Thursday, January 3, 2013

Wilderness Therapy

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. 

Overall findings
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.


  1. i worked at a camp in california for inner city kids. these kids were from really rough and poor neighbourhoods. each week we took the kids to 'out camp' for an overnight stay. it was a rustic camp setting. pit toilets. hand pumped water. cooking over a fire. sleeping on platforms under the stars. swimming in a pond. they had never been anywhere there wasn't a street light. most were terrified of the darkness and the quiet. quite a few cried and begged to go back to camp. by supper the next day however, they were pleading with us to stay longer. they were glowing with pride that they had 'survived' out in the 'wilderness'! many said it was the best time of their lives.
    i was so honoured to be a teeny part of their experiences. nature is nurture!

  2. ...just ran across this, and since my work is mentioned, I'll boldly comment! With as much time now past my wilderness-leading days as spent doing them, I've developed some perspective. As Gary Snyder once pointed out, "wilderness" ( a social construct) is for itself, not as another thing for humans to exploit. I've noted in other papers ("On Crossing and Not Crossing the Wilderness Boundary") that many people bring their embedded culture with them into the wilderness -- why I advocated longer periods. Of course a walk in the park, or a few days up a river "reduces stress". But if the goal is to "approach wilderness as one would a lover", and to re-examine one's degree of complicity with what is at base a pathogenic culture -- it takes time, and often an increase in stress levels rather than a decrease. A fully developed ecopsychology can be a helpful guide, although most ecopsychologies are as complicit with Western culture as are "have-a-vision-quest-for-$500-type wilderness experiences of a few days. (I recommend Andy Fisher's "Radical Ecopsychology" -- especially the most recent edition, with a new chapter.

    Anyway, just a few comments. I've been farming for the last 22 years in Port Townsend, Washington, and I'm astonished to find myself spending large amounts of time on my knees, wiping out the wilderness (weeds!) that used to be my main soul-love.

    Robert Greenway