The Purpose of Bow Drilling in Wilderness Therapy

There is evidence that humans have been using fire as a survival tool for as long as a million years, but it took several hundred thousand years for us to perfect the skill of building and controlling fires. Over time, we have learned to skip steps along the way and focus more on the size of the fire we can create than the power of that first spark. In wilderness therapy, fire-making is one of the focal points that stands out for many students long after they leave. It is often one of the most challenging outdoor skills that teenagers learn, as they question how it relates to their daily lives. The purpose of bow drilling in wilderness therapy is that it isn’t just a practical survival skill, it is a culmination of many of the soft skills students learn about how to handle challenges in their personal lives.  

Why Are Students Taught The Basics of Fire-Making in Wilderness Therapy? 

There are so many easier ways to build a fire than bow drilling or striking. A bonfire can be built in seconds with lighter fluids and accelerants. At Trails Carolina, we teach a more challenging way, not because we want teenagers to know the skill but because we want them to experience first-person what doing challenging things looks like. The process of fire-making is aligned with Trails’ overall goal of teaching teenagers how to problem-solve and build mastery. A wilderness environment simplifies many of the challenges students face in their home environment but also helps highlight the importance of facing those challenges in order to meet their core needs. 
Many teenagers with mental health struggles live in survival mode on a day-to-day basis, although their core needs look different than one might expect. According to William Glasser’s Choice Theory, many teens go through life seeking love and belonging, power and control, and freedom. These themes of behavior are often revealed through practicing “hard skills”, like bow drilling. It is really telling what their first reaction is to the idea of building fires by hand and serves as a metaphor for how they react to challenges.
Wilderness guides use fire-making as an opportunity to discuss the metaphors that the skill brings up. While coaching students through the process, field guides may ask questions like, “what is the experience that creates that spark? What is your edge? How does your edge help you create that spark?”
Through the process of mastering this skill, teens experience a sense of achievement as their inner monologue shifts from “I can’t do and don’t want to hard things” to “I can do hard things” once they have completed their first objective to “I want to seek out harder things” as they continue to test their edges.

How Does Trails Carolina Incorporate Primitive Skills?

While Trails Carolina follows a base camp model, students learn and practice primitive skills while on expedition, often referred to as “Expo”. Other wilderness therapy programs encourage students to jump right into bowdrilling, but Trails introduces students to a variety of methods in a phased process, where students have the chance to hone in on specific aspects of the process and build mastery to set themselves up for success in later stages. 
Throughout the wilderness therapy program, students learn how to :

  • Strike. Striking teaches students the basics of creating sparks. We provide the striker and it is their responsibility to find a striking rock, which is made easy by the abundance of quartz in the local area. Peer mentors and field guides offer coaching and direction by giving them space to learn what works best for them.  
  • Build a Full Dry Fire Kit. Creating a bow drill set alone is a massive achievement. Students learn to identify and harvest materials from local trees and become familiar with which types of wood are best for different pieces. A full dry fire kit consists of a bow, usually rhododendron or poplar, that extends the length of their arm, a white pine spindle harvested from the same piece of wood as their fire board, a palm-sized top rock, and a tinder bundle to catch the coal they will create.
  • Bow Drill. Bow drilling is an awkward process, which is why it’s one of the last skills that teens learn. They may start off by partnering with a peer and bow drilling tandem before trying it solo. When bow drilling, students have to make sure that their grip is tense enough but not too tense, that they are using enough pressure but not too much–it’s all about refining what works for them and learning not to compare themselves to others.

Motion and skill only account for about 10% of the process; the other 90% is about the quality of materials. Once they have harvested and gathered the appropriate materials, there will still be tiny adjustments that they need to make here and there. It’s more than following instructions, it’s about becoming comfortable being with the process and cultivating self-awareness. Parents are also introduced to the basics of fire-making during parent workshops to give them a taste of what their child’s wilderness therapy experience is like. 

What are Some of the Takeaways That Students Have From this Learning Experience?

Many students are surprised that the process of making fire is not formulaic. Modern education teaches us that there are formulas to completing every assignment: essays need to follow a 5-paragraph.structure and math questions only have one answer. Between learning primitive skills on Expo and classroom instruction at base camp, students realize that learning skills is more about creativity and unique learning differences than whether they are doing something right or wrong. 
Many students believe that once they’ve learned how to do a skill or solve a math problem, the outcome they want will come naturally. Instead, it’s about taking the feedback and incorporating that into your response and learning how to ask for help when appropriate. “Hard skills” give us a tangible, indirect way to talk about fears and frustrations that may come up and to connect these feelings to other times where they’ve had a similar experience. 
With “hard skills”, like bow drilling, there may be a definitive end result- you either have a spark or you don’t- but learning takes place in applying “soft skills.” For example, being able to recognize “when I hold it this way, it works better” and asking questions like “am I trying more than one technique?”, “when is it time to try something different?”, or “how do I know when I’ve achieved the results I want?”
A huge part of adolescence is identity formation and defining what personal success looks like. An experience like Trails allows for a unique setting to rewrite the skills of their identity and build an internal story about mastery, confidence, and skill-building. Everyone takes their own unique path to achieving their personal and academic goals. Teenagers easily get caught up in narratives of inadequacy and impending failure, but when they are willing to stick it out during challenges and try something new, they are able to recognize their full potential. 

Trails Carolina Can Help

Trails Carolina is one of the nation’s leading wilderness therapy programs for middle school and high school-aged teens that helps teens ages 10-17 who are struggling with behavioral and emotional issues. This program uses adventure-based therapy to help students gain a new sense of self-awareness, confidence, and independence. The skills they learn throughout the wilderness program offer long-term benefits towards their ability to successfully self-navigate in the real world. By removing teens from their fast-paced environment into a safe, nurturing, and peaceful environment, they are able to focus on improving and reflecting upon their behavior.
Contact us at 800-975-7303 to learn more about our wilderness therapy program. We can help your family today! 

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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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