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Medically Reviewed

How Wilderness Therapy is Used in Addiction Treatment

- 8 sections

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer:

Sahil Talwar, PA-C, MBA


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

When people imagine addiction treatment, they typically picture a residential medical facility, 12-step meetings, and group therapy sessions within a rehab program. While this form of addiction treatment is common, there are many different types of programs that are effective in treating substance use disorders.

Holistic treatments such as art, music, and yoga therapy have become extremely common in the addiction recovery community. However, another form of addiction treatment is rising in popularity in the United States.

Wilderness therapy in addiction treatment combines nature, physical exercises, survival experiences, and rehabilitative therapy techniques to help individuals recover from addiction and mental health conditions. This form of addiction treatment helps patients gain a hands-on understanding of their triggers and how to cope with them in real-time.

What is Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy can include a wide variety of activities and experiences. What the therapy entails will vary from program to program.

Most wilderness therapy programs offer some variations of the following activities:

  • Backpacking and day hiking
  • Canoeing or kayaking
  • Rock climbing
  • Group camping or solo camping
  • Zip lining and other forms of rope courses
  • Whitewater rafting
  • Survival expeditions
  • Problem-solving games
  • Team-oriented activities

Wilderness therapy uses the experiences that patients engage in to help them reach their therapeutic goals. These goals could include learning to cooperate with others or identifying negative patterns of behavior and successfully utilizing positive coping mechanisms.

When individuals engage in the wilderness, they learn to cooperate with their group members, learn how to trust others, and become part of a mutually supportive community. This allows them to become comfortable with vulnerability, allowing them to discuss past traumas and experiences that contributed to the development of their substance use disorders.

What Kind of Therapeutic Approaches Do Wilderness Programs Use to Treat Addiction?

Addiction treatment centers may use adventurous activities to help people recover from substance use disorders and mental health conditions. When patients engage in these activities, other forms of therapeutic approaches are used to make activities like hiking or rock climbing therapeutic.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches people how to identify their negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. In other words, CBT helps people alter their patterns of thinking, which leads to positive behavioral patterns.

In wilderness therapy, CBT is applied to activities that patients find difficult. For example, if a person believes that they cannot achieve something, therapists will use CBT to teach them how to work through their negative patterns of thinking.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy helps individuals develop emotional regulation skills, work through addiction or mental health triggers, and use mindfulness skills to stay in the present moment.

DBT is used during wilderness therapy programs to help people identify their triggers, work through difficult emotions, and stay mindful to prevent them from worrying about the past or future.

Family Therapy

Oftentimes, family therapy is a central aspect of wilderness addiction treatment programs. Family therapy helps identify unhealthy patterns of behavior and toxic dynamics within a patient’s family.

When family therapy is applied in wilderness programs, patients gain a better relationship with their loved ones, build positive communication skills, and create a healthy living environment to return to after treatment.

Motivational Interviewing (MI)

Motivational interviewing is a type of therapy that helps patients change destructive patterns of behavior. This form of therapy helps patients gain personal motivation to change, rather than forcing an individual to participate when they might not be fully committed to change.

Motivational interviewing is applied to wilderness therapy programs by helping patients become motivated to try activities that they view as too difficult for them to achieve. Once the patient has become successful in that specific activity, they realize that addiction recovery is attainable for them as well.

The Benefits of Wilderness Therapy for Addiction Recovery

During wilderness therapy in addiction treatment, the staff members and clients build a positive therapeutic relationship with one another. This allows patients to feel supported, cared for, and comfortable throughout their recovery process.

The environment created in the wilderness allows patients to make their own choices. Patients begin to understand the consequences of their own actions, eventually allowing them to build a sense of self-accountability. This teaches patients how to maintain long-term sobriety without relying on other people to keep them accountable.

Additional benefits of wilderness therapy include:

  • Developing short and long-term goals
  • Creating attainable plans for reaching goals
  • Gaining insight into personal motivations, feelings, and beliefs
  • Learning how to work with others
  • Building communication skills
  • Gaining self-confidence
  • Learning how to deal with disagreements and triggers in a positive manner

Get Connected With a Wilderness Therapy Addiction Treatment Program

If you or a loved one suffer from addiction, our addiction treatment programs can help you begin a new way of life. Contact Carolina Recovery Center today to see how we can help you recover from addiction with a fun, rewarding, and hands-on approach.