“Wilderness growth programs” for teens deserve special caution.

Numerous teens have died or been seriously injured in these programs, often within the first few days of enrollment. 


Dangers of Wilderness Programs

Even in programs that are considered the best in the industry, children have experienced:

Teen Wilderness Camp

  • Inexperienced, untrained staff accompanying youth into the wilderness. Parents have reported that this was “not as advertised.”
  • Children being accused of “lying,” “faking” or “manipulating” when they report symptoms of potentially deadly medical conditions such as dehydration and heatstroke—then staff members failing to treat the symptoms, leading to injury or death of the child.   
  • Children not receiving a medical exam okaying them for strenuous activity before vigorous hikes in wilderness areas far from medical care.
  • Food and water being denied, or strictly rationed, as punishment—a very dangerous form of “tough love” in a wilderness environment.

Common causes of death in wilderness programs are:

  • Staff ignoring medical symptoms reported by youth
  • Youth being physically restrained in a dangerous manner
  • Suicide

Beware of the “Short Stay” in a Wilderness Program

Many parents say they agreed, at first, to enroll their child for a stay of a few weeks or months at a wilderness program—and were later pressured by wilderness program staff into sending their teens to a multi-year program at a boarding school.

Families are often told that their child will relapse if returned home, and that the child’s life might even be in danger if he or she does not remain in a program. Beware of programs that warn of dire consequences—such as that the child will wind up dead, in a mental hospital, addicted to drugs, or in jail—if you do not continue paying for enrollment in a program.

Data collected from 1999-2006 showed that an alarming 40% of children enrolled in wilderness programs are later sent to long-term residential behavioral care facilities (Source: Summary of Research from 1999 – 2006 and Update to 2000 Survey of Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Programs in North America Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Cooperative By Keith C. Russell, Ph.D.).

Thus the industry’s own data suggests that for many, many youth, wilderness programs do not provide the kind of sustained long-term “transformational wilderness experience” often promoted as the reason to enroll the child.

Read about Undisclosed Financial Relationships at Programs

Read about GAO Investigation: Concerns Regarding Abuse and Death in Certain Programs for Troubled Youth

Read about Treatment Research Lacks Good Science

Last updated 05/13/14