Outdoor Adventure Therapy and How it Promotes Recovery

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stresses that a holistic approach to treatment offers the best possible outcomes.1 Outdoor adventure therapy is an experiential treatment that’s been shown to help treat addiction when it’s used along with traditional “talk” therapies.

Experiential therapies are a type of complementary treatment that involves hands-on experiences to help people express difficult emotions and develop essential coping skills. Other examples of experiential therapies include art therapy, horticultural therapy and equine therapy.

What is Outdoor Adventure Therapy?

Outdoor adventure therapy is a type of therapy that takes place during outdoor adventures. It’s an active approach to psychotherapy that involves engaging participants in activities like boating, hiking or climbing and then discussing their thoughts, emotions and reactions during the activity. Participants create meaning through the insights they gain by experiencing, discussing and then transferring the lessons learned into other areas of their lives.

A range of processes create real and meaningful change for those who participate in outdoor adventure therapy. For example, participants gain self-confidence through the successful mastery of a skill; identifying and developing similar skills they possess; re-evaluating irrational thoughts and beliefs about themselves; and applying skills and sub-skills to improve self-confidence in other areas, such as their relationships or career. A trained and qualified adventure therapist leads participants through this process as the adventure unfolds and during the intensive discussions that follow.

How Outdoor Adventure Therapy Works: Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle

Educational theorist David Kolb writes that learning “is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” 2 His four-stage cycle embodies his theory on experiential learning:

  • Concrete experience (do it), or the act of engaging in a new experience
  • Reflective observation (talk about it), which involves actively observing and reflecting before, during and after the experience
  • Abstract conceptualization(synthesize it), which is all about the reflection of the experience sparking a new idea or the reworking of an old idea or belief
  • Active experimentation (apply it), which is where learners apply the new or reworked idea or belief into their lives

Experiential education only works if all four stages are involved. An outdoor adventure alone won’t precipitate learning or change without observing, conceptualizing, and applying the skills learned.

The University of Kentucky stresses that in order for outdoor adventure therapy to be effective, participants must:

  • Keep an open mind about new experiences
  • Look at the experience from different perspectives
  • Create concepts based on their observations
  • Use these concepts in their lives to solve problems and make decisions

7 Main Concepts of Outdoor Adventure Therapy

The driving concepts of outdoor adventure therapy are based on the principles of experiential education, according to the Association for Experiential Education.3 They draw on the value of hands-on experiences and full engagement in the therapy and include:

Many of the activities used in outdoor adventure therapy carry risks, and they generally involve some stress. But when the risk and stress are managed by the therapist, participants can safely work through the challenges and build resilience and confidence.

Risky and stressful activities have natural and logical consequences and engaging in them allows participants to experience the consequences that occur as a result of their actions. This leads to greater self-awareness surrounding choices.

The benefits of engaging with nature are widely known. According to the University of California at Berkeley, these include reduced stress, anxiety and depression; better cognitive function; and increased creativity. Nature provides immediate, non-judgmental feedback and is an effective venue for therapy.

The therapist’s role in outdoor adventure therapy is to facilitate reflection before, during and after the activity. Since the therapist shares in the activities with participants, he or she is in the unique position to be present during experiences that bring about change. The therapist plays a major role in helping participants transfer the lessons learned into other life domains.

Outdoor adventure therapy is only therapeutic if the client is fully engaged physically, mentally and emotionally. Active participation leads participants to reveal themselves authentically to the therapist, who examines how a participant might approach problem-solving in areas of his or her life.

Participants in outdoor adventure therapy are empowered to choose the type of change they want to create in their lives, and the responsibility to do so is their own. Participants therefore engage in risk-taking in a positive, self-directed way, which places the accountability for treatment outcomes on the client.

The outdoor adventure therapist chooses specific activities that are designed to explore certain issues, reveal participants’ thought and behavior patterns and create opportunities for change. The activities chosen are engaging and fun, and they offer participants a respite from negative thinking and resistance to change.

Types of Activities in Outdoor Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy involves a variety of different types of activities, including cooperative games, activities to bolster problem-solving skills, trust-building activities and wilderness expeditions. Each type of activity has specific benefits for participants.

Cooperative Activities 

Cooperative activities offer opportunities for fun and positive interactions. They’re chosen for specific purposes, such as introducing group members, reducing stress or deepening the client-therapist relationship. Cooperative activities enable the therapist to accurately assess a client’s functioning level, confidence and engagement and help participants:

  • Build positive relationships
  • Improve social skills
  • Increase self-awareness
  • Challenge preconceived notions about themselves and other people
  • Build trust within the group 

Trust and Support Activities

Trust and support activities involve situations where participants must rely on each other to complete a task, such as navigating an obstacle course with a blindfold on. These activities give participants the chance to help others and experience being in control over another person’s physical and emotional wellbeing. It gives them the opportunity to accept help and rely on others for support. Trust and support activities help participants:

  • Develop a stronger relationship with the therapist and other group members
  • Explore different levels of trust across different relationships
  • Experience positive effects of a relationship based on trust
  • Set healthy boundaries
  • Develop confidence in their ability to help other people

High Adventure and Low Adventure Activities

High adventure activities like rock climbing, canyoneering and caving carry a higher risk than other types of activities, and they help participants master a range of skills. Low adventure activities like kayaking, fishing and hiking are less risky than high adventure activities, but they provide high-intensity experiences. High and low adventure activities may take place over the course of a day, or they can be overnight or extended trips. High and low adventure activities help clients:

  • Develop personal responsibility
  • Develop greater self-awareness
  • Learn to accept help and offer help to others
  • Improve their coping skills
  • Improve emotional management skills
  • Learn to cooperate and build healthy relationships built on trust
  • Create a deep and meaningful connection to nature

Initiative Activities

Initiative activities require participants to work together to solve a problem, such as how to get a certain number of objects across a stream in a finite number of trips. Participants must take the initiative to communicate effectively with one another to promote group cohesion and cooperation. Initiative activities help clients:

  • Develop cooperation and communication skills
  • Build trust among group members
  • Promote problem-solving skills
  • Develop strategies for managing emotions
  • Increase self-awareness

High Constructed Elements

High constructed elements are activities that take place at some height above the ground, such as a ropes course or zip line. These “risky” activities precipitate behavioral, emotional and cognitive responses that can be related to personal treatment goals. High constructed elements help participants:

  • Set realistic goals
  • Learn to support others
  • Build healthy relationships
  • Manage impulses and emotions
  • Develop healthy coping skills
  • Develop self-confidence
  • Reinforce trust in others

Expeditionary Activities

Expeditionary activities are longer adventure trips that can last anywhere from a week to several months. Expeditions are intensive adventures that produce a high level of change in a short period of time. During expeditionary activities, participants are removed from their familiar life and encounter numerous opportunities for learning and reflection. Through expeditionary activities, clients:

  • Understand the interdependent nature of the activity and develop trust in others
  • Build healthy relationships
  • Increase self-awareness surrounding personal choices
  • Experience natural consequences of their actions
  • Develop a high level of self-confidence
  • Connect with nature in meaningful ways
  • Learn essential coping skills

Outdoor Adventure Therapy Promotes Long-Term Recovery

According to the Institute for Outdoor Learning, outdoor adventure therapy has far-reaching effects for those who fully participate. 4 These include:

  • Recovery from mental fatigue and better concentration
  • Better overall cognitive functioning
  • A more positive way of seeing the world
  • Better coping skills to deal with stress, negative emotions and cravings
  • Better physical and mental health and wellbeing

A high-quality outdoor adventure therapy program will follow the industry’s best practices and guidelines as set forth by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council and the Association for Experiential Education. Accredited adventure therapy programs offer the best outcomes. Accreditations are offered by the Association for Experiential Education, the Association for Challenge Course Technology, the International Adventure Therapy Conference and the Outdoor Behavioral healthcare Council.

Outdoor adventure therapy is hard work, but it’s fun and engaging work that helps participants internalize the lessons learned on each adventure. As part of a high-quality, holistic treatment program, adventure therapy promotes meaningful change and long-term recovery.