What Are Adventure Therapy Programs and Can They Aid in Recovery?

Last Updated: Oct 12th 2020

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

What Are Adventure Therapy Programs and Can They Aid in Recovery?

Adventure therapy programs are for at-risk youths or young adults that are frequently in alternative to youth detention or probation, or are a last-ditch attempt to reach a troubled child when nothing else has worked. 

Often known as wilderness therapy, adventure therapy activities allow participants to step outside their comfort zones and focus on their problems in an unfamiliar outdoor environment, free of the noise and temptations of everyday life.  

What is Adventure Therapy?

There are various types of adventure therapy programs, and so far, there is no standard definition. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) defines them as “residential placements that provide participants with a series of physically challenging outdoor activities designed to prevent or reduce delinquent behavior and recidivism.”  

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says adventure therapy programs provide an alternative to hospitalization or incarceration for youth with behavioral or emotional challenges, such as substance abuse or addiction, self-destructive behavior, family conflict, grief, trauma, or psychological disorders.  

Programs vary significantly in length and intensity. Some may consist of relatively easy day trips, while others focus on challenging activities like wilderness expeditions, challenge courses, or rock climbing. Adventure therapy activities may include camping, canoeing, kayaking, backpacking, sailing,  or horseback riding. 

Duration ranges from a few days to several months. 

Adventure Therapy Benefits

Adventure therapy programs are staffed by licensed therapists and wilderness experts who have gone through specialized training and comprehensive background checks. 

The goals of adventure-based therapy activities are to help children develop self-reliance, responsibility, social skills, teamwork, emotional control, conflict resolution, and healthy coping strategies.  Participants are typically expected to join with other children to accomplish daily chores and tasks and complete various service projects. 

Often, adventure therapy is more effective than weekly visits with a therapist or a stint in detention. Many children can open up and share their feelings with others who have similar issues. 

Although adventure-based therapy activities require children to work hard,  activities are designed to be fun.  Often, troubled youth can break through barriers that prevent them from enjoying life to the fullest.  Rebellious children, or those who have been bullied, regain trust in others while building emotional strength.   

Many children go home with a more positive attitude,  greater self-understanding, improved impulse control, and renewed hope for the future.

Adventure Therapy or Boot Camp? What’s the Difference?

If you’re considering an adventure therapy program for your troubled teen, beware of military-style boot camps that advertise their programs as adventure therapy. 

Discipline-based boot camps for adolescents and young adults have received a lot of bad press in recent years. Such camps, intended to teach self-control and respect for authority, are typically overseen by a drill sergeant who metes out harsh punishment if children don’t adhere to a strict routine. 

Teen boot camps are often staffed by inexperienced, unqualified, or unlicensed individuals that rely on fear and physical or mental aggression, with little time set aside for counseling or therapy. Although some youth initially do well in such a rigid environment, changes are often temporary. Soon, children become angry and resentful, and problems are intensified. 

Legitimate adventure therapy programs aren’t based on fear or harsh punishment, and tough love rarely works. Adventure therapy should promote life skills, responsibility, and self-discipline while exploring problems, empowering personal development, and nurturing body, mind, and spirit.  

Choosing an Adventure Therapy Program

Sending a troubled teen to an adventure therapy program is a huge decision that shouldn’t be made on the spur of the moment. Take time to research the matter carefully. If necessary, speak to a counselor, medical provider, or addiction expert.  

Licensing and Accreditation 

Many states don’t license or regulate adventure therapy, and programs can open and close at will with little oversight. On the other hand, some states have general guidelines, while others have clear, specific rules, regulations, and procedures. Requirements generally govern administration, staff training, staff-to-participant ratios, location, health, nutrition, treatment goals, safety plans, infectious disease control, and transportation. 

Adventure therapy programs may also be accredited by national organizations such as the Joint Commission, the Commission on Accreditation of Rehab Facilities  (CARF),  or the Council on Accreditation (COA). Programs may also be members of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH), the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), or the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), or the Therapeutic Adventure Professional Group (TAPG). 

Making  a Decision: Ask Questions First

  • How long has the adventure therapy program been in operation? Be careful of new programs with no proven track record.
  • Has the program had any license suspensions or reports of problems? Any serious injuries or deaths in the last five years?
  • Will you be allowed to call or visit your child? How are families involved in the program?
  • Are staff members credentialed? Do they have training and experience working with youth? What is the staff to child ratio?
  • Will you have an opportunity to meet the program administrator and staff?
  • Is the staff trained in first aid and CPR? Is a doctor or nurse on staff? What happens if your child is ill or injured?
  • Is there a safety plan in place? What happens in the event of extreme heat or cold, or a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or fire?
  • Does the program carry liability insurance? 
  • Are the sleeping areas and shower facilities clean and safe? Will special diets be accommodated?
  • What types of counseling are offered. Is therapy based on sound research and evidence? 
  • How will the staff deal with an angry, combative, or struggling kid, or one who wants to leave? Is it ever necessary to restrain a youth? If so, how, and under what circumstances.

Looking for a Healthier Perspective? 

If your teen or young adult faces difficult challenges, the compassionate team at 1st Step Behavioral Healthcare can help. We offer effective rehab programs for youth, including inpatient and outpatient treatment, psychotherapy, intervention, and family therapy. Give us a call at 855-425-4846 or contact us here for more information. We’ll work with you to investigate treatment options. 

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.