Adventure Therapy

Adventure Therapy

Goals of Adventure Therapy

The word ‘adventure’ means an exciting or remarkable experience. It refers to something new, exotic, or even dangerous. It might conjure up images of someone jumping out of an airplane with a parachute perilously dangling from his backpack or someone climbing up the side of the cliff with only a cord and a few hooks separating him from a dark and unknown abyss. These images might seem to be at odds with the word ‘therapy,’ which is synonymous with healing or being comforted. The word therapy might conjure up images of a stranger with a soothing voice telling you that everything will be okay and offering you a tissue—quite the contrast from the image of the adventurer tumbling out of a plane or clinging to mountain!

However, the two concepts are not as oxymoronic as they might seem at first pass. The majority of psychotherapy takes place outside of the patient’s comfort zone. The therapist challenges the patient to acknowledge and address the issues they are avoiding or possibly suppressing. Acknowledging and addressing these issues may be uncomfortable or even painful. There may be pangs or sadness or steady flowing tears. The patient may even leave the office feeling worse than when he arrived. But it is by taking a risk and facing one’s demons that true healing can take place. This is the basic premise behind Adventure Therapy.

When is Adventure Therapy Used?

While Adventure Therapy can take on many forms and offer different environmental and interpersonal contexts, the following definition encompasses the commonalities across the different forms: “Adventure Therapy is the prescriptive use of adventure experiences provided by mental health professionals, often conducted in natural settings that kinesthetically engage clients on cognitive, behavioral, and affective levels” (Gass, Gillis,&  Russell, 2012). Through the establishment of a parallel process between the adventure experience and the therapeutic work, the therapist can facilitate and hasten the application of the therapeutic lesson to the patient’s everyday life. For example, Aubrey & McLeod (1994) explored the effectiveness of a wilderness camp / job readiness program, employing adventure therapy techniques, such as rock climbing, rappelling, problem solving, and a low-ropes course, for single mothers on welfare.

How Adventure Therapy Works

What does rock climbing have to do with single mothers starting a new career? The techniques were chosen to help the mothers step out of their comfort zones, while teaching them to build trust in those around them and rely on support when necessary. These are skills and qualities they will undoubtedly need when embarking on a new career. Indeed, feelings of power and achievement emerged, which translated into the increased self-efficacy crucial for the mothers on their quest to build a new career.  Levine (1994) evaluated the effectiveness of an adventure experience in which sexual assault survivors were asked to climb a mountain together. The adventure-based experience was designed to parallel certain aspects of the sexual assault experience, including the physical challenge and the feelings of fear and helplessness that it evoked. Through the experience of climbing the mountain, the survivors explored their physical limitations while simultaneously building trust, self-esteem, confidence, and intimacy.

Criticisms of Adventure Therapy

These single mothers and sexual assault survivors are not the only ones to benefit from adventure therapy programs. Such programs have proven to be effective with at risk youth; families in conflict; college students adjusting to a new environment; corporate employees; victims of abuse, trauma, and disease; and athletes (Fletcher & Hinkle, 2002). Given the different populations, different therapeutic goals, different variables targeted, and different outcome instruments, it can be difficult to measure and draw general conclusions about the effectiveness of adventure therapy. However, a meta-analysis of the research on Adventure Therapy yielded effect sizes ranging from 0.24 to 1.05 for ratings of behavior, aggression reduction, neuroses reduction, recidivism, well-being, clinical scales, and movement of locus of control inward (Cason & Gillis, 1994; Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997; Hans, 2000). According to Cohen’s widely accepted standards, these correspond to designations of small to large effect sizes, with the largest effect sizes coming from changes to clinical scales. There is still much to learn about adventure therapy and the mechanisms by which it works, but, like the adventure experiences themselves, it is a new and exciting phenomenon in the field of psychotherapy, worth of further exploration.

In order to have your own do-it-yourself adventure therapy experience, consider doing something active that challenges you to stretch outside of your comfort. Go for a hike, take up kayaking, or try horseback riding. Write a journal entry before, taking note of any nervousness you might be experiencing. Afterwards, write a post-adventure entry, documenting the experience and exploring the way you were able to work through the apprehension. Remind yourself of this experience the next time something in your life has you feeling nervous or apprehensive. You will feel empowered by your adventure!


Aubrey, A., & MacLeod, M. J. (1994). Wilderness therapy for women: The power of adventure. Women and Therapy, 15 (3-4), 205-216.

Cason, D., & Gillis, H.L. (1994). A meta-analysis of outdoor adventure programming with adolescents. Journal of Experiential Education, 17 (1), 40-47.

Fletcher, T.B, & Hinkle, J.S. (2002). Adventure based counseling: An innovation in Counseling, Journal of Counseling & Development, 80 (3), 277-285.

Gass, M.A., Gillis, H.L., & Russell, K.C. (2012). Adventure Therapy: Theory, research, and Practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hans, T. (2000). A meta-analysis of the effects of adventure programming on locus of control. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 30 (1), 33-60.

Hattie, J.M., Marsh, H.W., Neill, J.T., & Richards, G.E. (1997). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that have a lasting effect. Review of Educational Research,67, 43-87.

Levine, D. (1994). Breaking through barriers: Wilderness therapy for sexual assault victims. Women and Therapy, 15 (3-4), 175-184.

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