Wilderness Therapy for Addiction Recovery

Wilderness Therapy for Addiction Recovery

Wilderness therapy is an alternative approach to traditional substance abuse treatment programs. Mostly focused on adolescents with unique challenges, several methods are often wrapped up in the term ‘wilderness therapy,’ with an important distinction. Outdoor-based rehabilitation approaches include challenge courses, adventure-based therapy or wilderness based experience programs to support an individual through the challenge of addiction to recovery.


How it Works

Individuals who participate in wilderness therapy programs spend the majority of time in treatment outdoors, experiencing character-building activities. Traditional counseling and therapy are included though mostly outdoors. One defining characteristic from traditional programs is that participants are carefully selected and provided with an individualized treatment plan. Programs are typically staffed by people with master’s degrees and state certifications in substance abuse treatment while many of them create individualized treatment plans and goals for participants. Two main models exist for wilderness therapy:



  • Contained system approach.  Typically up to three weeks long, operating in a wilderness ‘exception model’ where clients and leaders stay together for the entire trip.
  • Continuous flow system. Programs typically last up to 8 weeks with individuals continually admitted into the group with leaders rotating in and out of the field.



In addition to therapy, individuals in the program take part in expeditions such as backpacking and whitewater rafting, learn important primitive skills and survival tools. Skills may include building a shelter, making a fire or finding one’s way with a compass. Periods of time alone for introspection are an important part of the programs.


Family is Key

Family involvement is a hallmark of wilderness therapy programs. The goal is to help build understanding around the nature of addiction, the individual participant and the progress made while in treatment. Programs often encourage individuals to communicate with families, especially about the experience in treatment.


Therapeutic Support

Therapy is typically provided  throughout the day, side by side with counselors while hiking, cooking together and during other times with one-on-one opportunities. In this setting, individuals feel more at ease than at any other time. Group therapy can also happen during lunch or around the campfire after dinner.  A unique type of mental health and substance abuse treatment for adolescents with addiction, wilderness therapy supports adolescents to grow in healthy ways physically and mentally with self-awareness, independence and community engagement at the core. In this model, participants may:

  • Develop a greater sense of self and self control
  • Improve and nurture physical health (which helps mental health)
  • Learn survival skills which generates feelings of self-empowerment
  • Make new, productive relationships and connections
  • Develop healthier thinking and behavioral patterns


Next Steps

A family who is considering wilderness therapy may wonder what the benefits of the program include. It can be a tough decision for all parties involved but is important to keep in mind stereotypes of harsh boot camp-like programs are largely incorrect. Financial costs are a consideration, potential benefits and who the adolescent is to determine readiness for such a program.


If traditional programs have not worked perhaps it is time to try wilderness therapy. Call us to find out how we can support you in finding the best treatment option for your adolescent struggling with substance abuse addiction.