What Happens at Wilderness Camps for Troubled Teens?

For rebellious or defiant teenagers that struggle with emotional or behavioral issues, therapeutic wilderness...

What Happens at Wilderness Camps for Troubled Teens?
28March

What Happens at Wilderness Camps for Troubled Teens?

Written by Sheri Gallagherin Section Wilderness Living

For rebellious or defiant teenagers that struggle with emotional or behavioral issues, therapeutic wilderness therapy programs can make a world of difference. In a couple short months, teen can learn about the natural consequences of their actions in an environment that boils down the complexities of daily life to a few basic principles: respect, accountability, teamwork, and integrity.

It is well-known that wilderness programs can be a highly effective intervention for troubled teen boys and teenage girls, but it can be difficult to understand why wilderness therapy has such a strong impact. Parents often ask, "What will my teen do at wilderness camp? And why does it work?"

You may notice below there are a few activities common to most wilderness camps across the country, along with a somewhat brief description of the lessons teenagers  can learn from each new wilderness adventure.

Backpacking in the Wilderness

One of the most basic elements of any wilderness therapy program is backpacking and hiking. Small groups, generally from 6 to 12 campers, hike each day on a designated path to reach their next destination. Depending on the terrain and fitness of the group, campers may hike anywhere from one to five miles or more each day, stopping frequently for water breaks, boot and gear checks, and group discussions among the kids.

How Wilderness Therapy Works

Anyone who has hiked or taken a walk in nature can understand the natural benefits of being outside - breathing fresh air, absorbing the endless variety of creatures and plant life, and wondering how these landscapes ever came to be. A new environment, by itself, can be highly therapeutic for a struggling teen, but combined with physical exertion, a structured daily routine, and staff and peers who can relate to the teen's struggles, wilderness therapy can be life-changing.

As teenagers make their way to a lofty summit or lookout point, or to the next night's camping site, it takes determination and self-discipline to push on when they're tired or just don't feel like hiking anymore. But once they reach their goal, they feel a great sense of accomplishment for making it through another day without any of the comforts of home they've become so reliant upon. Without the distraction of computers, televisions, video games, or friends, teens have no choice but to sit quietly and take an honest look at who they have become.

Camping in the Wilderness 

At most wilderness programs, teenage boys and young girls spend the majority of nights camping in tents under the stars. The campers are equipped with state-of-the-art camping equipment, including tents, climate-appropriate sleeping bags, ground mats, and a backpack. The participants also receive clothing that is suitable for the season, which typically includes high-quality hiking boots, garments that can be layered, rain gear, and fleece and wool clothing in winter.

Most days begin with a hot breakfast cooked over a camping stove, taking down the tents from the night before, hiking to the next destination on the map, and together setting up camp, and ends with a hot dinner and group discussion around the campfire. Adolescents and teens set up and take down their tents and camping equipment, and are responsible for doing chores, campsite clean-up, and helping to cook meals. By taking good care of themselves, eating regular meals, getting daily physical exercise, sleeping eight hours a night, and maintaining their own living space, the campers begin to feel healthier from the inside out.

As part of the wilderness experience, most teens learn first aid and primitive living skills. One of the most satisfying experiences that these teenagers encounter in the wilderness is building a fire without matches. These teens go beyond their normal perceived limitations and realize how good it feels to set and achieve intrinsic goals.

Why Wilderness Therapy Works

In the wilderness, campers learn to make healthy choices and reap the rewards of feeling strong physically and emotionally. Teens learn that the basic necessities of daily life they take for granted at home, like warm meals, a cozy bed, and a roof over their heads, require hard work and cooperation, which gives them a new appreciation for their parents and life at home. As they work closely with a group of their peers to set up tents, cook meals, and clean campsites, they learn teamwork and understand how they fit in as essential, integral members of a wilderness team. This larger perspective helps teenagers remember the value of giving back and contributing in order to achieve a greater goal.