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Wilderness Camps for Teens

I've always found nature ... and time in the wilderness to be therapeutic and restorative. Both challenging and calming. So I'm not surprised the teen wilderness outings are often successful in helping teens cope with today's urban pressures. I wish I were of the right age to participate! Maybe you know someone who would benefit from a meaningful encounter with their human heritage.

Youth Camps for Real World Experience

May is the beginning of the busiest season at SUWS Youth & Adolescent wilderness programs in Idaho. As school winds down, many parents confront the reality that their teen is not succeeding academically. Lost credits and the idea of a long summer without structure motivate many of these parents to enroll their teens in outdoor education programs. If their child is failing a number of classes, parents enroll them even before the school year ends with the hope of catching up lost credits so they are not behind their peers when the fall semester begins.

According to Sue Crowell, who heads the Outdoor Education Division of Aspen Education Group, many families choose to enroll their teens even before the school year ends:

“Some kids just quit. They know they are failing and that there is no way to fix it this late in the year. Some of these students simply stop going to class. Parents realize it is a mistake to let their teen just wait out the end of the school year and they want as much time as possible to salvage the situation. These parents realize they need to strike when the iron is hot if they want the next school year to go differently.”

Gil Hallows, Executive Director of Aspen Achievement Academy, a wilderness program that also specializes in teens with substance abuse issues, advises parents that by June most therapeutic wilderness programs have waiting lists: “If the parents state they want to wait until the end of the school year, we ask them how their child is doing in school. If they aren’t going to school or they are flunking out, if they are spending more time partying with friends than studying for final exams, you might as well cut your losses and get them into a treatment program to get a fresh start.”

Wilderness therapy combines traditional therapeutic treatment with an outdoor, experiential trek that involves backpacking, the learning of primitive survival skills, and challenging group activities. These programs offer a dramatic and effective way to reach young people who are not achieving their full potential or who are defying their parents and teachers. The backdrop of the great outdoors serves as a catalyst for profound transformation. For many students, this is their first experience “roughing it” in the wilderness. Without the distractions of television, computers, and video games, these teens get a rare opportunity to examine their behavior and re-discover their potential. As the summer break approaches, wilderness programs receive hundreds of inquiries a week by interested and sometimes desperate parents.

Many families choose wilderness therapy as an alternative to traditional teen summer camps. Teens who exhibit defiant behavior rarely succeed in typical summer camp settings; wilderness programs offer greater supervision, experiential education, and therapeutic treatment as well as the adventure of living in the wilderness.

“Parents whose children are starting to engage in negative behaviors, are not succeeding in school, or are experiencing increased family conflict find that using a summertime intervention helps gets their kids back on track so they can succeed in their home environment,” says Sue Crowell.

Many wilderness programs also offer academic credits so students who have failed in school can catch up on lost credits, something most traditional summer camps do not offer. Many wilderness program directors caution parents about letting academic problems continue with the hope that the child will simply turn it around on his or her own. SUWS, located in Idaho, has been offering a successful curriculum-based program for 25 years.

“It’s tempting for parents to have wishful thinking when their kids aren’t doing well in school, especially if they know their child is bright and capable, but many of these students are simply coasting. Summer provides an exceptional advantage for students who have minimal grades and success in school. Summer is a time when teens typically forget everything they have learned and they are thrilled school is over because it was such a negative experience. Our goal is to help them tap into some academic success and keep a positive flow going. If students are hanging on by a thread, this can have a tremendous impact on their overall academic success. This will often do more good for the child and the family than finishing out the school year,” says Kathy Rex, Executive Director of the SUWS programs.

The greatest benefit, however, is the profound impact the wilderness experience has on teens’ sense of personal responsibility. This safe yet challenging environment serves as an antidote to complacency and defiance.

“Poor academic performance is usually a symptom of something else. At Aspen Achievement Academy we address the issues that are contributing to the poor academic performance,” says Gil Hallows, “Also, in the wilderness the focus is on experiential learning. Students realize that learning can be fun. Kids who have been struggling in traditional settings get a renewed sense of self-confidence as they see they can succeed. They rediscover they have the ability to learn.”

Wilderness therapy programs also offer a higher level of expertise in working with troubled teens than do summer camps. Experienced field instructors and Master’s level therapists help the teens confront any self-defeating behaviors and develop strategies to be more successful at home and at school. Independent research studies, such as one conducted by the University of Idaho’s Outdoor Behavioral Health program, found that teens’ behavior was still dramatically improved one year after attending a wilderness program.

To learn more about wilderness programs visit or call (888) 972-7736.

Phone: 562-468-4479