Wilderness Therapy – an immersive outdoor experience for intense rehabilitation for those with behavioral issues or substance abuse challenges – has seen its share of success stories and controversy. It has been used for decades, but the overall efficacy is still being studied, as many participants find their outcomes challenging to quantify.

At Deer Hill Expeditions, we often receive questions regarding whether our programs fall under the umbrella of wilderness therapy.  Deer Hill Expeditions is not a wilderness therapy organization and we do not accept students into our programs that are dealing with significant behavioral problems or are dealing with addiction or other significant mental health issues. The common confusion between the two is understandable, for our programming is ‘therapeutic’ in a sense.  

By understanding how Deer Hill’s outdoor experiences are different from what has become known as wilderness therapy, we can better understand the potential benefits of our program.

While the immersive outdoor experiences of both practices can be similar in some cases, the focus of each is different – and the outcomes are vastly different. Many Wilderness Therapy programs have a focus on depriving participants of comforts and amenities in order to set them up for an experience of introspection and reflection.

Deer Hill Expeditions, on the other hand, emphasizes teaching teamwork and life skills through collaborative learning experiences in nature. Our programs are focused on having fun and building relationships that foster a sense of trust and community.  Connection to self, others, and to place are the cornerstones of our curriculum model.

While Wilderness Therapy may have similar goals of personal transformation, it is usually more intense and structured, focusing more on helping participants overcome behavioral issues or substance abuse challenges. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the two.

What is Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy can also be referred to as “wilderness rehab,” and it’s typically a short-term program that immerses participants in the outdoors, away from their usual environment. Some programs refer to wilderness therapy as an “adventure-based approach to behavioral change,” relying heavily on structured activities and intense coaching.

There are three primary methodologies of wilderness therapy:

  1. Small excursions where attendees are encouraged to reflect on their behavior and make decisions in collaboration with the group.
  2. Base Camp models, where participants stay in a central location and take day trips over a short period of time.
  3. Long-term expeditions, where participants are completely removed from their regular environment for months to weeks.

The three different models focus on different issues and thus have different outcomes. 

Is Wilderness Therapy Effective?

While the benefits of being outdoors have been studied, and the effects of wilderness therapy are often touted, research is still emerging on its overall efficacy.

Different programs use different methods and approaches, making it difficult to make generalizations. Many participants find results can be difficult to measure or quantify, though some may see dramatic changes in their behaviors or outlooks as a result of their experience.

In recent years, reports have emerged of abuse and neglect occurring in some wilderness therapy programs, making it essential for participants and their families to do their research when considering such a program. The most high-profile of these controversies involved Utah native Steve Cartisano, who is often credited with starting the wilderness therapy method. Cartisano started a program called Challenger in 1988, which aimed to take troubled teens into the wilderness for months at a time and help them develop life skills.

Challenger, however, was eventually shut down after reports of abuse and neglect surfaced. In some cases, unqualified and untrained staff members had been hired to lead excursions, and participants were left in dangerous situations with inadequate supplies or resources. The death of student Kristin Chase in 1990 led to the program’s ultimate closure, with multiple allegations of misconduct and negligence.

The concept of “break them down to build them back up” was popularized by Cartisano, but the Challenger program’s failure to provide a safe and nurturing environment for its participants led many to question the efficacy of wilderness therapy. In particular, depriving participants of basic necessities and forcing them to “earn their way” is now considered an unacceptable personal development and growth approach.

Fortunately, newer wilderness therapy programs have a much better safety record and are more likely to use alternative approaches that focus on helping participants become emotionally resilient rather than breaking them down. The concept of  “building up” rather than “breaking down” has been gaining traction in recent years, and there is increasing evidence that this approach can be used to help individuals with a wide range of issues.

Overall, wilderness experience programs focusing on personal development, resiliency, and skill-building are likely to be the most effective in helping participants make positive changes. It is crucial for anyone considering a wilderness therapy program to do their research and find one that offers an appropriate level of safety, support, and resources for their individual needs.

What Makes Deer Hill Expeditions Different?

At Deer Hill Expeditions, we believe in creating a safe and enriching environment where participants can gain meaningful life experiences while developing positive relationships with nature and their peers. Our programming is not designed or intended to support participants with challenging behavioral issues like Wilderness Therapy programs are.  Students come from a variety of diverse backgrounds, and we strive to create an inclusive and supportive atmosphere for everyone.

While traditional wilderness therapy programs have sought to implement a “break them down to build them back up” approach, at Deer Hill, we believe in “building up to build up.” Our experienced and certified staff focus on helping participants develop the skills they need to succeed in life while providing a safe and nurturing environment where they can learn and grow.  

Deer Hill Expeditions provides educational programming that focuses on developing leadership, self-reliance, interpersonal relations, problem-solving, communication, and organizational skills. Our curriculum uses experiential learning to help students practice and develop these skills in a natural setting while also helping them gain an appreciation for the environment and its importance.  Deer Hill is an adventure education program – not a therapy program.

Ultimately, our goal is to help participants become more aware of themselves and their potential as individuals, and we strive to create an experience that both challenges and nurtures them. We believe that through our unique approach and experienced staff, we can help participants gain the skills they need to create positive changes in their lives and communities.

See The Deer Hill Difference Today

If you are looking for an outdoor experience that helps enrich your life and develop the skills you need to succeed, Deer Hill Expeditions offers a unique approach that focuses on safety, skill-building, and emotional growth.

Our experienced staff provides customized support for each student to ensure they have the best possible experience with us. Contact us today to learn more about how Deer Hill can help instill the confidence and skills individuals need to create the life they deserve in some of the most beautiful and inspiring locations in the US.

We look forward to helping you find your path and live a life of purpose and passion.