Mental Health
What is Wilderness Therapy?

What is Wilderness Therapy?

8 min read


Jareena Silva

What is Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy is a form of therapy that uses the outdoors as its primary setting. It involves activities such as hiking, camping, rafting, and other outdoor activities as part of the therapeutic process. Participants are typically guided by trained professionals and complete different tasks and activities as an individual or part of a group.

The purpose of wilderness therapy is to provide participants with an opportunity to reconnect with nature and to themselves in order to gain a new perspective on life and better deal with the struggles they may be facing. In this blog post, we will discuss the benefits of wilderness therapy, the types of activities it involves, and what to expect when participating in this type of therapy.

History of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is an increasingly popular form of therapeutic intervention, which originated in the 1960s as an alternative to traditional, clinical models of therapy. In the 1970s, wilderness therapy began to be used for therapeutic purposes, primarily as an intervention for adolescents. This type of therapy is based on the idea that the natural environment can provide a powerful setting for therapeutic change.

Wilderness therapy programs use the physical and psychological challenges of the wilderness to help participants develop a range of skills, including self-confidence, self-awareness, problem-solving, and healthy coping strategies. By engaging in activities such as hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing, participants are able to gain insight into their behaviors and feelings, build resilience, and learn to manage their emotions in a healthy way.

How Wilderness Therapy Works

Wilderness therapy is an experiential form of therapy that takes place in the natural environment in order to help individuals work through a variety of personal issues. This type of therapy utilizes the wilderness as a therapeutic tool to build life and coping skills, self-confidence, and self-esteem. It combines traditional therapeutic techniques with outdoor activities such as rock climbing, backpacking, and white water rafting in order to provide an immersive experience.

Difference between Wilderness Therapy and Adventure Therapy

Wilderness therapy is becoming a popular choice for individuals who are looking for an alternative to traditional therapeutic interventions. It is a great way to gain perspective and develop the skills needed to lead a more fulfilling life. There are two forms of therapy that are practiced in outdoor settings: Wilderness therapy and Adventure therapy.

Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy focuses on outdoor activities and encourages perseverance and flexibility. Wilderness therapy programs provide challenges that are primarily mental rather than physically taxing. This type of therapy concentrates on developing physical and emotional autonomy.

Compared to Adventure Therapy, Wilderness Therapy programs may be slightly longer. However, compared to traditional talk therapy, Wilderness Therapy is shorter term. Activities include learning survival skills, hiking, farming or gardening, and animal-assisted interventions.

Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy involves adventure activities, pushing oneself to take both physical and emotional risks. Adventure therapy is designed to help individuals and groups overcome fears, provide encouragement to others, and build trust. Compared to traditional talk therapy, it typically involves shorter-term care. Most activities are done as a group, but you may do some activities alone.

Adventure Therapy activities may include rope courses, rock climbing, ziplining, white water rafting and long-distance hikes. All activities are designed to help participants work as a team and develop trust.

Principles of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is based on several key principles rooted in the belief that the natural environment can provide a powerful backdrop for personal growth, self-discovery, and healing.

Connection with Nature

The natural environment can inspire self-reflection, self-awareness, and a sense of interconnectedness with the Earth. Nature is viewed as a powerful and healing force in wilderness therapy. Participants are encouraged to connect with the natural world through outdoor activities and exploration.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning fosters personal growth, self-discovery, and the development of practical life skills. Wilderness therapy emphasizes learning through direct experience rather than solely through talk therapy or classroom settings. Participants engage in hands-on activities and challenges.

Challenge and Adventure

Confronting challenges and discomfort can lead to personal growth, increased self-confidence, and the development of resilience. Participants are exposed to physically and mentally challenging experiences in the wilderness, such as hiking, camping, and survival skills. These challenges are designed to push boundaries.

Cultural and Emotional Sensitivity

Creating a safe and inclusive environment promotes trust, openness, and respect. Wilderness therapy programs often incorporate cultural and emotional sensitivity by acknowledging the diverse backgrounds and experiences of participants.

Holistic Approach

Wilderness therapy takes a holistic view of individuals, considering their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Self-Reliance and Empowerment

Developing a sense of self-efficacy and personal agency can lead to greater self-esteem and self-confidence. Participants are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, make decisions, and problem-solve independently. Wilderness therapy promotes self-reliance and empowerment.

Group Dynamics

Group dynamics provide opportunities for interpersonal growth, support, and learning from others. The group setting is an essential component of wilderness therapy. Participants interact with a small group of peers, fostering social skills, communication, and trust.

Transference and Metaphor

Using natural experiences as metaphors can help individuals gain insight into their behaviors and emotions. Experiences in the wilderness are often used metaphorically to represent challenges and issues in participants' lives. This allows for deeper exploration and understanding.

Mindfulness and Presence

Mindfulness encourages self-reflection and the ability to manage thoughts and emotions effectively. These practices are integrated into wilderness therapy to help participants stay present in the moment, reduce anxiety, and enhance self-awareness.

Cultivating Environmental Stewardship

Developing a sense of environmental stewardship reinforces the connection between individuals and their surroundings. Wilderness therapy programs often emphasize environmental ethics and the importance of responsible and sustainable interaction with the natural world.

Types of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy activities are carefully chosen to provide participants with opportunities for self-discovery, teamwork, and overcoming obstacles. Here are some common types of activities you can expect in wilderness therapy programs.

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking is a fundamental component of wilderness therapy. Participants embark on journeys through scenic natural landscapes, carrying their essential belongings in backpacks. Hiking encourages physical fitness, self-reliance, and perseverance. It provides opportunities for reflection and mindfulness in the midst of nature's beauty.

Camping and Survival Skills

Camping in the wilderness involves setting up temporary shelter, preparing meals outdoors, and learning survival skills. Camping teaches self-sufficiency, teamwork, and resourcefulness. Participants develop problem-solving skills and a greater appreciation for the basics of life.

Rock Climbing and Rappelling

Rock climbing challenges individuals to scale cliffs and rock faces, while rappelling involves descending from heights using ropes and harnesses. These activities build physical and mental strength, trust in oneself and others, and confidence in facing fears. They also emphasize safety and control.

Canoeing and Rafting

Water-based activities like canoeing and white-water rafting take participants on adventures down rivers and streams. These activities foster teamwork, communication, and adaptability. They also require participants to navigate through changing environments and challenges.

Animal-Assisted Interventions

Some wilderness therapy programs incorporate animal interactions, such as equine therapy or working with therapy dogs. Interacting with animals can promote emotional healing, trust-building, and empathy. It provides opportunities for non-verbal communication and emotional regulation.

Wilderness Skills and Nature Connection

Learning wilderness skills like fire-making, navigation, and plant identification connects participants more deeply with their natural surroundings. These skills enhance self-sufficiency and self-reliance, increase ecological awareness, and build a sense of belonging in the natural world.

Challenge Courses and Team Building

Challenge courses feature obstacle courses and rope elements that require participants to work together to overcome physical and mental challenges. These activities promote teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving. They also encourage trust and communication among group members.

Art and Expression

Some wilderness therapy programs incorporate creative activities such as painting, journaling, or storytelling. Artistic expression allows participants to explore their emotions, process experiences, and communicate feelings that may be difficult to express verbally.

Solo Experiences

Periods of solitude and reflection in the wilderness are often included in wilderness therapy programs. Participants spend time alone with nature. Solitary experiences encourage self-reflection, self-discovery, and a deeper connection with one's inner thoughts and feelings.

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is an increasingly popular form of treatment that helps people reconnect with themselves and their surroundings. It provides an opportunity to learn and apply self-care strategies, as well as teaching problem-solving and coping skills. These practices enhance communication skills, improve self-confidence, and increase self-awareness.

Wilderness Therapy is helpful for a variety of conditions such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Addiction or Substance Abuse
  • Communication Issues
  • Depression
  • Food-Related Stress or Eating Disorders
  • Relationship Conflict
  • Self-Esteem and Confidence
  • Trauma

By taking part in wilderness therapy, individuals have the chance to reflect on their lives and make positive changes. This form of therapy supports both mental and physical health, providing a safe and supportive environment in which to practice personal growth and development. It offers an alternative to traditional talk therapy, using the natural environment to help individuals heal.

Who is a Good Fit for Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy is a form of therapy that uses nature as the main source of healing. It is designed to help individuals who are struggling with a variety of mental health issues and life challenges such as addiction, depression and anxiety, behavioral issues, self-esteem and identity issues, academic or professional performance, transitioning from childhood to adulthood, family issues, or relationship issues.

Wilderness therapy is a therapeutic intervention that places emphasis on the use of nature-based activities to help individuals make positive changes in their lives. It is an experiential therapy that encourages individuals to connect with nature and explore their inner selves. By connecting with nature, individuals can gain insight into their behavior and develop a better understanding of their emotions.  

If you want to learn more about Wilderness Therapy or are ready to start therapy in general, take our 5-minute questionnaire to get matched with up to 3 providers that are the right fit for you based on your preferences.

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About the author

Jareena is MyWellbeing's Community Manager and is dedicated to supporting MyWellbeing's providers in order for them to offer the best possible care for you. Jareena is a mental health advocate and aims to identify ways to destigmatize discussions around mental health and how to make care more accessible.

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