire together after dinner.

Before wilderness therapy begins, treatment professionals meet with and assess patients to create individualized treatment plans that determine which actions are needed to help them overcome substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders. A proper assessment helps ensure patients are placed with therapists and peers who can relate to similar issues. Parents of teens who receive wilderness therapy usually work directly with clinical supervisors to develop relapse prevention plans, so the necessary support is in place should a relapse occur.

Wilderness therapy is available in the form of expedition therapy and base camp programs. Expedition therapy typically lasts anywhere between three and eight weeks and requires patients to stay outdoors continuously on an expedition for the duration of treatment. Base camp programs are more structured and allow patients to leave on expeditions that last for a period of time and return to the base camp for follow-up activities. In addition to receiving therapy, patients take part in activities such as backpacking, white-water rafting, building shelters, starting fires, and navigating through the wilderness using a compass. Periods of alone time for introspection are an important part of many wilderness programs.

There are three main phases in wilderness therapy:

  1. Cleansing phase: Patients are removed from their usual environments and made to face many challenges while responsibilities and physical activity levels are increased. This makes patients more vulnerable and receptive to therapy.
  2. Personal and social responsibility phase: Patients learn to foster a greater appreciation for friends, family, home comforts, and necessities in the wilderness such as food and water, and have spent time reflecting.
  3. Transition and aftercare phase: Patients are finally able to appreciate living a simple and primitive lifestyle, and have found balance and harmony with natural processes.

Treatment centers that offer wilderness therapy will provide you with all the information you need surrounding what type of clothing and equipment you should bring with you to therapy. Otherwise, there is no other specific preparation, and you’ll be provided with everything else you need at the treatment center. 

Who Should Get Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy is most ideal for children and teens with substance use disorders who may feel isolated and lack support from friends, parents, and guardians. Wilderness therapy can help youth build confidence and self-esteem — especially those who turn to substance abuse for lacking these same qualities. Kids who are prone to disagree with others and who lack motivations and goals may also benefit from wilderness therapy.

Parents who consider choosing wilderness therapy for their children should confirm that these programs are facilitated by qualified therapists and professionals since not all “outdoor experience” camps are therapeutic and geared toward substance abuse and mental health. Wilderness therapy programs for addiction should also keep in touch with families during treatment to keep parents in the loop about their children’s recovery. Family involvement is an important aspect of wilderness therapy and can help children and their parents strengthen ties and bonds with each other from afar.

Where Can I Find Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy is becoming a more widely accepted alternative therapy to traditional substance abuse and mental health treatments geared toward youth. Many health insurers do not cover wilderness therapy at this time; however, many of these programs are working to gain accreditation so they can become more widely available through insurance companies.

To gain accreditation, wilderness therapy programs must do the following:

  • Develop individualized treatment plans for each patient
  • Provide supervision by professional clinical staff members
  • Provide regular medical check-ups by licensed medical staff
  • Have appropriate safety backup procedures in place for wilderness-related emergencies
  • Ensure that patients consume a set number of calories every day to maintain good health

Wilderness therapy programs can be accredited on both the state and federal levels. Contact your health insurance company directly to confirm that some or all costs of wilderness therapy are covered under your policy.