Outdoor Therapy (For addiction recovery)

girl backpacking in the mountains

Outdoor therapy, also known as wilderness therapy, is a creative approach to treating addictive behavior. The therapists use nature to help those struggling with various forms of substance abuse along with emotional and mental disorders. Outdoor therapy also employs numerous adventures to engage individuals and teach them a number of life lessons and skills.

Such therapy is often categorized under experiential therapy as it’s packed with experiences. These experiences help participants both emote as well as feel certain emotions that they may not usually pay attention to. They allow you to connect with yourself better. They also promote the long-term growth and cognitive development. If that has piqued your interest, here is everything you need to know about outdoor therapy.

What can you expect in outdoor therapy?

Every recovery facility has a unique itinerary for what constitutes as outdoor therapy. However, you might find a few usual suspects that form the basis of this experiential treatment. Since it is an amalgamation of theory and philosophy, outdoor therapy is usually adventurous in nature and offers several outlets to individuals throughout its course.

Some of the activities outdoor therapy might include are:

  • Rock climbing
  • Ziplining
  • Day hiking
  • Camping/fire building
  • Primitive living
  • Backpacking
  • White water rafting
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Swimming
  • Skiing
  • Caving
  • Paddleboarding
  • Rope courses

Depending on your recovery facility, there may be more or fewer activities. But you can expect each one of them to be aimed at making you the best version of yourself, so you can live a peaceful and happy post-recovery life.

How does outdoor therapy work?

Ever since the 1960s, outdoor therapy has been helping individuals with addiction recovery in a healthy and positive way. This form of psychotherapy focuses on behavior and attitude transformations above all. It is usually driven by self-discovery. Therefore, all the activities are designed to lead to a heightened sense of self.

Most of the activities replicate the harshness of everyday life. They are planned per the negative circumstances and tough challenges in life faced by common people. However, they are directed at conflict resolution more than anything else.

The goal of outdoor therapies is quite simple; making all the participants better equipped to deal with the different aspects of life. They are taught ways to handle relationships, deal with professional setbacks, so they can ultimately set out on the path to self-love.

The group activities and team-building exercises provide participants with a number of valuable insights that stay with them for life.

That being said, outdoor therapy may or may not be used independently to empower individuals. Depending on the individual’s needs, therapists can also employ medications and other forms of treatment to reach a positive outcome.

Benefits of outdoor therapy

  • Better coping with the environment

Addictions are mainly triggered by social or mental pressure. When faced with harsh situations, people usually turn to substance abuse as a way to cope with the pressure. Therefore, one of the primary objectives of outdoor therapy is putting individuals in situations that induce eustress or positive stress. The participants are then taught how to deal with them, which helps prepare them for the real world.

  • Fewer trust issues

Sometimes, substance abuse can be caused by trust issues. If you have nobody to count on, you have a good chance of abusing toxicants. Therefore, trust-building is an important part of recovery.

Since humans are social and interdependent beings, most activities in adventure, wilderness, or outdoor-based programs are intended to promote teamwork. Simple activities like the trust fall and setting up a tent can make big alterations in your life during recovery.

  • A heightened sense of belongingness

One of the basic human needs is the need for association. Every person wants to belong somewhere and to someone. It creates a sense of safety and security within individuals. When you engage in team exercises, you learn to associate yourself with a group of individuals, who understand where you are coming from without any judgments.

  • Better emotional and impulse control

When you are outdoor, life’s unpredictable. This can induce anxiety and stress. The constant physically demanding nature of some of the activities can also lead to fatigue. When that happens, you have to make decisions and respond to stimuli based on what you have been trained for. That’s exactly what outdoor therapy teaches you.

With outdoor therapy, you can learn how to manage your anger, engage in better communication as well as control desires. Many individuals also gain a new perspective on things that are otherwise approached as negative.

  • Development of life skills

Therapists have argued that outdoor challenges involve several risks, which allows people to develop life skills that will stay with them till they die. The use of primitive methods often leads to individuals developing not only physical but also mental and social skills such as establishing leadership for life.

  • Change in attitude

Outdoor therapy teaches you responsibility. Since substance abuse is an outcome of your choices, the program helps you adopt a responsible behavior, so you can own up to your actions.

  • Increased self-esteem

Nature is a powerful entity. A few minutes outside can transform you like no other treatment can. It allows you to be at your most vulnerable, so you can learn new and better habits. It helps you release endorphins, which induce a positive feeling within you.

Outdoor therapy can actually help you become more aware of yourself, so you can work on yourself and improve your self-worth.


Outdoor therapy might actually work for people who haven’t had much luck with other types of treatments. Countless people have spent thousands of dollars on rehab centers and have had no recovery. However, a holistic approach to recovery along with the 12-step program can result in significant improvements.

While most rehab facilities might frown at this statement, ignoring the benefits of wilderness therapy is wrong. Every patient is different, so not everyone might benefit from a single approach. It’s never one-size-fits-all. So, if you or a loved one you know is seeking help without any luck, outdoor therapy might be the solution for you.