Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness Therapy For Children & Youth

By Robert Cooley, PhD, © Copyright 2008.

Wilderness Therapy Has Helped Kids With

  • Impulsive/uncontrollable behavior
  • Alcohol/drug problems
  • Violent behavior
  • Anorexia/Bulimia
  • Anxiety
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Behavior disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Borderline personality structure
  • Brilliant but underachieving, disorganized
  • Conduct disorder
  • Depression
  • Developmental delay
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (mild)
  • Learning differences
  • Learning difficulties
  • Multiple personality disorder
  • Personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia (when previously identified and stabilized)
  • Stress
  • Unorganized

Wilderness Therapy Can Help In The Following Areas

Spirit: Wilderness Therapy allows the soul to emerge and participants experience powerful spiritual feelings of meaning, support, guidance and beauty. It fosters understanding the inner self and learning how to manage one’s life in harmony with the self. Wilderness Therapy helps youth appreciate the goodness of life.

Body: Wilderness Therapy gives regular physical exercise and healthy diet to support inner well-being. From taking care of themselves in the outdoors, many adolescents develop a strong sense of personal competence along with self confidence.

Mind: Wilderness Therapy programs that provide the therapy component lead participants to understand problems and solutions and foster a determination to live more effectively.

Emotions: Through Wilderness Therapy, emotions calm and clarify. Participants learn to control their impulses and recognize and accept their true feelings.

Social: After Wilderness Therapy, most participants get along much better with their families and are able to stop seeing negative friends.

Brief Description Of Wilderness Therapy

  • Wilderness Therapy is an extended period of time, usually 3-8 weeks, spent in remote outdoor locations with a knowledgeable staff. It usually involves backpacking in remote areas. In modern programs this is not rigorous or challenging, but is rather designed to provide healthy physical activity and a sense of mastery.
  • The primary antidotes to what is ailing the participant are natural beauty and the need to provide for one’s own basic needs (shelter, food, sleep, etc.), along with a sense of emotional and physical safety. These provide a peaceful “time out” from the high risk lives most participants have been living.
  • The outdoor component is supplemented in some programs by a therapy component in which experienced therapists enrich reflection, help deepen the experience, and clarify participants’ needs and goals in life.

Successes With Wilderness Therapy

Excerpted from parent letters:

  • “We have never met, however, I feel that I know you through the fine people that you have chosen to be a part of your organization. It is important that you are aware of the impact your programs and therapists have made in our life.
  • “…before going through treatment, I was afraid of [Jessie]. …he was becoming very aggressive. Since the trek, Jessie has taken and passed a Lifeguard course and a Water Safety Instruction course. He is now working part-time at a theater. He is graduating from high school. He is preparing to go to a community college and apply for the Fire Sciences Program. I am so proud of him, but more importantly, he is very proud of himself.”
  • “I was extremely impressed with the changes I saw in my child and the other children in just 21 days. I never expected to see the progress we did in such a short amount of time.”
  • “My son is like a different person. Thanks.”
  • “I wanted to let you know that your wilderness program that my daughter experienced while she was an angry and surly 16 year old has stayed in her heart and soul. She is now 20 and is in her third year of college…Although she had many more wild and crazy adventures following her expedition, something changed within her about two years later. I believe that the wilderness experience continues to have a profound effect on every decision that she makes…She is a loving and passionate young adult, and is grateful that we tried so hard to help her. Thank you.”
  • “Thank you once again for saving our son’s life. Kevin is happy, successful …and drug and alcohol free for four years…Your program works.”

Wilderness Therapy Is Appropriate For Ages

  • 14 to 22
  • Sometimes 12 or 13

Children & Youth’s Reactions To Wilderness Therapy

  • Most experience a “turn around” in attitude.
  • Desire to change negative behaviors is sincere.
  • They return home happy to be with their families.
  • Most describe their experience as difficult and challenging but appreciate the learning, parents’ gift of such treatment and the beauty and power of nature.
  • Many find it challenging and arduous.
  • Most prefer not to do it again but recognize that it helped, even saved their life.
  • Most are grateful to parents for sending them - despite frequent initial resistance.
  • Most feel healthier, more confident, and happier with themselves.
  • Most feel healed.

Extra Care Is Needed

  • Milder versions of the contraindications below
  • Personality disorders

Contraindications: When Wilderness Therapy Should Be Avoided

  • Physical problems that rule out 5-8 mile hikes with a 30-35 pound backpack
  • Uncontrolled schizophrenia or severe bipolar
  • Severe depression with sincere desire to die (as opposed to suicide gestures)
  • Violent behavior with no remorse/conscience/feelings
  • Emotionally very dependent on parents
  • Not able to manage activities of daily life
  • Children & youth are also usually excluded from the program when they have severe eating disorders, diabetes, and/or epilepsy.


  • It began in 1980’s with survival training schools in Utah and Idaho.
  • 1990’s changed focus to teaching effective life habits, clarifying values, and providing psychotherapy.

Basic Concepts And Components Of Wilderness Therapy

  • Removing a child from the noise and distractions of urban/suburban life allows for personal clarity and healing.
  • Natural setting supplemented with quality therapy is beneficial.
  • Self-reliance for daily essentials bring deep revelation.

Description Of A Typical Session

  • Wake early and prepare breakfast.
  • Individual therapy session and journaling
  • Morning hike
  • Lunch and educational group
  • Afternoon hike
  • Set up evening camp.
  • More journal work or short hike
  • Dinner
  • Campfire group therapy session
  • Sleep.

Major Differences Of Opinion Between Practitioners

  • Some programs emphasize therapy component while others have few or no therapists on staff.
  • Program focuses vary between delinquent youngsters, those with non-criminal behavior problems, and adolescents with serious emotional or substance abuse problems.
  • 8-week programs tend to wait for the child to come around, while shorter programs may push to achieve the same “turn around” in less time.

Fees/Costs In 2007

  • $9, 845 for 3 week programs (includes $500 equipment purchase)
  • $23, 195 for 7 week programs

Average Time Per Session

  • 3 weeks, or 7-8 weeks

Estimated Length of Time Before Improvement Can Be Expected

  • At the end of the first session/trek

Suggestions To Make Wilderness Therapy More Effective

  • Engage in Family Therapy for at least two months before wilderness program (even if your child refuses to attend), during the program and for 6-18 months afterwards.
  • Pick a program length and approach that is appropriate for your child.
  • Take part in Parent Training /Coaching programs.
  • Undertake Alcohol & Drug Education while the child is in the program.
  • Changes in home life, schooling, friends, and activities must take place as soon as the child returns, to prevent slipping back into negative behavior patterns.

Other Methods That Are Similar To Wilderness Therapy

Other Methods That Complement Wilderness Therapy

  • Family Therapy
  • Parent Training/Coaching

Nature And Length Of Training To Be A Practitioner

Guides should:

  • Be at least 22 years old
  • Have 100+ days of outdoor expedition experience
  • Have Wilderness First Responder certification
  • Have 6 weeks of training with the program before becoming a lead guide

Therapists should:

  • Have at least an MA in counseling or psychology, or be certified Alcohol and Drug Counselors (CADC)
  • Be well trained in alcohol and drug treatment
  • Have one year of post-degree experience

Special Training Needed To Work With Children & Youth

  • See above qualifications.

Certification/Licenses Held By Practitioners

  • WFR (Wilderness First Responder) or EMT
  • CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor)

Professional Associations To Contact For Names Of Local Programs

  • Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council; Box 1064; Albany OR 97321; Ph: 541-926-7252 ext. 202; Email: trish@cfreer.com

Number Of Certified Practitioners In U.S., Canada, And Mexico

  • It is difficult to count number of practitioners.
  • There are several qualified programs being run in the United States.

What To Look For When Choosing The Best Program

  • Check program safety for a nurturing approach with quality therapy work.
  • Check age/maturity of field staff, their credentials and average tenure with the program.
  • Check program licensure and accreditation, management credentials, and experience.
  • Pick program length and approach appropriate for your child.
  • Check state licenses.
  • Check national accreditation (CAHO, COA, CARFF).
  • Make sure that it operates under permits/regulations issued by national organizations (i.e. U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
  • Check program and staff association memberships.
  • Check staff degrees and licenses.
  • Check average age and tenure of Field Staff.

Leading Clinics, Centers, Practitioners

Some leading programs working separately and together to upgrade standards of care and treatment:

Resources, Research Papers, Books, DVD’s, Websites

  • Dr. Keith Russell’s dissertation and program of Wilderness Treatment outcomes research. This comes with a comprehensive bibliography. It is available from Dr. Russell. Contact through Email: krussell@umn.edu.


  • “Wilderness Therapy Can Help Troubled Adolescents,” by Rob Cooley.
  • “How Big Is The Risk of Wilderness Treatment of Adolescents,” by Rob Cooley.
  • The above are available by request from Freer Wilderness Therapy.

Biography Of Dr. Robert Cooley, Author

  • Since 1979 Rob Cooley has specialized in family and adolescent therapy at Oregon’s child protective services agency and in private practice. He also ran a whitewater rafting outfit in the summers. In 1988, he combined his outdoor and therapy interests in founding Catherine Freer Wilderness Expeditions, a 3 week adolescent program with a strong therapy emphasis, which is licensed in Oregon for both chemical dependency and mental health treatment.
  • He holds a PhD and is a licensed psychologist.
  • Catherine Freer Wilderness is licensed by Oregon for Mental Health and Alcohol and Drug treatment for adolescents; and as an Oregon Outdoor Youth Program; and is nationally accredited by JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations).
  • He has 34 years of experience as Therapist and 19 years as Director of Catherine Freer Wilderness.
  • He works with approximately 325 children and youth per year.

Robert Cooley’s Personal Statement

Wilderness stands to benefit as much from this new use as do the young clients who voyage into it. Wilderness treatment makes perfectly clear the underlying value to our culture of wild areas, which is less obvious in adult recreational and youth camp use. Wilderness has the potential to provide a kind of essential healing through a partial return to our natural human eco-niche, which cannot be provided in any other way. While wild areas have other important uses – such as to preserve habitats, species, and healthy aquatic systems, it is crucial for their long range preservation that our culture fully grasp how meaningful they are for humans too—not just for casual recreation, but for basic healing and renewal that are vital to our success as a human community.

To Contact Robert Cooley, Who Contributed This Chapter

Robert Cooley, PhD; Director, Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions; P.O. Box 1064, Albany, OR 97321; Ph: 800-390-3983; Fax: 541-812-0116; Website: www.cfreer.com

Marie Mulligan’s Comment About Wilderness Therapy: Wilderness Therapy programs that actively involve families before, during and after the wilderness interventions are more likely to be helpful than programs that focus primarily on the youth.

Rick Geggie’s Comment About Wilderness Therapy: Over the years I have seen many youth saved by Wilderness Therapy programs from lives of self-destruction, incarceration, and wasted opportunity. My hope is that politicians can see the cost benefits of funding Wilderness Therapy programs rather than jails. Nature heals, especially with the help of highly trained and skillful Wilderness Therapy guides and therapists.

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