Why Wilderness? How Therapeutic Outdoor Programs Help Troubled Teens

By Hugh C. McBride

The destructive power of nature is a staple on many television news broadcasts and Internet sites, with shaky videos of raging tornadoes or heartbreaking footage of a hurricane’s aftermath making for compelling viewing.

But professionals working in an innovative and effective branch of the adolescent therapy field have discovered that the awe-inspiring effects of the natural world aren’t limited to destruction and devastation. For decades, wilderness therapists and outdoor educators have been incorporating the healing and restorative powers of nature into programs designed to help troubled adolescents overcome personal challenges, regain control over their lives, and put themselves back on the path to health and happiness.

And though experts have yet to agree on exactly why the wilderness experience works so well, years of case histories and several studies have documented the dramatic effectiveness of properly managed and operated therapeutic wilderness education programs. As Dr. Keith C. Russell of the University of Idaho’s Wilderness Research Center wrote in a 2000 paper entitled “Why Wilderness Therapy Works,” the field has developed “a growing reputation for economy and therapeutic efficacy when compared with other mental health services.”


Following the migration of the Outward Bound program from Europe to the United States in the 1950s, several programs throughout the country began to incorporate the principles of wilderness therapy and outdoor education. According to an article by Stacy B. Shaw that appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of UCLA’s Undergraduate Psychology Journal, the “noticeable emotional and psychological benefits” experienced by Outward Bound clients prompted the development of formal wilderness therapies designed to meet the specific needs of at-risk clinical populations.

Today, hundreds of wilderness experiences are available, with dozens of programs offering therapeutic treatments for individuals such as adolescent substance abusers and teens with behavioral disorders. One of the nation’s leading providers of outdoor therapy and wilderness education for adolescents is the Aspen Education Group, a network of more than 30 programs that offer enlightened, innovative approaches to help young people who are struggling with behavioral challenges, emotional issues, or substance abuse.


Though significant variety can be found among therapeutic wilderness education programs – influenced, for example, by the philosophies and policies of the providers, as well as by the specific needs of the clients for whom the programs have been designed – most effective efforts are constructed around a relatively standard framework.

As Dr. Russell outlined in his research paper, many programs follow a three-phase model:

Phase #1: Cleansing

  • In this stage, clients are removed from the environments that were conducive to their unhealthy behaviors, and prepared for their wilderness experience.
  • The cleansing stage usually involves a healthy diet, physical exercise, and instruction in basic survival and self-care skills.
  • Participants in the first stage of a therapeutic wilderness program begin to learn personal responsibility through the natural consequences of their actions – a concept that will be strongly reinforced as the process continues.

Phase #2: Personal & Social Responsibility

  • Building upon the early lessons of the previous phase, the second stage of a therapeutic wilderness program emphasizes the results of an individual’s actions – for example, students who don’t learn how to make fire will eat cold meals, while those who fail to prepare for rainy weather will get wet.
  • In addition to developing self-reliance, students in therapeutic wilderness programs also learn the value of effective interpersonal communication through their interactions with their field instructors and the other members of their group.
  • The close and constant interdependency at the core of effective therapeutic wilderness programs can have effects that are both immediate and long-lasting. Writing about an effective therapist who he observed at the Aspen Achievement Academy, author Gary Ferguson wrote that he believed that her successes were founded at least in part by “her willingness to huddle under the tarp in a downpour or dine with the kids on a few bites of burned beans a ten o’clock at night.”

Phase #3: Transition & Aftercare

  • After gaining the insights and achieving the successes that are associated with effective therapeutic wilderness experiences, participants must then learn how to take their new healthy behaviors with them as they transition back home.
  • To accomplish this goal, many programs incorporate family training and education into their efforts. As one parent wrote in a testimonial that was posted on the SUWS wilderness program’s website, “SUWS was an enlightening experience for [our son], one where he has found confidence, self-worth and feels empowered. My husband and I also have learned a lot from the family component of the SUWS philosophy and program.”
  • The transition and aftercare components of effective therapeutic wilderness programs also include connecting adolescent participants with support resources such as program-related counselors or independent 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.


In their attempts to discover and describe the reasons behind the successes of therapeutic wilderness programs, many researchers and experts have noted that the programs feature the development of intense interpersonal relationships, the opportunity to overcome significant emotional and physical challenges, and the encouragement to gain a greater understanding of oneself and one’s place in the world.

Working together in settings that are free of the myriad distractions of today’s stimulation-intensive world allows considerable growth to occur in relatively short periods of time. And because wilderness therapists work so closely and so intensely with the teens, they are able to make significant accomplishments together.

As a supervisor at SUWS, one of the longest running wilderness programs in the United States, wrote about field instructor Clea Stalmaster, the program’s instructor of the month for May 2008, “She works from a strength-based approach so that the students become aware of their own limitations instead of having their failings thrust at them by an authority figure. In this way the students are revealed to themselves, which requires a lot of facilitation by an invested instructor.”

The results can be both dramatic and long-lasting. Jessica H., an alumnus of a program who was interviewed for an article on the PTR website, said that the “complete spiritual journey” she underwent in the wilderness was literally a life-changing event for her.

“If I had gone anywhere else I don’t think it would have worked,” Jessica said. “I had never experienced anything like that in my entire life.”