Wilderness Therapy Research: New Frontiers in Addiction Rehabilitation

Wilderness therapy is an increasingly attractive alternative to more conventional counseling for many types of patients. Ongoing wilderness therapy research seeks to pinpoint which specific techniques work and which kinds of patients can benefit most from this approach. But experts agree that a comprehensive treatment program that involves wilderness therapy can be effective for people in recovery.

What is Wilderness Therapy?

The goal of any recovery program is to modify a patient’s behaviors and outlook so that he or she is able to function in daily life without drugs and alcohol. While detox programs are often necessary early in the process, addiction specialists agree that ongoing, long-term treatment to address the underlying psychological issues that cause addiction is necessary. This often takes the form of psychoanalysis, group therapy, behavioral therapy, and even hypnotherapy. An alternative to these more traditional modes of treatment is a broad category called wilderness therapy.

Wilderness therapy centers create an environment that is designed to promote self-reflection, discipline, teamwork, and personal empowerment. While facilities specializing in this approach may have different philosophies, common components of a wilderness therapy program include meditation, physical activity, and group therapy. In this sense, there may be some overlap between wilderness therapy programs and traditional counseling models. But in wilderness therapy centers, there is greater emphasis on physical activity and appreciation of nature.

Although wilderness therapy centers have only become popular in the United States over the last few decades, the concept of nature’s rejuvenating and rehabilitative power has been around for thousands of years. From ancient Buddhist monasteries in the mountains to the sanitariums that became popular across Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, people have always understood that spending time in nature has a positive impact on mental health.

   Challenges for Wilderness Therapy Research

While it’s easy to find success stories for wilderness therapy approaches, researchers have a difficult time quantifying their overall effectiveness. There are a few reasons for this. First, each wilderness therapy facility has its own unique approach, making it difficult to compare results across several different facilities. Also, wilderness therapy is by definition a multi-disciplinary approach, making it difficult for researchers to isolate what exactly does and does not work for different types of patients.

Although there is broad agreement that wilderness therapy has real benefits, researchers are focused on outlining exactly which techniques are effective for different types of patients. Through this ongoing study, specialists hope to pinpoint a clear model that can be repeated at multiple facilities and ultimately help more patients.


Wilderness therapy research shows that by combining group sessions, nature experiences, meditation, and more, many patients can overcome their addiction problems. Recovery is a long journey, and an approach that emphasizes self-reflection and personal empowerment in a wilderness environment can be a valuable step along the way.