What is Wilderness Therapy? And Does it Work?

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Let me paint you a picture of wilderness therapy. We are sitting in the forest along a mountain trail. The sun is high in the sky, casting golden beams through the green foliage. Within one of those beams sits a young man of 16 years. He sits by himself atop his backpack, boots placed firmly on the ground, elbows on his knees, and his gaze pours out upon the horizon. We walk up and take a seat in the dry dirt beside him.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah.” He replies, a slight smile forming as his eyes continue to behold the scenery before him. “I’m good.”

And he is good. Before this experience, the young man was struggling. He was diagnosed with depression, an anxiety disorder, or ADD/ADHD. He had suicidal ideation and mood stability issues. He developed poor relationships at home or at school due to family conflict or substance abuse. Maybe he was experiencing low self-esteem, entitlement issues, or defiant behavior brought to fruition by bipolar disorder, learning differences, or an autism spectrum disorder. He could be 9 or 13 or 17 years old. Or she could be 9 or 13 or 17 years old.

Whatever the case, in a wilderness setting, where his distractions are withheld and his vulnerability is exposed, will his behavioral and emotional struggles begin to be revived?

The Wilderness Therapy industry for youth and adolescents continues to grow and expand. But do these programs work? The answer to this question is outlined below within my literature review.

Wilderness Therapy Practices that Target a Change in Emotional and Behavioral Characteristics

In one study by Philips-Miller (2002), 12 clients in four different programs were asked for their input about the program post therapy. When asked what parts of the program impacted them the greatest, the clients expressed multiple factors that influences them in a positive manner. Philips-Miller (2002) found a pattern among their answers. These patterns were grouped together into themes. Relationships that were established with the counselors were vital. The peer dynamic aspect taught them a lot. Working independently on tasks allowed them to reflect and think was a helpful part of the process. Lastly, the challenge and structure of the process was a large factor in change according to the clients (Phillips-Miller, 2002). The positive factors expressed in this study are not the only factors that hold a positive impact in the therapeutic process. According to Hill (2007), encouragement is a core component of facilitating wilderness therapy trips. Encouraging the clients is a positive means of motivation. Challenge and stress are also means of motivation used by staff. Clients are expected to used problem solving skills and critical thinking in order to accomplish most of these tasks (Hill 2007). They will become more independent as the program proceeds and these skills are strengthened. Clients are to become less and less dependent on counselors (Autry 2001). Caulkins (2006) believes that the use of reflection is another effective use in wilderness therapy. Reflection is a state of undistracted and relaxed thoughts. Periods of reflecting and journal writing can be used as a means to organize thoughts and understand new emotions and knowledge. The physical aspect of wilderness therapy can also contribute to the expected outcomes. Physical health is related to mental health (Caulkins, 2006).

Establishing Relationship

The impact of the client-staff relationships becomes extremely important during the therapeutic process. Research has shown that strong positive adult-youth relationships deter adolescents from participating in risky behavior. The consistency and constant interaction allows the adolescents to learn from the staff and trust them (Draper, 2009).   Counselors are able to sit and talk to their clients in an informal and relaxed setting without pressure. They are able to use the wilderness to pick out metaphors relating to personal issues. For example, in one instance view by Philips-Miller (2002), a counselor reflects back to a time him and a client sat by a river bank skipping rocks. The calmness and security of the setting allowed the client to open up and express the problems he had/was having with his father at home. He did not share this information because he was feeling pressured to, he shared his insecurities because he felt comfortable enough to want to talk about them (Phillips-Miller, 2002).

Peer dynamics

The clients learn early on in the process that in order to survive, they must trust in their group. They partake in group counseling sessions, which will lead to group cohesion. During group counseling sessions, the clients learn how to express their feelings and reactions to one another. They learn to relate to each other and offer one another help and advice instead of relying on the counselors for emotional support. Hill (2007) describes this process as how trust is formed. Many youth-at-risk have personal trust issues due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. During the program, clients will learn to trust their peers (Hill, 2007). Philips-Miller (2002) believes that the clients persuade each other to comfortably share their insecurities unbeknownst to themselves. During group reflection periods, the group is open to discuss their feelings and emotions. Upon hearing what others are going through, clients relate to each other offering understanding and comfort. They give each other advice and encouragement (Phillips-Miller, 2002).

How Parental Involvement Impacts the Therapy Process

 Many wilderness therapy programs involve the clients’ families into the program. This is an important step to the therapeutic process. Jaccard (2009) has found that there is a direct correlation between children and parents and the outcomes of therapy. He describes that there are three common areas in which parents can alter their child’s life experiences. First, parents display positive and negative behaviors toward their children. Second, conflict between parents and children can alter relationships and openness within the relationships. Thirdly, parental behaviors influence their children’s behaviors. Children learn how to behave and respond by example. The main example in their lives is their parents. Thus, most of the time, parents have a major role in their child’s behavior and emotional problems (Jaccard, 2009).  According to Cooley (2007), involving the family in the therapeutic process has not only been a positive experience for the youth, but also the parents. Adolescents demonstrated increased influence in education, development, and emotional factors. The family is asked to care and support the client through therapy. They are also responsible for follow up care, ensuring that their child maintains positive changes. Agreeing with Autry (2001), Cooley (2007) believes that family involvement has been demonstrated as a major predictor in prevention of delinquency. Even if the family was not involved in a positive way from the beginning, if the family is involved in the therapeutic process and in the post-therapy process, the outcomes will be considerably more positive (Cooley, 2007).

Independent Reflection

Independent reflection is important in the mental health aspect of realizing the need to change negative behaviors and emotions. Reflection is a state of undistracted and relaxed thoughts (Caulkins, 2009). Many programs have a solo time period (Philips-Miller, 2002). Periods of reflecting and journal writing can both be used as a means to organize thoughts and understand new emotions and knowledge (Caulkins, 2009). Gregg (2009) believes journaling is another source of independent reflection. Journal entries are used for reflecting on daily happenings, goals, and outcomes. Research shows that any experience is more effective when reflected upon. The writing of journal entries includes expression, reflection, idea development, and relating academics to reality. Students take responsibility of their own learning and organizing new information (Gregg, 2009).

Challenge and Structure of Process

Wilderness therapy is a very challenging process. There are many adaptations to overcome. For one, the clients are not used to being so physically active. They are not used to the environmental conditions. The environment has been known for its positive effects on youth-at-risk. Clients in the environment away from everyday struggles and obligations are affected in a calming manner (Koole, 2005). Clients are more open to embracing change and expressing emotions in a wilderness setting (Sommer, 1961). According to Koole (2005), nature has not always been known for completely positive aspects though. Since ancient times, nature and death have gone hand-in-hand. The physical and psychological impact on humans based on nature is powerful. Koole (2005) states that nature can be nurturing and soothing, but it can also be related to feelings of vulnerability and helplessness due to its extreme force and unpredictability. Nature is both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Technology and education have made it easier to predict levels of natural elements such as weather patterns and safety concerns. Even with technology, the environment is more powerful and indiscernible than the human mind. The ancient fears of nature and death have not vanished. Society has become more urbanized in the modern era. People have not had as much exposure to untamed wilderness. They tend to display different psychological reactions in different settings. In these situations, youth-at-risk seem to tear through their harsh exterior. The impacts the natural elements have on a client transform their outlook on life forever. Fears of the environment can be an external display of internal psychological struggles. Koole (2005) believes that clients use their fear of nature as a crutch to hide their true fears. Learning how to manage fear is a powerful means of motivation. If clients learn how to defend themselves again extrinsic fear and anxiety of nature, they can later apply these learned attributes by applying them to their intrinsic struggles. Koole (2005) states that each time they use this practice, it gets stronger and stronger. Clients are able to work through fears by using different states-of-mind, which can be applied in different circumstances throughout their lives. Upon finishing the program, clients will be able to explore new atmospheres, are able to deal with anxiety and fear at a more positive level, and are able to decipher between right and wrong decisions (Koole, 2005).


Referring back to the initial scenario, would that young person benefit from wilderness therapy? Would his emotional and behavioral characteristics begin to transform for the positive? After researching wilderness therapy programs, practices, and the therapeutic process, the answer is yes. Youth and adolescents are likely to experience a positive change in perceived emotional and behavioral characteristics following participation in a wilderness therapy program.


Autry, C.E. (2001). Adventure therapy with girls at-risk: Responses to outdoor experiential activities. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 35(4), 289-306.

Caulkins, M. C., Russell, K. C., & White, D. D. (2006). The role of physical exercise in wilderness therapy for troubled adolescent women. Journal of Experiential Education, 29(1), 18-37.

Cooley, R., Cupples, J., Harper, N. J., & Russell, K. C. (2007, June). Catherine Freer wilderness therapy expeditions: An exploratory case study of adolescent wilderness therapy, family functioning, and the maintenance of change. Child Youth Care Forum, 36(2-3), 111-129. Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers.

Draper, C., Duerden, M., Taniguchi, S., & Widmer, M. (2009). The attributes of effective field staff in wilderness programs: Changing youths’ perspectives of being “cool”. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 43(1), 11-26.

Gregg, A. (2009). Journal assignments for student reflections on outdoor programs. The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, & Dance, 80(4), 30-47.

Hill N. R. (2007).Wilderness therapy as a treatment modality for at-risk youth: A primer for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 29(4), 338-349

Jaccard, J., Kurtines, W. M., Pina, A. A., & Silverman, W. K. (2009). Directionality of change in youth anxiety treatment involving parents: An initial examination. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Pyschology, 77(3), 474-485.

Koole, S. L., & Van den Berg, A. E. (2005). Lost in the wilderness: Terror management, action orientation, and nature evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 1014-1028.

Sommer, R. (1961). Psychology in the wilderness. The Canadian Psychologist, 2a(1), 26-29.

Published by Fireflies and Jars

Hello! My name is Tracey Gerlach. Professionally, I am a Positive Psychology Practitioner and a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist. Unprofessionally, I'm a doubting dreamer who's just trying to make every moment count. Follow along!

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