Updated: November 2021 with an updated example from advertiser.
It always amazed me when I visited clients in the wilderness in winter — I was uncomfortable, constantly tuning into the unavoidable cold and they were cognitively somewhere else entirely – warm and doing just dandy. Why? Well, their bodies and therefore their minds had adjusted; students wore layered, rugged, insulating gear and were oblivious to the weather. This is not what families imagine when they are thinking about sending their troubled teen or young adult to a wilderness therapy program.
Along with outfitting clients in seasonal-appropriate gear, staff/instructors who are in the field 24/7 teach and confirm that students (and office-based visitors) conserve their body heat through time-tested behaviors and strategies (insulating from direct contact on the snow, increasing water consumption, increasing nutritional, energy-producing foods, quickly replacing any wet clothing, etc.)
Many wilderness programs employ at least one Wilderness First Responder in each field team or on-call AND, with satellite communication, field groups are not “on their own” at all; support personnel will remove individual students if the Instructors call it in. “Frontcountry” medical support is closer than a student believes, which is just one of many safety protocols that wilderness therapy programs have in place. (TIP FOR PARENTS: Ask Admissions contact how they handle staffing and emergencies. Ask for examples.)
Wilderness therapy programs utilize the distinction between real and perceived risk, fostering an appreciation for the intrinsic grandeur and spirituality of open space while minimizing actual hazards as much as practicable. This balancing act is continually shifted as conditions on the ground change and, the decisions to increase intervention are supervised and managed not only by instructors but also Field Directors and other managers, medical staff, and state regulations. So All Kinds of Therapy canvassed several wilderness programs in (the northeast, northern and southern Utah, and north Georgia mountains) to explain how they keep students warm in the middle of winter and for examples of standard (and severe) cold weather operating procedures.
COLD WEATHER TRAINING
Before enrolling a client, troubled teen or young adult in a wilderness therapy program, ask about their specific “Standard Operating Procedures” for winter programming; Instructors receive special environmental and medical instruction throughout the winter. Each program will have additional safety measures that will not be mentioned in this blog.
Staff are required to attend winter training which includes building adequate shelters, warm sleeping, cold-related injuries, and potential exposure. (RedCliff Ascent)
Winter weather training begins in September and continues throughout the fall and winter. (Outback, Evoke at Entrada, Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, New Vision Wilderness Programs & Elements Wilderness Program & Elements Traverse)
Staff are instructed to use their own judgment and hike to a shelter if it is needed to further support the safety of our participants. (Evoke at Entrada)
Our Nurse, Medical Coordinator and on-call Doctor provide additional cold-related injury training throughout the winter. (Outback, RedCliff Ascent, Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness)
We have weekly training for all guide staff, and in the winters those are generally geared towards safety on expeditions. Whether that be winter driving and putting chains on vehicles, going over the winter-specific gear and appropriate layering, or training around winter shelters and games to keep students warm during downtime. (Summit Achievement)
Each group is required to have at least one instructor who is trained as a Wilderness First Responder (WFR). (Evoke at Entrada, Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness)
Weekly Field Director Field Visits Each week our Field Director and two Assistant Field Director’s head out to the field and visit groups, either doing a day visit or overnight stay. They provide additional coaching and support to our field instructors ensuring policies and procedures are being followed. (Evoke at Entrada)
- Shelters are delivered to the groups at any point in our field area, either in the form of wall tents with wood-burning stoves or the same four-season Mountain Hardwear dome tents that climbers use on Everest expeditions when inclement weather or low temperatures are predicted. (Elements Wilderness Program & Elements Traverse)
GEAR FOR WINTER WILDERNESS THERAPY
Listed here are several of the specific gear adaptations that are winter-specific wilderness therapy.
Insulated wall tents with pot-bellied stoves are located throughout the field. When temperatures drop or storms roll in, kids hike or are driven to these shelters to wait out the storm (RedCliff Ascent)
Groups will camp at tent sites equipped with wood stoves throughout the winter months; sleeping temperatures in tents with wood stoves stays over 50 degrees at night. (Outback Therapeutic Expeditions)
We have 2 heated shelters (including a raised wooden floor) that we utilize when temperatures drop or storms kick up (below 10° with 10 mph winds). (Summit Achievement)
There are cabins available for our use throughout the White Mountains National Forest; we can plan expeditions around their availability as needed. (Summit Achievement)
In the winter months, all of our groups have access to large wall tents. Our shelters are large canvas tents that are equipped with a wood-burning stove and fully stocked with wood and emergency supplies. In the event of upcoming inclement weather, groups are notified by the base prior to a storm and directed to hike to one of the permanent shelters. If a group is unable to hike to a shelter our field support team will transport the group to the nearest shelter as soon as possible. (Evoke at Entrada)
True North students sleep indoors, on bunks that are up above ground which helps them stay warm at night. (True North)
- Groups are supplied a canvas wall tent and a wood stove to use a warming structure during all backpacking expeditions throughout winter. Staff brings groups to cabins when temperatures are below 0 or unsafe for student groups. Student receives hot water bottles nightly to help them stay warm at night. (New Vision Wilderness Programs)
- When the temperature does dip we have access to 6 heated shelters all stocked with dry firewood and within a short day’s paddle of each other. (Passages Alaska Wilderness Therapy)
Students will be provided with NEO overboots. (Outback)
Students are provided with winter gear designed for temperatures below zero; average low temperatures in the field in the teens. Clothing gear includes hats, gloves (thin and thick), balaclavas, bomber coats, fleece jackets, multiple pairs of thick socks (& sleeping socks if needed), wool pants, long sleeve shirts, thin and thick thermals (tops and bottoms). The field will have a supply of foot and hand warmers to be used as needed. (Outback)
Students are issued top-of-the-line name-brand clothing and gear, including base layers, coats, socks, hats, and gloves that keep them warm and dry. They are instructed on the use of the base layers and the variety of gear. For example, they have 3 pairs of gloves (leather utility gloves, fleece gloves, and snow gloves), so they learn the different uses for the clothing and gear. They also have sleeping socks, which they never wear outdoors to keep them dry. (True North)
Layers, layers, layers: Our kids are outfitted with multiple layers of synthetic, outdoor, and waterproof clothing which is designed for cold temperatures. (Trails Carolina, Elements Wilderness Program & Elements Traverse)
Winter sleeping bags are rated for negative 20-degree temperatures. (Outback & True North)
In the winter, Groups can call out a bag of clean, dry socks. The ‘sock exchange’ is one way that we ensure our participants have access to dry warm clothing. (Evoke at Entrada)
There is no consequence for any lost or ruined gear. Gear is never withheld or kept from students and any lost gear needed for warmth/dryness is replaced. (Outback, RedCliff Ascent, Evoke at Entrada, True North & Summit Achievement)
- Students are outfitted with additional layers, insulated rubber boots, we add underquilts to the padded hammocks, and we keep extra dry clothing in the group. Hands and feet are always important but we give additional attention here during the winter. (Passages Alaska Wilderness Therapy)
Students are equipped with high-quality gear: -30-degree sleeping bags, sleeping bag liners, and layers of top-notch moisture-wicking wind-blocking clothing. (RedCliff Ascent)
NUTRITIONAL MODIFICATIONS FOR WINTER WILDERNESS
ALL programs add supplemental food in the winter and ensure more calories are provided as seasonal temperatures drop. They will add hot drinks and as always monitor water intake to ensure hydration. (HINT: ask an admissions counselor about winter food protocols “in the field.”)
PERSONNEL MODIFICATIONS DURING WINTER WILDERNESS THERAPY
Our nurse visits the field each week and visits with each client ensuring that they are utilizing the clothing properly, their extremities are warm and dry, and that all of their medical needs are being met. (RedCliff Ascent)
The medical coordinator visits the field weekly and performs check-ups on each student. (Outback)
Each morning and evening, every group contacts base to relay important information including temperature, medical concerns, and request any additional support (e.g., transport to a tent site, additional staff to help increase supervision, extra clothing for clients, more firewood.) (Evoke at Entrada)
During cold temperatures and inclement weather, we give them a heads up on incoming weather and coach them on any questions or obstacles around staying warm.
We have regular field supervision from our field director and shift coordinators to make sure that policies and standards are being met by our direct care staff. (Summit Achievement)
Part of the education about being in the wilderness is teaching the students skills for active warming: good gear, sleeping bags use the heat a person creates to keep them warm. Our students’ are kids are playing games, gathering firewood, doing jumping jacks and squats during the day and before going to bed. (Trails Carolina)
Administrators and support personnel are in the field every day. (RedCliff Ascent)
PROGRAMMING MODIFICATIONS DURING WINTER WILDERNESS THERAPY
Hiking itineraries are reduced to 4 days per week, and distance is reduced due to less daylight. Groups can make “boomerang” hikes out away from tent sites for one or two nights with approval from both the Field Director and the group’s primary therapist. (Outback)
Staff is trained to do a daily inventory of all student gear to assure that it is dry. When they have wet gear, we utilize the indoor heated space to put up drying racks and get all clothing and gear dry. (True North)
At night, assigned instructors ensure that their students have removed the socks worn during the day and are replaced each night with dry, thick fleece socks. Instructors further ensure that boot insoles are removed when collecting shoes at night so that they may be warmed. (Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness)
They are also given additional hand and body warmers for the night, raising the temperature in their sleeping bags. (Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness)
Mandatory Foot Checks
Performed a minimum of three times per day; more if any concerns are noted. Face and hands are also included. (Outback, Evoke at Entrada, New Vision Wilderness Programs, Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, Elements Wilderness Program & Elements Traverse)
We do mandatory feet checks every night when the temperatures are below 32°, to make sure students’ feet are in good condition and that they are actually changing into dry layers. (Summit Achievement)
This might be unique to Summit Achievement because we have a full residential campus, but there are times when we will pull teams from the field early if temperatures or storms dictate that (regardless of the season). We have also been known to do day trips out of the campus Lodge rather than go out on the normal four-day expeditions when the temperatures are expected to be too cold (or wet) to manage. (Summit Achievement)
Footsteps (a pre-teen program) uses a hybrid Basecamp Wilderness model year-round. In the colder months, students spend several days each week at base camp. If temperatures are below 30 degrees, students do not backpack. However, brief, low impact day hiking is permitted as it allows students to warm through physical activity. (Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness)
True North becomes a base camp program in the winter. Students stay at established campsites on a 300-acre summer camp campus. Each campsite includes a heated cabin or a platform tent with a wooden stove, and students sleep indoors every night during the winter. Even when young adults do expeditions off campus, they still stay indoors at night. The campus also affords us indoor spaces that can be used during the day when the temperatures drop below 10 degrees or when it is snowing too hard to be outside. (True North)
Students go on 4 days (3 night) expeditions each week. The other 3 days (4 nights), students are living on a full residential campus and sleeping in modern heated cabins, and have access to hot showers and laundry facilities. They can also be seen by our campus nurse or Doctor as needed. In other words, they have an opportunity each week to dry off, warm up, and prepare for the next expedition. (Summit Achievement)
Field Locations: Evoke at Entrada uses a different field location for our adolescent students during the winter months to provide a warmer environment, lower elevation, and closer proximity to our base in Santa Clara, Utah. Our adult clients stay in our more northern field during the winter and weekly expedition plans are created with the focus of staying on the main roads to allow groups to remain easily accessible to our field support team. In the event of a winter storm, we have a company that we hire out to plow these roads to ensure our access to groups remains available at all times. (Evoke at Entrada)
Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wildernessroutinely hosts “Risk Management Meetings” which include field staff and Management, but also community safety personnel (e.g., the county’s EMS teams) who work in the field of risk management. During this meeting, risk management topics are discussed to ensure best practices are being executed. (Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness)
- During winter, hiking itineraries are shorter to ensure groups can set up camp and their heated wall tent structure before dark. Indoor spaces are made available for student groups to ensure safety in severely cold weather. Foot and hand checks occur 3x daily throughout winter to ensure the safety of students. (New Vision Wilderness Programs)
- Most of the time winter temperatures are above freezing. We also give the water additional reverence this time of year. If the guides have any concerns about water safety at all, we stay in camp and focus attention on other activities. (Passages Alaska Wilderness Therapy)
Besides state regulations and disparate program policies, many wilderness programs are members of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, which in conjunction with the Association of Experiential Education (AEE), requires achieving an independent, comprehensive accreditation standard. Five wilderness programs have completed OBHC certification and another ~15 programs are currently completing the process. OBH certification is the only national regulating body for wilderness therapy programs.
Five Protocols Required By Accredited Wilderness Therapy Programs
TIP FOR PARENTS: If the wilderness therapy program you are considering for your teen in the winter is not nationally accredited by AEE be sure that these standards are being met. These standards are from the manual for accreditation.
1. Clients are provided with adequate instruction for winter camping. Explanation: Staff members are competent to teach and lead these activities per Section 5 standards. Winter camping techniques and related skills are taught in a progressive manner. Staff members are practiced in and capable of providing instruction in winter camping and snow shelters, as appropriate for the environment, the type of client, and to meet the curriculum objectives.
2. Adequate supervision is provided for winter camping. Explanation: Staff members provide appropriate supervision of clients and oversight of the activities, based on the environmental hazards as well as the skill, number, and experience of clients. The program has clear expectations for direct supervision (staff members present) ratios, and what circumstances might affect acceptable ratio (e.g., solo or other program unaccompanied activities; see section 42 for standards for unaccompanied activities). Staff members understand these expectations.
3. The activity is conducted appropriately. Explanation: The program follows practices that are accepted within the industry. These practices might include but are not limited to, appropriate clothing and food supplies, cold weather injury prevention, and appropriate snow shelter design and construction methods if applicable. If programming is conducted during diminished conditions, the practice is justifiable and appropriate precautions are followed.
4. Clients are given a safety briefing prior to the start of the activity. Explanation: This briefing might include, but is not limited to, expectations for behavior a discussion of the goals and objectives, assessment and evaluation criteria, and safety rules. If applicable, expectations regarding risk management, inherent risks, and food, water, and clothing requirements should be discussed.
5. Therapeutic briefings or other forms of framing are conducted prior to the start of the activity. Debriefings or guided processes are used afterward to enhance the therapeutic process. Explanation: Appropriately introducing the learning experience and then offering opportunities for reflection after the activity is completed are essential components of the therapeutic process.
Safety and risk management are important to all wilderness therapy programs regardless of the season. Wilderness therapy programs enroll clients who have emotional regulation struggles, communication weaknesses, trauma, anxiety, depression or substance use or abuse for treatment. Clients enrolled in wilderness therapy programs are a riskier population than a NOLS or Outward Bound course/student; programs manage the environmental risks precisely because the population can induce more risk. This is why there are many levels of supervision and oversight.
Programming in the winter is a powerful time to enroll in your teenager because the environment looks and feels harder to manage. It is incredibly important that a family or professional enrolling a student in wilderness therapy investigate the levels of oversight, assuring that programs plan for and manage the increased Winter risks with appropriate gear, training, and practiced procedures while allowing the wilderness experience to continue. This perceived risk empowers students to a level that one does not see in the summer — there is pride, resilience, competence, and community I have witnessed time and again when seeing students complete a wilderness therapy program in the winter. Read more about how wilderness therapy programs manage holidays or questions to ask admissions about wilderness therapy for your teen or young adult in a wilderness therapy program, regardless of the season.
About the Authors
Feedback was provided for this blog from the wilderness therapy programs listed in this Blog. Jenney Wilder, M.S.Ed launched All Kinds of Therapy in 2015, as the only independent online directory for the Family Choice Behavioral Healthcare Industry. With an impressive case of ADHD and her starter career in the 90’s in Silicon Valley, the dream for creating a website with features like side-by-side comparison and an integrated newsletter was born. Jenney stopped counting treatment centers and all types of schools that she has visited when she hit 500 many years ago. She was the sponsoring author of the only Economic Impact Study of the Family Choice Behavioral Healthcare Industry, which revealed the only true financial figures about this industry (in Utah). Jenney has a Masters in Special Education from Bank Street College (NY) and a Bachelors of Arts focused on History from Wheaton College (MA).