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A Guide to Winter Wilderness Therapy and Adventure Therapy Activities for Adolescents

Wilderness therapy offers an immersive therapeutic experience for struggling and at-risk adolescents. The challenging environment and adventure therapy activities — like hiking, fishing, kayaking, backpacking, and climbing — compel teens and young adults to engage in therapeutic healing and learn the life skills essential to succeeding in life. And because it’s available year-round, it can be a great option during the winter months.

So, what do parents like you need to know about wilderness therapy — including winter wilderness therapy? Kayla Davenport, a primary therapist at First Light Wilderness Therapy, a nationally recognized program in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia, shared some insights. 

Wilderness Therapy and Adventure Therapy Activities: A Closer Look 

Wilderness therapy is a short-term form of therapy that provides growth and healing opportunities in an outdoor setting, with fully immersive physical activities that enable adolescents to develop new skills. 

“Wilderness therapy provides a safe space for dealing with challenges and developing better ways of responding to tough environments or situations so your child can experience healthy wins. It allows your child to gain skills that will help them succeed in all aspects of life, such as emotional coping, communication, and leadership skills,” Davenport said.

Teens and young adults also learn how to set boundaries and to face any challenges they’ve been struggling with head-on.

Wilderness therapy is often used to treat behavioral, emotional, and mental health conditions and challenges including:

When participating in wilderness therapy programs, which typically last 30 to 120 days, your child can try adventure activities like hiking, fishing, rock climbing, rafting, canoeing, rappelling, mountain biking, ropes courses, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Adventure education activities are based on teens and young adults’ specific needs.

Your child can also join individual, group, and family therapy sessions to develop deep relationships with fellow participants and staff, as well as their families. 

The benefits of wilderness therapy and adventure therapy activities 

Wilderness therapy has multiple benefits. For example, Davenport said, it encourages:

  • Self-confidence: Surviving in the wilderness helps teens and young adults realize that they’re capable, giving them self-esteem and boosting their confidence. They’ll remember that feeling later as they deal with relationship, school, or work issues.
  • The ability to overcome obstacles: Once participants complete the program, they will have learned how to tackle issues and move forward in a healthy way.
  • Self-actualization: Wilderness therapy helps teens and young adults realize their full potential. It gives them the “why” they need to achieve what they’re capable of. 
  • Decision-making skills: The activities teach participants to make intelligent decisions, as they can feel the impact of wrong choices and actions during their stay. 

Why Is Wilderness Therapy Effective?

Wilderness therapy helps adolescents learn that their actions have positive and negative effects. These effects occur naturally, so teens and young adults learn that their actions matter. This can be especially true during the winter.

For example, Davenport said, participants will realize, “If I don’t put on my gear correctly, then I’m cold. If I don’t dry my boots out when everyone else is drying their boots out, then my boots are wet and cold.”

Wilderness therapy is also helpful because it allows teens and young adults to focus on therapy, growth, and healing by providing an environment where they’re away from their usual routines, which include technology, social media, and the traditional demands of their daily schedules.

According to a recently published pilot study featured in the American Psychological Association journal, empirical support for the effectiveness of wilderness therapy is growing. In addition, the study found, trauma-informed wilderness therapy — which involves treating trauma through outdoor activities — is a promising way to improve struggling adolescents’ psychological and family functioning. It was shown to be effective when used alongside another treatment approach or as part of a larger treatment plan. 

Why is winter a good time for wilderness therapy and adventure therapy activities?

Because wintertime is colder, the environment lends itself to unique wilderness therapy opportunities. For example, learning how to build a fire is more crucial because you’re doing it during the chilly winter as compared to during the hot summer. 

“That lends itself to this huge amount of achievement that these kids have never had the opportunity to experience before,” Davenport said. “They realize what they’re capable of doing, achieving, enduring, and overcoming — and doing that without experiencing huge amounts of discomfort.”

It’s important to note that wilderness therapy and adventure therapy activity programs don’t implement a shock approach. Rather, teens and young adults are taught the skills they need to survive in the wilderness and are provided with the right tools, equipment, and supervision needed for safety and success. 

Davenport explained, “Of course, it’s uncomfortable that they’re out there, but within this supervised setting, they’re allowed to struggle and experience success. They think, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’ That could mean finishing school or having difficult conversations they’ve often avoided.”

When Should You Consider Wilderness Therapy for Your Child?

Davenport advised you consider wilderness therapy when you realize that what you’re doing at home, in outpatient therapy, or in traditional residential treatment centers remains ineffective. This applies whether your child is engaging in internalizing behaviors that harm themselves (e.g., not eating enough or cutting) or externalizing behaviors that harm others (e.g., bullying or vandalism).

“When consequences seem to not matter or communication has completely stopped, that’s a really great time to try out or to start looking at wilderness therapy,” she said.

Taking the Next Step

Wilderness therapy gives struggling and at-risk teens and young adults the experiential education and support they need in their journey toward self-discovery, healing, and growth.

If you’re interested in wilderness therapy and adventure therapy activities to help improve your child’s mental health, you can find a program near you by using the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs’ search tool.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.