Wilderness Programs

Wilderness programs are one commonly considered tool and resource among parents of troubled teens.  A wilderness program is usually a 30 to 90 day therapeutic program that takes place outdoors.  Each program may have a slightly different time frame in which their program operates.  Wilderness programs take a troubled youth out of his/her home living environment and place them in the wilderness away from the things of every day life.  Many of the youth have the opportunity to learn and experience the following:

  • Making a fire with a bow or hand drill - these programs will teach the youth how to make fire with nature's tools. 
  • Hiking - many of the youth will be hiking with backpacks at least a few miles a day as they are progressing from one point to another during their wilderness journey.
  • Hand Cart - some programs will have youth push hand carts during one phase of the program to learn some of the experiences that pioneers endured through. 
  • Group therapy and support - the youth will always be placed in a group, usually ranging from 8 to 12 troubled teens.  They may have one or more group meetings daily and meet with a therapist once a week as a group.  This can help the youth learn how to work as a team and improve positive peer relationship skills.
  • Individual therapy - having an educated therapist is a great tool and resource to a youth in a troubled wilderness camp.  Quality wilderness programs will usually have individual therapy at-least once a week for a youth. 
  • Solo's - youth will venture off on their own for short periods of time for meditation and showing their survival ability to themselves and the program.  These "solo's" usually range from 1 to 3 days.
  • Parent and youth workshop - it is common that the wilderness programs will require the parents and participating family members to be present for 1 to 7 days at the end of the program.  This can be a great tool for transitioning a troubled youth back to his/her family in a positive manner.  Individual, group, and family therapy often will take place during this time.  Wilderness Programs will usually have family and group activities to bring the family closer together and help begin a path of a healthier family relationship between the parents and youth.
  • Home contract - youth and parents will often create a home contract with the help of the therapist. This will provide a list of agreements that both the parent and youth are willing to make and then list the positive and negative consequences that will result of following or breaking the agreement.

These are only a few of the components that may or may not take place in outdoor wilderness programs.  The following is a list of what wilderness programs are not:

  • Wilderness programs are not military or boot camps - the staff in wilderness programs use a much more communicative and respectful approach with a youth.  Therapy and the result of natural consequences are used to help the youth understand the effects of their actions.  These programs are much more choice orientated and want the child to make the choice out of encouragement and not force.
  • Wilderness programs are not long term - most long-term programs range from 9 months to as long as 2 + years, depending on the child's level of cooperation.  Wilderness programs are much more short-term and are meant to provide an immediate shock of opportunity that can help a youth that is receiving an early intervention realize where his/her choices may be leading and can also be a great means of preparing a child for a therapeutic boarding school placement at completion of the program.  Many youth that participate in wilderness programs, continue on to other treatment help.  It is also common that parents of troubled youth that are almost 18 will consider wilderness programs as an option because the amount of time they have to place their child in a program is limited.  In these circumstances, many wilderness programs work with the near adult child and adult transition programs to help make the transition home as smooth as possible.
  • Wilderness programs are not starvation / survival camps - youth are not placed in the wilderness with nothing to eat, drink, or survive with.  Youth in wilderness camps are not starved or dehydrated.  Wilderness programs are a much more therapeutic type of intervention.  These programs will help a troubled youth address issues while learning skills in a wilderness environment  The youth will and should always have his/her basic needs met. 

This list could go on, but it is important for parents and families to understand that the purpose of wilderness programs should not be to punish or force a child to change.  Wilderness programs promote the opportunity within an outdoor therapeutic environment in the wilderness for a troubled youth to learn more about themselves, natural consequences, and what really matters in life.   

If you are considering wilderness programs as an option for your child or a troubled youth you are familiar with, we always recommend seeking the advice and help of a professional consultant.  This can be an educational consultant, program admissions consultant, therapist, psychologist, family doctor, and/or any other educated professional that may be familiar with the youth and family.  Please make sure that the advice and help you are receiving is from an educated professional and that they have the interest of the child and family in mind.  While wilderness programs can be a great tool, parents and placement coordinators may look for such wilderness programs that have membership and/or accreditation from one or more of the following:

  • JCAHO - is a highly recognized accrediting body for hospitals and health care facilities throughout the United States.
  • OBHIC - Outdoor Behavioral Science health-care Industry Council
  • NATSAP - National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs
  • State licensing as an Outdoor Treatment Program

It is not uncommon that many troubled youth that are placed in wilderness programs, do not want to go with their parents willing.  Often the relationship between the parents and child is strained and not productive.  In these circumstances, parents will often be refereed to a youth transport service to provide the initial intervention and transport to the chosen wilderness program.  New Start Transports provides the safest and most personalized intervention and transport to the troubled youth we serve.  Two of our founders, both participated in and successfully completed wilderness programs as troubled youth.  With this personal perspective and now the professional licensing and expertise, our troubled youth transport service can provide a level of personalization and care that is hard to have without personal experience in wilderness programs.

The following are some other pages related to wilderness programs that you may be interested in viewing:

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