Finding a New Path: Teen Substance Use Recovery Through Wilderness Therapy

The journey to recovery from teen substance use or experimentation can be a challenging one, and finding the right treatment can play a crucial part in achieving lasting success. 

In recent years, wilderness therapy has emerged as an alternative solution for teens facing these challenges. 

For those unfamiliar with the concept, wilderness therapy combines traditional therapeutic approaches with outdoor activities to promote personal growth, self-awareness, and positive behavioral changes. Research has shown that wilderness therapy can be more effective and less expensive than other treatment options for teens struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues. 

By engaging in adventures, outdoor and group bonding activities, participants learn vital coping and communication skills that are essential for sustainable recovery. This unique approach not only helps individuals better understand their relationship with substances but also develops their capacity to avoid negative influences and manage the consequences of their actions.

Substance Experimentation, Substance Use, and Substance Abuse in Adolescents and Teens

Treating Teen Substance Use - 8 empty glass alcohol bottles sit on the grass.

Substance Experimentation in Teens

Substance experimentation refers to the act of trying drugs or alcohol without necessarily engaging in regular use. During adolescence and teenage years, individuals may be curious about substances and may engage in experimentation as a way to explore new experiences or socialize with peers. It is common for adolescents to test the waters with various substances during this developmental stage.

Substance Use in Teens

Substance use in adolescents and teens goes beyond experimentation and involves the regular or occasional consumption of drugs or alcohol. This stage may be characterized by increasing frequency and quantity of substance intake. While some teenagers might engage in moderate and responsible use, others can progress to more problematic patterns of use, leading to substance abuse.

Substance Abuse in Teens

Substance abuse refers to the chronic and excessive consumption of drugs or alcohol despite the negative consequences on physical health, mental well-being, and social functioning. For adolescents and teens, substance abuse can interfere with their normal development and may have severe implications for their academic performance, family relationships, and overall quality of life.

Possible Causes of Teen Substance Use

Several factors contribute to substance experimentation, use, and abuse among adolescents and teens:

  • Peer Pressure: Adolescents are highly influenced by their social circles, and peer pressure can play a significant role in pushing them to experiment with substances.
  • Curiosity and Risk-Taking: During adolescence, the brain undergoes significant changes, and teens may engage in risky behaviors, including substance experimentation, to satisfy their curiosity.
  • Family Environment: A family history of substance use, a lack of parental supervision, or dysfunctional family dynamics can increase the risk of substance experimentation and abuse.
  • Mental Health Issues: Teens with untreated mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD, may turn to substances as a way to cope with their emotions.
  • Media and Cultural Influences: Media portrayal of substance use and societal norms can also impact adolescents’ attitudes towards drugs and alcohol.

Short-term Effects

The short-term effects of substance use in adolescents can vary depending on the type of substance consumed. Some common short-term effects include:

  • Impaired judgment and decision-making
  • Increased risk-taking behavior
  • Slurred speech and impaired coordination
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Euphoria or mood swings
  • Aggression or irritability
  • Decreased inhibitions
  • Memory lapses and blackouts

Long-term Effects

Long-term substance abuse during adolescence can have profound and lasting consequences on both physical and mental health:

  • Addiction: Prolonged substance abuse can lead to addiction, making it difficult for the individual to stop using despite negative outcomes.
  • Cognitive Impairment: Substance abuse can negatively affect brain development, leading to cognitive deficits and learning difficulties.
  • Mental Health Disorders: Substance abuse can exacerbate or trigger mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis.
  • Physical Health Issues: Chronic substance abuse can damage vital organs like the liver, heart, and brain, leading to long-term health problems.
  • Social and Interpersonal Problems: Substance abuse can strain relationships with family and friends and may result in isolation and withdrawal.
  • Academic Decline: Teens who abuse substances often experience a decline in academic performance and may drop out of school.

In conclusion, substance experimentation, use, and abuse are significant concerns during adolescence and teenage years. Understanding the possible causes and the short and long-term effects of substance abuse can help in implementing preventive measures and early intervention strategies to promote healthier choices among young individuals.

Whether your teen is in the early stages of experimentation or grappling with long-term substance use, wilderness therapy provides an opportunity for them to forge a new path toward wellness in a supportive and transformative environment. The combination of structured therapy and empowering outdoor experiences has the potential to create lasting change and set individuals on the path towards a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Understanding Wilderness Therapy

wilderness treatment center group of youth

Addiction Treatment Options

When it comes to treating substance use disorders in teens, there are various traditional treatments available, such as medication-assisted therapies and behavioral therapy. However, one alternative method that has been gaining attention is wilderness therapy. 

This form of treatment involves outdoor experiences and therapy sessions designed to address mental health and substance abuse disorders. According to research by the University of New Hampshire, outdoor behavioral therapy has been found to be more effective and less expensive than other forms of treatment for teens dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.

Overall Benefits of Wilderness Therapy

Emotional and Mental Health

Wilderness therapy is a powerful approach for individuals struggling with substance use issues, as it addresses various emotional and mental health challenges. Participants often confront depression, anxiety, and trauma while in the program, allowing them to engage in a process of self-discovery and healing. As they navigate through the natural environment and face various challenges, they develop coping strategies that increase their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Physical Health

In addition to emotional and mental health benefits, wilderness therapy also fosters physical health improvements. Being immersed in the great outdoors encourages participants to engage in regular exercise and embrace a more active lifestyle. As they hike and trek through the wilderness, their bodies naturally respond to the physical demands, resulting in improved overall health and an increased appreciation for exercise.

Social and Life Skills

Lastly, wilderness therapy equips individuals with essential social and life skills, which can be invaluable when facing substance-related issues. Programs often emphasize teamwork, communication, and problem-solving, offering participants the opportunity to build trust, cooperation, and leadership abilities3. These skills not only help them overcome their personal challenges, but also enable them to thrive in various aspects of life beyond the program.

Therapeutic Approaches in Wilderness Therapy

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often integrated into wilderness therapy programs, helping participants develop healthy coping strategies and identify maladaptive thought patterns. By immersing individuals in a natural environment, CBT can be more effective as individuals face real-world challenges and learn to adapt their thinking patterns in response to situations. For example, during a hiking expedition, participants may confront their anger and, in turn, practice CBT techniques to manage their emotions.

Group Therapy and Family Therapy

Group therapy and family therapy are essential components of wilderness therapy. Group living and group therapy offer individuals the opportunity to build trust, develop communication skills, and form supportive relationships with peers facing similar challenges. Family therapy focuses on repairing relationships, setting boundaries, and fostering a supportive home environment.

Adventure Therapy and Expeditions

Adventure therapy involves engaging participants in outdoor activities such as backpacking, hiking, and camping to foster personal growth, self-esteem, and emotional regulation. By learning new skills, overcoming challenges, and working in teams, individuals can build resilience and gain confidence in their abilities to overcome substance use issues.

Expeditions are often a central aspect of wilderness therapy programs, as these experiences encourage individuals to step outside their comfort zones. Activities during expeditions can include navigating unfamiliar terrain, learning to start fires, and cooking outdoors. The combination of adventure therapy and expeditions promotes self-reflection, encourages personal growth, and helps individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms as they tackle substance use issues.

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy for Substance Recovery in Teens

therapeutic wilderness program

1. Immersion in Nature:

Trails Carolina’s wilderness therapy program places a strong emphasis on immersing teens in the natural environment, recognizing the transformative power of nature in the substance recovery process. The wilderness setting provides a unique and supportive backdrop for the therapeutic journey, offering a range of benefits:

  • Distraction-Free Environment: Removed from the distractions of modern life, teens can fully focus on their recovery journey without the influence of electronic devices, social media, or other external stressors.
  • Calming and Therapeutic Effects: Spending time in nature has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, lower cortisol levels, and improve overall mood. Nature’s calming influence aids in reducing anxiety and promoting a sense of tranquility, creating an ideal environment for self-reflection and healing.
  • Increased Self-Awareness: In the wilderness, away from their usual routines and environments, teens can gain a clearer understanding of themselves and their behaviors. The natural surroundings encourage teens to connect with their inner thoughts and emotions, leading to increased self-awareness.
  • Opportunities for Growth and Reflection: Engaging in outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and wilderness skills development fosters personal growth and resilience. The challenges presented by the wilderness provide opportunities for reflection and introspection, allowing teens to confront and address the underlying causes of their substance use.

2. Peer Support Groups:

Trails Carolina prioritizes the power of peer support in the recovery process, acknowledging that a sense of belonging and shared experiences can significantly impact a teen’s progress:

  • Safe and Non-Judgmental Environment: Within peer support groups, teens can express themselves openly and honestly without fear of judgment. This supportive atmosphere encourages vulnerability, leading to more profound self-discovery and self-acceptance.
  • Mutual Understanding: Teens in the program share similar struggles, making it easier for them to relate to each other’s experiences. The shared understanding fosters empathy, camaraderie, and a sense of belonging, which can be empowering during challenging times.
  • Positive Role Models: Peer support groups provide opportunities for positive role modeling. Teens who have made progress in their recovery can serve as inspirations for others, demonstrating that change is possible and offering hope for a brighter future.
  • Continued Support Beyond the Program: The bonds formed during wilderness therapy often extend beyond the program’s duration. Teens can rely on this network of support even after they return home, providing ongoing encouragement and understanding during their ongoing recovery journey.

3. Therapeutic Intervention Strategies with Licensed Therapists:

Trails Carolina’s wilderness therapy program ensures that licensed therapists lead the therapeutic interventions, incorporating evidence-based strategies to promote lasting recovery:

  • Individual Counseling: Each teen receives individual counseling sessions with a compassionate and licensed therapist, allowing for personalized attention and tailored treatment plans. These one-on-one sessions provide a supportive space for teens to explore their feelings, thoughts, and experiences in-depth.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is an effective therapeutic approach used to identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviors. It equips teens with coping skills to manage triggers and cravings associated with substance use.
  • Experiential Therapy: Wilderness therapy incorporates experiential therapy techniques, such as adventure-based activities and expressive arts, to help teens process emotions and gain insights into their behaviors in a hands-on and immersive manner.
  • Mindfulness Practices: Therapists often incorporate mindfulness practices, such as meditation and grounding exercises, to help teens stay present and manage stress and anxiety effectively.
  • Trauma-Informed Care: Trails Carolina’s therapists approach treatment with a trauma-informed lens, recognizing the impact of past traumatic experiences on a teen’s mental health and substance use. This approach ensures compassionate and tailored care for each individual.

4. Personalized Treatment Plans for Co-occurring Mental Health Conditions:

Trails Carolina recognizes that substance use often co-occurs with other mental health conditions, requiring comprehensive and personalized treatment plans:

  • Thorough Assessments: Licensed therapists conduct thorough assessments to identify any co-occurring mental health conditions. This comprehensive evaluation ensures that all aspects of a teen’s mental health are addressed during treatment.
  • Dual Diagnosis Treatment: For teens with co-occurring disorders, Trails Carolina offers integrated dual diagnosis treatment. This approach addresses both the substance use and the mental health condition simultaneously, providing a holistic and effective recovery plan.
  • Tailored Therapeutic Approaches: Therapists adjust their intervention strategies to suit the unique needs, strengths, challenges, and goals of each teen. This personalized approach maximizes the effectiveness of treatment and supports long-term healing.

5. Structured Transition Practice:

Trails Carolina prepares teens for their return to their home environments through a structured transition practice, which gradually reintroduces them to real-life scenarios:

  • Real-Life Application: Throughout the entire program, teens practice transitioning from wilderness expeditions to the residential base camp where responsibilities mirror real-life situations, and back again. These experiences allow teens to apply the coping strategies and life skills they learned during wilderness therapy to practical scenarios.
  • Confidence Building: The structured transition practice builds confidence and resilience in teens as they navigate the challenges they will encounter upon reintegration into their home environments, schools, or communities.
  • Supported Reentry: Throughout the transition, teens receive ongoing support and guidance from therapists and staff, ensuring a smooth reentry into their everyday lives while minimizing the risk of relapse.

6. Parallel Family Programming:

Trails Carolina recognizes the importance of family involvement in the recovery process and offers parallel family programming:

  • Educational Resources: Family members receive education about substance abuse, addiction, and mental health to enhance their understanding of their teen’s struggles and recovery journey.
  • Healing and Rebuilding Trust: The parallel family programming allows families to heal and rebuild trust, which is crucial for repairing strained relationships and supporting the teen’s ongoing recovery.
  • Long-Term Support: Family members gain valuable tools and resources to support their teen’s recovery long after the wilderness therapy program concludes.

By combining the power of nature, peer support, evidence-based therapeutic strategies, personalized treatment plans, structured transition practice, and parallel family programming, Trails Carolina’s wilderness therapy program offers a comprehensive and effective approach to help teens seeking substance recovery achieve long-lasting positive change in their lives. 

The program equips them with the necessary tools and skills to face the challenges of recovery and provides ongoing support for sustained well-being beyond the wilderness experience.

Addressing Co-occuring Mental Health Disorders

Does wilderness therapy work? Therapist and student work toward goals outside.

Wilderness therapy provides an experiential and nature-based approach to address various mental health disorders. This alternative form of therapy is particularly effective for individuals struggling with substance use and experimentation, as it encourages self-discovery in a supportive and understanding environment.

Personality and Mood Disorders

Wilderness therapy can be beneficial for individuals dealing with mood disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, as well as personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. By immersing participants in outdoor activities and challenges, this type of therapy promotes positive attitudes, builds self-esteem, and encourages healthy coping mechanisms. Through these experiences, individuals can gain an increased sense of autonomy and an improved understanding of their personal strengths and limitations.

Behavioral and Developmental Disorders

For individuals facing behavioral and developmental disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, wilderness therapy offers a unique approach that emphasizes hands-on learning, personal responsibility, and social skills development. Structured outdoor activities foster emotional regulation, responsible behavior, cooperation, and problem-solving skills. By participating in wilderness therapy, individuals can develop healthier ways of interacting with their environment and those around them, which can lead to improved overall well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of wilderness therapy for substance experimentation or use?

Wilderness therapy, also known as adventure-based therapy, exposes individuals to therapeutic activities and interventions in nature. It has been found to be more effective and less expensive than other forms of treatment in helping teens with substance abuse and mental health issues. Some benefits may include improved self-esteem, problem-solving skills, and enhanced interpersonal relationships that can be valuable in promoting long-term recovery.

How do wilderness therapy programs differ from traditional rehab?

While traditional rehab programs often take place in clinical settings, wilderness therapy immerses participants in outdoor environments that offer therapeutic wilderness experiences. This alternative approach aims to create transformative experiences through challenges, teamwork, and the introspection that nature can provide. Traditional rehab may rely more on group therapy sessions, individual counseling, and medication management.

Are there age-specific wilderness therapy programs available?

Yes, there are age-specific wilderness therapy programs available. These programs are typically designed to cater to specific age groups such as adolescents, young adults, or adults. This ensures that the program’s activities and challenges are suitable for participants’ developmental and emotional needs.

What is the success rate of wilderness therapy in treating substance use?

A meta-analysis suggests that wilderness therapy can have a positive effect on delinquent behaviors among youth, which includes substance use. However, success rates can vary depending on the individual, the severity of their substance use, and their commitment to the program. Further research is needed to establish more concrete success rates in treating substance use with wilderness therapy.

Are wilderness therapy programs accredited?

Some wilderness therapy programs are accredited by professional organizations, such as the Association for Experiential Education or the Joint Commission. It’s important to research and choose a program that meets the standards of these accrediting bodies to ensure a safe and beneficial experience.

How does wilderness therapy address mental health issues alongside substance use?

Wilderness therapy programs often integrate approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, and individual counseling as part of their treatment plans. These programs aim to address the co-occurring mental health issues often present in individuals with substance use disorders in teens. The unique combination of outdoor therapy, traditional counseling, and teamwork can provide a comprehensive approach to treating both substance use and mental health challenges.

Avatar of Jeremy Whitworth

Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

Margot Lowman August 2022

Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

Winnifred Wilson July 2022


Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.

Kristin Brace June 2022


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