Throughout the twentieth century there have been anecdotal accounts of the benefits of ‘camping therapy’ in North America. Indeed, wilderness therapy is gaining increased attention as an approach that involves a combination of cognitive therapy and/or humanistic therapy approaches within a nature setting (i.e., typically far away from urban contexts).
Towards the end of the twentieth century, there were more than 700 wilderness experience programs in the United States alone and those programs specifically designed as wilderness therapeutic interventions numbered somewhere from 60-100.
The major studies in wilderness therapy tend to report improved self-esteem and personal development as well as interpersonal development and enhanced social skills. Many wilderness therapy programs have concentrated on treating adolescents living in psychiatric environments as well as those with emotional and/or substance abuse problems. These programs report significant increases in participants’ self-esteem as well as improvements in delinquent behaviour.
Does the length of time matter?
In ecopsychologist Robert Greenway’s twenty-two years of running a wilderness therapy training program at Sonoma State University, he has become a deep believer in the power of nature to facilitate changed psychological processes. In his experience, a wilderness encounter needs to last ten or more days in order to promote meaningful and lasting change.
However, other researchers suggest that even experiences of a shorter duration are worthwhile. David Cole and Troy Hall recently conducted a study to examine whether the amount of time spent in a wilderness environment was important to individuals’ experience of restoration as well as whether the number of people encountered along a trail affected hikers’ experiences. They found that no matter the trail congestion or the length of time, most participants reported feeling reduced stress as well as mentally refreshed. And they conclude that the restorative effects of spending time in nature can occur in a relatively short amount of time, and whether one is alone or in the company of others.
Cole, David N. and Hall, Troy E. (2010). Experiencing the restorative components of wilderness environments: does congestion interfere and does length of exposure matter? Environment and Behavior, 42(6), 806-823.
Davis-Berman, Jennifer and Berman, Dene S. (1989). The wilderness therapy program: An empirical study of its effects with adolescents in an outpatient setting. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 19(4), 271-281.
Greenway, Robert. (2009). The wilderness experience as therapy: We’ve been here before. In L. Buzzell and C. Chalquist (Eds). Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind (pp. 132-139). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Russell, Keith C. (2006). Brat camp, boot camp, or ........? Exploring wilderness therapy program theory. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 6(1), 51-67.
Russell, Keith C., and Farnum, Jen. (2007). A concurrent model of the wilderness therapy process. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 4(1), 39-55.