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Model Programs Guide Literature Review: Wilderness Camp

NCJ Number
Date Published
March 2011
4 pages

Based on a literature review, this paper discusses the definition of a "wilderness camp," the target population, theoretical foundation, and findings from evaluations of such programs.


Wilderness camps, sometimes called challenge programs or wilderness therapy programs, are residential placements that require participants to perform a series of physically challenging outdoor activities designed to prevent or reduce delinquent behavior. Wilderness camps focus on three risk factors for delinquency: external locus of control, low self-esteem, and poor interpersonal skills. Although wilderness camps have distinct program components, there are no standardized definitions of residential programs that allow for the differentiation of program types. There is particular confusion over the differences between wilderness camps and boot camps. This paper makes the distinction that wilderness camps are based in experiential learning that advocates "learning by doing," which facilitates opportunities for personal development; on the other hand, boot camps operate under a military model that involves using physical and psychological intimidation. The target population of wilderness camps varies by location. A survey of therapeutic wilderness programs in 2002 found that participants ranged from 11 - 17 years old and were predominately male and white, who had committed a mix of nonviolent and violent offenses. Most programs excluded females and juveniles convicted of sexual offenses. A meta-analysis of 29 studies of wilderness programs (Wilson and Lipsey, 2000) found that participants had recidivism rates about eight percentage points lower than comparison subjects. The most effective programs involved relatively intense physical activity and therapeutic enhancement such as individual counseling, family therapy, and therapeutic group sessions. Future program evaluations should incorporate stronger study designs, such as randomly controlled trial. 13 references

Date Published: March 1, 2011