The Difference Between Wilderness Therapists and Mentors | Wilderness Therapy Jobs
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The Difference Between Wilderness Therapists and Mentors

What is Wilderness Therapy?

If you’ve never heard of wilderness therapy, in simple terms it is an adventure-based therapeutic treatment for behavior modification.  This treatment approach utilizes the powerful healing effects of our natural environment in combination with educational practice and traditional therapy.  Wilderness therapy can be a great “reset” for adolescents and young adults struggling with problematic behaviors such as substance abuse, or serious mental health concerns.  

Why Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness therapy programs can be extremely effective, and it is a much different treatment approach than traditional therapeutic techniques.  Wilderness therapy immerses its students in nature, removing them from potentially problematic environments, giving them the time and space to heal.  Some of the therapeutic benefits of wilderness therapy include:

  • Stress relief
  • Attention restoration
  • Increased happiness and decreased levels of depression 
  • Boosts overall mood
  • Improves self-esteem

These are just some of the benefits that come with wilderness therapy programs and being immersed into our natural environment.  Nature creates calming and grounding effects which makes it such an important component of the effectiveness of wilderness therapy.  The reduction of stress and boosted mood due to nature can make for an easier environment to create behavior change and address problematic behaviors.

Becoming a Wilderness Therapist

Now that we have explored what wilderness therapy is and why it is so effective, that brings up the question of what wilderness therapists themselves do and how do you become one?  Like any kind of therapy, being a wilderness therapist can be a tough but rewarding job, and the need for more therapists is high.  Of course, to become any kind of therapist you need to be adequately certified.  In order to become a wilderness therapist, you will need to complete a Masters degree from an accredited university or college in social work, psychology, or a related field. Additionally, you will need to achieve and maintain licensure by the state in which you are working. Some universities offer wilderness therapy certification programs and receive your wilderness therapy certificate.  During the program, students receive a well-rounded experience in outdoor education, training in specific areas of employment within the outdoor industry, as well as basic counseling psychology, making them well equipped for the Wilderness Therapy industry.

Additionally, some wilderness therapy programs may require more experience.  Candidates with a degree or previous work experience in the psychology field with outdoor experience is ideal, but of course there are exceptions.  However, even if your experience in these fields is limited there are still opportunities to get involved and learn the skills needed to be a successful guide.  This may include opportunities like mentoring and basic training in outdoor leadership.       

hiking outdoors

Therapists vs. Mentors

Mentors & Mentorships:

So, what exactly is the difference between a wilderness therapist and a mentor?  Wilderness therapy mentors are not therapists, instead they operate as front-line staff, building close relationships with students.  Mentors essentially train under therapists but still get to work closely with them as they help to implement weekly treatment plans designed for the group of students.  Prospective mentors must attend week-long training sessions prior to beginning their mentorship.  In order to become a mentor, qualifications typically include holding a high school diploma or equivalent, certifications in first aid and CPR, passing criminal background checks and drug screening.  Wilderness mentors are expected to help lead group activities, such as hiking, backpacking, rock climbing and more.  Additionally, both students and staff are expected to embrace the wilderness to its full extent. This means learning how to cook on an open fire, saying goodbye to technology and transportation, and even sleeping under tarp shelters.  This is why it is so important that mentors are well trained and versed in outdoor skills. 

Additionally, some wilderness therapy programs offer opportunities for wilderness mentoring sessions.  These sessions typically take place after school or on weekends and last about 2 hours as compared to several weeks, which is typical of many wilderness therapy programs.  This is a great option for younger children or adolescents who have difficulty being far away from home for extended periods of time.  Wilderness mentoring sessions still offer the same adventurous activities as wilderness therapy programs, and parents are able to actively participate in these sessions.  Students participate in outdoor activity for the first 1.5 hours of the session, while the remaining half hour is dedicated to communicating with parents about their goals, concerns, and needs for their child. 


In order to become a wilderness therapist you might need a bit more qualifications than a mentor.  Typically, wilderness therapists have some sort of degree or experience in the mental health field, this may include psychology, sociology, or counseling.  A bachelor’s degree or 2+ years of relevant experience is preferred for entry into most wilderness therapy programs.   Additionally, wilderness therapists need to show strong outdoor skills as they may be helping with guides and outdoor adventures.  Wilderness therapists are expected to create the majority of treatment plans and implement therapeutic techniques into the daily activities.  These therapeutic techniques can include team building activities, debriefing sessions, and one-on-one examination of maladaptive behaviors.

Wilderness Field Instructors

In addition to wilderness therapists and mentors there are also wilderness field instructors.  Field instructors are mainly responsible for upholding the safety of the students and staff.  Instructors manage risk and assure effective courses, in order to ensure the safety of the activities.  Additionally, instructors serve as an educator and role model to the students, helping to co-facilitate adventure education programming.  The minimum qualifications for this position are 3+ years of outdoor educational experience, a current Wilderness First Responder certification, competent risk management skills, and the prior completion of basic instructor training.                   

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