3 Things I Learned From Wilderness Therapy


By Priscilla Gutierrez

As a teenager, I spent six summer weeks backpacking through the Uinta Mountains of Utah. You would think this was an exciting adventure that I planned for, but it wasn’t. I was in a wilderness therapy program aimed to prevent or lessen criminal behavior and recidivism in at-risk youth. The program I went to utilized a nomadic model. Accordingly, we hiked up to five miles and built and removed temporary camps every day except for the weekends. Participants were deliberately kept in the dark about most details. Staff did not share the time, our release date, hiking locations, or daily agendas. Overall, we had little autonomy because our actions and conversations were monitored by staff, including when and how to use the bathroom. While under 24-hour supervision, youth participated in various types of therapies and life-skill activities such as group therapy and conflict resolution.

Wilderness programs are controversial and have received backlash, not just because of the reasons stated above, but also as a result of accidental deaths and abuse allegations that have occurred in the past. Yet, these programs continue to be a popular alternative to traditional rehabilitation. I personally found it to be a difficult but life-changing experience. It may not be the best option for everyone but it may be a perfect fit for some. Regardless, it is necessary to shine light on all available mental health options for at-risk youth who have engaged in criminal behavior.

Here are my three biggest takeaways from wilderness therapy:

1)          Perspective can be gained on one’s behavior

I did not grow up going camping. In fact, at the time I entered the program I was living in the inner city. Nonetheless, I played out the same behaviors and dynamics I had prior to the program while in this unfamiliar and strange environment. In retrospect, the staff created stresses, challenges, responsibilities and interactions that paralleled “real life.” Unlike in society, I had several group and staff members giving me daily detailed feedback about my behaviors and feelings while in the wilderness. Ultimately, this program was a catalyst for my own self-awareness and maturity.

For instance, a staff member pulled me aside one day and challenged me to act like I do when I would get drunk. During this secret experiment I crossed multiple boundaries and, despite being 5’2” and the only female participant at the time, I dominated the group. Prior to this challenge, I was never cognizant enough to witness people’s reactions or to hear their feelings during my inebriated behavior. In fact, it was not long after this experience that I gave up alcohol.

2)         You will be pushed to your limit

After I was picked up by staff at the airport in Las Vegas and driven several hours to Utah, I was commanded to undress, squat and cough to ensure I would not be bringing any contraband into the wilderness. Afterwards, I had a physical by a local doctor. My picture was taken to ensure staff would be able to “identify me if necessary.” Typically, participants are blind-folded when driven into the wilderness. I, however, was spared the theatrics because it was a pitch-black night and I agreed to lay down in the back of their car. Eventually, I really needed to use the bathroom but was ordered to “hold it.” I did as I was told until I felt like I was going to pee on myself. The staff member stopped after several of my requests and I relieved myself behind a dry shrub. This introduction to the wilderness set the tone for my entire experience: being pushed to my limit, having no control over my environment and peeing in random places.

The program is designed to be emotionally and physically challenging. It is inevitable that you will become frustrated after hiking in almost 100-degree weather, being under constant scrutiny and eating dehydrated beans daily. For instance, the first tasks you are required to do in order to lift a staff-imposed speaking ban are to write your life story, read your life story in front of everyone and read the “impact letters” your family wrote detailing your misconduct. For the next six weeks, I had compromised hygiene, no privacy and zero communication outside the program. Showers were replaced by twice-a-week “Billy baths,” or a bucket of water to bathe with, a shared bottle of shampoo and choice of tree to hide behind. Meanwhile, toilets were replaced by group latrines dug by hand with tin cans by a designated group member according to a rotating schedule of mandatory chores.

3)         Mostly whites experience the benefits of nature

I have never been shy about voicing my opinions about race relations. I did so in this situation so much that I was accused of “hating white people” and “being racist.” Yet, none of my group members accused the staff member that referred to Latinos as “wetbacks” of being a racist. Similarly, nobody understood the pain I’ve experienced related to the intersection of my sex and ethnicity, or the pressure I felt as a first-generation Ecuadorean-Nicaraguan daughter. I would have benefited from having group and staff members of color. Instead, I had to play a role very familiar to me: the “token” Latina burdened with representing my ethnicity and educating whites about how racism affects people of color. In a program where hot meals were not guaranteed and I slept in dirty clothes, my energy should not have been divided among chores, therapy and finding emotional safety in a mostly homogeneous group of strangers.

With the exception of one Black participant, all group and staff members were white. This isn’t surprising given that Black and Latino youth have less access to mental health services than their white counterparts. Also, the outdoor community has largely remained white, wealthy and male.  People of color are more likely to feel anxiety when outdoors due to a number of factors including lack of access to and representation in natural outdoor spaces. This denies people of color the anxiety-relieving benefits of being in nature. For example, studies suggest that nature can improve an individual’s mood, cognition and health through its therapeutic qualities. Hiking so many miles helped me focus on the present and to appreciate the world outside my inner chaos. Similarly, during the “solo” phase of the program, I sat in isolation for two days. In those two days, it was only me and Mother Nature’s unconditional and embracing comfort.

 Would I Recommend it?

 All in all, wilderness therapy programs provide a space for participants to reflect on their life choices and decide whether to change their ways. I credit wilderness therapy for identifying my issues, recommending an after-care program for me and providing me with the interpersonal skills I needed to improve my quality of life. Ultimately, I was not ready to change and lasted only two weeks in my intensive outpatient program in Maryland before checking out.

But, as the mantra goes, you must “change people, places and things” to sustain long-term recovery. I recommend wilderness therapy because it is the only mental health model that drastically changes the people, places and things you have access to. At the end of the day, regardless of the mental health service you rely on, you will only get results proportional to the effort you put into your recovery.