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The effects of wilderness settings on organized groups: A state-of-knowledge paper

Key Message

” ... wilderness seems to intensify and focus personal efforts, which produces a positive impact on group development and increases the social integration ......helping participants come together and perform as a functioning group. “


Ewert, A., & McAvoy, L. (2000). The effects of wilderness settings on organized groups: A state-of-knowledge paper. Proceedings Rocky Mountain Research Service (RMRS), 3, 13-26.


Organized groups present a major use of wilderness resources. The focus of this paper is on the research findings that have emerged over the past 12 years concerning the benefits and effects of participation by groups in wilderness and wilderness-like areas. In general, the majority of research in this area has provided evidence of the beneficial and positive effects of wilderness participation by both individuals and groups. This paper categorizes these benefits and effects into three major variable clusters: self-systems, therapeutic outcomes, and group dynamics. Also included is a discussion of the implications of these findings and issues to managers, educators, and researchers.

There is now a “third generation” of environmentally related issues. These issues focus on the use of natural environments such as wilderness and wilderness-like areas to improve the human condition and that these improvements go beyond the production of commodities or material goods. More specifically, we believe that participation in activities based in wilderness and wilderness-like settings can have profound effects on both groups and individuals.

The research findings that follow are organized into the types of variables and groups studied in group research. The variables include self and systems growth and group dynamics. The group types included in discussion of variables and research results are:
(a) formal groups like Outward Bound the National Outdoor Leadership School;
(b) wilderness oriented camps and programs like Boy Scouts and YMCA/YWCA, and other similar programs;
(c) informal groups like private personal growth programs (non-profit and for profit);
(d) church and youth groups; and
(e) educational groups like university classes and outdoor programs, and public and private schools.


Although not all wilderness-based programs ascribe to the models by Walsh and Golins (1975 ) or Gager (1977), these models provide the theoretical basis for many if not most such programs. Thus, the wilderness experience may provide a mechanism for change by providing the unique physical setting from which the individual, as part of a unique social setting (the group), goes through a series of physical and mental challenges and is subject to feedback from the instructor/leader and/or other individuals in the group in addition to personal reflection. Following this, the individual may experience a set of values, behaviors, attitudes, etc. that are different from before the wilderness experience.

One of the presenters at this conference, Dr. John Hendee, stated in one of his presentations that “Wilderness is used for growing people, as well as growing natural resources.” Research over the past three decades suggests that this is true. Wilderness is being used extensively as a place and as an idea to help individuals and groups to grow. A variety of group types utilize wilderness for group and individual growth and development.

Within this context, self-systems generally refer to a body of knowledge and beliefs that an individual holds about themselves and it is developed through experience and comparison with others (Baumeister 1998). The related terms of self-concept and self-esteem can be defined, respectively, as “an individual’s perception of him or herself including personal abilities, appearance, and performance” (Curry and Johnson 1990) and the judgments and attitudes one holds about him or herself (Baumeister 1998). In general, the literature provided a pattern of positive and beneficial change that is fairly predictable. Usually, younger individuals experienced a “readiness to change” attitude; and those who were female reported greater changes in self-systems than their counterparts.

They studied the effects of participation in a wilderness-based experience through Outward Bound on specific facets of self-concept rather than as one generalized concept. Using a multiple-time-series design for three different times, they observed increases in various specific aspects of self-concept. In a follow-up study, Marsh and others (1986) included an 18 post-post measurement and found additional support for the efficacy of these types of programs in positively influencing specific aspects of the self-concept. They also found that this effect was “durable,” in the sense that specific changes to the selfconcept were noted 18 months after the end of the course. In related work, Hattie and others (1997) performed a metaanalysis on the effects of adventure programs on a diverse array of outcomes including self-systems and found significant effect sizes for immediate, short term and long term assessments.

Related to the construct of self-systems, Kellert (1999) found that participation in three wilderness-based programs (Outward Bound, National Outdoor Leadership School and the Student Conservation Association) produced a number of significant changes. A sampling of these changes included: a life-changing event, increased interest in school, physical and mental fitness, positive behavioral changes and a stronger commitment to conservation and the environment. Kellert (1999) also found that many of these changes had some durability and persisted beyond the end of the course.

Another construct in the category of self-system is self efficacy which was examined by Propst and Koesler (1998). As defined by Bandura (1977), self-efficacy refers to personal judgments of one’s abilities and capability to act in situations that may be novel, unpredictable and potentially stressful (such as wilderness tripping). Using an “untreated control group pre/post test design,” Propst and Koesler (1998) found that participation in an outdoor adventure trip increased levels of self-efficacy both immediately after and one-year after the course. They also found differences in efficacy statements as a function of gender immediately after the course, but these differences were not evident in the one-year follow-up.

Research on Disability
Reviews of the research literature have summarized the psychological, social and mental health benefits of wilderness group experiences for people with disabilities (McAvoy and others 1995; Robb and Ewert 1987). These benefits include increased self-concept, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment, personal growth, increased leisure skills, increased social adjustment and cooperation, enhanced body image and positive behavior change.

A more recent study by Anderson and others (1997) confirmed many of the above benefits. This study also found that specific training to improve the outdoor recreation skill level of participants with disabilities effectively assisted in the integration process on the trip, and that these participants continued to use these outdoor skills (canoeing and camping) well after their wilderness experience. Other benefits included increased sensitivity to the needs of others, increased sense of priorities and an increased respect for nature. The people with disabilities also indicated that wilderness provides a unique contribution to the attainment of these benefits. They reported that wilderness seems to intensify and focus personal efforts, which produces a positive impact on group development and increases the social integration of the group. The wilderness environment is important in helping participants come together and perform as a functioning group.

A number of wilderness program practitioners and scholars have written about the potential benefits of wilderness for women (Henderson 1996) and the benefits of all-women wilderness programs (Asher and others 1994; Mitten 1994; Powch 1994). There have been few studies that actually document the benefits, and many of the studies have been qualitative that makes it difficult to generalize results. However, the literature does suggest these programs can produce important and pervasive benefits for participants. These benefits are gained as individuals work together as a group to successfully meet the challenges of wilderness. This group process produces benefits that include increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and empowerment (Hornibrook and others 1997; Pohl 1998).

Some women have been socialized to believe they do not have the necessary skills or capabilities to participate in outdoor recreation activities associated with wilderness, thus, participating in wilderness programs is a source of empowerment for them (Mitten, 1994; Pohl 1998). Wilderness can be a unique environment for empowerment for women because it provides a neutral environment that is not cluttered with socially imposed role expectations. Wilderness offers immediate feedback on decisions and actions, evenhandedness of consequences and a feeling of connecting to the earth and its forces (Powch 1994).

The major outcomes or benefits achieved by the participants were an increased belief in themselves and a sense of pride in accomplishment. Another major outcome was the desire to participate again in an all-women wilderness program. The participants commented frequently in the open-ended responses that they attributed their positive experiences to “…a safe, non-competitive atmosphere, the cooperation between participants, the commonality among the women, the extraordinary leadership, and the opportunity to know different women” (Hornibrook and others 1997).

Friese and others (1998) define “Wilderness Experience Programs” (WEP) as those that use wilderness or wildlands for personal growth, therapy, rehabilitation, education and leadership development.

These wilderness group programs often have deep, profound and lasting influences on the lives of participants (Hattie and others 1997; Paxton 1998; Pohl 1998).

Figure 1 -  Theoretical model of participant change.
Figure 2—  Gager’s model of participant change.

Although little current research focuses on people with disabilities and wilderness, what research does exist over the past 10 years has concentrated on integrated groups. Research by McAvoy and others (1989) found that people with disabilities in integrated wilderness group programs had positive attitude and lifestyle changes, increased outdoor recreation skills, increased social relationships, increased willingness to take risks and higher feelings of self-efficacy. People with disabilities in this study reported that these benefits were transferred to other aspects of their lives after the wilderness experience. The persons without disabilities in this integrated program reported increased levels of understanding of the capabilities of persons with disabilities, more positive attitudes about people with disabilities and increased tolerance of differences among people. These programmatic outcomes are important indications that these programs are achieving one of their goals—of increasing general social integration and tolerance for differences as a result of participation together in a wilderness program in a wilderness environment (McAvoy and others 1989; McAvoy and others 1995).

Their national survey of 700 potential programs identified at least 266 WEPs in the United States. Russell and Hendee (1999) have identified 38 wilderness therapy programs in the United States. Davis-Berman and others (1994) conducted a national survey of professionals in experiential education and found 31 wilderness therapy programs. Most served adolescents, and the categories of programs included: mental health programs, court programs, school programs, health programs and enrichment programs.

The research findings in wilderness therapy groups and programs is divided into three categories: youth-problem behavior groups, psychiatric treatment groups and wilderness family therapy groups.  Within the youth problem behavior group discussed below is included discussion of youth-at-risk and youth who have been adjudicated and are part of the criminal justice system.

Research by Russell and others (1998) on a sample of programs serving youth with problem behaviors has indicated that these wilderness therapy programs result in increased self-concept, self-esteem and self-efficacy which leads to a sense of personal power and motivation to take control and responsibility for their lives. The participants also learned how to communicate with others.

Neill and Heubeck (1998) found that participation in a nine day wilderness program for at-risk youth resulted in more productive coping styles and less nonproductive coping styles.

Gillis and Simpson (1991) found that an adventure-based therapy approach was effective in reducing conduct-disordered behavior associated with delinquency and drug use by court involved youth. They found that participants had decreased levels of depression, obsessive compulsive behavior, disorganized thinking, manic excitement and anxiety as a result of participation in the program. Their findings suggest that action-oriented, adventure-based therapy may be helpful in allowing adolescents to become more insightful and to benefit from more traditional forms of treatment.

Crisp found that participation in a 10-week treatment program with two 4-5 day wilderness expeditions resulted in a decrease in behavior difficulties and an increase in school attendance. Berman and Anton (1988) studied adolescent psychiatric inpatients who were either withdrawn or acting out. The program consisted of outdoor skills training followed by either a seven or nine day wilderness group program experience. They found that patient symptoms decreased as a result of the program, with the most rapid decrease occurring on the wilderness phase of the program. They concluded that this is a viable treatment modality for moderately disturbed adolescent patients. Kelley and others (1997) studied 79 male and female adults diagnosed with schizophrenia, affective disorders or schizoaffective disorder. They found that a wilderness therapy program of weekly day-long wildland outings for outdoor recreation activities (climbing, canoeing, caving, biking) resulted in increased levels of self-efficacy and self-esteem; weaker results were found for decreasing anxiety and depression.

The wilderness family therapy sessions consisted of the family camping together in a wilderness camping situation, where the youth taught their families some of the wilderness skills they had learned while on their expedition. The program also included family therapy, multiple family therapy, parents solos, negotiation skills and contracting. The research showed an increase in self-concept among adolescents during the expedition, an increase in normal family functioning, a decrease in adolescent rating of delinquency, a decrease in parental-reported problem behavior of the adolescents, and a decrease in parental reported police and court contacts of their adolescent children.

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Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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