Embracing the Wild: The Impact of Wilderness Treatment Centers

Learn more about how Choice House Recovery’s wilderness treatment centers offer therapeutic counseling with outdoor therapy.

What are Wilderness Treatment Centers?

Wilderness treatment centers are a form of experiential therapy. This type of program combines therapeutic counseling with challenging outdoor experiences. These programs are set in natural environments like mountains, forests, deserts, or other wilderness settings.

wilderness treatment centers

The Benefits Of Wilderness Treatment Centers

Wilderness treatment centers have emerged as a dynamic and effective approach to addressing various mental health, substance use, and behavioral challenges.1

According to a study published in the Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, approximately 10,000 adolescents attend private-pay outdoor behavioral health programs each year in the United States alone.2

These centers are gaining recognition for their unique therapeutic environment that combines traditional therapeutic modalities with outdoor experiences.

How Effective are Wilderness Treatment Centers?

An Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council survey suggests that 81% of clients show significant clinical improvement during treatment, with over 80% maintaining their gains a year after program completion.3

What to Expect from this Article

This article addresses the benefits of wilderness treatment centers for mental health treatment. Individuals can make informative decisions regarding their treatment options by understanding what these treatment centers offer and how they promote mental well-being.

This article will also discuss the wilderness treatment program that Choice House Colorado offers. Our facility offers various treatment strategies to support recovery for many mental health conditions.

Key Features of Wilderness Treatment Centers

Wilderness treatment centers are built around several key features.

Outdoor Setting

This factor is the most distinct feature of a wilderness treatment center. Participants immerse themselves in a natural setting where they participate in outdoor activities, such as:

  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Rock climbing
  • Survival skills, etc.

The natural world’s challenges, unpredictability, and beauty can be therapeutic for individuals.

Group Living and Peer Support

Participants live together as a group and engage in group activities and therapy. This strategy helps build interpersonal skills, empathy, and teamwork.

Physical Activity

There is a substantial physical activity component, such as hiking, rock climbing, and camping. These activities provide physical exercise, which has been shown to improve mental health, and challenge participants to overcome obstacles and build resilience.

Skill Building

Participants learn practical wilderness skills such as building a fire, cooking meals, setting up a camp, and navigating. These skill-building activities can increase self-confidence and can promote responsibility for participants.

Wilderness experiences can be challenging. By teaching individuals valuable problem-solving skills, they can develop a sense of self-reliance.

Therapeutic Intervention

Wilderness programs are not just an outdoor adventure. These programs incorporate regular therapeutic interventions like individual, group, family, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Therapists will be with participants in the wilderness to provide routine therapy sessions.

How Traditional Treatment Modalities Differ

Traditional residential or outpatient treatment programs are based in clinical settings. These methods emphasize medication, psychotherapy, and other formal treatment approaches.

They might incorporate group therapy, skill-building activities, or physical exercise, typically done within a clinical or residential facility, not an outdoor wilderness environment.

Traditional Residential Programs

Traditional residential programs require patients to live on-site for a period of time. Additionally, outpatient programs allow patients to live at home while attending treatment sessions at a clinic or hospital.4

Wilderness Treatment Centers

Wilderness therapy programs, on the other hand, are immersive experiences where participants live outdoors for the duration of the program.

How Wilderness Treatment Centers Promote Healing

The natural environment and outdoor activities in wilderness treatment centers play a significant role in the therapeutic process.

Here are some ways these centers promote healing:

Physical Activity

Physical activity is an essential component of wilderness therapy. Exercise, such as hiking or canoeing, is known to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, boost self-esteem, and improve mood.

It stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and mood elevators. Physical exertion also aids in the regulation of sleep patterns, which can have a positive impact on mental health.

Connectedness to Nature

Immersing in nature offers an array of mental health benefits. Studies have shown that spending time in natural environments can lower cortisol (the stress hormone), decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve overall psychological well-being.

Novel and Challenging Experiences

Wilderness treatment centers present individuals with experiences and challenges that demand problem-solving, resilience, and adaptability.

Overcoming these challenges builds self-esteem and self-efficacy. It can give individuals a sense of accomplishment and a new belief in their ability to handle difficult situations.

Therapeutic Alliance

The shared experience of wilderness living and activities can strengthen the therapeutic alliance between therapists and participants. This alliance is a critical factor in the effectiveness of therapy.

Group Dynamics and Peer Support

Many wilderness therapy programs operate in group formats. The group dynamic and the peer support that develops can be therapeutic, as individuals can learn from each other’s experiences, receive feedback, and develop social skills.

Simplicity and Reduced Distractions

Wilderness settings often provide a quieter life with fewer distractions, allowing individuals to focus on self-discovery and healing. This concept can create a space for introspection and self-reflection, which is often an essential part of the therapeutic process.

Mindfulness and Presence

The wilderness setting and outdoor activities encourage mindfulness and presence. Individuals become more aware of their surroundings and their bodies. Mindfulness also promotes internal and emotional growth.

Mindfulness has been linked to various mental health benefits, including:

  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Improved focus and memory
  • Better stress management

Teaching Responsibility and Care

Participants are usually responsible for tasks such as setting up camp, cooking, or navigating. This responsibility teaches important life skills, promotes a sense of accomplishment, and can enhance feelings of self-worth.

Criteria for Admission to Wellness Treatment Centers

Wilderness treatment centers often work well for adolescents and young adults dealing with various emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues.5

Each program has its own specific admission criteria based on its philosophy, structure, and resources. Some may specialize in specific age groups, diagnoses, or issues.

Here are some factors wellness treatment centers consider:


Many wilderness therapy programs cater to specific age groups, most commonly adolescents and young adults, though some programs may accept older adults.

Physical Health

Given the nature of the activities involved, participants generally need to be in good physical health or capable of safely engaging in moderate physical activity. A physical exam is required as part of the admission process.

Psychiatric Stability

While wilderness therapy can benefit many mental health conditions, it may not be appropriate for individuals in acute psychiatric crises or those with severe psychiatric disorders requiring intensive, specialized care.

For example, individuals with active psychosis, severe eating disorders, or high suicide risk may not be suitable candidates.

Behavioral Criteria

Individuals with a history of violence or who pose a risk to others may not be suitable for wilderness therapy programs. The communal environment of wilderness programs requires safety for all participants.

Motivation and Consent

While motivation levels can vary, it can be beneficial if the participant is willing to engage in the program. In the case of minors, parental consent is required.

Therapies and Interventions Used in Wilderness Treatment Centers

Wilderness treatment centers utilize a variety of therapeutic modalities and interventions designed to take advantage of the unique wilderness setting. Here are a few examples:

Experiential Therapy

This is a key therapeutic modality used in wilderness treatment programs. Experiential therapy involves actions, movements, and activities rather than traditional talk therapy. The wilderness setting provides many opportunities for experiential learning through outdoor activities.

These activities allow individuals to learn and practice new skills and serve as metaphors for overcoming challenges, problem-solving, and coping with stress in real life.

Group Therapy

Group therapy is a crucial component of wilderness treatment centers. In group therapy sessions, participants:

  • Share their experiences
  • Learn from each other
  • Provide mutual support
  • Practice interpersonal skills

The group setting also enables therapeutic techniques like role-playing or group problem-solving.

Individual Therapy

Although wilderness therapy emphasizes group experiences, individual therapy sessions are also part of the program.

Therapists can use a variety of therapeutic approaches based on the needs of the individual, such as:

Family Therapy

Many wilderness programs also incorporate family therapy through regular phone calls, letters, or family visits. This is based on the understanding that family dynamics often play a significant role in a young person’s difficulties. Family involvement can be crucial for lasting change.

Mindfulness and Stress Management

The natural setting is ideal for mindfulness, meditation, and yoga practices. These practices can help participants better understand their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. They can also provide valuable tools for stress management and emotional regulation.

Adventure Therapy

Some programs use adventure therapy, which involves engaging participants in challenging outdoor activities like rock climbing or white-water rafting. These activities push individuals out of their comfort zones, promote team-building, and foster personal growth and self-esteem.

Nature Therapy / Ecotherapy

This approach focuses on fostering a connection with the natural environment as a therapeutic tool. It can include activities like:

  • Nature walks
  • Plant identification
  • Gardening
  • Simply spending quiet time in nature

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Some wilderness programs may incorporate interactions with animals, like horseback riding or care of farm animals. Interacting with animals can provide emotional comfort, promote empathy, and teach responsibility.

Are there any Limitations or Challenges Associated with Wilderness Treatment Centers?

Wilderness treatment centers can benefit many individuals, but like any therapeutic intervention, they also have limitations and challenges.

Here are some limitations to consider:

Accessibility and Costs

Wilderness therapy programs can be expensive and may not be covered by insurance. Costs can include not only the program itself, but also gear, travel, and possible follow-up care. This can limit accessibility for many families.

Safety Concerns

While most wilderness treatment centers are committed to the safety of their participants, the nature of the activities and the settings pose inherent risks.

These may include the potential for injuries or medical emergencies. It’s essential that programs have trained staff, thorough safety protocols, and emergency response plans.

Variability in Quality and Oversight

The wilderness therapy industry in many regions, including the United States, must be uniformly regulated as of 2021. This means that the quality of care and safety standards can vary from one program to another. It’s crucial to research any program under consideration thoroughly.

Long-Term Integration

While many participants make significant strides in wilderness therapy programs, transferring these gains to their home, school, or work environment can be challenging.

Programs should ideally focus on aftercare planning and support to ensure that skills learned in the wilderness setting translate into lasting change.

Suitability and Effectiveness

Wilderness therapy may not be suitable or effective for everyone. Certain individuals may not respond well to the group living environment, the physical demands, or the wilderness setting.

Others may have mental health needs that require more intensive, specialized, or controlled environments than a wilderness program can provide.

Physical Limitations

Individuals with certain physical disabilities or health conditions may not be able to participate safely in a wilderness therapy program due to the physical demands and remote locations.

Disruption of School or Work

Attending a wilderness therapy program means taking a break from school or work for adolescents and young adults. Programs often include some educational components that may not fully align with the student’s curriculum.

Aftercare in Wilderness Treatment Centers

A comprehensive wilderness treatment program typically includes an aftercare plan to support the individual’s transition into everyday life.

This is a crucial part of the treatment process as it helps ensure the skills and insights gained during the program are maintained and applied in the home, school, or work environment.

Here are a few ways wilderness treatment centers may incorporate aftercare and support systems:

Discharge Planning

Before the end of the program, therapists typically work with the individual and their family to develop a detailed discharge plan. This may include recommendations for ongoing therapy or other outpatient services.

Educational or vocational plans, strategies for maintaining physical health, and techniques for managing potential stressors are also provided.

Family Therapy and Education

Many wilderness programs include a family component to help improve family dynamics and communication, which can be crucial for the individual’s success. This can include family therapy sessions, parent education programs, and family workshops or seminars.


Wilderness treatment centers often have a network of referrals to outpatient therapists, group therapies, educational consultants, or other services that can provide ongoing support after the program.

Alumni Groups

Some programs offer alum groups where former participants can connect, share their experiences, and offer mutual support. This can be an excellent way for individuals to maintain a sense of community and support after the program.

Transition Programs

Certain wilderness therapy programs have associated transition or step-down programs. These programs are designed to bridge the gap between the intensive wilderness therapy experience and returning to the home environment. They often provide an intermediate level of structure and support between the two.

Follow-Up Services

Some wilderness therapy programs offer follow-up services, such as regular check-ins with the individual or their family. Healthcare professionals may also provide booster sessions to reinforce the skills and insights gained during the program.

School Coordination

Successful reintegration into school is often a critical part of the aftercare plan for adolescents. Wilderness treatment centers may work with schools to facilitate this process and ensure the individual has the necessary academic and emotional support.

Relapse Prevention

Individuals often develop a relapse prevention plan as part of the therapeutic process. This typically involves identifying potential triggers or high-risk situations and planning specific coping strategies to use in these situations.

wilderness treatment centers

Choice House Wilderness Treatment Center

The wilderness helps facilitate challenges in a unique way that cannot be cultivated elsewhere. At Choice House Recovery, we strive to create memorable experiences and opportunities to instill confidence and resilience.

Choosing Choice House Wilderness Treatment Center

Choice House Colorado embraces the power of physical activities and adventure-based experiences within our program.

Providing these opportunities aims to foster personal growth, boost self-esteem, and nurture resilience in order programs. Engaging in outdoor activities develops problem-solving skills and teamwork for our participants.

Traditional Meets Holistic Treatment

At our facility, we blend traditional therapeutic approaches with the healing forces of nature. This approach ensures a holistic recovery process that addresses psychological and physical aspects.

With our wilderness treatment center and dedicated team of skilled therapists, we offer a safe and conducive environment for effective treatment.

Our Choice House team is committed to providing a unique and impactful experience that supports young men on their transformative journey toward personal growth.

Start Your Healing Adventure Today

To learn more about how our wilderness treatment centers in Boulder, Colorado can help you or your loved one regain autonomy and wellness, contact us today.

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Don’t let addiction or co-occurring mental health conditions keep you from leading the happy, healthy, and empowered life you deserve. Contact Choice House today and embrace recovery.

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