Adventure Activities: High Adventure/Natural Environment Activities

Activities in this section are challenging to categorize for their diversity, both in terms of the activity itself as well as the length of time the activities may occur. Activities discussed here include overnight camping, backpacking, rafting, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, caving and various other outdoor pursuits. These activities can occur in a day, a weekend, or as part of an extended expedition trip. Expedition activities are discussed in a different section.

In high adventure activities, the consequences of failure to attend to safety requirements can be more severe than in lower-adventure, natural environment activities, such as hiking or fishing. High adventure activities will typically involve more skills development and mastery over some time (Priest & Gass, 1997). In these activities, practitioners must sequence appropriately and assess accurately for competence and confidence, both in regards to physical and emotional safety (Bisson, 1997; Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Neri, 2003). Examples of high adventure activities are rock climbing, paddling on moving water, mountain biking, ice climbing, caving, rappelling, mountaineering, canyoneering, or more remote and extended backpacking trips. Even in these examples, there are not clear lines differentiating high and low adventure activities. Caving could mean travelling through a cave environment that is complex and lengthy or be a more low adventure activity if the cave is simple and short.

Natural environment or low adventure activities have decreased risks and minimal requirements for skills development. The duration may be shorter and may not require advanced skills to be completed successfully. Examples include hiking, creeking, fishing, or paddling on flat water in a controlled environment. In these activities, it is still critical to remain aware that the activity may seem to be low intensity for the practitioner, but may in fact be a high intensity experience for the client.

Reasons for Using High Adventure/Natural Environment Activities
Whether low or high adventure, activities in adventure therapy must be intentionally utilized as a part of the change process for clients. In these natural environment or high adventure activities, the structure and requirements of the activity are intentionally used in the process of treatment. Examples of this include using rock climbing to support clients in developing trust and problem solving skills or using primitive skills to support clients in developing an increased sense of self-efficacy and tolerance for the frustration involved in gaining new skills. Commonly sought outcomes of natural environment and high adventure activities are identified below to illustrate how the structure of these activities can lend itself to supporting client change.

Responsibility and Self-Awareness
Natural environment and high adventure activities can be intentionally structured to support development of responsibility and self-awareness. One way this is accomplished is the use of natural consequences. In an outdoor context, the results of choices become quite tangible. If a client is expected to learn paddling skills to manage their canoe travel, and applies his or herself to the training, this will immediately affect the client's ability to move forward in a positive manner. Additionally, clients are able to become more self-aware of the results of their own choices when the outdoor environment or activity provides feedback related to these choices. It minimizes the ability of the client to blame others for self-imposed negative consequences. Clients are able to see the impacts of their behavior on themselves, others, and the environment. Clients are provided the opportunity to practice healthy functioning such as taking care of others and taking care of their own needs.

Self-Efficacy and Coping Skills
In an outdoor context, skills mastery takes on a stronger sense of urgency as it relates to survival and management of the challenges of the environment. Learning new skills takes on increased importance in coping with the new setting. For example, if clients are expected to belay for one another, the importance of learning the skill is heightened as clients are aware they are relying on one another for safety. As clients are able to develop a level of mastery over these skills, they can experience increased feelings of pride and belief in their ability to achieve. Additionally, clients can become more aware of their manner of coping with challenges, evaluate the effectiveness of this coping based on feedback from the activity or environment, and practice functional methods of coping with challenges. Also, high adventure activities can elicit intense emotional reactions from clients and supported by quality facilitation and sequencing, clients can develop improved skills in managing these emotions effectively.

Relationship Building and Cooperation
Participating in low or high adventure activities with another person creates a unique shared experience that can be given positive meaning attributions and enhance relationship development. Whoever participates typically must cooperate and trust one another in some manner as they create an interdependent group. This is an opportunity for clients and practitioners to apply and reinforce the behavioral expectations of the treatment environment and to practice social skills. Clients are involved in a community that must make decisions together, which fosters a sense of mutual aid. Clients are often responsible to one another for their comfort and survival.

Environmental Management
The outdoor environment is one that cannot be controlled but can be managed effectively with training and experience. Practitioners provide a structure for operating within the environment that allow clients to learn how to respond. Practitioners do this by modeling with their own responses to challenges encountered and by empowering clients to make choices and experience the results of their choices. Practitioners provide the safety net while allowing clients to manage their environment in an effective way. Additionally, the environment does not include the distractions available in a client's daily life and can allow clients different opportunities for reflection than are found outside of the natural environment.

Connection to the Natural World
While we often focus on the impact of challenge and adventure on client functioning, the natural environment in which many of these adventure-based activities take place is also an important component in the therapeutic change process. A recent study showed that "being in nature" was an equally powerful therapeutic component as challenge and adventure (Norton, 2007). This study also showed that a connection to nature provided clients with time for contemplation and gave them a context in which to reflect on the challenges they faced amidst various high-adventure activities. It is clear that the two - challenge and adventure & the natural environment - work together to provide opportunities for personal growth and change (Quinn, 1997;Powch, 1994; Arnold, 1994; Angell, 1994;Levitt, 1994; Miles, 1993; Nicholls, 2004; Pryor, 2003;Beringer, 200; Louv, 2008).

Practitioner Guidelines for Using High Adventure/Natural Environment Activities
Natural environment and high adventure activities require elements of facilitation needing particular attention. Practitioner guidelines related to all adventure therapy activities still apply, but there are some additional considerations when the natural environment is intentionally used with therapeutic populations.

  • Practitioners complete a thorough assessment and planning process prior to engaging in natural environment and high adventure activities. Assessment should inform the planning process of the activities and include assessment of risk, clients, staff, and environment (See Assessment ). 
  • Practitioners and support staff must be adequately trained to manage the environment, clients, and activities as safely as possible. This includes advanced training in the activities, backcountry medical training, and adequate clinical training to work effectively with therapeutic populations to manage the treatment process effectively (Priest & Gass, 1997; Priest, 1997a; Raiola & Sugerman, 1997). 
  • Practitioners must prepare clients to cope effectively with the challenges presented by activities. Clients should be screened for appropriateness and activities should be sequenced to allow clients to participate in a manner that supports them in progressing in their treatBrown, 1997; ment (Priest, 1997b; Klint, 1997). 
  • Practitioners must plan activities that are appropriate for the staff and clients who will be participating. This means activities are carefully planned to intentionally support client in reaching established treatment goals, land use rules are considered, and the practitioner or program is adequately equipped with equipment, safety management, and emergency response systems (Horwood, 1997; Priest, 1997c; Van der Smissen & Gregg, 1997). 
  • As activities increase in technical difficulty, the required knowledge and experience required of the client is also increased. This has an impact on decision making and outcomes for clients. Practitioners need to assess this dynamic throughout these experiences and respond accordingly to support client in progress toward treatment goals (Priest & Gass, 1997; Priest, 1997b; Klint, 1997). 
  • Practitioners maintain a focus on client treatment and facilitate in a manner that assists client in connecting behavioral and emotional responses to desired treatment outcomes (Lung, Stauffer & Alvarez, 2008). 
  • Practitioners maintain an appropriate treatment environment that incorporates a focus on physical and emotional safety. When allowing client to experience natural consequences, a practitioner continues to reinforce a therapeutic treatment environment and adheres to the tenet to "do no harm." Allow time for reflection in nature, as the environment is a key reason for utilizing these activities (See above Connection to the Natural World). 
  • Practitioners must remember that the natural environment, while a comfortable setting for themselves, may be a very unfamiliar and threatening environment to the client. Cultural perceptions of "wilderness" must also be considered, and meeting basic needs must always be the central focus so that other, more higher level, therapeutic needs may be addressed (Lung, Stauffer & Alvarez, 2008; Mitten, 1994).