Futures Recovery

Adventure Therapy 101



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While many people consider “adventure therapy” a newer trend or the latest fad, its origins extend back to humanity’s early beginnings. In fact, many cultures have, and still do, use nature, wilderness, exploration, athletics, and other elements in today’s version of adventure therapy as a cornerstone of their culture. 

Many Native American cultures, for example, explore the relationship between nature and holistic mind/body healing. A study of “Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions,” says this:

“In Native American culture, there is a saying that ‘we are all related;’ all things live in relationship to one another. Living in harmony with the earth and our environs has meaning and purpose, not only for us but the whole—the earth, its peoples, and all that is. When we engage in health promotion by ‘walking in beauty,’ we all win.”

Similarly, an article discussing the holistic healing practices of the First Nation peoples across Canada, says “The best place to learn accommodation to all one’s relations is on the land. You cannot defy the weather. One must compromise to survive and thrive. Experiencing the landscape helps one connect to something greater than the self, the more-than-human world, a ‘cathedral, full of life, promise, openness, and blessedness’”

Today, adventure therapy integrates many of the foundational principles, and others, of a myriad of cultures to help people with substance abuse and mental health disorders. Many people find getting “out of themselves,” and into nature and adventure to be extremely beneficial in both short- and long-term recovery. 

At Futures Recovery Healthcare, we encourage many pathways of recovery for both substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health illnesses. If you or someone you love is hurting, there is hope! There are many treatments and recovery tools available to help those with SUDs and mental disorders to heal and go on to live joyful, productive lives.

Now, let’s dive further into how adventure therapy has evolved over time, and how it helps people recover today. 

Today’s Adventure Therapy 

Although the term “adventure therapy” is fairly contemporary in the context of addiction and mental health treatment and recovery, one of the early models emerged in 1941 with the first Outward Bound program in Aberdovey, Wales. As more of an “educational movement,” Outward Bound, developed by Kurt Hann, centered on concepts of “journey, expedition, and challenge,” as a way to encourage “character and maturity.” 

Later, in the mid-1980s, Outward Bound made its way to Colorado as a treatment center. At its core, Outward Bound achieved its character and recovery building by integrating outdoor activities and adventures. 

Today, adventure therapy can also be referred to, and include, “Wilderness Adventure Therapy WAT),” designed for individuals with behavioral, psychological and psychosocial issues.” 

It’s important to note that while “adventure” implies fun, adventure therapy is highly structured, integrating both physical activities and challenges and rehabilitative principles. 

Some of the activities in adventure therapy and WAT largely involve problem-solving, utilizing peer and group support, encouraging self-esteem and self-awareness, developing life skills and resilience, and can include:

  • Rope courses
  • Rock climbing
  • Hiking
  • Abseiling
  • Rafting
  • Caving
  • Bushwalking
  • Camping

While adventure therapy and WAT can be used both for intervention and long-term care, many formal treatment settings involve psychotherapy and counseling support. We’ll explore this further in the next section. 

Types of Adventure Therapy Support 

Depending on the type and structure of adventure therapy—for addressing substance abuse or mental health, the psychological and counseling aspects of the program can differ. 

Typically, however, most adventure therapy programs involve one or more of the following options:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), often to treat anxiety, anger or violent behavior, and depression. 
  • Rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), a psychotherapy practice to help individuals identify and work on solutions for self-defeating thoughts and feelings and replace them with more positive, healthy, and productive beliefs and strategies. 
  • Multisystemic Therapy (MST), designed for adolescents, this approach is targeted to helping young people abstain from violent, criminal, and negative behaviors. 

Overall, the combination of linking life lessons through physical activity and problem-solving challenges with therapeutic psychotherapy strategies helps improve and promote many valuable recovery tools for SUDs and mental health disorders, which include:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-control
  • Critical thinking
  • Abstinence
  • Confidence
  • Trust
  • Responsibility
  • Healthy identity
  • Goal setting
  • Physical health and wellness
  • Teamwork/appropriate social skills 

And, because adventure therapy is so versatile and multifaceted in how it can help people heal and grow, it can be used to help people with:

  • Alcohol addiction
  • Drug addiction
  • Eating disorders
  • Behavioral issues
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Conduct problems
  • Juvenile and criminal behaviors
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Grief
  • Depression

Success of Adventure Therapy

Even though adventure therapy has only formally been structured as a method of treatment for various substance abuse and mental health disorders, there have been upwards of 197 studies to help support its effectiveness. And, the collective results affirm the success of adventure therapy (especially in the short-term) for improving outcomes for individuals with both substance abuse and mental health disorders. 

Is Adventure Therapy Right For You (or a Loved One?)

If you feel that you or a loved one might have a SUD or mental health disorder, you are not alone. The best way to determine what type of treatment is most effective for each person is to consult with a professional experienced mental health/substance abuse care provider. Futures routinely helps people with a variety of addiction and mental-health-related conditions, offering compassionate and comprehensive treatment. Our licensed clinical professionals provide personalized approaches, including inpatient detoxification and residential treatment, and outpatient services

To get started, contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098. 


Experience lasting change and receive the support you need now and over the years to come.

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