How to Prepare Your Teen for a Wilderness Therapy Program

Key Takeaways 

  • Wilderness therapy programs foster a holistic treatment approach to teen conditions by harnessing the therapeutic effects of nature and incorporating traditional therapeutic techniques. 
  • Preparing teens physically and emotionally before the program can lead to improved outcomes. 
  • Teen preparation includes discussing what to expect during wilderness therapy and allowing teenagers to decide based on that.  
  • A documented gear checklist is important when packing for wilderness therapy as it ensures nothing useful is left behind. 
  • Parents should be prepared to participate in teen wilderness therapy by engaging in treatment and aftercare planning, attending family therapy sessions, and monitoring progress in collaboration with treatment professionals.

Teen Therapies can be challenging, especially in an unfamiliar setting like the wilderness. Troubled teens need to be emotionally and mentally prepared for this challenge to engage with the therapeutic process effectively.

Even though we are yet to introduce a wilderness therapy program at Key Healthcare, our residential treatment center for teens facilities are conveniently located near natural surroundings, allowing teens to achieve complete recovery at more affordable costs. 

Hi, I am Matt Cox, an operations expert at Key Healthcare with a vast knowledge of both substance use and teen mental health disorders. Treatment programs, especially wilderness therapy, can be emotionally and physically challenging. Preparing teens helps them understand what to expect, reduces teen anxiety, and builds their readiness to face these challenges. These six necessary preparatory steps will help your teen set realistic expectations, eventually contributing to the program’s effectiveness and success.

Six Steps To Get Your Teen Prepare for Teen Wilderness Therapy

Getting your troubled teens into a wilderness therapy program or residential treatment offers them a chance to harness the therapeutic properties of nature to address their behavioral, emotional, and psychiatric issues. However, you must prepare them before the teen treatment programs begin by assessing their needs, conducting physical and mental health assessments, getting them emotionally ready for what lies ahead, and helping them pack the necessary gear and clothing. 

Step 1: Assessing Your Teenager’s Needs 

  • The first step towards any teen mental health treatment is to assess their treatment needs.
  • Therapists and psychiatrists should comprehensively assess your teen to identify unique emotional challenges, behavioral concerns, and psychological issues.
  • Only after identifying these needs should they tailor a unique teen treatment program.
  • Tailored programs ensure that your teenager’s physical and mental health concerns are catered for during treatment to reduce potential risks and foster improved outcomes.

Step 2: Involving Your Teen in the Decision 

Forcing a teenager to attend any rehab or therapy rarely works. Most teenagers get rebellious or defensive whenever decisions are imposed, significantly affecting treatment outcomes. The best way on how to get a teenager into rehab or therapy is to talk to them about the program and involve them in decision-making. 

Share with them everything they need to know about the wilderness program, including the risks involved, benefits, approaches used, and success rates, and give them time to decide. Including your teenager in treatment decisions empower their voice and fosters informed decision-making. 

Here are a few strategies that can help make this process smoother: 

  • Encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings during treatment decision-making.
  • Be honest about what the program entails. Let your teenager know the risks and challenges involved in informed decision-making.
  • Listen actively to their thoughts and concerns 
  • Respect their preferences 
  • Facilitate family discussions regarding wilderness therapy 
  • Give them time to process the information and regularly check in with them 
  • Give them time and space to decide instead of forcing the decision on them 
  • Reassure them of your unconditional support throughout the process 

Step 3: Physical and Mental Health Preparations 

  • Once your teenager has agreed to wilderness therapy, it’s time for physical and mental health preparation.
  • Ask the program to evaluate their physical fitness and mental health stability in readiness for the program.
  • This is necessary because wilderness therapy pushes teenagers’ physical and emotional limits to foster self-development, perseverance, and independence. 
  • The program should ascertain whether your teenager is physically prepared for the wilderness experience through a comprehensive health assessment, which also helps identify underlying health conditions.
  • Other benefits of this comprehensive assessment include identifying and addressing medication requirements and concerns, allergies, and sensitivities.
  • It also helps prepare for potential health-related crises. 

Step 4: Packing and Gear Essentials 

Most teen wilderness therapy programs provide quality gear and equipment, such as tents, safety tools, and cooking apparatus, for enhanced safety, comfort, and improved therapy outcomes. However, parents may also need to purchase certain personal gear for their teens. As you prepare your teen for wilderness therapy, ensure they pack all their personal gear, ranging from sleeping bags and weather-proof clothing to backpacks. 

Here is a list of what teens need in wilderness therapy: 

  • A durable, sizeable backpack for carrying gear and supplies 
  • High-quality and waterproof trail shoes or hiking boots. They must also have good ankle support
  • A high-quality, all-season sleeping bag
  • A comfortable and insulated sleeping pad 
  • A first-aid kit 
  • A durable water bottle
  • Fire-making tools such as lighters and waterproof matches 
  • A quality, long-lasting flashlight with an extra battery 
  • A knife/ multi-tool for different tasks 
  • Clothing with insulating and moisture-wicking layers
  • Jackets and pants with breathable outer layers 
  • Quick-drying underwear and socks 
  • Sun-protective clothing such as sunglasses, a hat, and long-sleeve shirts 
  • A signal whistle 
  • A navigation mirror 
  • Sun-protection creams and balms 
  • Insect repellent 
  • Personal supplies such as hand sanitizer, biodegradable soap and toilet paper 
  • Lightweight, high-quality backpacking gear 
  • High-quality rain gear 
  • Compression sacks and dry bags 

When packing, it’s also important to include the teen’s identification, medical records, insurance information, and medications (if applicable). Remind teenagers to bring a notebook and a pen for personal journaling too. Lastly, have a documented gear checklist to ensure your teen doesn’t forget anything when packing.

Step 5: Preparing Emotionally

Emotional preparation is just as important as physical and mental health preparation. However, parents also need to brace themselves for the separation as they indulge in their teen’s emotional preparation. Here are a few strategies that can help foster emotional resilience for parents and teens ahead of wilderness therapy: 

Tips to Get Teens Emotionally Ready for Wilderness Therapy 
  • Honestly and empathetically discuss the wilderness therapy process with them. Let them know what to expect during the program. 
  • Acknowledge their fears and offer reassurance. Remind them that you will look out for and support them throughout the process. 
  • Motivate them to take ownership of their change and growth.
  • Teach them a few coping skills to help them develop emotional resilience for the journey ahead. 
  • Address any questions or hesitation they may have regarding the program.
  • Remind them of the benefits that lay ahead. Encourage them to focus on these when they run into challenges during the program.
Tips to Get Yourself Emotionally Ready for Your Teen’s Wilderness Therapy 
  • Learn about your teen’s wilderness therapy program, including its goals and environment. This can help prevent feelings of restlessness. 
  • Brace yourself for the separation ahead.
  • Anticipate the emotions that may arise and prepare for them.
  • Establish how you will stay informed and connected about your teenager during the program.
  • Trust the treatment professionals. Let them care for your kid once you’ve researched and are assured of the program’s reputation and track record. 
  • Join a parent support group. Feel free to contact other parents or families with children in wilderness therapy programs for support.  
  • Have your personal support system that you can turn to if things get overwhelming. Establish other coping strategies, too. 
  • Prepare yourself mentally for any adjustments or unexpected changes 
  • Believe in your teen’s positive change and growth potential. 
  • Be optimistic

Step 6: Program Participation and Monitoring 

  • You should communicate with the treatment professionals and stay connected with your teenager during their wilderness therapy program.
  • This will help you monitor their progress and evaluate their safety.
  • Most programs allow teen-parent communication through structured communication plans, occasional letters (and care packages), and teen family therapy sessions. 
  • Additionally, you can request updates on your teenager’s progress from the program officials.
  • However, do not interfere with your teen’s experiences and progress during the program.
  • Remember to respect communication policies, program rules, and established boundaries to give your teenager ample time to focus on their personal growth and self-reliance journey without distraction.

An important suggestion to parents is to find the right wilderness therapy program for the teen, as there have been reports of some programs using approaches that do more harm than good, leaving teenagers traumatized or exacerbating their issues. You have to evaluate the wilderness program’s effectiveness, which may require reviewing testimonials or looking up online reviews from past participants. You should also ensure that the program has experienced staff members, effective safety protocols, mental health accreditations, and a valid license. It must also uphold ethical guidelines and practices and allow you to participate in your teenager’s treatment. 


Teen wilderness therapy programs expose teens to unique challenges and experiences that aim to enhance their self-reliance, personal growth, and mental wellness. However, it’s important to prepare teens for such experiences before the program for improved outcomes. Let them know what to expect, the risks involved, and the possible outcomes if they work hard and persevere. As you prepare your teen for what lies ahead, remember to brace yourself for the separation that will happen once they leave for their wilderness program. Lastly, please stay connected with them and monitor their progress during the program.

Moreover, for more insights, please feel free to get in touch with us.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Help your teen pack all the necessary gear and supplies and offer a positive farewell by reminding them of your unconditional support and confidence in their ability to succeed on the departure day. Afterward, you can engage in a parent support network for easier transition. Remember to maintain open communication and participate in family therapy sessions during the program.

Due to teen wilderness therapy’s unique challenges and experiences, programs mostly include teens aged 13-17 years old.

Yes. You can try the following therapy options if wilderness therapy doesn’t suit your teenager: 

Most teen wilderness therapy programs run for 1-4 months. However, this duration often varies depending on the program’s goals,  the participant’s needs, and progress. The program will communicate and ask for your consent if more days are needed.

The most common roles played by licensed therapists in teen wilderness therapy programs include: 

  • Offering professional guidance and emotional support during the teen’s wilderness experience 
  • Ensuring the physical safety and mental well-being of participating teens.
  • Administering family therapy sessions to improve intra-familial communication and relationships. 
  • Monitor teenagers’ progress and continuously evaluate and adjust strategies as needed. 
  • Administering individual therapy to address specific teen issues and group therapy to foster interpersonal growth and peer support. 
  • Supporting teenagers during challenging situations or emotional crises
  • Supporting post-treatment transition planning.

Yes. Common post-program support and follow-up services available after teen wilderness therapy include transition planning, aftercare programs, family therapy, individual therapy, alum programs, educational assistance, progress monitoring, and crisis intervention.

Teen wilderness visitation policies differ from program to program. While some programs have a no-visit policy to foster teen independence and self-discovery, others allow parents to visit and interact with their teens during family therapy sessions or visitation weekends. Find out about your teen’s program visitation rules and expectations beforehand to know what to expect.

Find out your teenager’s reasons for refusal and address them if they object to wilderness therapy. This may require offering additional information, clarifying misconceptions, and emphasizing teen wilderness therapy’s benefits and possible outcomes. However, if that doesn’t help, consider exploring other alternative programs with them or involve a therapist or counselor.

Wilderness therapy programs incorporate activities such as hiking, rock climbing, backpacking, and group challenges into their structure to foster personal growth and development. These activities are normally integrated with therapeutic interventions to foster a natural, holistic treatment approach.

You can offer emotional support to your teenager during wilderness therapy by keeping in touch with them subject to the program’s policies, believing in their progress, validating their feelings and experiences during the program, attending family therapy sessions, and discussing their goals and returning expectations during scheduled communication. Reminding your teen that you believe in their ability to grow and heal whenever you communicate with them is also advisable.

Most wilderness therapy programs do not offer formal education, as their main focus is to help teens achieve self-development and become more independent through experiential learning opportunities and challenging experiences. Some incorporate limited educational components in their structure, while others liaise with the participants’ schools to help them catch up with their coursework after completing the program.

Contact us if you need a licensed and accredited mental health treatment program for at-risk teens in California.