What Will My Child Do at Wilderness Camp?
For rebellious or defiant teens who struggle with emotional or behavioral issues, therapeutic wilderness programs can make a world of difference. In a couple short months, teens learn about the natural consequences of their actions in an environment that boils down the complexities of daily life to a few basic principles: respect, accountability, teamwork, and integrity.
It is well-established that wilderness programs can be a highly effective intervention for troubled teens, but it can be difficult to understand why outdoor therapy has such a strong impact. Parents often ask, "What will my child do at wilderness camp? And why does it work?" Below are a few activities common to most wilderness camps across the country, along with a brief description of the lessons teens learn from each new adventure.
One of the most basic elements of any wilderness program is backpacking or hiking. Small groups, generally from 6 to 12 campers, hike each day on a designated path to reach their next destination. Depending on the terrain and fitness of the group, campers may hike anywhere from one to five miles or more each day, stopping frequently for water breaks, boot and gear checks, and group discussions.
Why it Works: Anyone who has hiked or taken a walk in nature can understand the inherent benefits of being outdoors - breathing fresh air, absorbing the endless variety of creatures and plant life, and wondering how these landscapes ever came to be. A new environment, by itself, can be highly therapeutic for a struggling teen, but combined with physical exertion, a structured daily routine, and staff and peers who can relate to the teen's struggles, wilderness therapy can be life-changing.
As teens make their way to a summit or lookout point, or to the next night's camping site, it takes determination and self-discipline to push on when they're tired or just don't feel like hiking anymore. But once they reach their goal, they feel a great sense of accomplishment for making it through another day without any of the comforts of home they've become so reliant upon. Without the distraction of computers, televisions, video games, or friends, teens have no choice but to sit quietly and take an honest look at who they have become.
At most wilderness programs, teens spend the majority of nights camping in tents under the stars. Campers are equipped with state-of-the-art camping equipment, including tents, climate-appropriate sleeping bags, ground mats, and a backpack. Teens also receive clothing that is suitable for the season, which typically includes high-quality hiking boots, garments that can be layered, rain gear, and fleece and wool clothing in winter.
The day frequently begins with a hot breakfast cooked over a camping stove, taking down the tents, hiking to the next destination, and setting up camp, and ends with a hot dinner and group discussion around the campfire. Teens set up and take down their tents and camping equipment, and are responsible for doing chores, campsite clean-up, and helping to cook meals. By taking good care of themselves, eating regular meals, getting daily physical exercise, sleeping eight hours a night, and maintaining their own living space, the campers begin to feel healthier from the inside out.
As part of the wilderness experience, teens may learn first aid and primitive living skills. One of the most satisfying experiences teens encounter in the wilderness is building fire without matches. Teens go beyond their perceived limitations and realize how good it feels to set and achieve goals.
Why it Works: In the wilderness, campers learn to make healthy choices and reap the rewards of feeling strong physically and emotionally. Teens learn that the basic necessities of daily life they take for granted at home, like warm meals, a cozy bed, and a roof over their heads, require hard work and cooperation, which gives them a new appreciation for their parents and life at home. As they work closely with a group of peers to set up tents, cook meals, and clean the campsite, they learn teamwork and understand how they fit in as essential, functioning members of a team. This "big picture" perspective helps teens remember the value of giving back and contributing in order to achieve a larger goal.
Individual and Group Therapy
Wilderness camp is about much more than hiking, camping, and adventure. Although campers learn many lessons by living in nature, they are given frequent opportunities throughout the day to reflect on what they've learned and share their thoughts with others.
Most wilderness programs offer top-notch clinical treatment, which may include daily individual sessions with a master's or doctoral level therapist along with daily group therapy, weekly family therapy, and substance abuse education as needed. At the end of each day, groups gather to discuss the day's activities and challenges, with other campers offering constructive feedback on how each member's choices affected the group as a whole.
Because most wilderness camps organize teens into small groups with a high staff-to-student ratio, the schedule is flexible enough to accommodate the special needs or issues of each child. At any point in the day, if a camper is struggling with an activity, has a conflict with another camper, or just needs to work through an issue, the entire group stops and takes time for an on-the-spot therapy session.
Why it Works: As teens learn new relationship skills, they are able to communicate effectively with their therapists, field instructors, and peers. Once they accept responsibility for their own choices and the consequences of those choices, and appreciate how their choices affect others, they are given greater responsibilities, privileges, and leadership opportunities. Many wilderness programs use symbolic representations called "rites of passage" to mark teens' progress through a series of stages as they grow stronger and more responsible.
As these new skills become more engrained, campers begin working with their therapist to generalize their healthy coping skills to other settings like home, school, or work. By the time campers return home, they have a plan in place for how to approach difficult situations, where to turn for help, and how to cope without breaking rules, defying authority, or turning to drugs or alcohol.
Many wilderness programs offer a variety of recreational activities, such as rafting, sports, art, yoga, games, and more. At some programs, campers return to "base camp" to shower, regroup, and prepare for the next expedition. While at base camp, teens may participate in community service projects, team-building activities, or, in some programs, high and low ropes courses designed to teach lessons about cooperation, patience, and teamwork.
Why it Works: Recreational activities help campers reconnect with their interests and passions and reignite their enthusiasm for life. Team-building exercises and ropes courses are metaphors for the challenges of everyday life, helping teens learn new skills in a hands-on setting.
Letter and journal writing play an integral role in many wilderness programs. Campers take time out of each evening to reflect on the day's events, what they learned, and how they made the situation better or worse, and to set short- and long-term goals. Often, teens take this opportunity to write letters to parents or siblings, expressing their fears, concerns, or gratitude, and making plans for their return home.
Why it Works: Having a period of quiet reflection time each day strengthens campers' goals and desire to achieve those goals. They begin to realize that their actions have hurt their friends and family, but more importantly, set them on a course that in the end primarily hurts them. Throughout a wilderness program, nature serves as a metaphor for life and the search for one's true self, and is a reminder of how to stay true to this process of self-discovery when the program ends.
The lessons gained from nature through hiking, camping, and living outdoors, combined with lessons from therapists, field instructors, and other campers through therapy, journaling, and participating in group activities cannot be replicated outside of therapeutic wilderness programs. After rising to meet the challenges of survival in the wilderness, teens feel an immense sense of achievement and self-confidence, knowing they can adapt and thrive in unfamiliar environments, and return home or move onto the next level of care with a new appreciation for the simple joys of life, family, and knowing one's self.