Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is a mode of treatment that utilizes aspects of the outdoors to address and treat mental health or addiction issues. From the landscape to the weather, wilderness therapy uses the environment to develop new coping strategies and a positive attitude for participants.

Like general adventure therapy, wilderness therapy gets participants out of the standard confinement of classroom-based treatment. It puts them in a position to learn about the outdoors, have fun, and heal. In wilderness therapy, participants learn endurance and the ability to adapt to their surroundings. 

How Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Physical, emotional, and social environments are all essential parts of wilderness therapy. The goal is to provide non-critical, safe, and supportive conditions that allow for self-discovery. 

A new environment and proper therapy allow participants to evaluate behaviors that lead to adverse outcomes in their lives. Here are a few principles that make wilderness therapy work:

  • The detachment of everyday life: a break from the stimulation required for modern daily life.
  • Exercise, sleep, and healthy eating: wilderness therapy promotes a healthy lifestyle through physical and emotional challenges.
  • No negative influences: Unproductive views and habits challenge participants through skills training, team building, and primitive self-preservation exercises. 
  • Therapy: Individual and group sessions.

Wilderness therapy duplicates the adversity found in social structures. While learning these lessons in the wilderness, participants gain healthy relationships, self-confidence, and the ability to process feedback. 

Addiction Recovery and Wilderness Therapy 

Those suffering from addiction tend to be heavily self-focused. Time spent in nature can promote a shift in perspective, which often leads to a feeling of refreshment. By giving participants new scenery, it encourages recovery.

Participants find a deep respect for nature. It evokes intense human emotions, which sometimes counteracts the participant’s anxiety about their current situation. Outdoor activities offer challenges that reset thought routine, which leads to very favorable treatment. 

Thought Patterns 

A person’s mood is essential to positive thought patterns. The grounding aspects of nature combined with new and colorful scenery promote positive mood changes. Rumination and intrusive thoughts cease, granting the opportunity to present ideas and emotions needed to persevere in the outdoors. 

When negative thoughts do arise, professionals are available for individual or group therapy. In this environment, participants may find it easier to unravel their negative thoughts.


Dealing with addiction is both physically and mentally demanding. Withdrawal symptoms leave people physically exhausted, while the mental aspects of addiction usually lead to self-esteem issues. 

Wilderness therapy aims to make people feel good about the choices they make. Since participants often come from a time when they aren’t proud of their decision-making, we strive to expose participants’ positive values. Accomplishment and satisfaction are important aspects of building self-esteem. Wilderness therapy offers opportunities for people to build on their self-esteem and self-image.

Mindful Attention

Activities in the wild make it necessary for us to tune in. Manual labor and working with fire or creatively constructing brings the mind in focus. The lack of screen time and social media also refocuses the mind. By bringing the mind to the present, we begin to feel safe and calm.

Instead of worrying about the future, participants center their focus around the task at hand. Focusing on the present moment allows participants to break habitual obsessive cycles that fuel addiction.

Who Is a Good Candidate for Wilderness Therapy?

Success in therapy typically involves a progressive approach. Treatment and therapy with a mental health professional or abstinence-based programs are generally an excellent first step. We suggest trying less intense options before moving towards intensive therapies such as wilderness therapy. Wilderness therapy treats a variety of disorders, such as:

  • Depression
  • Personality disorders
  • Mood and anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Conduct disorder
  • Attachment disorders
  • Disruptive behaviors and delinquency 
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Attention-deficit disorder/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD)
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Suicide ideation
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Suicide ideation
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Gender identity struggles

This program is for those who have exhausted most other forms of treatment. However, not everyone will benefit from wilderness therapy. Some may possess criteria that excludes one from an outdoor therapy program, including:

  • Moderate schizophrenia or psychosis 
  • History of sexual assault or violence 
  • Physical limitations
  • Participants with intensive medical care

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy

There are several benefits of wilderness therapy, but let’s discuss the main areas:

Mental, Behavioral, and Emotional Health

Wilderness therapy can decrease depression, anxiety, and stress in participants. Research shows this success mainly with adolescents. Some clients who resist traditional therapy find it easier to engage with their emotions in an outdoor setting. 

By using the wilderness aspect to get participants to open up, therapists can better guide their patients. The scenery and setting promote therapy that may increase the speed it takes for participants to begin their healing journey.

To truly heal and create lasting change, we must understand our unhealthy behavior patterns. To do so, we have to find their causes. Therefore, we focus heavily on mental, behavioral, and emotional health.

Coping Skills and Strategies

Assessing mental and behavioral issues is essential in the therapeutic process. Promoting healthy coping skills and strategies is equally as important. These skills are needed to retain strives made on a participant’s therapeutic journey. 

Wilderness therapy focuses on developing social skills, especially in young adults and teenagers. Both adults and children use these skills every day, in every interaction. Becoming aware of our personal growth lets us thrive socially. Here are some skills we focus on:

  • Decision-making skills: Through self-worth and self-understanding, participants focus on making responsible decisions for positive development within the context of their personal, social, and community life.
  • Interpersonal skills: Using strong awareness and social/interpersonal skills to develop and maintain healthy relationships.
  • Intrapersonal skills: Building management skills to set goals and achieve success in life. 

Self-Esteem and Identity

To build a healthy and robust identity for participants, we focus on several proven personal growth aspects. New experiences create excitement and curiosity. Unfamiliar topography and challenges get us in touch with ourselves. 

Participants are challenged physically and emotionally within reason. The group setting encourages participants to work together and build supportive relationships. In turn, participants feel proud of themselves and their peers. Increased self-confidence then makes new positive perceptions. 

History of Wilderness Therapy

In the early 1900s, Manhattan State Hospital relocated 40 patients to the lawn due to overcrowding. Their new outdoor-oriented lifestyle resulted in improvements in mental and physical health. A few years later, after a devastating San Francisco earthquake, professionals noted the improvements of patients forced to live outdoors after the catastrophe. One aspect noted was a decrease in violent behavior. 

By the 1970s, a German-educated named Kurt Hahn solidified and popularized one of the first outdoor programs. It was known as an alternative strategy for treatment considering its use of challenging voyages into the wilderness. After Hahn’s success, many other similar treatment programs embraced this model.

Within the last decade, outdoor therapy has seen significant growth and has proven its effectiveness. Researchers continue to display empirical evidence, and supporters establish a firm foundation of its success. 

Are Adventure Therapy and Wilderness Therapy the Same?

Adventure therapy is a form of psychotherapy. In short, wilderness therapy falls under the umbrella of adventure therapy. Both are centered around affecting self-esteem and self-awareness, but adventure therapy is more broadly defined.

Adventure therapy uses risk alongside challenges, both emotional and physical, to promote rehabilitation and growth. Some therapists believe that risk is an excellent tool involved in behavior change. Wilderness therapy is known to focus on primitive exercises such as shelter and fire building. The latter provides participants with the ability to adapt to new environments, which is a helpful coping ability for participants.

The focal difference is that wilderness therapy uses the environment (landscape and weather), and adventure therapy implements manufactured obstacles that are purposefully challenging. Both involve similar characteristics but use different strategies to develop particular life skills. Both have proven to improve group behavior, confidence, and self-esteem. 

Effectiveness of Wilderness Therapy For Addiction

Researchers examined the potential efficacy of wilderness programs to treat several disorders, including addiction. Adolescents found success in a few different aspects of wilderness therapy. 

  • Physical exercise allows participants to build special bonds with their peers and therapists while facing challenging obstacles, creating self-reflection time.  
  • Preventing relapse is learned through the coping mechanisms mentioned above. 
  • Families of participants report improved relationships and better communication when the program is complete. 

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire compared wilderness therapy to traditional therapy methods in a recent study. The target population was 13- to 17-year-olds inflicted with substance abuse and mental health issues. Researchers found that outdoor behavioral healthcare (OBH) costs less per person than treatment as usual (TAU). More importantly, OBH’s cost-benefit ratio was over 60% higher than TAU. 

Love the Great Outdoors at Rock Recovery Center

Wilderness therapy is one of many programs we offer at Rock Recovery Center. We can assist you with choosing what will work best for you or a loved one. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction, please contact us today.