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The Wilderness Therapy Trail

Key Message

Research regarding the effects of wilderness therapy has generally found positive outcomes such as improved physical health, improved social skills, decreased antisocial behavior, and increased interpersonal adjustment (e.g., social skills, self control, self-esteem and school adjustments). The physical demands of wilderness programs, when combined with nightly group therapy sessions and individual counseling, encourage positive social outcomes.

Source

Werhan, P., & Groff, D. (2005). The Wilderness Therapy Trail. Raleigh, North Carolina: Recreation and Leisure in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science; University of North Carolina.

Purpose

“The only real antidote is inside ... It is the skill and humor and courage within, the ability to build your own fires and find your own peace. On a solo trip you may discover these, or try to build them, and life becomes simple and deeply satisfying. The confidence and strength remain and are brought back and applied to the rest of your life” (Sutherland, p. 265).

As suggested in Sutherland’s writing, individuals who seek inner strength, confidence or an antidote to the problems they face often turn to the wilderness as a place to receive therapy.Wilderness settings are an effective medium for therapy because they take people out of their everyday environment and place them in an unfamiliar setting where there is opportunity for reflection and the development of supportive relationships (Russell, 2000).
Wilderness environments promote healing and personal growth because they serve as a place where individuals can learn and practice physical and emotional survival skills as they struggle to exist in this new environment (Friese, Hendee & Kinziger, 1998).
What Is Wilderness Therapy?
Wilderness programs generally focus on providing experiences that lead to personal growth, therapy, rehabilitation, education, leadership or organizational development (Friese, Hendee & Kinziger, 1998). Wilderness therapy is distinguishable from general wilderness programs in that those focus on general therapeutic modes as a way to serve clients in need (Russell, 2001). Wilderness therapists employ a process whereby clients undergo an assessment to determine their specific needs, create a treatment plan outlining goals and objectives for each individual and conduct comprehensive evaluation of service outcomes (Russell, 2001).
Who Is Being Served?
It is estimated that about 10,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 receive wilderness therapy each year (Cooley, 1998). The adolescents are provided services collectively on about 330,000 user days that generate about $60 million in annual revenue (Cooley, 1998). Adolescents are the most frequent participants in wilderness therapy programs because of the dramatic increase in emotional disorders and mental health issues experienced by this group (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999).
The adolescents who commonly engage in wilderness therapy include youth with psychological, emotional, behavioral, learning or substance abuse problems (Conner, 2005). Although it was once considered a “last-ditch” effort for individuals in need of treatment, wilderness therapy is now available at any time in the treatment process.
Wilderness therapy programs vary in the number and types of employees they hire. The professional preparation of employees also ranges considerably. Some staff, such as outdoor instructors, posses a bachelor’s degree while clinically trained psychologists hold a doctoral degree. In a recent “Research Update,” Rosol (2000) concluded that wilderness therapists require a variety of competencies and skills including technical skills, (e.g., map and compass, belay systems), soft skills (e.g., interpersonal helping and leadership skills) and advanced skills (e.g., crisis intervention, transference techniques, psychotherapy and counseling).
While there is no one prescribed or set program format, wilderness therapy programs generally have several things in common. Programs are often long in duration, typically lasting a minimum of 30 days. The groups are intentionally small with a 2:7 or 3:8 staff-to-camper ratio.
Additionally, most program staff work with clients to develop treatment goals, and then teach the skills needed to independently facilitate recovery, and be less reliant upon staff.Most programs also rely upon the metaphors inherent to wilderness settings, and foster transference of the lessons learned during the program to life situations experienced at home (Bacon, 1983).

Evidence

Research regarding the effects of wilderness therapy has generally found positive outcomes such as improved physical health, improved social skills and decreased antisocial behavior, and increased interpersonal adjustment (e.g., social skills, self control, self-esteem and school adjustments) (Russell, 1999; Wilson & Lipsey, 2000).

There is concern, however, that the lack of methodology precludes our ability to clearly articulate the outcomes of services (Wilson & Lipsey, 2000). Nevertheless, research largely supports a trend toward positive effects from wilderness therapy.

In programs that use licensed medical guidance, there is a strong likelihood that wilderness therapy promotes increased strength, endurance and cardiovascular output, as well as a decrease in weight, anxiety, stress and sleep disturbances (Ewert, McCormick & Voight, 2001). There is even preliminary evidence to suggest that programs with intense physical components are more effective than less physically intense programs, and have a more long lasting impact on overall quality of life (Wilson & Lipsey, 2000).

The physical demands of wilderness programs, when combined with nightly group therapy sessions and individual counseling, encourage positive social outcomes (Ewert, et al., 2001; Wilson & Lipsey, 2000; Russell, 2000). In programs that allow interaction with family members, clients experience an affirming change in communication because of their improved expression of opinions, listening and decisionmaking with group members (Ewert, et al., 2001).

Participants gain additional social value as they take advantage of leadership opportunities and act as an integral part of the group. Thus, by improving a participant’s social skills, encouraging critical thinking and refining personality issues, wilderness therapy has the combined effect of reducing antisocial and delinquent behavior (Wilson & Lipsey, 2000).

In combination with improved social skills and improved relations with others, participants often experience an improved relationship with self. Russell (2000) contends that improved self-image stems from the vast amount of self-reflection available and time spent alone in wilderness settings. This solitude provides opportunities for individuals to evaluate and improve their self-concept and to develop a more realistic, positive perception of life events (Cason & Gillis, 1993).

The numerous challenges faced alone and with others, as well as the personal achievements experienced, promote the development of coping mechanisms that lead to increased self-efficacy and positive regard for self (Ewert, et al., 2001). Finally, individuals develop an overall appreciation for the environment and awareness of nature that encourages personal reflection and the development of a connection with ecology and natural processes (Russell, 2000).

Additional Information

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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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