There is a hint of risk in everything we do, and wilderness therapy programs are no exception.
But it is important to keep the risks inherent in outdoor activities like hiking, building a campfire, and setting up and taking down tents in perspective. Wilderness programs are quite safe – safer, in fact, than many home environments, and significantly safer than many high school activities. A study conducted by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council showed that children are more at risk playing high school football or driving a car than participating in a wilderness program.
Not all wilderness camps are created equal, so it is essential for parents to do their research and choose a program that takes every possible safety precaution to keep their teen safe.
Here are just a few of the safety precautions that some of the best wilderness programs have in place:
When a teenager arrives at a wilderness program, the first step is generally a medical examination, which often includes a complete physical, drug screen and blood test. Students typically must be in good health before they are issued a pack and gear. During the program, students’ blood pressure, ears, throat and feet are checked each week by a field medic or nurse. If an ache or pain occurs, the field staff responds promptly and has a team of medical personnel they can contact around the clock.
At many wilderness programs, field teams are in regular contact with “base camp” or the “home office” via radios, cell phones and/or satellite phones. Groups check in frequently, provide regular updates about each student and call in when even the slightest question arises. Emergency response teams are always prepared to take action when necessary.
Qualified, Knowledgeable Staff
Many wilderness programs require wilderness first responder certification of most, if not all, of their field staff. Wilderness first responders are the wilderness equivalent of an emergency responder, or EMT. With advanced medical training in wilderness medicine, first aid, wound management and detecting symptoms of larger issues, field staff members are well-qualified to respond to most medical situations. Staff members also frequently receive training and certifications in first aid and CPR. Many wilderness programs also employ a full-time nurse, field medic and medical director who are on call as needed.
In addition to being highly trained, the staff members at quality wilderness programs are there because they are passionate about helping teens. Every activity is approached first and foremost with safety in mind. If a child’s behavior ever creates a safety threat, the field staff is trained to recognize the appropriate time to intervene, and when necessary, the appropriate time to remove the student from the field.
Hot and Cold Weather
Most wilderness programs are acutely aware of the weather and climate changes in their area, and take every precaution to protect students from heat, cold, wind and rain. In the summer, students do not hike if the temperature exceeds a certain degree and students are assigned a minimum amount of water they must drink to stay hydrated. Students are given breaks multiple times a day to apply sunscreen and check their feet for blisters, and they wear a shade hat, long pants and long shirts to protect against sunburn, bug bites and scratches. In the winter, students are assigned a minimum amount of water to drink; are provided with high-quality, heavyweight winter gear and clothing; and get their feet visually inspected every day.
Although students in wilderness therapy programs are far removed from civilization, program staff knows where each group is located at any given time. Using written logs, maps of the course area and radios, each group’s path is mapped out and shared with other staff members in advance. When students are hiking, they stop at regular intervals to check their feet and drink water. High staff-to-student ratios ensure that students are never left unattended. The students and field instructors stay together as a group, and move only as fast as the slowest student in the group.
When it comes to choosing a therapeutic program for a troubled teen, parents will want to find a program that taps into the “wildness” of nature without compromising safety. SUWS of the Carolinas offers therapeutic wilderness programs for teens that have exemplary safety records and a reputation for effecting profound change in at-risk teens.
Risk is part of life – and part of adolescence. Whether at school, playing sports or even in the comfort of home, safety is never a guarantee. If your teen is in trouble, don’t let fear deter you from getting the help you and your family need.