Information on Rehabs with Wilderness and Adventure Therapy

Wilderness drug rehab centers for substance use offer an alternative to traditional treatment models. Wilderness treatment is usually for teens and young adults with addiction and other behavioral issues. Drug Rehab Services has compiled a listing with detailed information to help you find a wilderness rehabs.


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Wilderness & Adventure Programs for Addiction by State
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Different Types of Addiction Services

Adventure and wilderness therapies are both clinical therapies that happen outdoors. The premise behind these therapies is to employ natural consequences within a challenging environment. Programs used licensed therapists and addictions counselors to help clients. Historically, these programs have been extremely effective for young adults and teens. Substance abuse and addiction is an ongoing problem among young adults and teens. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health among adolescents aged 12 to 17 in 2019, 17.2% used illicit drugs in the past year. Also, among young adults aged 18 to 25, 39.1% used illicit drugs in the past year, which was an increase from 2015.

Treatment and rehabilitation is the best option, but not every treatment program works for every addict. It is important to find the right type of help, and usually, families receive an assessment to help narrow down options. However, adventure and wilderness therapies have been effective in helping addicts and their families. Adventure therapy programs tend to be shorter and use obstacles created by the facility that groups must confront and overcome. For example, this may include rope courses, rock climbing, white water rafting, and other activities with a high perceived risk. These programs typically run for one to three weeks, and some are incorporated with other forms of therapy.

Wilderness therapy usually provides lengthier services and programs, and the biggest challenge is living in the wilderness for extended lengths of time. The programs implement individual and group counseling and incorporate adventure therapy during the program. Wilderness therapy programs usually last six to ten weeks, and participants will hike, camp, and undertake different activities in the wilderness. Adventure and wilderness therapies often go hand-in-hand, and both programs employ group activities to help troubled youth and young adults. These programs have proven successful for addiction because of how effective it is for prevention and early intervention.

According to an article titled Wilderness Adventure Therapy Effects on the Mental of Youth Participants, the authors state, “adventure therapy offers prevention, early intervention, and treatment modality for people with behavioral, psychological, and psycho-social issues. It can appeal to youth at risk who are often less responsive to traditional psychotherapeutic interventions” (Abstract). Most treatment options and interventions for teens were based on approaches that were originally developed for adults. Then programs are designed to decrease stigma and promote growth. The growth occurs within a domain of competency and performance, responsibility, judgment, social orientation, motivation, and identity, per the report mentioned above.

Wilderness and Adventure Therapy is Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy is not a process of talking with a therapist in an office setting; rather, it could take place outdoors or in an art studio, or with horses. Experiential psychotherapy involves physical, hands-on activity or experience that delivers interactive opportunities for a client to open up to the therapist or counselor. Many people struggling with addiction have trouble expressing deep emotions or talking about painful times in their lives. According to an article in Psychology Today, the author notes that wilderness therapy, for example, is defined as the prescriptive use of adventure experiences provided by qualified professionals.

Studies done on the emotional and behavioral outcomes of clients have found that significant improvements were made during a wilderness program. The average client maintained the positive changes one year after discharge from the program. Interviews done with participants showed that 83% reported being doing better, 58% said they were doing very well or well, and 81% rated treatment as effective, and 17% were still struggling. The article in Psychology Today talks about a meta-analysis reviewing 197 studies related to adventure and wilderness therapy. The study indicated that the short-term effect of adventure therapy is greater than that of alternative and no treatment comparison groups.

Experiential therapy, like wilderness and adventure therapies, causes a shift in a person’s perception of themselves and the world around them. The programs provide a safe place to explore complicated and challenging emotions and helping patients make a connection between these two. When the individual is focused on an activity or task at hand, rather than the therapy, they tend to be less guarded and open up about the issues they are struggling with. Once a client works through negative feelings, they are open to more positive feelings of forgiveness, inner peace, and confidence in their abilities.

When is Wilderness and Adventure Therapy, the Best Option for Addiction Treatment?

Wilderness and Adventure therapies are an excellent option for teens and young adults struggling with addiction. Substance abuse professionals know that one singular approach does not work for every, and young adults and teens are often resistant to traditional group or individual counseling. Wilderness and adventure therapy uses adventure experiences to improve the physical, mental, and even spiritual well-being of the drug-addicted individual. For example, clients learn basic survival skills, coping strategies, and interpersonal skills that could be applied to everyday life. Teens and young adults often learn more effectively when all senses are engaged in the learning process, and the process involves the person directly.

Adventure therapy has the client engage in treatment as a participant. Rather than watch events unfold, the individual is directly involved in the treatment and works with the group and counselor. Directly participating in treatment ensures the person is accountable for their actions and, in the process, learns more about themselves. Individuals become motivated through energy, personal responsibility, and involvement in the activity; thus, it motivates the person to participate in treatment. These forms of therapies are excellent options for teens who become unmotivated with life and consumed by addiction. Also, the experiences are real, and the activities are relevant to current and future experiences.

Wilderness therapy is similar to adventure therapy and is also referred to as outdoor behavioral healthcare. The treatment model uses expeditions into the wilderness and other surroundings to address behavioral and addiction issues. Wilderness therapy is part of adventure therapy, and it provides a secure and non-critical supportive environment for self-discovery. Individuals work with a therapist and engage in wilderness therapy and are guided through an examination of maladaptive behaviors. Typically, these behaviors are those that contribute to negative circumstances in their lives, such as addiction and substance use. The experiences include skills training, team-building exercises that challenge disruptive and unproductive beliefs.

Wilderness and adventure therapy falls under the banner of adventure therapy, which is an experiential form of therapy. Wilderness therapy brings about endurance and adaptability in wilderness environments, and adventure therapy involves the use of emotionally and challenging outdoor activities that incorporate some degree of risk. These programs are excellent options for treatment because they are licensed by state agencies and overseen by licensed addictions professionals and counselors. The programs are able to provide individualized treatment plans and conduct an evaluation of treatment effectiveness.

How do Wilderness and Adventure Therapy Programs Operate?

According to the article mentioned above, Wilderness Adventure Therapy Effects on the Mental Health of Youth Participants—adventure therapy uses experiential learning activities in outdoor environments. The activities are used for assessment and intervention at an individual and group level. Like any other form of therapy, it causes behavioral and psychological therapeutic change. Wilderness therapy helps drug-addicted individuals assess the issues, helps young people develop coping strategies. In contrast, the individual emerges with a more positive sense of self and hope for the future. These two therapies often go hand in hand to provide well-rounded treatment for the individual.

The first step with any treatment process is the assessment to acknowledge and possibly identify what is going on beneath the surface. The assessment process also offers insight into whether or not adventure or wilderness therapy is beneficial and would apply to the current problem with drugs or alcohol. It is important to discover whether spending weeks or months in the woods or a secluded environment would address core issues. When going through an adventure or wilderness program, the clients develop coping strategies, which is beneficial for young people. While in the moment of facing the many challenges, the counselors or professionals constantly assess how the individual is managing their experience and intervenes when appropriate.

The issues are worked through in real-time, and the individual develops strategies to self-soothe more productively. The purpose is to become more reliant on yourself and your own abilities to face and overcome problems. These programs also operate by improving self-esteem, confidence, and discovering your identity. Wilderness therapy and adventure therapy builds success-oriented identities, per the article written by Psychology Today mentioned above. The author points out that participants increase their self-concept, hope, self-confidence, and improve their interpersonal relationships and social skills.

Through the entirety of the treatment, whether it lats for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, the individual begins to develop goals, creates a plan to reach these goals, and develops insight into their own motivations, feelings, and beliefs. Also, they begin to work with and communicate with others, build self-confidence, and deal with disagreements with others in a positive manner. The key to successful therapy is the therapist’s or counselors ability to help the client reflect on their experiences through the process. Every experience is applicable to life and is applied to their problems with substance abuse and addiction.

Per a Master of Social Work Clinical Research Paper, titled A Systemic Review of Wilderness Therapy: Theory, Practice, and Outcomes, the author says, “There are numerous population as well as client problems that are beginning to be treated through wilderness therapy.” The author goes on to quote a research paper—”Additionally, the therapeutic approach in wilderness therapy does not appear to force change, but instead allows the environment to influence client response through natural consequences (Russel, 2001, p 74)” (Van Hoven, 2014 p 4).

What are the Alternatives to Adventure and Wilderness Therapy?

The alternatives to this form of therapy are traditional therapy approaches. Some of these therapies are incorporated into adventure and wilderness therapy programs. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy uses techniques that help people learn to recognize and change their destructive behaviors. This form of therapy helps people with coping skills and identifying risky situations and what to do about them to prevent relapse. CBT is commonly paired with other approaches and other therapy techniques and is one of the most recognized forms of behavioral therapy.

Additionally, there are twelve-step programs and methods, which aim to promote continued abstinence by engaging people in recovery with peer support groups and the 12-steps. Motivational Interviewing is a method of helping those in recovery or a drug-addicted individual embrace treatment or recovery. Those who are in recovery and treatment develop their own motivation and plan for change over the course of several sessions. Contingency Management is also a common approach used and is effective in treating several types of substance abuse problems. The method provides a reward system motivating change for desirable behaviors, such as maintaining sobriety.

Substance abuse treatment centers often use a combination of traditional and non-traditional approaches to treatment. When searching for the right one and when considering wilderness or adventure therapy, an addiction assessment is always a good place to begin. The purpose of an assessment is to determine the extent of addiction and what treatment programs are the best option.

What's Next?

After attending a wilderness and adventure drug rehab program, the next rehab phase is aftercare support. Wilderness programs are a form of experiential therapy. Yet, standard aftercare support such as recovery meetings, outpatient therapy, sober coaching, or sober living homes is beneficial. Aftercare support helps you or your loved one maintain sobriety throughout the path to recovery.

Common Terminology with Wilderness and or Adventure Therapy

Term Definition
Wilderness Therapy is also known as outdoor behavioral healthcare, is a type of adventure-based therapy model. The process uses a combination of behavior modification, interpersonal self-improvement, combined with experiential education and individual and group therapy in a wilderness setting.
Adventure Therapy is separate from traditional psychotherapy and has been around since the 1960s. The therapy is often conducted in a group or family context and uses the environment to elicit changes through high adventure, outdoor pursuits, and wilderness expeditions.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a psycho-social intervention that aims to improve overall mental health. When applied to addiction, the process focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful and destructive behaviors while improving emotional regulation and personal coping strategies.
Group Therapy is a common form of psychotherapy in which one or more therapists treat a small group of clients together as a group. Wilderness and adventure therapy incorporates numerous group activities to help clients work together to overcome obstacles and barriers.
Individual Therapy is a form of psychotherapy implemented by trained professionals such as addictions counselors. The therapy takes place one-on-one, where the client works through individual problems associated with their addiction.
Association for Experiential Education is a global membership community comprised of experiential educators, practitioners, inquirers, researchers, and students with the shared goal of elevating the field of experiential education. The organization works closely with programs using experiential therapy to treat addiction.
Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council founded in 1996, and represents a handful of wilderness treatment programs joined to collaborate and share best practices. The organization and its member programs have been instrumental in raising the bar for wilderness treatment through the facilitation of research on the efficacy of wilderness treatment for adolescents.
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Contributors to this Article

Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with addiction for over 19 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. During his 5 years as an intake counselor, he helped many addicts get the treatment they needed. He also dealt with the families and friends of those people; he saw first-hand how much strain addiction puts on a family and how it can tear relationships apart. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise in the United States and Canada, he decided to use the Internet as a way to educate and help many more people in both those countries. This was 15 years ago. Since then, Marcel has built two of the largest websites in the U.S. and Canada which reach and help millions of people each year. He is an author and a leader in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. His main focus is threefold: education, prevention and rehabilitation. To this day, he still strives to be at the forefront of technology in order to help more and more people. He is a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist graduate with Honours of Stratford Career Institute. Marcel has also received a certificate from Harvard for completing a course entitled The Opioid Crisis in America and a certificate from The University of Adelaide for completing a course entitled AddictionX: Managing Addiction: A Framework for Succesful Treatment.

Michael Leach

Medical Reviewer

Michael Leach is a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, who has over 5 years of experience working in the field of addiction. He spent his career working under the board-certified Addictionologist Dr. Rohit Adi. His experience includes working with families during their loved one’s stay in treatment, helping those with substance abuse issues find treatment, and teaching life skills to patients in a recovery atmosphere. Though he has worked in many different areas of rehabilitation, the majority of his time was spent working one on one with patients who were actively withdrawing from drugs. Withdrawal and the fear of going through it is one biggest reason why an addict continues to use and can be the most difficult part of the rehabilitation process. His experience in the withdrawal atmosphere has taught him that regardless of what approach a person takes to get off drugs, there are always mental and emotional obstacles that need to be overcome. He believes having someone there to help a person through these obstacles can make all the difference during the withdrawal process.

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