Wilderness Treatment Center: Is it Right for My Family

Wilderness Treatment Center for Teenagers and Young Adults | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

What is a Wilderness Treatment Center?

Wilderness treatment centers provide a unique approach to treatment for teens and young adults who are struggling with their mental, emotional, or behavioral health.

Each wilderness treatment program is different in its approach, but typically combine an immersive nature experience with:

    • Individual Therapy
    • Intensive Clinical
    • Assessment
    • Family Therapy
    • Group Therapy
    • Adventure Therapy
    • Psychological Testing
  • Therapeutic Journaling
  • Medication Management
  • Healthy Diet
  • Regular Sleep Patterns
  • Regular Physical Activity
  • Treatment Plans
  • Positive Coping Strategies

A wilderness treatment center can serve as a therapeutic intervention to remove teenagers and young adults from unhealthy environments. Often known as wilderness therapy programs, wilderness treatment centers are designed to assess mental and behavioral health issues and provide robust treatments. Further, wilderness treatment programs are effective at bringing students’ attention to problem behaviors. They do this by highlighting how their actions are impacting those around them. They are often compared to therapeutic boarding schools or a residential treatment program. These programs are similar because they serve as a treatment facility that offers solutions for troubled teens and young adults. It is common for young adults and teens to first complete a wilderness therapy program prior to residential treatment or a therapeutic boarding school due to a wilderness program’s ability to provide an accurate clinical assessment and determine what program will best suit the needs of the patient.

What Makes a Wilderness Treatment Center Unique?

A unique characteristic of most wilderness treatment centers is that they provide a fully immersive and intensive version of therapy. Programs tend to last 2-3 months. They offer long term assessments with 24/7 observation by highly trained staff members. Staff are overseen by clinicians or are clinicians themselves.

Attending a wilderness treatment center generally involves living outside and being a part of a group. This is a profound experience for young people who are forging their identity. In this setting, they can take a step back from their troubled lives and soak up the world around them. Some programs integrate high adventure activities into their programming. For example, Aspiro Adventure incorporates skiing, rock climbing, backpacking, canyoneering, and mountain biking. Research shows that incorporating activities that are challenging, yet achievable can produce long term positive results for young adults and adolescents.

What Are The Different Types of Therapy?

Individual Therapy – This is your typical talk therapy with a masters-level clinician. The therapy type can vary depending on the therapist’s training and the modalities that they choose to use. Some typical therapeutic techniques that wilderness therapists use include: 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) 
  • Positive Psychology 
  • Motivational Interviewing 

Family Therapy – Wilderness treatment centers offer a unique type of family therapy. Communication is mainly done through letter writing while your child is at the center. By communicating this way, families can be intentional with their words. Each party can process their emotions before expressing them in a return letter. Many programs also offer a parent seminar. Parents are invited to spend time with their son or daughter and go through in-person family therapy. Further, many programs are integrating online elements into their family therapy, like webinars.

Group Therapy – Group therapy in the wilderness setting is a great way to break through boundaries. Teens and young adults often feel alone in their struggles with mental health. By providing group therapy, often multiple times in a week, students in wilderness treatment centers can relate to others struggles and overcome what has been holding them back.

What Treatment Approach Does Wilderness Therapy Use?

Wilderness therapists use many approaches that are as varied and unique as their clients. They commonly go beyond traditional talk therapy and add a “hands-on component.” This hands-on component emphasizes an experiential approach. Research shows that experiential therapy is an effective way to break through barriers with young clients and promote lasting change.

Wilderness therapists specialize in working with teens and young adults and can adapt to each client’s needs. High adventure activities are used to not only break through barriers but also as an assessment tool. By observing clients participating in high adventure activities, wilderness therapists can get a better feel for what they are struggling with and how they cope with challenging situations.

What is Life Like in a Therapeutic Wilderness Camp?

At a wilderness treatment center, students will generally experience the benefits of a regular routine. They will eat healthy food, get plenty of sleep, and experience outdoor living, all within a group of students who they relate to in age and struggles. Each morning involves waking up to the sunrise, packing up camping equipment, and eating a healthy breakfast. Breakfast is often oats or granola with fresh fruits. 

Play Video

Depending upon the treatment program, students cook their own meals on individual camp stoves. Some programs might utilize the opportunity to cook group meals. What students do during the day varies between programs. Usually, the day consists of individual or group therapy, therapeutic assignments, academic work, and outdoor living activities.

Some programs, like Aspiro, focus on a variety of high adventure activities. These activities are a dynamic way to introduce novel environments and new challenges. Research shows that this process produces positive outcomes. Other programs often focus on primitive/survival skills, and/or backpacking as the primary activity. 

The groups of students will break for lunch before or during activities. Once activities are finished for the day, groups will eat dinner. To wind down, students do journaling, academic, and/or therapeutic group work. Wilderness programs generally require students to move as a group. This dynamic offers ample opportunity to work on interpersonal challenges that come up.

Play Video

Additionally, this daily routine is in line with most people’s natural circadian rhythm. Students wake up with the sunrise and go to sleep shortly after the sunset. Having this schedule promotes healthy sleep patterns, which go a long way towards better mental health.

How Do Outdoor Therapy Programs Work?

Outdoor therapy programs are a unique and dynamic way to help young adults and adolescents overcome mental health challenges.

6 ways wilderness programs affect change:

  1. Removing young adults and teens from an environment that is not working for them and replacing it with a healthy, safe environment where they can thrive
  2. Providing a holistic therapeutic approach with individual, group, and family therapy
  3. Accurate assessment of therapeutic needs
  4. Development of a thorough treatment plan
  5. Creating situations where students can overcome challenges to promote lasting change
  6. Referrals to further treatment facilities

These factors, combined with the unique pieces of each wilderness program, help create a foundational experience for young people struggling with mental and behavioral health issues.

What Is The Difference Between Wilderness Therapy and Adventure Therapy?

Wilderness therapy consists of traditional therapeutic modalities implemented in a wilderness environment. These programs draw on nature’s ability to provide perspective, natural consequences, and transcendence.

Adventure therapy is a subcategory of wilderness therapy. It draws on the benefits of participation in high adventure activities in addition to traditional wilderness therapy modalities.

Types of Therapeutic Wilderness Programs

When focusing on therapeutic wilderness programs, there are three main models to choose from: 

Nomatic Model – This model involves backpacking or hiking between several campsites. This model is set in the belief that treatment centers can separate teens and young adults from negative environments where they are not thriving. This model is designed to give students time to work through their thoughts and emotions. Physical challenge through backpacking, mixed with programmatic structure, and reliance on natural consequences form the backbone of the nomadic program treatment model.

Basecamp Model – This model is designed for students to stay or return regularly to one area. These programs often have different phases or parts of the program. The base camp model offers a home away from home to students and creates both consistency and variety for students. The variety is created by participating in different activities or traveling to different locations, and the consistency is maintained by returning to a predictable basecamp environment.

Adventure Model – While including aspects of the nomadic and basecamp models, the adventure model uses high adventure activities as the main “agent of change.” Students get the opportunity to participate in high adventure activities like rock climbing, mountain biking, canyoneering, and skiing. These types of programs combine adventure with aspects from the traditional nomadic model like backpacking and hiking. This combination is an effective way to introduce novel environments and activities. Further, it creates new and challenging opportunities for students to practice coping skills and overcome obstacles. This has been shown to have many positive effects, including improved self-efficacy and lasting change.

Who Should Receive Wilderness Therapy?

Who is a Good Fit For Wilderness Therapy?

Teens and young adults who have been diagnosed or who are suspected of having a mental or behavioral health disorder would be a good fit for a wilderness therapy. Teens and young adults who are acting out, struggling socially or academically, failing to meet developmental landmarks, or falling behind their peers are also a good fit for outdoor therapy. Wilderness therapy is an especially good choice if teens or young adults are resistant to mental health treatment. Wilderness therapy generally has positive outcomes for those who were originally treatment-resistant.

Should Your Teen Be Sent To a Wilderness Camp?

If your teen or young adult is struggling, a wilderness camp could be a great option for your child and your family. It is an especially good option for those who have tried other treatments prior and have not found success. A wilderness camp can help the most by providing an accurate assessment of what is going on. It can be powerful to combine actuate assessment, with expert recommendations for continued treatment. Also if your child is currently behind, wilderness camps are an intensive therapeutic intervention that can help them catch up.

Should You Pull Your Child Out of School For Wilderness Therapy?

Many wilderness therapy programs offer some high school credit to students while they attend the program. These credits can often be transferred to any accredited school. For example, Aspiro Adventure offers high school credit. Therapists also observe how a student learns and processes information. This information is included in their overall clinical assessment. The majority of wilderness therapy students are struggling academically. Programs can give recommendations to lead them to an educational environment where they can succeed.

Challenges That Wilderness Therapy is Successful in Treating

Wilderness therapy is successful in treating many different mental and behavioral health disorders that affect teens and young adults. Wilderness programs are designed to provide individualized care tailored to each person’s unique situation and needs. Often, programs can place students in groups with peers who are struggling with similar issues. The feeling that your child is not alone in their struggles is healing in and of itself.

Below are some common diagnoses of people who seek wilderness treatment:

Benefits of Wilderness Treatment

How Can An Outdoor Wilderness Program Help Your Troubled Teen Or Young Adult?

Teens and young adults are in a critical stage of their development. They are putting together the pieces of who they are and who they want to become. Developing a strong identity at this age is critical to future success. Research has shown that wilderness programs aid in the development of self-identity in six steps. These include:

  • new experiences
  • mental/physical challenges
  • supportive relationships
  • increased self-confidence
  • new self-perception

When wilderness therapy students begin to experience these things, they start to forge a positive self-identity. 

Students start to replace negative coping strategies with positive ones. They learn how their negative coping skills are affecting them and those that are around them. Finally, they learn how positive coping skills can change their lives for the better.

With this comes an improvement in social and emotional learning. When students can “hit the pause button” on life, they can listen to honest feedback about their behaviors. They can put together how they affect people they love and learn what has been holding them back from fostering positive relationships.

Many wilderness programs include a family therapy component. Families start to learn their role in negative communication cycles. They can start to learn and practice improved communication. This leads to improved family cohesiveness and better outcomes for your child.

Many studies have shown that wilderness camps increase in self-esteem and self-efficacy in participants. Many young adults and troubled teens struggle with finding confidence in themselves, leading some to spiral academically and socially. In wilderness programs, participants achieve goals they never thought to be possible, like getting to the top of a rock wall or summiting a mountain. Whatever it is, they learn that they are capable and worthy of success.

Why Choose Wilderness Treatment Over Other Programs?

Wilderness treatment centers specialize in working with teens and young adults. They are experts in the area of mental and behavioral health. They often have clients who have tried many different types of treatment before without success. This can be because many treatment programs are not designed for this age group. Further, many programs are ill-equipped to handle treatment-resistant students. Wilderness treatment centers specialize in this area, as well.

How Effective is Wilderness Treatment?

Do Wilderness Programs For Teens Really Work?

Wilderness programs provide a transformative experience for young adults and teens. They offer a unique holistic approach to mental health care. This approach is thinking outside the box when it comes to reaching this population. For most teens, it is exactly what they need. Wilderness treatment is flexible and dynamic enough to address their unique struggles. Wilderness programs also address teen’s and young adults’ need to feel comradery with like-minded people. For teens struggling beyond the usual bumps in the road, wilderness therapy is likely just the thing that they need to turn things around.

Play Video

Does Science Support The 'Wilderness' in Wilderness Therapy?

The science does support that wilderness therapy is an effective treatment for most people who complete a program. A large study was done by The Outdoor Behavioral Health Council that followed participants who had completed wilderness programs 2-3 years prior.

Here are some of their results:

  • 83% were doing better, and 58% were doing well or very well. 17% were still “struggling.”
  • 81% rated outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment as effective.

More research is ongoing as more people strive to quantify the positive results that others are experiencing from wilderness programs. In recent years there has also been an interest in studying the effectiveness of wilderness adventure therapy. This form of treatment was pioneered by Aspiro and has been transformative in the field of mental health.

Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy

Aspiro Wilderness Therapy is a company that stands out among wilderness programs. They pioneered and perfected the Wilderness Adventure Therapy model. At Aspiro, teens and young adults participate in a variety of high adventure activities. These include mountain biking, skiing, canyoneering, backpacking, and rock climbing. All of these activities are done in novel environments. As novel environments and activities are introduced, students have the opportunity to overcome challenges.

Aspiro’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various emotional, behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will help develop the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

About the Author

The Life-changing Power of Adventure Therapy

The life-changing power of adventure therapy | Aspiro

Here at Aspiro, we have a unique adventure therapy program model. This article explains how adventure activities at Aspiro contribute to our students’ growth and how we use each activity as a catalyst for lasting change.

At Aspiro, we go beyond traditional therapy and incorporate adventure into the therapeutic model. Adventure is healing because it combines the power of nature with the tenacity of one’s own will to achieve success. Without challenge, little growth happens. Adventure is a unique and dynamic way to break through boundaries and create challenges.

What is Adventure Therapy?

Adventure therapy is a type of experiential therapy that uses challenging adventure activities to aid the therapeutic healing process. Adventure therapy helps promote healthy identity development, self-efficacy, grit, and a growth mindset.

At an adventure therapy program, students get the opportunity to engage in various new activities and experience several novel environments during their stay. Adventure therapy activities at Aspiro are facilitated in an intentionally therapeutic manner. Students are doing more than just rock climbing or skiing. They learn to listen, keep themselves safe, learn emotional regulation skills, and develop grit as they push themselves to overcome challenging tasks. The challenges students face through Aspiro’s adventure programming are designed to forge an identity, build resiliency, and improve self-efficacy.

A unique element to Aspiro’s outdoor adventure therapy model is that students do not just participate in the activity; they learn how to do it themselves. This is called experiential learning and has proven effective with troubled youth. Aspiro students are not just taken rock climbing; they are learning all parts of how to rock climb.

Other key elements unique to Aspiro is that field guides have been trained to facilitate adventure themselves. The same guides that live with students all week, building rapport and making connections, are then able to instruct students during their adventure activities.

Adventure therapy is a type of experiential learning or experiential education?
Created by AEE.org

To ensure safety, our field guides are trained to the standards set by the leading professional organization related to each activity. Additionally, all of our policies are overseen by the Association of Experiential Education (AEE), which ensures that Aspiro meets the highest standards for teaching adventure activities safely and effectively.

Therapeutic Benefits of Adventure

Each student comes to Aspiro with their own story and challenges. While treatment plans are unique to each student, adventure is a part of all of them.

When we include adventure as part of a wilderness treatment plan, we see several benefits:

  • A decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Increased self-efficacy
  • Improved executive functioning
  • Improved interpersonal skills
  • Identity development
  • Improved grit
  • Trauma resilience
  • Learning to self-advocate for needs
  • Accurate clinical assessments

While each student comes with their own story, the adventure therapy model is versatile enough to meet each student at their level.

Aspiro students go through a process of learning, facing challenges, failing, getting back up, and eventually succeeding. This process is then combined with an advanced clinical approach. The combination has proved to be highly effective at addressing a variety of mental and behavioral health issues.

Foundational Principles Behind Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy is extremely effective at helping clients develop these foundational psychological principles.

Identity Development

Identity refers to one’s sense of as an individual and how they define themselves in terms of values, beliefs, and role in the world. Self-identity in adolescence forms the basis of our self-esteem later in life.



Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our ability to succeed in a particular situation, specifically our ability to meet the challenges ahead of us and complete a task successfully. Self-efficacy plays a role in not only how we feel about ourselves, but whether or not we successfully achieve our goals in life.


Grit is “the combination of perseverance and passion toward long-term goals.” Grit is when you’re able to harness the power of passion and turn it into resolve, persistence, stamina, and tenacity, working toward goals that endure over time. In short, grit is: consistent. hard. work.

Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is the underlying belief people have about learning and intelligence. When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.

A Look at How Individual Adventure Activities Help the Healing Process

Aspiro is unique because it offers a variety of high adventure activities, and a variety of locations to practice those activities. All the adventure activities are facilitated by experienced field guides. This section will give an overview of some of Aspiro’s adventure activities and their therapeutic relevance.

Aspiro Activities Rock Climbing icon

Rock Climbing – Climbing puts students into a place where they need to confront their fears, physical challenges, lack of confidence, and many other obstacles to success. They face a seemingly insurmountable wall, and through thorough planning, coaching, effort, and practice, they reach new heights. This is a powerful metaphor for them to generalize to the rest of their life.

Adventure Therapy Activities: Alpine Skiing

Skiing – Skiing challenges students to think less and be in the moment. Students learn about “flow theory” when they enter a mental state where they react to their changing world without time for anxiety or fear. This natural high is both a healthy coping mechanism and a counter to anxious thoughts.

Adventure Therapy Activities - Canyoneering

Canyoneering – Success in canyoneering is dependent upon teamwork. Team-building and creative problem-solving are critical skills taught to students while canyoneering. Taking the first step in treatment is always the hardest, and stepping into a rappel is an effective way to learn to control one’s fear and trust in oneself.

Adventure Therapy Activities - Mountain Biking

Mountain Biking – Mountain biking challenges students to assess risk accurately and pushes them to react to challenges as they approach. Students may find that they do not have the time to think about what the next obstacle in the trail is, and instead, trust their instincts and training. Mountain biking builds trust in themselves and allows them to learn or practice being in the moment.

Adventure Therapy Activities - Backpacking

Backpacking/Hiking/Navigation – Backpacking is a fundamental outdoor activity at Aspiro. It teaches grit and can be used as a platform to build a group culture. Aspiro students can improve their interpersonal and social skills as they experience what it is like to be a part of a group that works together to complete a common goal like reaching the top of a 10,000 ft peak.

Adventure Activities Leadership Initiatives

Challenge Course – Aspiro’s on-site challenge course is a low ropes course that strengthens group cohesion and teaches social-pragmatic skills. Student groups work together through a series of challenging tasks. All tasks require effective communication, leadership, listening, and cooperation to overcome. Through failure, coaching, and perseverance, students learn what it takes to be a team player.

A Look at How Adventure Therapy Helps Common Mental Health Struggles

Adventure therapy is highly versatile in treating a variety of mental and behavioral health diagnoses. This unique approach is useful in different ways for people struggling with different challenges.

Click on each subject below to read about how adventure therapy helps with common struggles that teens and young adults face.

For students struggling with anxiety and depression, adventure can be an essential avenue for treatment in part due to the benefits of physical activity on their mood.  For people struggling with depression and anxiety, bringing exercise into their routine has been shown to create better treatment outcomes and improve physical health. At Aspiro, students develop good habits surrounding the daily exercise routine as they learn how to do a variety of adventure activities.

Aspiro students walk away with the skills to continue any of the activities in their post-treatment lives. They will also be able to experience the benefits of physical activity on their mood.

Students struggling with anxiety and depression show particularly good treatment outcomes when incorporating adventure activities that trigger flow theory concepts. Mountain biking and skiing meet many of the requirements to regularly trigger a mental “flow” state where students learn to eliminate the thought cycle between sensory input and action. They read and react to the terrain in front of them without worrying about possible outcomes. This is nearly the opposite of anxiety. Mountain biking can create a borderline euphoric experience that is highly effective at treating depression and anxiety.

Further, overcoming seemingly impossible challenges like climbing a rock wall or rappelling off a cliff helps these students build self-efficacy. Increasing self-efficacy is one of the building blocks that can contribute to teens and young adults overcoming anxiety and depression.

Wilderness adventure therapy is well suited to address poor self-esteem/self-efficacy. For a variety of reasons, youth often struggle to see themselves in a positive light. They may have developed self-defeatist internal narratives or learned to dislike themselves.  They may have learned an attitude of helplessness in life and expect to fail.

Wilderness adventure therapy has consistently shown to improve self-efficacy through a process by which youth are exposed to seemingly impossible challenges, in novel environments, and through guidance, hard work, and grit, they can find success. This process is backed up by several studies. Including one that showed statistically significant positive outcomes over 3.5 times greater than alternative therapy methods in the area of self-concept. Another study showed that improvement in self-efficacy translated from the outdoors to academics.

This suggests that wilderness adventure therapy’s outcomes are generalizable to other aspects of life. A foundational work on self-efficacy indicates that efficacy beliefs are the best predictor of future performance; therefore, by addressing these issues through wilderness adventure therapy, one can effectively improve the chances of future success.

Relational conflict can take many forms, but one of the most common is conflict within the family. Family units are the most important structures for youth as they develop into adults. Maintaining positive and healthy relationships within a family unit, while at times challenging, is critical to overall healthy development. When relationships are unhealthy, it may be time to seek help.

Aspiro addresses relational and family conflict through the adventure therapy model. Recent research has shown that adventure therapy has a positive effect on outcomes for overall family development. These positive effects were greater than other alternative therapies. Clinicians at Aspiro take a whole family approach and try to facilitate healing on behalf of students, parents, and other family members.

Identity development is a crucial step for youth and is tied closely to ideas of self-concept and social development. Developing a clear concept of who you are, your values, and where you fit into the social world is central to achieving success and happiness. Many young people find that they struggle to define these areas and may fall behind in terms of identity development.

In a recent study, adventure therapy was shown to have significant positive effect outcomes on factors that contribute to identity development. These include; social development, self-concept, and morality & spirituality. Further, these positive effects were more significant than non-adventure-based therapies. Finally, these effects show no post-treatment regression.

This study attributes the lasting positive change effects to the adventure therapy model. It also singles out experiential education’s “active and direct use of client participation and responsibility” as a critical treatment element. The study indicates that key programmatic elements for adventure therapy included

  • the presence of, and interaction with nature,
  • use of perceived risk to heighten arousal and to create eustress (positive response to stress)
  • meaningful engagement in adventure experiences
  • solution-based focus on positive change (present and future functional behavior)
  • ethic of care and support holistic process and effect on participants.

Understanding how wilderness adventure therapy can apply as a treatment for school failure means looking beyond the academic failures and delving into the reason behind them. School failure can be a symptom of a variety of issues, from anxiety to depression to trauma.

While each case of school failure is unique, wilderness adventure therapy has shown to be an effective treatment. In a large study, adventure therapy had a statistically significant positive impact on school failure. Further, the impact was over four times greater than that of alternative, non-adventure model therapy. School failure can be a significant barrier to future success, and the adventure therapy model has shown to be a highly effective treatment.

The adventure therapy model at Aspiro is grounded in creating seemingly impossible challenges, and guiding students through the difficult, but rewarding process of overcoming those challenges. Studies have shown that this process has led to “large to very large, statistically significant improvements in behavioral and emotional functioning.” Behavioral issues can vary widely. However, the adventure therapy approach appears to be versatile in meeting each student where they are at.

All of the adventure activities at Aspiro are conducted in a group setting including group therapy. They all require cooperation, communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution. These are all skills that many of our neurodiverse students are working on while at Aspiro.

Whether a student is struggling with symptoms associated with being on the autism spectrum, or from another neurodevelopmental disorder like a non-verbal learning disorder, Aspiro can provide individualized treatment plans to meet them where they are at. The adventure therapy setting creates authentic social interactions that can be tailored by staff to meet the group’s needs and allows for processing and debriefing of behaviors. Karoff et al. breaks down the reasons that adventure therapy is effective for youth on the autism spectrum or with other neurodevelopmental disorders into three elements:

  • Adventure therapy is inherently unpredictable. This provides ASD youth with frequent opportunities to engage with peers in an authentic, uncontrived way. They can engage with peers in the way while in an environment of support and trust.
  • Adventure therapy is a group-driven process that is, by nature, flexible and adaptable to the specific needs of the group and individuals within it.
  • Adventure therapy is a here-and-now approach that creates space for youth to cognitively process how behaviors and feelings experienced in the moment relate to participants’ lives beyond the treatment setting.

Karoff et al. sum up the value of Adventure Therapy in treatment for those on the autism spectrum writing, “The power of Adventure Therapy lies in experiencing real behaviors, in real-time, and reflecting on how they are either helpful or limiting to a participant’s life, and then learning new ways of behaving, thinking or feeling, and providing a space to practice those new behaviors before trying them out in the real world.”

Eating disorders present unique clinical challenges and are often difficult to manage in the home. While the presentation of eating disorders can vary, a common thread is often an issue with body image.

Wilderness adventure therapy can be an effective treatment option for eating disorders with proper planning and supervision of eating habits to address and mitigate health concerns. A research journal article (focusing on women) describes the wilderness treatment process as an opportunity to reconnect with one’s physical body.

The author emphasizes that “the wilderness experience alone is not sufficient to create a major transformation. Other critical elements are the therapeutic effect of the group process and risk-taking activities, such as hiking and team-building exercises, which contribute to breaking down the stereotypes concerning women and their bodies.” 

Eating disorders present unique treatment and health challenges, but evidence supports that wilderness adventure therapy is an effective therapeutic intervention for various presentations.

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are known to cause behavioral, cognitive, and executive functioning impairments. Cognitive rehabilitation for TBIs traditionally consists of a context-sensitive method like the Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) approach.

Context-sensitive approaches aim to enhance the quality of life and minimize problem behaviors by expanding the patient’s range of behaviors. These approaches emphasize that cognitive rehabilitation must take place in natural environments. Wilderness adventure therapy can effectively facilitate cognitive rehabilitation by allowing students to practice behavior skills in novel environments.

One study on treating TBIs with a wilderness adventure therapy model indicates that “wilderness adventure therapy (WAT) relies on teaching through experience in natural contexts and, consequently, can also be considered a contextualized intervention.”

The critical elements of wilderness adventure therapy that make it an excellent option for the treatment of TBIs are:

  • That the client becomes a participant rather than a spectator in therapy.
  • Therapeutic activities require client motivation in the form of energy, involvement, and responsibility.
  • Therapeutic activities are real and meaningful in terms of natural consequences to the client.
  • Reflection is a critical element of the therapeutic process.
  • Functional change must have present as well as future relevance for clients and their society

Wilderness adventure therapy is, therefore, able to leverage its fundamental components in a way that makes it an excellent option for those looking for a contextualized intervention based in cognitive rehabilitation for traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that can significantly impact youth’s lives. ADHD is often associated with academic issues and school failure, relational issues, and behavioral issues. Evidence has shown that wilderness adventure therapy is both an effective treatment for ADHD, and for many of its associated issues.

A study assessing nature interactions and ADHD found that 7 out of 13 high-quality studies identified a significant relationship between increased nature interactions and decreased ADHD symptoms. Further, the study found that increased accessibility to nature showed significant positive findings in six out of nine cases and that increased exposure to nature showed significant positive findings in seven out of nine cases.

While this study looked at the overall efficacy of including nature in treatment for ADHD, other studies look more closely at some of the issues associated with ADHD and treating them with experiential therapy. One of these studies found that adventure therapy had significant positive outcomes on academics, behaviors, and social development. It is, therefore, possible to address both ADHD directly, and many associated issues in a wilderness adventure therapy model.

When someone experiences trauma, they can get stuck in what is called a heightened or arousal state. They start to feel a heightened state of fear similar to that that was felt at the time of the initial trauma. Many people hold on to that state of fear and do not have a chance to finish the arousal cycle. This is supposed to be four stages ending in a stage where they feel safe again.

For those who get stuck in this fear stage, high adventure activities can be an effective treatment. They can mimic feelings of fear and anxiety, by introducing perceived risk, and then help students complete the last phase of that cycle to where they feel safe. Any adventure activity that provokes this fear response, including rock climbing, skiing, canyoneering and mountain biking, is particularly useful in treating trauma.

One study on treatment of posttraumatic chronic stress disorder found that Nature Adventure Rehabilitation (NAR), a component of wilderness adventure therapy, had positive impacts on:

  • perceived control over illness (PCI)
  • emotional and social quality of life
  • hope
  • and functioning

Further, the study indicated that NAR “seems to work through a process of behavioral activation, desensitization, gradual exposure to anxiety evoking situations, and gaining control over symptomatology.” By engaging outdoor therapy activities, students who have experienced trauma can learn to control their lives.

Adventure therapy is an excellent tool for addiction treatment because it provides healthy, non-substance, natural high for the student. These are skills that the student can take with them into their post-treatment life. It is a healthy alternative to substance seeking behaviors and often lets them access a new network of friends who are also participating in the adventure activity. This can draw them away from negative influences that may encourage substance abuse relapse and assist in addiction recovery.

Adventure therapy has proven effective in treating youth with addictions. This is particularly effective in raising awareness of strengths, allowing for a healthy dialogue between students struggling with similar issues, promoting positive family relationships, and increasing resilience related to maintaining sobriety.

Wilderness therapy has proven highly effective in treating oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), It provides space separation to members of the family unit, slowing down the parent-child communication process, and makes room for relationship resolutions and restoration. Further, this research has shown that in strong-willed adolescent males, especially those with co-occurring ADHD, ODD can emerge in an environment where parents are unable to hold firm boundaries or set clear expectations. At Aspiro guides can provide those clear instructions, set achievable goals, and allow natural consequences to take effect. This, combined with the other factors mentioned above, contributes to the efficacy of wilderness therapy for youth struggling with oppositional and defiant issues.


Aspiro’s adventure model effectively addresses a variety of mental and behavioral health issues with a particular emphasis on increasing levels of self-efficacy, identity development, resilience, and grit. By achieving a seemingly impossible goal, students learn to push themselves to new highs. If you can climb a mountain, what challenges can’t you overcome?

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

Play Video

Aspiro’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

At Aspiro Adventure, we focus on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various emotional, behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

About the Author

Wilderness Programs For At-Risk Youth

wilderness programs for at-risk youth - Aspiro Wilderness Therapy

This article will address factors that contribute to a youth being at-risk, common behaviors of at-risk youth, and the warning signs that your teen needs professional help. We will then take a look at how wilderness therapy addresses various problems at-risk youth face and how wilderness therapy can also help their families.

This article is written for at-risk youth, their parents or caregivers, counselors, and anyone seeking help for their youth exhibiting negative behaviors that will affect their long-term path to a successful adult life.

What is an At-Risk Youth?

It can be hard to imagine defining your child as being “at-risk.” As a parent or guardian, you have done your best. You have given your child love and support. You have tried to set a good example, and you want what is best for your child. It is often easy to ignore the signs that your child may need help.

At-risk youth definition: adolescents who are less likely to transition successfully into adulthood and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Experts say that youth today face more severe challenges than ever before, with school violence, deterioration of structure in families, substance abuse, electronic addiction, and pressure from the media. Teens who have trouble adapting and overcoming these stressors can turn to destructive or unhealthy behaviors. The result of unhealthy behaviors can be detrimental to their futures. These behaviors can derail a once aspiring young person and send them down a risky path.

It can be challenging for parents who have an at-risk youth in their home. There can be more conflict that interrupts the family routine. This conflict often causes a constant feeling of walking on eggshells. Parents do anything to avoid sparking another argument with their struggling teen. Parents often wait to address these issues until things progress to a boiling point. But parents don’t have to wait until the situation is out of control. With proper interventions and treatment, there is hope. Your home can once again become a happy place, filled with trust and healthy relationships. Credible treatment options like wilderness therapy incorporate several methods to help at-risk youth. You can find peace in your family by helping your child increase their self-efficacy and better understand themselves. These increases translate positively into their home life and give you peace of mind as a parent. It helps to know that you did everything that you could to keep your child safe and their future bright.

Common Behaviors of At-Risk Youth

If your child’s behavior takes a negative turn, it may be a sign that something bigger is going on.

Every teenager is different, but there are some delinquent behaviors that parents and educators can use as indicators. Frequent absences from school, leading to suspension or expulsion, history of abuse or trauma, and drug use are some examples of apparent signs. Other common behaviors are not as easy to identify, yet they are just as prevalent. It can be critical to identify that your child needs help. Underdeveloped reading skills, isolating behaviors, and lying to parents are some examples.

What is essential to recognize is that some at-risk youth internalize their emotions while others express their feelings externally. Those who internalize emotions often have negative self-talk, low self-esteem, and a distorted view of themselves. It can be challenging for parents to watch their child suffer in this way. It can seem that no matter how many positive things you say to them, they cannot be happy with themselves.

On the other hand, some troubled teens express their feelings externally. These children often have frequent outbursts of anger towards family members. They can become resistant to anything that a parent suggests. This resistance can leave the parent feeling helpless. Both internal and external expressions of dysregulated emotions are warning signs for parents. They could be an indication to seek professional help. 

20 Signs Your At-Risk Youth Needs Help

If your teen exhibits more than 4 of the following, they could be at risk for some of the outcomes previously discussed. These can be detrimental to at-risk teens and their long-term success and health.

Common External Behavior Problems of At-Risk Teens:

  • Experimenting with substances or having a substance abuse problem.
  • Being verbally abusive to those around him or her
  • Bad peer group association
  • A struggle with basic rules and expectations 
  • Disrupted school year: school suspension, expulsion, truancy or drop in grades
  • Problems with the law, sometimes requiring court intervention
  • A parent is ‘walking on eggshells’ when speaking with the youth to avoid conflict
  • Sexual promiscuity and/or risky sexual behaviors 
  • Manipulative or deceitful behavior
  • Stealing from family or others
  • Lying about their whereabouts or activities

Common Internal Struggles of At-Risk Teens:

  • Difficulty motivating the youth to do household chores and homework
  • Contemplating dropping out of high school
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Loss of interest in former hobbies, activities, or friendships
  • Depression or withdrawal from others
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Change in personal hygiene or appearance
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Severe contempt for self or others
  • Struggle with a mental illness

Factors Contributing to a Youth At-Risk

Teens can find themselves in the at-risk youth category due to a variety of factors, including:

  • An underlying mental health diagnosis 
  • Family conflict or stress  
  • Community factors 

Examining the contributing factors to youth being at-risk can help to determine the best course of action for you as parents.

Personal Factors Contributing to an At-Risk Youth

Individual diagnoses can contribute to youth being at-risk. A teen diagnosed with depression may be more at risk for suicidal thoughts. Similarly, a teen diagnosed with a personality or mood disorder may be more at risk for verbal or physical outbursts. A recent trauma a teen may have experienced, such as the death of a loved one or a disruptive life event may also be a contributing factor. It is also essential to know that teens can find themselves at-risk regardless of their background. Sex, race, religion, education, economic status, gender identity, and sexual orientation do not exclude any teen from being at-risk.

Family Risk Factors Contributing to an At-Risk Youth

Teens can also be at-risk because of family risk factors outside of their control. These sometimes include divorce, financial hardships, family dysfunction, and parents who struggle with mental health conditions. These factors can put undue pressures on developing teens and can contribute to problematic behaviors

Community Risk Factors Contributing to an At-Risk Youth

Teens can be at-risk on a community level for many reasons. When they fall in with the wrong friend group, they experience bullying, exposed to pressures of social media, and succumb to peer pressure. Youth at-risk is becoming an increasing problem in the United States. It can be hard for parents to know when it is time to seek counseling and professional help for your at-risk teen. Treatment programs vary in their measurement of what precisely an at-risk youth is. If your teen exhibits the above behaviors, they could be at risk for some of the outcomes previously discussed. These can be detrimental to their long-term health and success. The positive results of youth empowerment programs are improved social skills, improved behavior, increased academic achievement, increased self-esteem, and increased self-efficacy.

Help for Families With At-Risk Youth

It can be challenging for parents who have an at-risk youth in their home. There is almost always an increase in conflict. This conflict interrupts the family routine and harmony. It can be uncomfortable for parents when they try to avoid sparking an argument with their struggling teen.

Living in such an environment is not sustainable, nor is it healthy for anyone involved. This problem should be addressed sooner rather than later. With proper intervention and treatment, there is hope. Your home can once again become a happy place. It can be filled with trust and healthy relationships. Credible treatment options, such as wilderness therapy, incorporate several methods to help your at-risk youth strengthen their self-efficacy and understanding of themselves. These results translate positively into their home life and also to your peace of mind.

Wilderness Programs For Troubled Youth

Wilderness therapy addresses many of the behavioral outcomes present in at-risk youth. Furthermore, wilderness therapy is effective at getting to the root cause of problem behaviors, rather than just treating symptoms. Wilderness therapy can increase self-efficacy, self-esteem, and problem-solving skills. Students in wilderness therapy programs often report decreased levels of depression and anxiety.

Wilderness Therapy Promotes Self-Efficacy and Builds Confidence in At-Risk Youth

Building Self-Efficacy: Some credible wilderness treatment programs incorporate high adventure activities and therapy in a wilderness setting. By including high adventure activities programs aim to create challenging scenarios ideal for youth development. In these scenarios, students have the opportunity to learn skills and overcome seemingly impossible challenges. While engaging in these various physical activities, the trained staff give students positive verbal encouragement and feedback, which also helps to increase their personal efficacy. 

This process has proven highly effective at building self-efficacy.  Self-efficacy, as defined by Bandura, is “people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute a course of action required to attain designated types of performances” (Bandura, 1986, p. 391). Research has shown that changing one’s belief in oneself is necessary for changing behavior on a long-term basis. This is different than just building confidence. Self-efficacy is about knowing one’s ability to overcome challenges. This is based on past performance. It is more successful in focusing on the intrinsic motivation to change. Rather than just focusing on improving the behaviors themselves. 

High self-efficacy can contribute to a positive perception of one’s actions. This positivity increases motivation to persist through adversity. This increase in motivation is a positive change for a youth who is at risk. Changing someone’s perceptions of their efficacy is the most effective. It can transform at-risk youth into a thriving adolescent or young adult. 

Let’s take a moment to understand where personal efficacy is derived from:

  • Past performance
  • Perceptions of one’s ability or others with similar abilities
  • Verbal feedback
  • The person’s physical state while performing the task 

Wilderness therapy incorporates these four factors in programming and treatment models. These four factors create a unique environment that builds self-efficacy. At-risk youth start to believe in their ability to be successful. As this belief grows, the negative behaviors that were seen in the home environment begin to diminish.

Building Confidence: Confidence is a derivative measure rooted in self-efficacy. A credible wilderness program leverage the past performance factor mentioned above to work towards a stable confidence level in students. This increased confidence happens when someone proves to themselves that they can overcome obstacles. Research shows that this newfound confidence translates beyond the wilderness setting to emotional, behavioral, and academic success. They can take pride in who they are and what they can accomplish. Processing and debriefing are tools often used to help youth internalize the wilderness experience. Program facilitators lead discussions that allow students to acknowledge their progress. Students then relate these experiences to their own therapeutic goals.

Wilderness Therapy Provides a Novel and Therapeutic Environment for At-Risk Youth

A credible wilderness therapy program will provide unique opportunities for personal growth through mental health treatment. They do this while incorporating the healing effects of the outdoors. Being away from the distractions that are present in a typical adolescent and young adult life is an ideal environment, where they can realize their true potential. Research shows that merely spending time outside can improve both physical and mental health. Wilderness therapy is not just playing outdoors, nor is it a ‘boot camp.‘ Instead, therapists assess each student’s varying needs. With this information, they can direct each step in their care. Therapists create a unique treatment plan for each student. This treatment plan is implemented throughout the process. 

Credible wilderness therapy programs take a whole-person approach towards treatment. For example, at Aspiro, instead of focusing on a single problem like school failure, therapists strive to build a relationship with each client. They then can address the root causes of behaviors rather than just the symptoms.

A credible youth program will use a variety of methods to help at-risk teens have a successful future. Aspiro, for example, uses a 

  • Research-based and results-driven model
  • Individual and group therapy
  • High adventure therapy
  • Individualized treatment plans
  • Relational approach 
  • Positive psychology modalities
  • Family systems therapy
  • In-depth assessment tools
  • Transitional support/ long-term recommendations

All of these methods have been shown to increase success for those people who were once at-risk youth. Overall, wilderness therapy programs increase the chances of long-term success for at-risk youth. 

Play Video

Wilderness Adventure Therapy Can Help Your Family Emerge Better Than Before

Wilderness therapy can help not only the young man or woman but also their families. Research shows that parent-adolescent conflict correlates with some at-risk behaviors. Therefore, the relationship between the parent and youth is an essential factor in preventing at-risk behaviors, along with sustaining healthy patterns once achieved. A family assessment and integrated family therapy are critical to the success of any credible wilderness camp.

Wilderness Therapy Addresses Family Dynamics and Patterns

Some wilderness therapy programs incorporate families into the treatment process. Working with parents and other family members can set the youth up to succeed better once they return home from treatment. Programs like Aspiro invite parents to multi-day family workshops. Families typically come after the teen has completed a significant portion of the program. This way, they can see the progress the youth has already made. Parents and teens find new ways to succeed in their relationships and as individuals during treatment. The parent workshop includes several sections. One of those sections teaches parents to limit conflict between themselves and their teens. Less friction leads to a more harmonious home. In addition to the family workshop, parents engage in family systems therapy weekly at Aspiro. Addressing the whole family system is seen as critical to the overall treatment plan for the at-risk youth.

Wilderness Therapy Leads To Healthier Families

When the parent-youth relationship deteriorates, at-risk behaviors often follow. As a way to achieve healthier patterns within the home, wilderness therapy works with the whole family system. Family units work with each other to overcome the toxicity that often exists in the house before treatment. All members of the family are guided through this process by a clinician. Once everyone can take a step back and get themselves to a healthier place there is less conflict within the parent-child relationship. As the relationship with a child’s parent improves, values become more aligned. Often this equates to fewer arguments and more communication, in addition to an improved quality of life. These changes can make all the difference.

A recent study found that youth returning from wilderness therapy programs reported significant improvements in their mood and behavior. These once struggling youth have higher levels of self-efficacy, improved confidence, and in turn, improved relationships with their families.


A teen can be at-risk for a variety of reasons. However, regardless of the cause or individual circumstance, it is always extremely heartbreaking and challenging for parents to have an at-risk teen in their family. As a result, many parents feel overwhelmed about how they can best help their teens. However, the road to recovery for your loved one begins with identifying your ‘at-risk’ teen, then seeking out the help they need. 

Credible wilderness therapy can provide you with peace of mind. Knowing your teen will be on a better path to health and long-term success. They achieve this by increasing at-risk youth’s self-efficacy and confidence. They can help him, or her, overcome the negative aspects of their life that have dragged them down. 

With proper support and care, your teen and your family can emerge happier and healthier than ever before.

About Aspiro Wilderness Therapy Program

Play Video

Aspiro Adventure’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their parents through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

About the Author

Wilderness Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues

Overcoming body image issues in a Wilderness Therapy Program | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

I became passionate about treating eating disorders and body image disorders almost 15 years ago while working in residential treatment. It’s not an easy area of practice because progress can be slow and sometimes almost imperceptible. Studies show that it takes an average of 7 years to fully recover from an eating disorder. But over long periods of time, I watched men and women emerge from the fog of addiction and reclaim their lives. That work, for me, is rewarding.

As you can imagine, after 15 years, I had strong opinions about the best path to recovery, the best mode of therapy, and had my preferred treatment methods for helping people struggling with eating disorders. A few years ago, wilderness therapy was not one of the types of treatment on my radar to use with this population.

Fast forward to the present moment: my perspective has changed. I have learned much more about how wilderness therapy is precisely the tool that many of my clients have needed to overcome some major hurdles in their fight for recovery.

Read more

Wilderness Therapy in Winter: Staying Safe While Healing & Having Fun

Wilderness Therapy in Winter | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Wilderness therapy in winter offers therapeutic value and unique opportunities for growth, especially at Aspiro. Not only is winter in Utah incredibly beautiful with the views of snow-capped landscapes, but a Utah winter also provides students with diverse environments and allows them to accomplish things they never thought possible. Living in the winter elements provides students with a boost of confidence, greater resilience, and an increase in self-efficacy. Research indicates these qualities translate into a strong belief in the ability to do hard things. Once a student moves on to the next step following Aspiro, this belief stays with them; whether it be the confidence to tackle an algebra class, to communicate with a peer, or to be emotionally open and vulnerable with a parent.

Aspiro’s priority is ensuring the safety of students throughout the year, and especially during the winter months. Maintaining the highest standards of risk management is crucial to the Aspiro team. There are many protocols in place that apply to different aspects of the program. Below are some areas where there is an additional focus in the winter months.


During every season, a variety of seasonally appropriate gear is provided to ensure comfort and safety. In the winter:

  • thick, warm coats are given out,
  • an addition to wool socks,
  • 2 pair of gloves,
  • a warm winter hat,
  • layers of thermal underwear,
  • fleece layers,
  • and waterproof layers.

Students also have insulated winter hiking boots and over-boots.

Students are given a -20-degree sleeping bag plus two insulated sleeping pads in order to protect them from feeling cold at night. The specialized gear, a student’s body heat, and the heat from the others in the shelter provide a cozy place to sleep. Also, students spend a few hours each week at the field office near Aspiro’s base camp, where they take warm showers and get freshly laundered clothes for the new week, ensuring they have clean and dry clothes available. All gear is regularly assessed and replaced or repaired as needed, in order to ensure that all students are comfortable and warm.

In addition, students are taught to properly care for and pack their gear so it stays dry, as well as how to wear the right layers in the correct order, to ensure warmth. Field staff teach the students to first use a wicking layer next to their skin to help move moisture away from their bodies. Second, they put on on an insulating layer to keep that heat trapped in, and lastly, they have a waterproof layer to keep out moisture and wind. It’s a science!

Staying Warm When the Weather is Cold

In addition to quality clothing and gear, another utilized practice for staying warm is engaging in warm-up exercises first thing in the morning, throughout the day, and before bed, in order to keep blood circulating and the body’s core temperature high. Being proactive and getting moving is the best way to stay warm.

To supplement physical movement and activity for warmth, each student and staff member has a stove that heats water efficiently. They then put this hot water in water bottles and keep them next to their bodies under their layers of clothing, or in their sleeping bags at night. This hot water, which can be made quickly and often, is also used for herbal tea and to make warm meals.

Students also utilize fires and wood burning stoves to stay warm. Army grade tents are available while at base camp, and each of these has a wood burning stove inside. Students spend time in these tents doing activities, eating meals, participating in therapy, group activities, and receiving safety checks. Each tent is equipped with thermometers in order to monitor the temperature, as well as carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors.

Versatility in the Location of Programming

One of the most unique aspects of Aspiro is the ability to utilize many environments throughout the state of Utah, ranging from the mountains in the North to the warm desert climate down South. Taking into account the therapeutic objectives for each group, as well as weather conditions, Aspiro has the flexibility to send students on various adventure itineraries throughout the state of Utah. These can range from mountain biking on the red rock terrain in the warmth of the St. George desert, to skiing in the fresh snow up in the mountains of Sundance, Utah.

During the winter month’s Aspiro dedicates considerable time to warmer itineraries down South such as mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, and canyoneering. Although Aspiro often utilizes the warmer desert climate during the winter, there is great therapeutic value in the cold weather adventure itineraries as well. These winter itineraries create a great sense of confidence as students learn to care for themselves in more difficult conditions, learn to plan ahead and ensure they are prepared, recognize they have the tools and equipment to stay warm and safe and gain confidence from their ability to manage the winter elements. Another important part of wilderness therapy in winter is learning to reframe snow and winter as an opportunity for peace, enjoyment, and learning. Students often report that some of the winter adventure itineraries are their favorites.

Cold Weather Adventure Itineraries

Winter presents its own beautiful twist on the scenery and allows students to access incredible places in Utah that might be overpopulated in the spring or summer. This allows them to take full advantage of the solitude and peace that comes from the lack of other visitors while snowshoeing on untouched trails, or backpacking amidst the quiet landscape.

In addition to snowshoeing and backpacking, skiing is a favorite winter adventure.  Not only is skiing an enjoyable activity, but in addition, students gain skills such as awareness of self and others, physical strength and coordination, and an ability to find great emotional reward as they get into the state of “flow”. Flow Theory stems from positive psychology, and is the state of mind where one is focused completely on the moment and is fully “in the zone”. In this state of flow, there is a feeling of being more present than ever, losing oneself completely, and being intensely focused. Being in a state of flow helps students learn to alleviate anxiety and stress in life as they practice getting into this mindful place.


Aspiro’s vehicles are regularly inspected and all have high-quality all-terrain tires, as well as tire chains available to use as needed. Each vehicle is also equipped with a tracking device, allowing the field leadership team to know where all vehicles are at each moment, as well as exactly how each driver is doing. This helps ensure the safety of both guides and staff. All staff also go through a DDC professional driving course and must have a clean driving record in order to be eligible to drive Aspiro vehicles. There is also great flexibility in the Aspiro program that allows a group to drive out to a different area to camp or facilitate a therapeutic adventure if driving conditions are deemed unsafe by the risk management team.

Medical Checks

Aspiro guides complete hand and foot checks on every student at a minimum of 3 times a day, and check to ensure there are no injuries or blistering. During these checks, extremities are closely evaluated and the warmth and comfort of each student is confirmed. This close evaluation is in addition to the constant safety monitoring of every student that takes place 24 hours a day.
The guides call into the leadership team twice per day to report on each student and have access to the Registered Nurse or EMT 24/7 as needed. Aspiro’s medical team also has access to a Medical Doctor at all times.

In addition to guides completing safety checks of the students, students also complete regular hand, foot, and face washing to ensure cleanliness and safe hygiene. Students are also physically evaluated once a week by a member of the medical team, and each student is analyzed by a Body Composition Analyzer, which reports to the team a student’s weight, body fat percentage, body mass Index, and skeletal and muscle mass. Aspiro’s medical team uses this information to gauge each student’s individual diet and to ensure they all are getting the proper amount of calories, nutrition, and exercise.


In the winter, students receive additional food that has a higher fat content in order to ensure more caloric intake. Foods denser in calories take longer to metabolize, thus increasing overall body warmth. Because winter temperatures can require more energy to manage, a higher calorie diet also helps offset this. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, students eat nuts, peanut butter, canned salmon, canned tuna, rice, beans, cheese, oatmeal, and more, in order to get the calories and energy needed. Staff monitor food and water intake closely to ensure that students are getting the nutrition and hydration they need.

Weather Monitoring

Aspiro’s Operations Team is continuously monitoring weather on a daily basis. They use weather predictions and patterns as part of the information gathered when they plan the weekly schedule for students. Guides that are out in the field communicate with the Operations Team and on-call leadership members at least twice a day. During this call, the guides are updated as needed, regarding weather conditions so they can make any changes necessary to their daily plan. Students do not engage in activities outside of the campsite if temperatures drop below 10 degrees.  Instead, at that point, they stay at camp and keep warm by engaging in warm-up exercises and doing activities by the wood-burning stoves or by a fire.

Staff Training

Aspiro guides are taught to empower students with the information they need in order to live safely in the wilderness and to manage various temperatures and environments. These staff are trained on various topics in numerous areas and attend mandatory training on a weekly basis. The training for winter includes how to build winter shelters, how to implement emergency heat wraps, first aid, how to respond to any cold weather emergency scenarios, how to monitor for winter safety, and more. Aspiro’s medical team, a Registered Nurse, an EMT, and a Medical Doctor, are on call 24/7 and available to answer any questions that guides may have while in the field.

Aspiro guides are certified or working toward certification as Wilderness First Responders (WFR), which is the nationally recognized standard in wilderness medicine and provides education on the best practices for risk mitigation. A WFR certification typically requires 72-80 hours of classroom training and practice and includes a written and practical exam.

Throughout the year, and especially during the winter at Aspiro, a great amount of time and effort goes into ensuring the quality of programming, the availability of high-quality gear, the training of staff, a healthy diet, and overall safety. The attention to detail and safety in these areas adds to an impactful wilderness experience. The joy that comes when completing a winter adventure, the peace attained through the serenity of the quiet landscape, and the additional opportunities for growth that are found during the snowy adventure itineraries all lead to a powerful and life-changing experience.

The Aspiro Model of Change

Wilderness Therapy Programs For Troubled Teens | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Here at Aspiro, we put emphasis on skills building, personal growth, and the promotion of self-efficacy through persistence resulting in meaningful achievement and life-long change.

You may wonder:

  1. How do we know our programs are effective?
  2. How do we know our model actually promotes the outcomes we describe?

Our new whitepaper, “The Aspiro Model of Change,” provides the answers to these questions and aims to help adults understand how we can facilitate life-long change in your child.

Family Systems Work at Aspiro Adventure: A Wilderness Treatment Program

how to help underachieving students | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Aspiro Adventure Therapy is a wilderness treatment program dedicated to Family Systems work, and my personal passion for working with families has developed over the past 20 years as a therapist. I have seen the value of the Systems approach in both family therapy, and parent coaching, as well as while leading parent workshops, and running family therapeutic processing groups.  I have seen time and time again how important it is for an entire family to engage in the therapeutic treatment process in order to create lasting change.

Family Systems theory is the idea that there is an inherent connectedness in families, therefore family members react to one another. If one member’s behavior changes, the other family members change their behaviors in response. In other words, we are not “islands” unto ourselves, but we are affected by those in our family system and develop patterns of behavior based on this. We have various degrees of connection and disconnection with different family members as well.

In my career, it has been important to me to help families identify their patterns and their connections with one another, then find tools and build skills in order to strengthen and rebuild relationships. I have seen that with guidance, families have the ability to work together again to communicate effectively and develop healthy patterns and relationships.

Over the years as a clinician, I have heard family members make comments like, “This problem has nothing to do with me.” or “How can this behavior be my fault?  The other kids never did this.” Even statements like “I didn’t even say a word, This is between him and his Mother.” While it is understandable that family struggles can feel overwhelming and unmanageable, our attempt to take no responsibility and disengage from the system is virtually impossible. Each family member’s actions create a reaction and response in every other member, even if we don’t realize it.  And, seemingly doing nothing at all often times can be one of the most destructive things we can do within a family system.

Take for example the story of a father named “Mike.” Mike reluctantly attended a family therapy session where he sat quietly, arms folded and let out an occasional sigh.  Inevitably the student lashed out and said, “Why do you even bother coming? … This is just a waste of time!” Mike turned to the counselor incredulously and said, “What did I do? I was just sitting here and then got attacked for my effort to support.”  This is a prime example of the need for family systems work. Mike needs to realize his actions are negatively affecting his son, even though he isn’t saying anything and believes he is being supportive.

Here at Aspiro we feel strongly that no one is to blame and that everybody has a part.  This is why I love family systems work. Each one of us has the ability to influence the system.  Notice the words “influence the system” not “control”. We often become frustrated when we cannot control the outcome, the choices our children make, or even the ability to keep them out of harm’s way.  Many of us have gone to great lengths to control this outcome only to be hurt, disappointed and fearful.

We want to teach your family a better way of working through family issues such as communication problems, holding boundaries, creating structure, lack of validation and support, negative family roles and negative patterns of behavior.  Understanding how we can become powerful agents of change in our family systems, and not merely alone, and scared members of our families, is powerful.

Families often wonder how we are able to do family systems work while students are out in the wilderness and not seeing their parents. We do this in a number of ways including:

  • Weekly parent calls with the therapist to work on therapeutic assignments, process the student’s letters home, and to coach families through identifying their own patterns and communication styles.  
  • Weekly webinars covering various topics which will include an examination of the current roles played in families and how to adjust these roles, the stages of change, parenting styles and more.  These webinars also serve as a platform for connection and support with other parents.
  • In-person Parent Seminars where families learn more strategies for growth as well as have an opportunity to spend some time working towards a healthier family system with their child while doing some emotional work as well as time spent engaging and connecting over a 2 day period of time.

An additional layer of support as needed through parent coaching with myself, the Family Services Director, can be available as well.

It is exciting to be part of a dynamic program that combines a focus on the whole child, the family system, wellness and mindfulness, and adventure therapy, all into one!

David Mayeski, LCSW

TO learn about David click here! https://aspiroadventure.com/dvteam/david-mayeski-msw/

Wilderness treatment | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy

Managing Expectations in Next Levels of Care: Wilderness Therapy Programs to Residential Treatment Programs

Online assessment family | Aspiro Adventure Therapy


Case Study: Adam was an outdoor wilderness therapy superstar. In two short months, he became less anxious, didn’t feel depressed, was motivated, excited to be sober, respectful and loving towards his parents, and willing to work within a highly structured environment. He loved his wilderness therapist, felt confident, and was accepting of his next step — a residential treatment center or a therapeutic boarding school.

Adam quietly began to have reservations about this new residential program after only a couple of weeks. He missed the freedoms he had (demanded) at home. He missed his friends who he felt were “cooler” than these “treatment kids”. He missed home and his parents, which made him more convinced that this program was not the place for him, and believed that he had already done all the work that he needed to do while in wilderness therapy. He decided, although not consciously, to push back.

As Adam began his regression, his parents held the boundary for a couple of months. Afterall, they had carefully chosen this program after touring, meeting staff members, and talking with their educational consultant. But eventually, Adam’s regression seemed to coincide with some of their frustrations with the program. Their frustrations were normal, understandable, and part of an expectations gap in our system of care.

Dear parent,
This is written for you. Please keep these following things in mind:

Speed of Progress/Regression

Even though you are told to expect this regression in residential treatment and to brace yourself, it’s hard not to shift responsibility from the student to the program. Parents are desperate for their child to find the stability they need in order to be healthy. Keep reading, keep working, and continue asking about regression. Be patient.

Access to Information

In residential treatment versus wilderness treatment, you will hear about all the things your child is doing more frequently and from many more sources. In wilderness treatment, you hear from your therapist. In residential treatment, you are hearing from the therapist, program staff, and your student. What does this mean? It means you will hear more about your child’s successes and a lot more about his/her struggles. You have two challenges: 1) Absorb the constant stream of information without coming to quick conclusions (“Why is she suddenly doing so poorly?” “He is ready to come home!” ) 2) Don’t become reactive and mired down by the small details, thus missing the big picture.

Wilderness students are generally in crisis and working on short-term goals for stability and an intricate array of emotional and behavioral issues. In order to stay focused on the big picture in this short-term setting, your wilderness therapist prioritizes the information you receive. When progress is made, that is the focus, rather than the variety of problems that will be fuel for therapy at their next level of care. An example could be a problem area such as disrespectful comments. This is a common struggle for students and is addressed in the wilderness treatment setting, but generally isn’t the prioritized area of concern in wilderness because timelines are short and working toward overall stabilization is the priority.  At a residential program, these ultimately maladaptive and intolerable behaviors get addressed and brought up constantly while working on longer-term goals. Plan to hear about them and understand they will help drive the therapeutic process and help the staff and student to know what needs to be worked on and addressed.

In residential treatment, you will now hear every passing complaint about the staff and the program from your student, whereas in wilderness you just hear what they hang onto over the course of the week and what they choose to write in a letter. Hearing about more concerns doesn’t mean the residential program is not effective or that the wilderness program was better, it is just a different model that allows more freedoms, as well as more access to your student in order for him/her to be preparing to return home.

More Autonomy   

Wilderness therapy is a small and protected community without much, if any, integration with the outside world. In residential treatment, opportunities to make poor choices are greater. With autonomy comes opportunity for mistakes. Parents too frequently hold the residential programs or schools accountable for the mistakes their child makes. It doesn’t mean it is the fault of the program if your child makes a mistake. If your child finds the means to smoke pot, have sex, get into a fight, cheat, or whatever it may be, he/she has sought that opportunity and made that choice. Allow your student to learn from the mistake by holding him/her accountable rather than blaming the staff or program, and allow the student’s choice to inform the therapist and treatment team as to where he or she is at in his or her treatment journey and the process towards making better choices.

In every progress-based transition, e.g. hospital to home-based care, high school to college, t-ball to the big leagues; helpers pull back and the receivers of help are invited to do things for themselves. This is no different in the treatment world. Expect a delay in response time from staff as your son/daughter struggles to work through distress on his or her own. Expect staff to have clearer boundaries between work and personal life as your child is given time to find solutions on his or her own and to grow and learn in a less restrictive environment. Be aware this environment will allow more and more freedoms as the student progresses through the program. Expect less intense and less frequent therapeutic interventions as a greater balance between academics, social life, sports, etc is introduced to your child’s life.

A Long-Term Relationship

We’ve all been there. A few months into an intense relationship, there is a glow. So much has changed, so many new and positive things enter our lives and we focus on these. Eventually, the glow wears off, and we are able to see the flaws, drawbacks, and realities of our partner. In this case, the partners are treatment programs (and their staff) and parents, and you have, in fact, entered a long-term relationship. There will be differences in opinion, conflict, and tough conversations. You will become “real” with them, and they with you.

Programs aren’t perfect. Over the course of a year, staff members will make mistakes, balls will be dropped, and your therapist will become a person rather than a savior, which is all a normal part of life and a healthy part of learning to grow despite frustrations or imperfections.

Parents Regress, Too

In a residential treatment setting, your child is able to push you hard, via phone calls and face to face, and it becomes harder to live the boundaries, emotional regulation, validation, and anything else you were determined to do and began to do a few months ago.

It is also common for defensiveness (or other reactive behaviors) to arise in parents when flaws/ emotional moments, etc. are visible to your child’s therapist or team. It’s easy to be your best self when your child is progressing and you aren’t dealing with their frustrating, even maddening, behaviors and attitudes face to face. If you’re unsure what your reactive behaviors are, consult The Parallel Process by Krissy Pozatek.

Your Role

Have appropriate expectations.

Keep working alongside your student. Students get treatment fatigue and want to give up. You doing your work will role model grit and demonstrate value in what the program has to offer.

Communicate openly and patiently with the program when frustrations arise.

Stay the course. Hold the boundaries the program asks you to, all of them, every time. Picking and choosing sends the message that it is ok for your child to pick and chose which rules to follow. Young people, and even more so young people in treatment, don’t have the judgment or maturity to do this yet. Being unified with the program is as important as being unified with your co-parent.

When your child inevitably complains about the program, validate him/her without rescuing or escalating. This is a tricky skill, so ask your therapist about it and consult the literature.  Encourage your child to solve problems. You can validate his or her concerns and say something like “You seem so frustrated, that must really suck. Tell me more.” or “It sounds like you would just throw in the towel if you could. I know this has been an exhausting few months.”

Final Thoughts

You may put your wilderness program on a pedestal because it was short and the time was fast and intense. You may feel like the long-term residential program is not measuring up. Programs aren’t perfect and that’s ok. If they were perfect it wouldn’t set kids up for success in an imperfect world anyway. Learning to manage mistakes, handle anxiety, trust and let go is all part of the process for you and your student.

Wilderness and residential programs are different. They are a different type of therapy, so we can’t expect the same process, but we can certainly find incredible growth, change and value in both.

Sarah Rothstein, LCSW

Learn more about Sarah below.

Summer at Aspiro Wilderness Therapy – Our Locations and Activities

la sal Mountains | Summer at Aspiro Wilderness Therapy 

It’s no mistake that we have chosen the beautiful state of Utah for our wilderness therapy program. The many locations in which we operate, engaging in a multitude of adventure activities year round, gives our clients the best experiences possible. These novel environments in our outdoor wilderness program allow students to be immersed in the many incredible landscapes that Utah has to offer.  At each of the 15 areas we visit, students will engage in an adventure itinerary such as rock climbing, mountain biking canyoneering, backpacking, and more.  These activities challenge students to push beyond their perceived boundaries and accomplish more than they ever thought possible. These adventure therapy itineraries show them that, in a very practical way, they can do hard things.

Here are a few of our many favorite summer areas!

Wilderness treatment | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure TherapyLa Sal Mountains

Stretching to upwards of 12,000 feet, the La Sal mountains are a cool paradise surrounded by miles and miles of slick rock and sandy desert. The La Sals were named by the Spanish, meaning “The Salt Mountains” due to the snow on the peaks which lasts all year long, despite the up to 100-degree temperatures in the nearby desert below. Thankfully, the La Sals remain about 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding Moab area and thus are perfect for our students to experience high alpine, backcountry hiking during the summer months. Students practice navigation skills as they bushwhack through large pine and aspen forests and hike up to the mountain peaks. They also utilize mindfulness and meditation while stopping for quiet moments of reflection while enjoying the views of the endless vistas before them.


Escalante is located in South Central Utah and is a rugged and breathtaking landscape that is made up of large slick rock domes, canyons, and pinnacles carved out by the Escalante River. Smooth and twisting sandstone slot canyons lead out into sandy washes that are dabbled with cottonwood trees and tamarisk. Students backpack through the dunes, slick rock ridges and slot canyons, enjoy the cooling waters of the Escalate River. Here our students participate in adventure therapy while learning how to precisely navigate through desert landscapes and discover the natural processes of wind and water erosion which create their unique surroundings. Students also see petroglyphs and other rock carvings which have been preserved for thousands of years as they hike through these slot canyons and rappel down the canyon walls. Rappelling allows students to build trust in themselves as well as to overcome fears. This helps them to build self-confidence, gain self-efficacy and to become empowered.

Wilderness treatment | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy


Wilderness treatment | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure TherapyThe Book Cliffs of Eastern Utah are some of the most remote mountains in the lower 48. As sandstone cliffs climb up from the dry and sandy desert, Ouray presents itself in wide box canyons full of lush green meadows, pristine rivers, and beautiful pine forests. Students backpack through these canyons, utilizing landmark recognition and concise communication in order to accomplish their “thru-hike” goal. A thru-hike is when two groups start at opposite ends of an operating area and meet in the middle to switch van keys, thus leaving from a completely different location than where they started. This is one of Aspiro’s most challenging and rewarding backpacking itineraries due to the natural structure that requires groups to keep moving forward. Students gain strength and stamina, and practice various camping and survival skills during this time, leaving them with a great sense of accomplishment.

Park City

Wilderness treatment | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy Park City, Utah is a favorite destination for people around the world year round. In the summer it is home to some of the best mountain biking trails in the country. Our students experience these breathtaking high desert mountains while learning technical riding and bike maintenance. Our wilderness guides teach foundational skills and work each day with students in order to build confidence on their bikes by challenging them with more difficult and longer trails each day. For many of our students, who are working through various difficulties such as anxiety, inattention, substance abuse, and more, mountain biking is a healthy and rewarding experience as they seek what we call “flow,” or an optimal experience of challenge and ability. When cruising down a switchback trail on a bike, all a rider thinks about is what is in front of him or her. Immediate feedback is received from both the bike and the earth, as well as a mix of a rush of adrenaline and a feeling of contentment, as a student learns to truly focus and be present in the moment. These mindful experiences help decrease anxiety and lead to overall well-being.

Wilderness Therapy for Depression and Anxiety: Why Is It So Effective?

Wilderness Therapy for Depression and Anxiety | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy

Over the past few decades, wilderness therapy programs have become more prevalent, as the demand for effective alternatives in therapy has increased. The popularity of wilderness therapy is due to its ability to help teens and young adults in overcoming depression and anxiety– among other cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues.

Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

YES! Recent research found that “it is more cost-effective to provide coverage for outdoor behavioral therapy than current forms of treatment (ie, residential treatment, outpatient therapy, etc). We already know that adolescents that go through wilderness programs show almost three times more improvement after one year. Now we can say that it is also two times less expensive.”

The following are aspects that make wilderness programs successful in helping teens and young adults with anxiety and depression.

1. Exposure to the Therapeutic Wilderness Setting

Living in the wilderness is a big change from the everyday environment that many teens and young adults are used to. The opportunity to become fully immersed in the beauty of the outdoors presents the opportunity for individuals to try new things and overcome obstacles. In addition, research has shown that mere exposure to the outdoors can improve mental health and significantly reduce many depression and anxiety symptoms, including:

  • Better executive functioning
  • Enhanced problem solving
  • Critical thinking and decision making
  • Reduction in the symptoms of ADD/ADHD (which can contribute to one’s depression and anxiety symptoms)
  • Improved clarity

2. Therapeutic Group Living

The therapeutic group living setting is one of the most effective aspects of wilderness therapy that helps with anxiety and depression. In fact, depression in adolescence often “stems from unresolved developmental conflicts, issues of separation/individuation, the search for identity and the development of the true self” (Norton, 2010). Wilderness therapy is used to address the intrapsychic, developmental, and relational factors contributing to depression. This is achieved through therapy, therapeutic group living, and therapeutic wilderness and adventure activities.

Research indicates that “a primary cause of emotional and behavioral disturbances in youth is the lack of significant relationship with the social and natural worlds’’ (Gass, 1993). Wilderness therapy is powerful in the treatment of adolescent depression as the therapy, therapeutic group living, therapeutic setting of the wilderness, and adventure activities address the struggles with social responsibility, learned helplessness, dependency, and feelings of worthlessness associated with depression (Kimball and Bacon, 1993).

3. Adventure Activities

Adding an adventure therapy component to traditional wilderness therapy programs leads to higher engagement in therapy for teens and young adults, due to the variety of appealing activities.

An adventure component also allows therapists to more effectively target an increase in self-efficacy, as opposed to just increasing self-confidence. Self-efficacy is the belief in oneself to overcome adversity/difficulties in life. This is vital, as research has shown that self-efficacy is one of the most influential predictors of behavioral change. (Wells, Widmer, & McCoy 2004)

Wilderness Adventure therapy utilizes overwhelming mastery experiences to increase self-efficacy and help teens and young adults in overcoming depression and anxiety. The more repetitive treatment programs can be with overwhelming mastery experiences, the better. Clients are more likely to generalize the belief that they can achieve difficult things, and can incorporate this belief into different domains of life: classroom, peers, sports, etc.

For example: If teens and young adults believe they can:

  • Navigate terrain on a mountain bike
  • Rappel a cliff
  • Go skiing down a mountain

They are much likelier to believe that they can:

  • Overcome depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Mend strained relationships
  • Perform well in school/at work

Related Articles


To learn more about how to help your child with depression or anxiety, download our white paper, “Depression and Anxiety in Teens and Young Adults” below.

About Aspiro Adventure

Play Video

Aspiro Adventure’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program is uniquely crafted to assist at-risk youth and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs.

The mental health professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student‘s personal growth is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right. Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present.

Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic, experiential, and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

About the Author