how does wilderness therapy work?

I have written here and here addressing the question of why does wilderness therapy work; the background and theory behind the practice. But this article addresses the ‘how’ of ‘how does wilderness therapy work’ in a practical sense; how is wilderness therapy structured, what does it entail and what does it actually look like on the ground.

origins of wilderness therapy

Wilderness Therapy or ‘Adventure Therapy’ came out of the Outward Bound programmes which spread through the UK and USA in the 1950s and 60s. These programmes used outdoor activities and experienced leaders to develop in young people skills such as self-confidence, communication and leadership.

I participated in a 3-week OB programme in Wales in 1999, when I was 17 and absolutely loved it. Every morning began with ‘Run & Dip’, where we jogged a mile to the shore, leapt into the sea for a quick splash and ran home for breakfast. Under the tutelage of our team leader, we kayaked, rock climbed, abseiled and hiked, culminating in a 24-hour solo survival exercise in the woods. The best day of the whole course for me was the day we spent on a charitable endeavour, clearing the local churchyard of rubble. There was laughter, sweat, hard work and fantastic camaraderie. After each segment of the programme there’d be debrief processes; how had we found it, what had we learnt etc. We were taught the four stages of group development; forming, storming, norming and performing, and were guided to reflect on how we as a team were progressing along this journey.


Towards the end of the programme we completed a raft of personality questionnaires; we did one on ourselves, and also each of us had profiles done on us by 4 of our teammates. The results were entered into a computer programme and we were given two pie-charts, showing the relative size or influence of different aspects of our psyche; one based on our own answers and the other based on the responses of others. I was distraught. Because, although positive, the answers of my teammates created a mirror profile to that created by my own answers; they saw me as the exact opposite of how I saw myself. Sensitive and prickly, at 17, I interpreted this to mean that I had a warped sense of self, or presented myself dishonestly. After 3 weeks of what I had thought was intense bonding and total openness, I had been utterly mis-read, and I was very upset. The consolation offered me was that the questions were open to interpretation, and that actually my teammates’ answers were a reflection of the qualities I was not confident enough to own. I don’t remember how I squared this away, but I know that overall the OB course was a highlight of my youth, many wonderful aspects of which I still vividly recall. In terms of my personal development, I learnt that I had strong leadership skills, and my confidence in my physical strength and body image improved.

development of wilderness therapy

From this model of Outward Bound courses grew a plethora of organisations delivering Adventure Programming, where the development of soft skills is emphasised, through the medium of outdoor recreations such as hiking, canoeing, rock-climbing. Although seemingly, to the naïve teen, these programmes are about outdoor recreation, the parents who enrol their teenagers on such course are generally more focused on the soft skills that will be gained, whether implicitly or explicitly. Little Jimmy may think he’s learning to kayak, but his mum knows that really he’s learning to communicate, to face his fears and to work as part of a team.

From this position a great deal of divergence has taken place. Every outdoor outfit worth its salt makes at least a cursory nod towards ‘personal development’, and as parents know, you get what you pay for. So that development might happen almost accidentally, while a bored and spotty gap year student straps kids into harnesses and belays them down rock faces. Or equally, an ex-military type barks pithy motivational slogans over kids heads as they paddle through a stretch of rapids. At the other end of the scale however, are adventure programmes which ought more rightfully be termed ‘wilderness therapy’, and these programmes can be eye-wateringly expensive and absolutely transformational. The primary distinction can be understood in terms of the levels of facilitation, and this begins to answer the question how does wilderness therapy work.

6 generations of wilderness therapy facilitation

  1. letting the experience speak for itself

This could be the ‘accidental’ method referred to above, but it can also be done more intentionally. The crucial feature however is that the experience itself is powerful enough. ‘Just’ the kayaking down the rapids, and the attendant journey from fear to success is sufficient to evoke feelings of pride, confidence, self-sufficiency etc, and this value is left to work intrinsically, percolating through the participants’ own level of understanding and self- awareness. Although this might sound simplistic, it is a truism that the majesty of nature can conjure up huge emotions, and that working closely in a group can provide enough psychological material to keep even the most experienced psychotherapist busy for weeks. In my experience, the journey, the surroundings and the team itself often are enough to cause participants to get enormous emotional and therapeutic value from the process.

2. speaking for the experience

This level is the one at which many adventure programmes, including Outward Bound, operate. A series of outdoor challenges are accomplished, and after each one there is time set aside for reflections; what went well, what has been learnt, what could be improved. At this level, the outcomes are learner-led and open-ended. Leaders won’t have a specific agenda to cover, or objectives to meet, and outcomes will be personalised; different for each team member. Individuals are simply supported in some light self-reflection, which serves to bring to the surface some of the learnings inherent in such experiences. Models for this might be the classic ‘traffic light’ feedback system; what from today are you going to stop doing/keep doing/start doing? As with my example of the pie charts, such a process can be complex because of the range of interests and needs of the group, and helping participants each interpret their experience appropriately requires a deft hand.

3. debriefing the experience

Here, the difference is that the leader will have an agenda, or at least specific questions to guide participants to reflect on a particular aspect of the experience. This is a model that more intensive programmes, such as a Raleigh International, who run 12-week remote expeditions for young people, might use. Participants might be given a journal with specific sections and questions at particular intervals, leading them through stages of the programme. Alternatively, a well-trained leader with facilitation experience or counselling training might be employed to unpack the experience verbally with the participants; ‘I want you to think now about how you felt when you were ascending the rock face. What did you learn about how you react to challenges? How might this be applicable to your life back at home?’. At this level, leaders also make judicious use of the ad-hoc challenges which present themselves. For example, broken kit, adverse weather or a tricky group dynamic may be turned into opportunities for meaningful debrief sessions to extract the gold from the crisis. ‘Ok, Sophie has lost the tent pegs. How do we feel about this? What can we learn?’

4. directly front-loading the experience

This is entering the realm of true wilderness therapy because here the facilitator is setting out for the participants in advance what each activity is really about. I have witnessed this level being expertly used by Yamnuska guides under the National Army Cadet Camp system in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.  On programmes such as this, participants have one-to-one time with high quality leaders and mentors, who run a structured system of pre-briefs and de-briefs, with each participant being allocated responsibility and with the focus for each element of the day defined. The model of ‘Plan, Do Review’ is often used here, where a group is encouraged to make successive iterative attempts honing their technique via an immediate feedback loop. ‘Right Lucy, the team needs to ascend the glacier, complete a crevasse crossing and make camp. You’re the leader for the morning. How would you like to approach this series of tasks? What support do you need? What style of leadership are you going to use? What skills are you going to need to bring into play?’. Or there might be a whole group briefing before the activity; ‘As you complete this high ropes course, I want you to notice how you are working together with your partner, and think about how you give and receive support. You might reflect on how this relates to the support systems you have in place at home’. This level of facilitation is mapped onto a defined journey for the participants, with stages and processes, if not outcomes, carefully planned. Mentors and guides will have a ‘learning journey’ in mind, or perhaps even a ‘scheme of work’ or developmental programme to follow, which is how wilderness therapy can start to define its methodology and code for its success.

5. framing the experience

This is complex metaphorical work, and requires the facilitation of accredited wilderness therapists. Here the leader uses their prior knowledge of the participant’s situation, mentality and priorities to encase the whole experience in language which relates it to their ‘real life’ via metaphor. Obviously, this cannot be undertaken lightly, and such facilitation will be used after a significant period of work with a participant. At organisations such as Open Sky in Colorado, after having worked with a young person through a week of one-to-one sessions, a facilitator might set up an occasion for a them to be confronted with a vivid wilderness enactment of their situation. For example, framing a series of stepping stones across a river as a metaphor for the steps a young person is going to have to take to alter the course of their life. Although the participant might just be able to skip across the stones fairly easily, the entire process might take hours, as the focus is metaphorical and the meaning of each stone must be verbally unpacked before the experience is completed. This level makes use of ‘isomorphic connections’, where a wilderness situation is related to a different ‘real life’ situation which has the same structure; i.e. a physical metaphor. It’s not about the stepping stones at all, and the pre-brief and de-brief vastly outweigh the physical journey in import.

6. indirect front-loading of the experience

This is entering the realm of psychotherapy, and can be seen as manipulative, because the therapist will deliberately set up the activity by saying something contrived in advance of an activity in order to create the opposite, desired, outcome. This reminds me of my technique as a teacher of saying ‘oh no, I don’t think I should give you this extra worksheet, it’s too hard’, to make them all ask for it and push themselves harder. It works, but mustn’t be overused. And the therapist must ensure he has the participants’ best interests at heart. An example might be to invent a ‘bad group’ who did this activity ‘last week’ in ‘the wrong way’, which creates the awareness of alternatives and might inspire a group to achieve success in a more beneficial way. The risk however, aside from exposure and loss of trust, is that the group is disempowered because they are merely responding to cues from the expert leader.

Wilderness therapy works via one of these generations of facilitation, with the length, intensity and impact of the programme generally increasing as we move up the scale.


structure of wilderness therapy programmes

A key distinction in structure of programme is whether participants can enrol at their convenience or the programme runs to scheduled terms with start and finish dates. Open Sky, with their large team and rich resources allows young people to enrol and arrive at any time, literally 24/7. Most wilderness therapy programmes in the UK, small as they are, offer just one or two 3-week programmes per year, typically over the summer holidays. The impact of this difference is huge, logistically and in terms of team cohesion. A rolling enrolment means that groups are always changing, making the programme into an organic community. This in turn means that each participant is on their own bespoke journey; some stay for 3 weeks, some for 3 months; as long as they need.

Related to this is the structure of the expedition element. At Open Sky, the rhythm is 8 days of expedition, 6 days at base camp, which is also remote and basic. A young person joining will always start at base camp, and join the next 8-day expedition, whether that is tomorrow or in a week’s time. Some wilderness programmes are purely expedition, and the entire programme takes place on the move. These programmes will generally have published start and end dates, since the journey must be joined at the beginning. It is common for such programmes to adopt the ‘rites of passage’ or ‘vision quest’ structure, where the journey incorporates phases of preparation, threshold, immersion and re-integration.

practicalities of wilderness therapy programmes

On programmes which are expedition-based, the wilderness activities will have to be organic. That is, the activities completed will be in service to the route travelled; crossing rivers and climbing mountains will be done as part of the journey, and learnings will be extracted from these experiences. This means that expedition programmes will more likely be operating at levels 1-3. But of course the routes are recced and risk assessed, so activities can be planned in advance and pre-briefed as in level 4. On Venture Mor programmes, the expedition phase also incorporates two 2-night stays at static camps while out in the field, which creates the possibility of pre-planned activities. And on a programme of infinite length, the likelihood is that each participant at some point encounters organically a situation which allows them to really explore what is going on for them underneath, thus accessing the higher levels of facilitation.

Base camp programmes have some permanent elements, with access to storage and material resources meaning that setting up activities using facilitation levels 4-6 is more feasible. For example, a rock climbing wall could be constructed, with pins and rungs etc inserted. Equipment can be stored with which to create specific learning activities, such as the ‘spiders web’. Dedicated spaces can be set aside for one-to-one meetings, and contained activities such as abseiling or gorge-walking can be organised, with lengthy opportunities for pre-briefing or metaphorical framing.

Staffing on wilderness therapy programmes generally consists of therapists, counsellors, mentors, field guides, activity guides, leaders and support staff, with the numbers and ratios varying enormously. Typically, participants will have their own mentor, and share a counsellor with 2 or 3 other young people, with a clinical therapist overseeing the whole team. Therapists on wilderness therapy programmes are generally trained in CBT, Reality Therapy, Family Therapy, Transactional Analysis or other similar modalities.

wilderness therapy organisations in UK

In USA, twenty years ago, there were over 500 wilderness therapy organisations and the industry was estimated to be worth 60 million dollars. In terms of what wilderness therapy looks like on the ground in the UK, the picture currently is more of a pencil sketch. But, with the mounting evidence of the link between time spent in nature and mental well-being, and the ever decreasing stigma associated with the concept of therapy, the picture will soon get fleshed out.

Current operators include:

Ascend Adventure – Norfolk

Adelong – Devon

Elements – Dorset

Venture Mor – Scotland

Wilderness Foundation – Essex

Wilderness Therapy UK – Dartmoor

A smattering of other small operators, and of course, yours truly, ipse wilderness! To find out more about the specific structures of the wilderness therapy programmes offered by these organisations, follow the links above, or get in touch!

I hope this has been a helpful summary to answer the question ‘how does wilderness therapy work’, and I very much hope that we are heading towards a future where more young people can access therapeutic interventions which are right for them.

To read a scholarly article outlining how wilderness therapy works in the USA context please follow this link.

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