What is Wilderness Therapy?

Unraveling the Wilderness Therapy Experience: Transforming Lives Amidst Nature’s Healing Power

10th May, 2023

Wilderness therapy, sometimes nature-assisted therapy, is an innovative approach to addressing mental health issues and promoting behavioral change through immersive experiences in wild or unfamiliar environments.

As a unique aspect of adventure therapy and broader nature immersion programs, wilderness therapy incorporates distinct features and principles.

Although it can benefit people of all ages, this therapeutic method is primarily tailored to meet the needs of at-risk adolescents and young adults.

wilderness therapy, a man camping in the forest

Venturing into the wilderness or exploring uncharted landscapes empowers participants to step out of their comfort zones, face their fears, and acquire essential life skills. Wilderness therapy has been proven particularly effective in addressing mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma.

This approach fosters self-discovery, resilience, and personal growth by offering a nurturing and supportive atmosphere. The efficacy of wilderness therapy can be attributed to several factors, including the soothing effects of natural settings, increased physical activity, and the development of teamwork and communication skills.

Participants often engage in diverse outdoor activities, like hiking, rock climbing, and canoeing, which provide a pleasant diversion and contribute to building self-confidence, trust, and problem-solving abilities.

A key aspect of wilderness therapy is the involvement of trained mental health professionals who guide and support participants throughout their journey. These experts employ evidence-based practices and customize the therapy to accommodate individual needs, ensuring that each person receives the proper care and attention.

Over time, numerous research studies have highlighted the effectiveness of wilderness therapy in enhancing mental health and well-being. Consequently, this therapeutic approach is increasingly gaining recognition and acceptance as a valuable alternative to conventional therapy.

Learn About: What is Therapy?

Origins of Wilderness Therapy

Using nature and outdoor environments for therapeutic purposes can be traced back to two events in the early 20th century. In 1901, due to overcrowding concerns, 40 psychiatric patients at the Manhattan State Hospital were relocated to the facility’s lawns after contracting tuberculosis.

Among other contributing factors, the patients’ notable physical and mental health improvements were attributed to their new outdoor living arrangements.

Residents of the San Francisco Agnew Asylum who were relocated outside in 1906 after an earthquake that severely damaged it showed remarkable improvements almost immediately, including a major drop in violent conduct.

In 1961, Kurt Hahn, a German educator, established Outward Bound, an outdoor education program that promoted self-discovery and personal growth through challenging wilderness expeditions. By the early 1970s, this program had gained popularity as an alternative treatment approach for adolescents exhibiting maladaptive behaviors.

In the 1970s and 1980s, various wilderness experience programs were developed due to Outward Bound’s popularity, many of which used the Outward Bound model.

Over the past decade, there has been a marked increase in the volume and quality of research on wilderness therapy, with proponents striving to build a solid foundation of empirical evidence supporting its effectiveness.

Understanding the Wilderness Therapy Process

Wilderness therapy is a unique approach that helps individuals embark on self-discovery and personal growth. Individuals can address maladaptive behaviors and transform their perspectives by participating in outdoor activities and challenges.

Critical aspects of the wilderness therapy process include:

  • Providing a safe, non-judgmental, and supportive environment for participants to explore their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

  • Participating in activities like treks into the woods, training in primitive skills (such as how to kindle a fire), and other team-building activities can help to question and potentially change disruptive beliefs and attitudes.

  • Simulating the difficulties and demands present in family and social systems but doing so in an atmosphere free from destructive influences.

  • Participants should be encouraged to build healthy connections, establish appropriate boundaries, receive and process feedback, and rely on their own inner wisdom and strength throughout the process.

  • Fostering cooperation and trust among participants through collaborative tasks and shared experiences, which helps to build self-confidence, communication skills, and teamwork abilities.

Wilderness therapy can be an effective means for individuals to confront and overcome their personal challenges. By working with a skilled therapist and engaging in outdoor activities, participants can build trust, foster healthy family dynamics, and tap into their inner wisdom to achieve lasting personal growth.

Varieties of Nature-Based Therapy

Two primary forms of therapy take place in outdoor environments, each with its distinct focus and methods. As described by Romanoff, these therapeutic approaches include:

  1. Wilderness therapy: This type of therapy revolves around outdoor activities and emphasizes building endurance and adaptability in participants.
  2. Adventure therapy: incorporates adventure-based activities, challenging individuals to push their limits and take physical and emotional risks.

Potential Benefits of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy can be beneficial for individuals dealing with various mental health concerns, including:

  • Anxiety

  • Asperger’s syndrome

  • Attention deficit disorder

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Substance abuse

  • Trauma

Moreover, wilderness therapy can also assist adolescents struggling with challenges such as low self-esteem, avoidance, defiance, and impulsive, reckless, or rebellious behavior.

The beginning phases of wilderness therapy typically involve evaluating participants to identify their concerns and tailor the therapeutic process accordingly.

Positive Outcomes of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy can deliver numerous benefits, including:

  • Emotional regulation: As an experiential therapy, wilderness therapy immerses participants in situations that can reveal previously unrecognized thoughts and emotions. This process facilitates better control and understanding of one’s emotions, enhancing self-awareness.

  • Relationship building: Group activities that demand teamwork and cooperation are stapled in wilderness therapy. These shared experiences can foster stronger interpersonal relationships, positively impacting familial and friendship bonds outside the therapy setting.

  • Responsibility cultivation: Wilderness therapy imparts survival skills and emphasizes accountability, fostering participants’ stronger sense of responsibility.

  • Confidence boosting: Overcoming physical challenges and negative thought patterns in wilderness therapy can bolster self-esteem and confidence.

  • Negativity reduction: Wilderness therapy aims to replace negative thoughts and behaviors with healthier, more positive ones.

  • Coping skills development: Wilderness therapy provides tools and techniques to manage stress and adversity, which are valuable in various life contexts, such as home, school, or work.

  • Personal growth encouragement: Wilderness therapy promotes self-awareness, leadership skills, and a robust work ethic, contributing to overall personal development.

  • Health and fitness enhancement: Physical activity, the time spent in nature, and the limited access to electronic devices in wilderness therapy can improve physical health and fitness.

Participants can experience emotional healing, develop stronger relationships, and enhance their well-being through outdoor challenges, teamwork, and skill-building activities.

As an alternative to traditional therapeutic methods, wilderness therapy provides lasting benefits and equips individuals with the tools they need to thrive in various aspects of their lives.

Taking the First Steps in Wilderness Therapy

Selecting a reputable program with accredited practitioners is crucial to begin your wilderness therapy journey.

  • Seek recommendations from friends or family who have experienced a wilderness therapy program. This can help guarantee that the program is safe and dependable.

  • Consult with your mental health professional, who may be able to recommend a suitable program if they believe that wilderness therapy could be advantageous for your situation.

  • Investigate reviews of potential programs to ensure that they have no associated health, safety, or ethical concerns.

After identifying a suitable provider, consider visiting the location (if possible) before enrolling. Remember that wilderness camps or boot camps are not synonymous with wilderness therapy programs, so ensure that the program aligns with your expectations and needs.

Recommended: What to Talk About in Therapy?

Challenges and Limitations of Wilderness Therapy

Challenges and limitations associated with wilderness therapy include concerns about the quality and effectiveness of the programs, as well as the high costs involved. Critics argue that some wilderness therapy programs may not deliver the level of care or desired outcomes they claim to provide.

This suspicion may be brought on by the various therapeutic approaches used in various programs and the existence of wilderness programs for teenagers, such as boot camps and other outdoor adventures that falsely promote themselves as wilderness therapy programs.

Furthermore, wilderness therapy can be expensive, with some programs charging up to $500 per day and treatment durations ranging from 1 to 3 months. Consequently, the cost may be prohibitive for some individuals who would otherwise benefit from this therapeutic approach.

In addition, because of the treatment’s mental, emotional, and social demands, wilderness therapy might not be appropriate for all patient populations. It may be unsuitable for elderly individuals, young children, or those with specific physical disabilities.

It may be ineffective or unsafe for individuals with severe or chronic mental health conditions, such as dementia or schizophrenia. Despite these challenges, wilderness therapy has shown to be a beneficial treatment option for many individuals, mainly when provided by accredited and experienced practitioners.

It is essential to carefully consider the appropriateness of this approach based on individual circumstances and to conduct thorough research before committing to a specific program.

The Bottom Line

Wilderness therapy presents a unique and powerful alternative to traditional therapeutic methods for individuals facing various mental health challenges. While it is essential to be aware of the potential limitations and controversies surrounding this approach, numerous success stories and research findings highlight its potential benefits.

By carefully considering one’s specific needs and circumstances and thoroughly researching accredited and experienced providers, wilderness therapy can offer a transformative and healing experience.

Combining nature immersion, physical activity, and emotional exploration can improve emotional regulation, stronger relationships, increased confidence, and overall personal growth. So, wilderness therapy may be the answer for those seeking an unconventional yet effective path to mental well-being and self-discovery.


[1] Development Services Group, Inc. 2011. “Wilderness Camp.” Literature review. Washington, D.C.: Office
Of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. https://www.ojjdp.gov/mpg/litreviews/Wilderness_Camp.pdf 

[2] Becker, S. P. (2010). Wilderness therapy: Ethical considerations for mental health professionals. Child Youth Care Forum, 39, 47-61. DOI 10.1007/s10566-009-9085-7

[3]Elliot, R. & Pieper, L. (n.d.). Adventure therapy. Retrieved from https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/51733617/adventure-therapy-overview-bradford-woods

[4]Harper NJ. Wilderness therapy, therapeutic camping, and adventure education in child and youth care literature: a scoping reviewChildren and Youth Services Review. 2017;83:68-79. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.10.030


Read Next

Post Loved!