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Updated on December 22, 2022
6 min read

What is Adventure Therapy? Can it Help Treat Substance Abuse?

What is Adventure Therapy?

Ever hear someone say, take a breath of fresh air, go for a walk in the park, or get out and smell the roses?

These are all common sayings when someone is struggling mentally. And they’re common because they work. Getting outside and taking in nature can help you feel happier and healthier. Even doctors prescribe adventure therapy to some patients.2

Adventure therapy is an alternative form of therapy. For decades, adventure therapists have been combining nature and adventure activities to treat people with mental health conditions and other disorders.6

Through evidence-based recreational activities, an adventure therapy program can effectively treat:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Other mental health conditions
  • Substance use disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief
  • Behavioral problems
  • Self-esteem issues
  • More

Adventures offer all sorts of experiential therapy that’s proven to help people physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially.

There are several types of adventure therapy and adventure therapy techniques. Read on to learn more about adventure therapy and whether this clinical tool is the right treatment.

Can Adventure Therapy Treat Substance Abuse?

Adventure therapy is often used to treat substance abuse. Even people overcoming addiction to drugs and alcohol utilize adventure therapy to cope with cravings and maintain sobriety.

Adventure therapy patients with substance use disorders show increased intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that help them cope.1

Another meta-analysis of 197 studies on adventure therapy shows that people who participate in adventure groups experience greater change than those who undergo other types of treatment or no treatment. 

More so, people who participated in short-term adventure therapy treatments were able to sustain those changes long-term.4


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Types of Adventure Therapy

There are several different types of adventure therapy.

1. Onsite Adventure-Based Therapy

Adventure therapy activities don’t have to be in true nature. Many adventure therapy programs are hosted at residential treatment centers.

For example, adventure therapists can bring resources to treatment facilities, like rock climbing walls or bicycles.  

2. Long-Term Residential Camping

Long-term residential camping is a type of adventure therapy that places people in outdoor therapy camps to develop adventure skills. These are also known as “mobile training units.” 

These programs usually take place over several months or a year. For example, a group of young adults might head out on a sailing boat to learn how to sail for several months.

3. Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is a subset of adventure therapy. It generally takes place in remote areas over several days.

Wilderness therapy takes small groups into nature to do various outdoor activities together. For example, a wilderness therapy program might include trekking and camping over several days. While people aren’t hiking, they might partake in other physical activities like swimming or stargazing. 

Adventure Therapy Techniques

There are tons of different adventure and wilderness therapy activities that therapists practice. Activities vary depending on people’s needs, abilities, and interests.

Some adventure therapy activities include the following:

  • Bushwalking
  • Rock climbing
  • Snowboarding or Skiing
  • Caving
  • Paddleboarding
  • Cycling
  • Surfing
  • White water rafting
  • Swimming 
  • Kayaking
  • Canoeing
  • Camping

Throughout these activities, therapists may employ different techniques.

  • New environments: Taking people into unfamiliar territory can help open their minds and gain fresh perspectives.
  • Good stress: One reason adventure therapy works is that it introduces “eustress” (also known as good stress) into people’s lives. They learn healthy coping skills, behaviors, and mindsets that build confidence.
  • Limited distractions: Because many adventure therapy activities occur in nature, people have the opportunity to step away from their everyday lives. Removing oneself from it all can help instill clarity.

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Pros and Cons of Adventure Therapy

As with all forms of treatment, adventure therapy has pros and cons.

People who work with an adventure therapist in outdoor pursuits benefit from the following:

  • An exciting and productive element
  • A rich environment
  • Obvious risks and rewards
  • Immediate feedback
  • Deep embodiment
  • Serious concentration
  • Clear goals

Those who get outside for treatment may also experience the following benefits of adventure therapy.9, 11

  • Enhanced self-esteem, body image, and confidence
  • More trust
  • An increased sense of community
  • Sometimes increased physical strength
  • Enhanced social skills like communication, critical thinking, and conflict resolution
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Better problem-solving skills
  • More creativity
  • A sense of responsibility
  • Advanced stress-management skills
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Resiliency
  • Reduced feelings of suicidality

Builds Community

Because many adventure therapy techniques pair people together, they can form relationships. Overcoming challenges and navigating through new territories together can help them form bonds. These bonds can create community, which may help people feel a sense of support and belonging.

The community aspect is why many people who have been through trauma or struggle with mental illness choose adventure therapy. They can learn to build trust and heal with the help of others.

For adolescents and young adults, adventure therapy is proven to significantly reduce symptoms of depression and improve behavioral and emotional functioning.3

Who Might Not Benefit From Adventure Therapy?

Adventure therapy isn’t for everyone. Depending on the treatment center and type of adventure therapy, it can be expensive.

Adventure therapy can also be difficult for some people who don’t live near nature. Even people living in cities can practice adventure therapy techniques by getting outside and visiting their local parks. But adventure therapy is better when immersed in nature.

Not everyone can participate in all types of adventure therapy, either. Because people have differing abilities, certain activities aren’t accessible to everyone.

Why is Adventure Good for Mental Health?

Adventures are good for your mental health for a myriad of reasons.

Going outside of your comfort zone forces you to confront challenges. Confronting challenges along your adventures can help you manage challenges you may face in your personal life.

Moving your body releases endorphins that can activate the reward center in your brain. When you exercise, especially outside, you can feel happier.7, 9

Nature alone has proven benefits for mental health. Studies show that people who live next to “blue space” are generally happier than those who don’t. So living by a body of water like a river, the ocean, or a lake can reduce stress.5

Trees also have proven health benefits. Studies show that spending time around trees can reduce stress, improve cognition, and even lead to a longer life.10


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How to Start Adventure Therapy

Here are some steps to start adventure therapy:

  1. Talk to an expert: Speak with a mental health professional about what types of adventure therapy are available.
  2. Consider costs: Adventure therapy isn’t necessarily cheap. Look at different therapy centers and their packages to find an option that fits your budget.
  3. Find something you enjoy: Adventure therapy can be a great way to explore your passions while feeling better. Find an adventure therapy that you enjoy or that pushes you outside your comfort zone.


Adventure therapy has many physical and mental health benefits. Adventure therapy is often used with other treatments like traditional therapy or relationship therapy. It may also be combined with other types of experiential therapy or experiential learning.
Because the outdoors can significantly impact state of mind and overall well-being, adventure therapy can be great for everyone.

Updated on December 22, 2022
11 sources cited
Updated on December 22, 2022
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Adventure Therapy: An Alternative Approach in Drug Addiction Counseling.” Research Gate. 
  2.  Jill Suttie. “How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier, and More Creative.” Greater Good.
  3. Apa PsycNet.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association.
  4. Daniel J.Bowen,James T.Neilla, Simon J.R.Crispb, et al. “Wilderness Adventure Therapy Effects on the Mental Health of Youth Participants.” Evaluation and Program Planning, Pergamon.
  5. Georgiou, Michail, et al. “A Population-Based Retrospective Study of the Modifying Effect of Urban Blue Space on the Impact of Socioeconomic Deprivation on Mental Health.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group.
  6. International Adventure Therapy.” International Adventure Therapy.
  7. JR;, Harber VJ;Sutton. “Endorphins and Exercise.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  8. S;, Gelkopf M;Hasson-Ohayon I;Bikman M;Kravetz. “Nature Adventure Rehabilitation for Combat-Related Posttraumatic Chronic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Control Trial.” Psychiatry Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  9. Sturm J;Plöderl M;Fartacek C;Kralovec K;Neunhäuserer D;Niederseer D;Hitzl W;Niebauer J;Schiepek G;Fartacek R; “Physical Exercise through Mountain Hiking in High-Risk Suicide Patients. A Randomized Crossover Trial.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  10. The Health Benefits of Trees.”
  11. Transforming Body Image through Women's Wilderness Experiences.” Tandf Online.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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