Advice about Therapeutic Wilderness Programs

Parent Q&A

Looking for RTC as next step after wilderness program Feb 12, 2020 (2 responses below)
  • Our 16 year old son is currently in wilderness therapy in Utah.  Our Ed Consultant has recommended both Catalyst in Brigham City and The Heritage Community Elevate Program in Provo as our next step.  I am looking for families that have experience with either of these programs and whether you would recommend them.  Were you happy with the therapists and the academics? Was the facility well maintained? We are planning to visit both next week.

    I appreciate previous posts about how difficult this is and all the words of encouragement.  As a new BPN member, I feel the information posted here is sooo much more useful than scary internet searches.  Thank you!

    We're a Heritage family and I would say a RTC success. Steve Sommers was our therapist and he was excellent. I very highly recommend Heritage.
    One thing to keep in mind is that even the Ca-accredited RTC's do not meet A-G requirements, so if you're thinking what happens after RTC in terms of education and presidential potential college, there's some more advocating to be done.
    My son attended Heritage as a step down from a level 14 in southern Utah. I think that coming from a Wilderness program you have the best chances of a solid success at RTC. One staff member intimated that the students that arrive at heritage directly from home or hospital don't do as well as the students that step down at Heritage.
    If you child is a runner, this may not be the best fit.
    There seem to be a lot of bay area heritage families.
    Have you worked with Willows in the Wind?
    And a visit is worth a thousand words. Best wishes and feel free to contact me directly.
    Best wishes. This is a really difficult situation and I want you to know that it can get better.

    I hope you receive some good responses to your question. I want to let you know about a Facebook group called Wilderness Therapy and Residential Treatment Search Support which has been invaluable to me in this process. There is a related group called Parents with Kids in Residential Treatment that is also extremely helpful. Just search for the group on FB and ask to join. They are both private groups. Best of luck, I can relate to how hard this is and how scary internet reviews can be.

  • My 16 yr old son is interested in the outdoors and we are looking into NOLS and OB trips during the summer.  I've heard a lot of good things about both, with friends who they themselves, or their kids, have gone on trips over the years.

    Both OB and NOLS trips are whitewater rafting/climbing for about 2 weeks. The NOLS trip will likely have 15 participants (ages of 16-20, with average age 18) with 5 instructors, but the OB trip will only have 7 kids with 2 instructors but limited to ages 16-17 yrs.  My understanding so far is that OB trips focus on self development and leadership skills, whereas the NOLS trips focus on the outdoor activity skills, with developing confidence and leadership as an added benefit from participation in the activity. 

    In searching online, I found some very old posts (didn't specify if it was OB or NOLs) where people reported a lack of supervision (with kids going off to smoke pot or have sex) on these sorts of trips, which seems hard to imagine with the adult/kid ratio they advertise. I also read that for OB, there were "at risk kids" going who had delinquency problems and were sent on the trips as a last resort, but problems with behavior and serious conflicts with kids occurred during the course, kids ended up dropping out, etc.  Others wrote about having had some great experiences with both NOLS and OB.

    I'm leaning toward the NOLS trip because I think that with the larger group, even though not limited to 16/17 yr old, and more instructors, there will be more opportunities for a positive social experiences. and I think my son would prefer it to be focused on skill development in rafting/kayaking, rather than purposefully focusing on self development and being put in challenging situations to build character and leadership.  He has lot of grit and is highly motivated with respect to outdoor sport, although would benefit from leadership development.

    Wondering if anyone here has any experience with these programs, either with kids having gone to them or having gone themselves.


    This might be too long ago to be relevant but when I was a teenager - 20 years ago - I attended an OB one summer as a freshman and when I was a junior, a NOLS course. Both were great experiences from my perspective. The OB course in the Colorado mountains was more self reflection/ general backcountry travel, including a one day solo and an endurance run. The NOLS course was in British Columbia's Wadding range and involved extensive glacier travel. It was a much more technical course and an amazing experience to explore remote terrain. My sister attend a NOLS course too, in Alaska's Brooks range, and also had similar experiences. 

    I would recommend the NOLS course, if you had to choose one, based on my own experiences and your descriptions of what your son is interested in. It will be a remarkable experience!

    Hi my daughter did a 4 week NOLS trip 3 summers ago that was 2.5 weeks backpacking and 1.5 weeks rafting and loved it. One of those life-changing experiences that she will never forget. The program is all about leadership development through challenging activities and that is what you get. But it's the kind of experience where you learn leadership skills without really being focused on that. My daughter is a high level soccer player and has done quite a bit of hiking and climbing in Colorado and she was very physically challenged by the course. It is not something you just sign up for - they screen kids to make sure they can handle the physicality of the program. I cannot recommend it enough.

Parent Reviews

I wanted to ask if you have considered a Wilderness program for him.  My son was struggling with severe depression for a few years starting at 17.  He is now 23 also.  We tried different meds, therapy, different interventions and nothing seemed to help.  Long story short, we ended up sending him to Evoke Therapy in Utah and while I was very apprehensive about this program, it ended up being the best gift we could have ever given to him.  He did therapeutic work that he never could have accomplished here at home.  Fast forward 18 months:  he is has girlfriend and is back at school full-time.   He is happy and able to express himself in ways I never thought possible.  I asked him recently what he thought had the most impact  in his life in regards to the healing process and he did not hesitate to say his time in Wilderness.  Also, his therapist here in Berkeley was dead set against  wilderness, saying that there was no way he would handle it.  Well he did, learned he could and came out knowing himself .  I suggest you give their intake people a call to discuss your situation.  Another one we liked was Open Sky.  Best of luck.  You can ask the moderator for my contact info if you want.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


What to do if child has to miss school for wilderness program

Feb 2013

We are sadly at the point of having to send our 13 yr old son to a wilderness program to assist him with his behavior issues and depression. We have tried all the options close by but none were the right fit, he needs a high level of daily care. My question is to parents who have had to send their kids off for periods of time to programs that don't have an academic component. What did you do? Did your child have to be held back the next year for not completing the grade? We're you able to work with the district? Any ideas? I'd just hate for him to go do all this work on himself and have to repeat 8th grade because of it. Any advice? Lost mom

Our daughter's timing at wilderness happened to fall during the summer, so in a way I can not give you a good answer. What I can point out though is that most kids do not come directly back home after a wilderness experience. Have you been counseled on this and the possible next steps of boarding schools? Wilderness is usually used as a first step to the entrance to boarding school (i.e. Residential Therapeutic). It is a step in the process to help break down the walls and open the child to help. Don't get me wrong, work is done during wilderness but it is usually just the tip of the iceberg. Make sure you know your post-wilderness options and that you are financially ready to finish the process.

He's in 8th grade? And will be going to wilderness this spring? Our son was a 14-year-old 8th grader when he went to wilderness therapy last spring; he left school in mid-March and never returned. The experience changed his life -actually it was transformative for the whole family- and we have absolutely no regrets. HIs school did not even consider retaining him, even though he missed nearly half the year. For college, 8th grade doesn't really count. It depends on the district and school, of course, but most will not retain a student if they've been doing reasonably well. When our son returned from wilderness, he went to summer school to finish the second semester of math. And moved on to 9th grade in the fall. So my advice: talk to the counselor or principal about your plans and don't worry about school; focus on getting your son into a program to get him healthy and happy again. -Mom who's no longer lost

After your son concludes the wilderness program, you will almost certainly be advised to send him to a therapeutic boarding school. It is unrealistic to think that he'll go directly from wilderness back to his school. (nobody told me this in advance) An alternative is sending him to a ''transitional'' school to give him a chance to ease back into the academic setting and improve the chances for a successful return home. The one transitional school I know about is Mountain Springs, in Cedar City, UT. even with a transitional school experience, you might end up considering alternative schools (Tilden, Holden and others) after he is home--you may as well start looking into the possibilities. The good news is: if the wilderness program and transition home is successful, there's still time for him to have a conventional high school experience. None of this will be part of the record. (we were grateful that none of this needed to be explained on college apps) If the worst that happens is that he ''loses'' a year, this would be a good outcome. good luck. been there

April 2011

Re: Residential treatment for troubled teen
I highly recommend Open Sky Wilderness. It's not a ''boot camp'' type of program, though it is extremely structured and boundaried. What I like most about this program is that they see the wholeness in the kids and definitely have a more holistic approach. Yoga, meditation, ritual. I also recommend David Heckenlively who is an educational consultant. He will meet with you and/or your kid to try to recommend the best placement for your particular kid. He is great with kids and really knows the resources well. He also has biweekly support groups for parents which are wonderful. His # is 925-681-1700. Good luck. It's hard. I've been there. HG

Wilderness Programs/Boot Camps for Depressed Teen

April 2011

Need a ''theraputic'' program for add teen. Teen is barely going to make it out of high school, refuses to do any work, stays in bed. Already being treated for depression and anxiety but nothing seems to help. Professionals have suggested we consider a wilderness/boot camp program. Would like to hear any feed back on these types of programs, the good, and the bad. Anon

First of all, not all wilderness programs are boot camps. A good wilderness program, while it offers an experience of wilderness living and learning survival skills, is accompanied by a significant therapeutic component, and is not punitive in nature. I would not recommend trying to find a good program without consulting a professional educational consultant. On BPN you will find recommendations -- of course, there will be positive and negative comments for all of them, so talk to people you trust about who they have worked with. Ed. consultants are expensive, but they have visited and worked with these programs and can help you find one best suited to you and your teen's needs. Not all programs are right for all teens, or their families. Just trying to find a program by reading websites is not reliable.

Wilderness programs can have a remarkable and transformative effect on even the most difficult and troubled teens. The family has to do a lot of work, too, however, especially on things like communications skills. Having the appropriate aftercare is also critical to sustaining the change. Most professionals will tell you that sending a teen to wilderness, and then bringing them home, will not be successful. Most children go on to a therapeutic boarding school, or even some kind of residential treatment program. Again, a professional ed. consultant has the knowledge of these programs and can tell you which ones are best for your child.

These programs are phenomenally expensive, and deciding to send your child away to wilderness, and then to a boarding school, is a painful and difficult decision to make. It sets off a depth charge in your family. But parents who do so are often in the position of feeling they have no choice, because their child is engaged in such damaging behaviors and is so estranged from the family. Results are not guaranteed, but when the alternative is a child who seems to be completely lost, it is worth the risk. One who made the choice

Wilderness program for angry, defiant 14-year-old

March 2010

my friend has a 14 year old son that is angry but has friends. he is doing poorly in school (8th grade) and is not interested in traditional learning. he identifies as a skateborder as well as being a tough guy/ hip-hop/ gangster culture (don't get mad at me for a potentially non politically correct comment, lets focus on the kid). in reality he is a nervous boy and gets very frustrated with his school work. he is occasionally violent around his mom and sister. he also is extremely needy, calling his mom constantly at work, unable to find his own socks in the morning before school this kid is defiant of his mom's advice and nurturing. there is no dad/male in the family. one family therapist suggested ''wilderness therapy''. any experiences/advice here? CB (concerned boyfriend)

I've heard good things about Second Nature (though no direct experience). I did use the Bodin Group as consultants to help me find a program for my young adult and am pretty pleased with them though they charge a lot for what they provide... best wishes

Your letter makes me a little nervous; I am a mom with a boy of about the same age who loves skateboarding, hip-hop music, etc. I'm not sure to what degree the boy you write about is ''tough'' or how violent his violence against his mom and sister is: is it physical violence we are talking about here (an absolute no-no) or rough and abusive behavior and language (also not OK, but fixable) or just disrespect (normal among boy teens, unfortunately, and in need of correction, but not a sign of deviance). A LOT of boys are ''not interested in traditional learning.'' The reason I am nervous about your letter is the way you describe your relationship with the mom and the way you seem to be inserting yourself into the solution of this problem. If you are the mom's boyfriend, it seems to me that you are rather judgmental about her son and the way she interacts with him. If you are just a ''friend,'' I think you need to back off. If you are a member of the household you are more than just a friend and you should have some say in how people treat each other in the household, but you are still not the boy's father, which is something he well knows. Have you considered (if you are the boyfriend) how your presence might have an impact on the situation? I have a partner who lives with me and who is not my son's father, and one thing that is very important in maintaining good relations all around is my partner's recognition of my right to raise my son as I see fit, even if he doesn't agree. If the mom is at her wit's end and is asking for help and solutions, MAYBE it would be appropriate to discuss something like wilderness programs. But I didn't hear that in your letter, nor did I hear anything about the son engaging in dangerous behaviors (unless the violence you described is physical violence). Would it really be right to exile him, just get him out of the picture, because he's difficult? skateboarder's mom

Please, proceed with great caution. There are lots of wilderness programs; some are awful and dangerous. It is an extreme, last resort sort of decision and you need to know what you are doing. Unless you are in crisis mode (and even if you are in crisis mode), consider whether there is a less severe alternative means to helping your child. Beware of ''educational consultants'' who receive kickbacks from wilderness programs and beware of programs that pay ''educational consultants'' for referrals. The programs are extremely expensive and there is no assurance that the result will be positive. It is often a stepping stone on the way to long-term therapeutic boarding school. anon

This response addresses both posts on Wilderness programs. When we reviewed wilderness programs, we had a child like yours--not into anything bad, just difficult and unmotivated, and shooting himself in the foot over and over again at school. We were not thrilled about mixing him in with a Wilderness program that included teens with far more serious problems. We sent him to NAWA Academy for 1.5 years. It's out in the woods near French Gulch, and they learn a lot about wilderness rescue while also doing classroom work. Although he has mixed feelings about the experience, he acknowledges he gained a lot from the experience. First, the school offered him many leadership opportunities and he became responsible for himself as well as very aware of helping others. Second, while he felt he was not challenged enough in school there (although he had never taken advantage of the challenges at his public school) he learned how to put together an essay and how to do research--two skills that put him in good shape when he went on to College. Third, he did their International Academy for one semester and loved it. The costs have close to doubled since he went (in 2001/02), but compared to a wilderness program, it may be in the same ballpark. I think if we had sent him at the beginning of his highschool years instead of the end, he might well have been able to come home and finish up in the public school. When he was going there NAWA had summer programs that might give some of the experience you are looking for. relieved mom

Feedback on Wilderness and RTC

Oct 2009

Desperate, and out of resources I feel forced to entertain two next moves for my bi-polar 15 year old. I want to send her to Vantage Point Aspiro, a new wilderness/assessment program recommended by Bodin (I think they are really good) to see how she responds w/o academic pressure, etc. Anyone know this program as it looks like what she needs before I take the next step. School has recommended Cinnamon Hills from there which I have lots of reservations about:negative parent reviews and very regimented for a bright bi-polar with sleep and many other issues. She also needs spec.ed intervention. School also mentioned Heritage which has great reviews from parents whose judgment I trust. School is filing due process since I refused the placement to Cinnamon Hills. (Said Heritage refused her) Any feedback please as I really trust this site's responders and their integrity and intelligence.

Hi, I'm an MFT and also run a therapeutic wilderness program (though not right for what your daughter needs). But since this is up my alley, I thought I'd offer what I can.

For another perspective, you can contact David Heckenlively, MFT who is an ed. consultant in Walnut Creek. He specializes in working with struggling teens and their families. I have a lot of respect for his integrity and level of staying current with wild. therapy programs. I have seen some excellent placements and outcomes result from his work. I believe his website is

If you haven't looked at them yet, you might consider Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Durango, CO. I don't know that they're the right fit for your daughter/family, but they're doing some great work whose results are corroborated with ongoing outcome research.

Hope this is of use, Dave

In 2001, my 15 yr old who was spiraling down terribly. I also went to the Bodin group. A therapeutic wilderness program was recommended for my dd, Second Nature. They also recommended a therapeutic boarding school.

Please reconsider. Second Nature worked well for my daughter d emotionally. I asked lots of detailed questions and still did not knnow the harsh conditions. Her diet was restricted to beans and water until she earned the privilege to eat more. She slept on the ground in the snow of the Utah mountains. All she had was a tarp, no tent. My girl was signficantly injured in the program. The program was described as gentle; it was not.questions, but still I did not know what the conditions would be. Caveat Emptor with these programs.

My biggest mistake was sending my daughter away after Second Nature. Many of these therapeutic programs are very behaviorally based. The staff is often poorly trained. The therapists typically are right out of school; they stay one year to be licensed and leave.The staff psychiatrist overmedicated the kids. My daughter received 3X the maximum dosage allow of her medication. My daughter was emotionally harmed by staff and victimized by older boys in the program. I found that Bodin was in bed with the program. When it came to protecting my daughter,they did not act to do so.

This was my direct experience with my own child. Please be careful. Before taking such a drastic step, I recommend consulting with a therapist in Albany, Terry Trotter. She is amazing.

I understand the anxiety about wilderness programs all too well as it was one of the most difficult decisions that my husband and I have ever made. In 2006 we sent our son to a 5 week program I won't name (very well known), and it had limited impact. In 2007 we decided to work with Bodin and subsequently sent our son to Second Nature, and our son then moved on to an 8 month follow-up program recommended by both Second Nature and Bodin. I'd like to balance the critical perspective about Bodin offered by Peggy who posted today, though by no means can I argue that our experience is typical or applicable to others. Yes, it is the case that Bodin is favorably disposed to Second Nature, but Bodin prefers to send clients to programs they know well, and we found that to be a tremendous benefit. Our son's co-therapists talked with us almost weekly, and our Bodin consultant was on the phone with us as well, and therefore we had a network of support. Our son's follow-up program is a program favored by Second Nature and Bodin, and I suppose some parents would be suspicious about that, but, for us, these program relationships facilitated continuity of treatment from one program to another. All this said, after all this treatment, our son continues to struggle, and none of his three programs were 'cures.' On the other hand, we've learned a great deal about our son (as he did about himself), and we now understand that he may never be able to handle his life like an adult. As sad as this is to accept, we've had the input and perspective of many professionals, each of whom has expressed both 'glass half full' and 'glass half empty' perspectives, and offered us hope as well as painful realities. These professionals definitely offered our son hope - yes, maybe the programs are challenging, but our son was loved in so many ways, and he carries that love with him. It's noteworthy that his former therapists are his facebook friends. I'm very sorry that other parents and kids have had less positive experiences with Bodin and Second Nature, but I just wanted to offer another perspective. Best of luck, and a hug of support. anon

This is in response to the mother whose 15 year old daughter went to Second Nature. We had a different experience when our 18 year old daughter went to the same program. Perhaps she was in a different age group. Yes, the conditions were harsh. but I think the reasons for that were sound. The therapist assigned to our daughter was excellent; compassionate, caring and experienced. Our daughter liked the other staff as well. Victimization by other participants was not allowed and the kids were carefully monitored. Upon graduation parents were allowed to spend the night in the wilderness (it was really, really cold) and see for themselves what went on. We got a lot out of the group sessions and meeting the other participants. That said, we are glad she is no longer there and so is she! She went to an after care program after wilderness and her life was turned around. Anon

Boot camp for 19 year old?

Jan 2009

My niece is currently flunking two of her classes at a local community college. She lacks motivation, has been lying to me about small and large issues, lacks self-esteem, and is attending therapy, but is not altering her bad behaviour. I am thinking of sending her to a boot camp, one that isn't punitive, but provides emotional support, group therapy, and consequences to poor behavior. She is living with me since she has a tenuous relationship with her Mom. I am wondering if anyone has had success with this type of program? And, if you can recommend a specific program? anon

You might consider engaging the services of an educational consultation who specializes in such placements, as they are often able to sort through the variety of programs to match the specific needs of your child. The Bodin Group (925- 283-9100) is one such resource. They have an enormous amount of experience in these matters. Good luck. Andrew

I highly recommend that you work with an educational consultant. We worked with a woman named Virginia Reiss (in Larkspur, CA) and found her to be incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. There are many good people out there who can guide you through the process. It is important to find the right place for her, especially due to the fact that she is over 19 and cannot be legally held against her will. There are also many places that are not safe so it is worth spending the money on a consultant to help guide you. Good luck! step mom of a formerly troubled teen

I strongly recommend Second Nature Wilderness Program. A teenager I know well was completely melting down, not getting along with anyone and having trouble with, well, everything. He really transformed with some time with this program. They are not a 'boot camp' except in the sense that they take the kid out of their usual environment and help make them feel independent and self-reliant. There's no hint of outrageous militaristic discipline. The teen I know was at the one in Utah. Their website is

I can vouch for Second Nature - my son, who is now 20, went there when he was 16. The counselors are excellent, and though he was very defiant at the time, I might go so far as to say he liked it. He definitely got a lot out of it and appreciated the program structure. But we got there with the help of Bodin Associates - I don't think you can book with Second Nature directly. You have to work through one of the consultants. Diana

You do not have to go through a consultant to enroll your child at Second Nature. You can call the Second Nature office in Salt Lake City or Duschene, Utah and talk to an admissions person directly. Call information and ask for Second Nature in Duschene. The admissions staff is compassionate and very knowledgeable. anon