Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness Therapy

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Helen Parson PhD

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

What is Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy is a type of therapy based on a person’s experiences or observations. It was created to give individuals specific feelings, beliefs, and attitudes that are more intense than the ones they typically feel. Simulating these feelings through wilderness training can be extremely therapeutic for clients.

Wilderness therapy is just one of a number of experiential therapies.1https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673843.2018.1528166 These therapies encourage individuals to change the way they live, act, and behave by challenging them to explore emotions and other aspects in specific situations.

How does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Clients experience a hands-on approach when undergoing wilderness therapy.2https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149718915300094 This approach is one of the main reasons it differs so much from other forms of psychotherapy. Clients partake in a variety of outdoor activities including games, excursions and expeditions, and other experiences.

A trained therapist oversees the wilderness rehab session and clients do not just do activities without direction. The therapist will give guidance during each activity which makes it useful in the recovery process.

Many luxury rehabs employ wilderness therapy in a variety of ways from excursions to zip lining to hikes. Although it is a form of therapy that is growing in popularity, it should be remembered that it is not meant to be used alone. Wilderness therapy is used alongside other forms of psychotherapy to help clients overcome their disorders. A client may undergo individual and group therapy sessions alongside attending wilderness meetings.

What are the Benefits of Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness rehab is often used with children, adolescents, and teenagers to help them overcome trauma, addiction, and other disorders. It is claimed that one of the reasons for wilderness therapy’s success rate is because it is used to help younger people in recovery programs.

Wilderness therapy can help clients overcome disorders by:


  • Helping in the creation and development of goals3https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/105382590102400203
  • Developing a plan to reach goals and targets
  • Creating insight into one’s motivations, feelings, and beliefs
  • Establishing teamwork with others to accomplish tasks
  • Building self-confidence
  • Dealing with disagreements with other clients in a positive manner


Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Wilderness rehab excursions have often been labeled as “bootcamps” or “scared straight getaways”. The labels couldn’t be more wrong, however. One of the most important things a parent or guardian should do before sending a son or daughter to a wilderness therapy course, is to understand the problems the individual faces. Too often, a parent doesn’t fully grasp the issues at play and this can prevent the therapy’s effectiveness.

During the sessions, the therapist who oversees it will help the client reflect on their life and experiences. The therapist will help the individual uncover the reasons for their substance misuse or other disorders.

One of the reason wilderness therapy has been successful is due to clients not considering it a therapy. Clients are active and having fun rather than sharing emotions in group sessions. It is often seen as a break from the traditional psychotherapy sessions clients participate in. Clients engage in the sessions through self-discovery making wilderness therapy a way to tap into a person and help create long-term healing.

References: Wilderness Therapy


  1. Antonovsky, A. (1993). The structure and properties of the sense of coherence scale. Social Science & Medicine, 36, 725733. [PubMed], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]
  2. Bettmann, J. E. (2012). Therapeutic outcomes of wilderness therapy for adolescent and young adult populations. Paper presented at the May 2012 American Psychological Association Convention, Orlando, Florida, USA. DOI: 10.1037/e630622012-001. [Google Scholar]
  3. Breidablik, H. J., Meland, E., & Lydersen, S. (2008). Self-rated health in adolescence: A multifactorial composite. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 36, 1220. [Crossref], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]
  4. Greffrath, G., Meyer, C., Strydom, H., & Ellis, S. (2011). Centre-based and expedition-based (wilderness) adventure experiential learning regarding personal effectiveness: An exploratory enquiry. Leisure Studies, 30(1), 345364. [Google Scholar]
  5. Reed, P., & Rothenberg, D. (1993). Wisdom in the open air. the norwegian roots of deep ecology. Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]
  6. Wells, M. G., Burlingame, G. M., & Lambert, M. J. (1999). Youth outcome questionnaire. In M. E. Maruish (Ed.), The use of psychological testing for treatment planning and outcome assessment (2nd ed.) (pp. 235–273). Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. [Google Scholar]
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