Teen Wilderness Therapy Programs For Troubled Youth

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways 

  • Teens may face problems beyond typical teenage issues, resulting in negative behaviors and reduced quality of life. 
  • Such problems give rise to a troubled teen, a general term for adolescents exhibiting intense emotional, behavioral, and learning problems 
  • Wilderness therapy can be an effective treatment approach for troubled teens as it harnesses the therapeutic effects of nature and takes a holistic approach to teen treatment. 
  • It’s important to find the right wilderness therapy program for teens, one that encourages self-development while guaranteeing teen safety and well-being.

For parents looking at treatment programs for teens struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, wilderness therapy and residential treatment are commonly recommended by experienced therapists. However, teen wilderness therapy programs have been getting more attention recently for both good and bad reasons. A few red flags have emerged because not every wilderness therapy program in LA is doing things right.  So, what should parents do?

Vetting these programs thoroughly is crucial before making important decisions on teen treatment. First, understand what wilderness therapy programs are and how they differ from residential ones. Contact Key Healthcare professionals to weigh the benefits of adolescent residential treatment
against wilderness therapy, and ensure your choice aligns with your teen’s needs and your family’s values. Then, look for a wilderness program with solid accreditation and a track record of transparent, ethical practices.

Why Troubled Youths Need Wilderness Therapy 

Before exploring the necessity of wilderness therapy, let’s first define a troubled youth. Troubled youth is a general term for teens exhibiting emotional struggles or behavioral problems such as youth delinquency, which, if not addressed promptly, can lead to further challenges and significantly affect their overall quality of life.  

Common Challenges Faced by Troubled Teens 

Troubled teens mostly face behavioral and emotional issues. Adolescent behavioral issues include substance abuse, addiction, defiant/ oppositional behaviors, anti-social behavior, and self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm. Emotional issues are more comprehensive and may include:

The Need for Wilderness Therapy 

A wilderness therapy program offers a more hands-on treatment approach compared to traditional psychotherapy, as it combines talk therapy, challenging outdoor experiences, and experiential learning opportunities. Wilderness therapists use unique interventions that incorporate nature’s therapeutic effects and isolate teens from negative influences, creating an excellent environment for confronting and overcoming teen-related challenges. The program pushes participants to develop essential life skills, boosts their self-esteem, and offers them a fresh perspective on their challenges.  

Advantages of Wilderness Therapy 

Here are the therapeutic benefits of wilderness therapy: 

Leverages the Therapeutic Effects of Nature

  • Wilderness therapy programs occur in serene, tranquil environments shielded from everyday stressors and pressures.
  • Such settings foster introspection, allowing teens to focus on their personal growth without outside distractions. 

Fosters Resilience 

  • Mental resilience helps teens face and cope with difficult situations by channeling their inner strength. It also improves mental wellness.
  • Through challenging outdoor activities, wilderness therapy programs teach teens how to navigate emotional and physical challenges, significantly enhancing their resilience.

Helps Teens Disconnect from Technology

  • Technology has made lives easier. However, it can exacerbate mental health issues if used constantly.
  • Wilderness therapy offers teens a chance to disconnect from technology, a major distractor, encouraging them to engage with peers and their surroundings for positive outcomes. 

Takes a Holistic Approach to Wellness 

  • The therapeutic interventions and outdoor experiences in wilderness therapy target the mind, body, and spirit for comprehensive healing, personal development, and better treatment outcomes. 

Fosters Self-Reliance 

  • Life in the wilderness is different from everyday teen life. Adolescents are cut off from common life pleasures and are required to take care of themselves while contributing to their peer community.
  • This, in return, promotes self-efficacy and independence. 

Offers Structure 

  • Troubled teens generally feel irritable, hence the withdrawal from previously-enjoyed activities.
  • Having a structure can help prevent them from worrying about how they should be spending their time.
  • By adopting a structured routine, wilderness therapy programs offer a sense of stability and predictability, allowing them to address their mental health challenges effectively. 

Teaches Teamwork 

  • Since most wilderness therapy programs are centered around group dynamics, they help teenagers enhance their social skills and grow more empathetic.  

Teens Receive Professional Guidance 

  • Wilderness therapy programs are directed or implemented by licensed therapists.
  • Teens receive regular therapy sessions alongside wilderness interventions to help them process their experiences and develop effective coping strategies. 

Promotes Experiential Learning 

  • In experiential learning, people learn by doing things.
  • This learning approach is particularly helpful for teens struggling with emotional expression.
  • It is more impactful compared to traditional therapy. 

Fosters Self-Reflection 

  • The structure of teen wilderness therapy programs allows teenagers to reflect on their lives, choices, and behaviors, leading to valuable personal insights. 

What to Expect During the Right Wilderness Therapy Program 

Knowing what to expect during wilderness therapy can help you decide whether it is the best treatment approach for your teen. Let’s shed light on teen wilderness therapy expectations to help you make an informed teen treatment decision.

Treatment Approaches 

  • The most common approaches used to help teenagers overcome emotional and behavioral issues in wilderness therapy programs include: 

Adventure Therapy 

  • Adventurous activities such as rock climbing, hiking, and ziplining are included in teen wilderness therapy to push participants mentally and physically, leading to enhanced personal growth, improved self-esteem, and better problem-solving skills. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy for teens is commonly integrated into wilderness therapy programs to foster behavioral change.
  • This therapeutic approach is premised on the idea that our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are interconnected; therefore, by altering their thought patterns, teenagers can achieve behavioral change.
  • It also promotes healthier coping mechanisms and enhances problem-solving skills. 

Teaching Coping Strategies 

  • Teens learn effective coping strategies in wilderness therapy by working with therapists to identify emotional triggers and stressors, engaging in outdoor activities, attending self-reflective individual and group therapy sessions, and engaging in coping skill development exercises such as mindfulness therapy and meditation. 

Program Structure 

  • The structure of wilderness therapy programs varies from one to the next. However, teens can expect elements of adventure, behavioral therapy, and experiential education in remote wilderness settings.
  • Most of the activities are also done in groups to encourage cooperation, communication, and trust between participants.
  • Programs also incorporate reflective activities to help participants digest or process their experiences by highlighting what they learned from them. 

Outdoor Activities 

  • Outdoor activities such as hiking therapy, rock climbing, camping, canoeing, and wilderness challenges are commonly incorporated into teen wilderness therapy programs to create a dynamic and experiential learning environment.
  • Such activities offer teens opportunities to challenge themselves, fostering personal growth, resilience, improved confidence, and positive behavioral changes.

Professional Guidance 

  • Teens work with licensed therapists and experienced staff whose main roles are to offer professional guidance during wilderness therapy.
  • For example, the therapist can use a cognitive behavioral technique during rock climbing to help them practice emotional regulation or address flashback triggers through a sequence of climbing and wilderness activities.
  • Other roles of the therapeutic staff during teen wilderness therapy include ensuring participants’ safety, helping teens set and work towards personal goals, guiding self-reflection exercises, and preparing participants to transition back to daily life. 

Relationship Building 

  • To establish a therapeutic alliance built on trust with teens during wilderness therapy, therapists use empathy, active listening, and nonjudgmental support.
  • This also involves openly and respectfully communicating with them, acknowledging their perspectives, and collaborating with them to set goals.
  • Teenagers are also expected to build good peer relationships during the program, as positive peer interactions can lead to improved social skills, increased self-awareness, enhanced coping skills, greater empathy, and improved confidence.  

Tracking Improvement 

  • Teen wilderness therapists track improvements through regular progress evaluations, observation, self-reports, and outcome assessments.
  • This helps determine the effectiveness of the program’s interventions and whether participants are progressing toward their treatment goals.
  • Improvements in areas such as communication, emotional regulation, self-awareness, and coping skills and a reduction in negative symptoms and behaviors usually signify progress. 

Academic Support 

  • Teens often spend several weeks in the wilderness. To help them stay on top of their schoolwork or keep up with their education, programs may offer curriculum and credit recovery as well as experiential learning opportunities.
  • Teens are also exposed to a caring staff ready to help them navigate academic-related challenges. 

Family Involvement 

Family involvement in teen treatment is important. It can enhance treatment effectiveness, help identify underlying issues within the family’s dynamics, improve family communication, foster a comprehensive understanding of the teenagers’ needs, promote lasting positive change, and lead to a stronger support network. Common activities that ensure family participation in teen wilderness therapy include:

  • Involving parents, guardians, or caregivers in treatment planning and goal-setting. 
  • Communicating regularly with families to update them on their teenager’s progress 
  • Teen family therapy sessions and workshops.

Long-Term Benefits 

With adequate post-treatment support, teen wilderness therapy for troubled teens can create a lasting impact. Here are some of the long-term benefits troubled teens stand to enjoy from the program: 

  • Improved emotional, mental, and behavioral health 
  • Improved mental resilience and emotional regulation 
  • Improved critical thinking and decision-making skills 
  • Better and healthier coping strategies 
  • Positive changes in attitude 
  • Enhanced interpersonal relationships 
  • Enhanced teenager self-esteem and confidence
  • Improved overall well-being 

Safety Protocols 

  • Ensuring teen safety should be a wilderness therapy program’s priority. The therapeutic staff should be trained in emergency and crisis procedures, allowing them to offer first aid and immediate medical support in case of accidents or injuries.
  • The program should also screen participants’ physical and mental health before admission, work with highly trained and certified wilderness guides, conduct ongoing assessments of activity-related and environmental risks for mitigation purposes, and offer appropriate safety equipment during the program.
  • Additionally, there should be detailed safety briefings before outdoor excursions and established protocols for evacuations and medical emergencies. 

Aftercare Support 

For a smooth transition to and sustained recovery in the home environment after teen wilderness therapy, parents, teens, and mental health professionals must engage in aftercare planning. Some of the aftercare programs offered to teens post-wilderness therapy include the following: 

  • Individual and family therapy 
  • Support/ peer groups
  • Counseling 
  • Academic/ vocational assistance

At Key Healthcare, we have an extended care program where teens are monitored and reinforced post-therapy for improved recovery outcomes. 

Ethical Considerations 

Here is how wilderness therapy programs can maintain high ethical standards: 

  • Sharing every detail regarding the program with parents and participants before enrollment, including the benefits, alternatives, and potential risks, to ensure informed consent. 
  • Using evidence-based treatment approaches and regularly assessing the effectiveness of interventions to foster the best possible outcomes. 
  • Prioritizing the physical and emotional safety and well-being of all participants through comprehensive risk assessment, emergency response plans, and a properly trained staff. 
  • Embracing diversity and considering cultural competence and sensitivity in the program. 
  • Upholding the privacy and confidentiality of participants and their family members. 
  • Promptly and transparently addressing any allegation of abuse and neglect and holding staff accountable for their behavior. 
  • Offering aftercare support to participants to promote sustained progress. 
  • Regularly evaluate practices and maintain high standards of care to ensure teen safety and effective treatment. 
  • Informing parents and participants beforehand of the appropriate length of treatment and preventing any prolonged stay, unless with the parental and participant’s consent. 
  • Obtaining parental/guardian approval for their minor’s treatment and involving them in their teen’s treatment process.

Wilderness Therapy vs. Traditional Therapy

Traditional therapy refers to the conventional therapy that happens indoors. It is commonly referred to as psychotherapy. Its top-down treatment approach helps identify and alter maladaptive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Here is a comparative analysis of traditional and wilderness therapy that highlights their differences:  


  • Traditional therapy sessions happen in clinical settings such as clinics and offices, while wilderness therapy programs take place in outdoor settings.
  • Traditional therapy, therefore, offers a structured and controlled environment, while wilderness therapy happens in a free, natural environment. 

Techniques Used 

  • In traditional therapy, participants share their feelings, emotions, and experiences with therapists for solution-finding, while wilderness therapy incorporates experiential activities, team-building exercises, and adventure to foster personal growth. 

Elimination of Distractors and Negative Influences 

  • Therapists in traditional therapy have zero to limited control over participants’ exposure to negative influences and external stressors.
  • In contrast, teens are isolated from external stressors and distractions such as technology to allow them to focus on personal growth in wilderness therapy.


  • Traditional therapy sessions are scheduled regularly over an extended period. They generally end with the accomplishment of treatment goals, which may take time.
  • On the other hand, wilderness therapy programs offer an immersive experience for a  few weeks or months.


  • Traditional therapy programs have existed since time immemorial and are, therefore, widely accessible.
  • On the other hand, wilderness therapy programs have limited accessibility; they are only offered by select treatment centers such as Key Healthcare. 

Effectiveness and Suitability 

  • Traditional therapy programs offer structured, evidence-based interventions, making them suitable for several mental health issues, while wilderness therapy usually targets a specific population, mostly troubled teens or adolescents who can benefit from experiential learning and a unique environment.

Wilderness Therapy vs. Residential Treatment 

We offer residential treatment at Key Healthcare to help teens overcome several psychological, behavioral, and psychiatric issues. Here are a few notable differences between our residential treatment and wilderness therapy: 

Therapeutic Approaches 

  • Our residential treatment program takes a more traditional treatment approach, mostly combining individual and group therapy to help adolescents address different issues and develop effective coping skills.
  • Common interventions include psychotherapy, evidence-based interventions, and behavioral therapy.
  • We also include academic components in our treatment plans to promote holistic treatment. 
  • On the other hand, wilderness therapy mostly emphasizes experiential learning and harnessing nature’s therapeutic properties.
  • It incorporates adventure-based activities to encourage teamwork, personal responsibility, and self-reliance.
  • Although most programs also incorporate group and individual therapy, they are conducted in outdoor settings, unlike our residential treatment program. 


  • Our residential treatment program is administered within our facilities. All the academic, therapeutic, and recreational components are executed indoors.
  • However, we also incorporate outdoor activities like surf therapy and hiking to promote bonding and relaxation. 
  • On the other hand, wilderness therapy is administered in natural, outdoor settings where participants primarily engage in outdoor activities such as hiking and camping for personal growth and self-discovery. 

Treatment Duration 

  • Our residential treatment program usually lasts 45-60 days but may be extended depending on certain factors.
  • It allows teens to receive sustained support and develop coping skills over time. 
  • On the other hand, wilderness therapy often incorporates intensive, immersive approaches and experiences to foster rapid change, hence running for a shorter duration, usually a few weeks or months. 


  • Although we primarily focus on teens, residential treatment can be administered to a wide population, including children, adolescents, adults, and families, to address mental health disorders, behavioral challenges, and substance abuse issues. 
  • On the other hand, wilderness therapy mostly serves emotionally and behaviorally challenged adolescents and young adults. 

Overriding Belief/ Principle

  • We normally adhere to evidence-based practices and traditional therapeutic models in residential treatment while emphasizing a structured and supportive environment. 
  • On the other hand, wilderness therapy is premised on the belief that nature’s therapeutic qualities are inherent and immense.
  • It, therefore, strives to build and improve on participants’ connection to nature.

Real-life Success Stories 

The following youth testimonials from teens who have benefitted from wilderness therapy attest to its effectiveness: 

  • In this first example, we are introduced to Amelia, a teenager who suffered from chronic lying issues and defiant behavior at home, which later reflected on her schoolwork and performance. However, after attending a wilderness therapy program, she learned how to set healthy boundaries, process and manage stressors, and practice effective coping skills, which significantly reduced her lying behavior and defiance and led to healthy conflict resolution. 
  • In this second example, we have Faith, a teen who struggled with behavioral issues and was constantly acting out in dangerous ways that her parents feared for her life. However, when she was sent to the right wilderness therapy program, she learned more about herself, which led to personal growth and self-compassion. Her family also learned to evolve and offer her support as she turned on a new life. 

These are but a few real-life success anecdotes of teen wilderness therapy. Your child, too, will have a positive story to tell if you entrust us with them.

Cost of Wilderness Treatment in California- Funding and Insurance 

The cost of wilderness treatment varies from one program or facility to the next. At Key Healthcare, we have partnered with several insurance providers, including Cigna, Value Options, MultiPlan, HUMANA one, Health Net, BlueCross BlueShield, Anthem BlueCross, and Aetna, to help you cover the cost of therapies provided by our licensed therapist during your teen treatment program. Feel free to verify your insurance coverage with us and also contact us for a tailored plan for your teen, complete with costs.

Tips for Parents to Choose the Right Troubled Teen Program 

Finding the right wilderness therapy program for your troubled teen should be your number one priority. Here are a few strategies that can help: 

Choose a Program that Specializes in Your Teenager’s Needs

  • What issues are your teenagers facing? Are they behavioural, academic, emotional, or substance-related?
  • Find a program specializing in your teenager’s needs once you have defined them. 

Consider the Therapeutic Approaches Used 

  • Choose a program whose therapeutic approaches align with your teenager’s needs.
  • Remember, certain conditions are best addressed through cognitive behavioral therapy; some require experiential learning, while others need expressive therapeutic approaches such as art therapy

Check for Licensing and Accreditation 

The program should be offered by a licensed treatment center, as this shows a commitment to quality, safety, and ethical standards. It should also be accredited by a reputable organization and must have a proven track record of success. 

Check for Family Involvement Opportunities 

  • Family involvement plays a huge role in successful mental health treatment. You should settle for a program that will allow you and your family members to participate in your teenager’s treatment.
  • This can be through family therapy sessions, family psychoeducation programs, or activities involving the entire family. 

Check for Staff Qualification 

  • Your teenager will be spending significant time around the program’s staff; therefore, it’s important to ascertain that they have the right qualifications.
  • Ensure that the program’s staff are skilled and have adequate years of experience working with teens. 

Visit the Program 

  • Strive to visit the program before your teen’s admission to understand the environment better, meet the staff, and ask necessary questions, such as the available activities and daily routine. 

Confirm the Safety Measures 

  • You should be assured of your teenager’s safety during the program.
  • Confirm if the program has strong safety protocols, including staff with excellent emergency or crisis response skills.
  • There should also be nearby facilities where your teenager can get medical help and clear evacuation protocols.

Consider the Costs Associated 

  • Troubled teen programs are priced differently depending on factors such as their location and the services rendered.
  • Therefore, take time to understand all the costs involved before your teenager is admitted to one.
  • Additionally, check whether the program allows insurance payments.

Consider the Program’s Peer Group 

  • Our children’s peer groups have a profound impact on their behaviors and overall well-being.
  • Your teen should be part of a good peer group during the program for positive experiences and growth. 

Ability to Tailor Approaches 

  • Settle for a program that can tailor its approaches to your teen and family’s needs.
  • This ensures respect for your personal and your teen’s individual beliefs and cultural backgrounds. 

Check Testimonials and Reviews 

  • Ask the program for testimonials from former participants to learn more about its outcome and effectiveness.
  • Former participants’ reviews also foretell the type of experience your teen will have. 

Lastly, trust your instincts. Do not pick a program if something doesn’t feel right about it.


Wilderness and other adventure-based therapies can foster improved self-awareness, self-esteem, independence, confidence, and overall mental well-being if done right. Our Key Healthcare are tailored to the needs of teenagers and intend to help them make tremendous improvements in their lives. We have qualified, loving, and experienced staff trained and ready to help teens navigate different challenges and behavioral issues through experiential learning and outdoor therapy. Our reputation precedes us; therefore, trust us to care for your teen and bring them back to you as a changed, happy, and confident person.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The effectiveness of a wilderness therapy program in simultaneously addressing behavioral and underlying mental health disorders often depends on a range of factors, but mostly the teenager’s specific needs and the program’s structure and staff qualifications. At Key Healthcare, we offer dual diagnosis treatment for teens, which is highly effective in dealing with simultaneously occurring disorders.

Most wilderness therapy programs last between six weeks to four months. However, this duration can vary depending on the severity of issues, specific therapeutic goals, the teenager’s unique needs, the response to treatment, the progress rate, financial considerations, and the level of family involvement and transition planning involved. The program should be able to give you an estimate based on their assessment of your teenager. You will also be informed and asked for your permission or consent if extra days, weeks, or months are needed.

Yes, At Key Healthcare, we offer tailored wilderness therapy programs aimed at addressing the unique needs and concerns of LGBTQ+ teens by: 

  • Offering them an environment for identity exploration and affirmation without the fear of prejudice or discrimination.
  • Allowing them to connect with other LGBTQ+ teens to reduce feelings of isolation. 
  • Creating a safe and accepting space where they can express themselves freely and discuss LGBTQ+-specific challenges. 
  • Offering inclusive therapy to address specific mental health or emotional challenges associated with their experiences and family dynamics. 
  • Educating them on LGBTQ+ issues and related topics. 
  • Educating their families on LGBTQ+ concerns to promote acceptance and healthy communication. 
  • Using activities and therapeutic techniques sensitive to their issues and experiences while addressing any underlying mental health disorders.

Yes. Programs such as our Key Healthcare teen wilderness therapy program offer specialized approaches and tailored activities to address specific teen challenges such as substance abuse and addiction. We have incorporated evidence-based addiction treatment interventions such as group therapy, skill-building activity, and counseling in our program to foster a unique treatment environment for teens struggling with substance abuse issues. The program aims to promote sobriety, foster personal growth, and support long-term recovery.

Whether parents can visit their teens during wilderness therapy and the allowed level of communication often differs from one program to another. However, most programs have scheduled family visitation days, which happen at the base camp or designated wilderness locations. Communication between parents and teens is usually kept at a minimum to foster self-reliance and independence in teenagers. It’s also important to note that many wilderness therapy programs incorporate family therapy sessions where family members are allowed to engage actively in therapy with participants.

Yes. There are international wilderness therapy programs that allow troubled teens from different countries and cultures to harness the therapeutic properties of nature for improved mental and behavioral health. However, parents should consider the program’s licensing and accreditation, cultural and language barriers, travel logistics, safety standards and regulations, track record, duration, cost, and aftercare. It’s also important to factor in how the family will stay involved in the teenager’s treatment.

Teens with severe mental health issues require more personalized care and monitoring. Therefore, they may not benefit from wilderness therapy unless it is incorporated into a comprehensive treatment plan. At Key Healthcare, we assess teenagers’ specific needs and conditions’ severity to help pair them with the right program.

A wilderness therapy program may push a teenager’s physical and emotional boundaries. Parents should consider the following when preparing a teenager for such a commitment: 

  • Whether the teenager is physically and mentally fit for the program. If not, they should explore other “lighter” alternatives. 
  • The program’s safety measures. What are the provided safety protocols? Will there be an experienced staff in place at all times?
  • Parental role and involvement during and after the program. 
  • How the teenager will transition back into the home setting. 
  • How they will maintain contact with their teenager during the program. 
  • Their teen’s preferences and opinion.

As the name suggests, therapeutic boarding schools simultaneously offer academic and therapeutic services to teens with behavioral, emotional, and psychiatric issues. Teenagers stay within the facility for intellectual and academic nourishment while receiving emotional, physical, familial, and behavioral support. Here is how they differ from wilderness therapy programs: 

  • Wilderness therapy programs occur in remote natural outdoor settings, while therapeutic boarding schools have residential facilities. Students stay on campus, where they learn and obtain support. 
  • Wilderness therapy leverages the therapeutic effects of nature to enhance teen emotional well-being, while therapeutic boarding schools offer a structured environment and emphasize education in a therapeutic environment. 
  • Wilderness therapy mostly involves outdoor activities such as hiking, rock climbing, and adventure-based experiences, while therapeutic boarding schools mainly focus on traditional classroom education, individual counseling, group therapy, and extracurricular activities. 
  • Wilderness therapy programs are quite short, as they often last a few weeks or months, while therapeutic boarding schools run for an extended duration, i.e., several months to a year or more. 
  • Wilderness therapy mostly focuses on fostering personal growth, self-discovery, and self-reliance, while therapeutic boarding skills are mostly interested in behavior modification, academic/intellectual development, and therapy. 
  • Therapeutic boarding school programs incorporate academic instruction, while wilderness therapy programs mostly offer experiential learning opportunities or complementary educational components. 
  • Therapeutic boarding schools have a more comprehensive transition planning compared to wilderness therapy, as they normally offer academic and therapeutic services simultaneously.