Outdoor Careers Part I: Interview with a Wilderness Therapist
This is the first in a series where we’ll be chatting with people pursuing careers in the outdoor industry and related fields.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent some time trying to get over the post-trail doldrums. For many, this journey eventually results in a decision to seek a job in the outdoors. Lots of hikers decide they’d like to work in the outdoor industry – whether it be as a hostel or nonprofit worker, whitewater guide, or conservation ecologist. Yet it’s sometimes hard to know what would be best suited for you and whether you’d truly enjoy the day-to-day grind. Today I’ll be talking to my friend Julianna, a wilderness therapist based in the deserts of Utah, about what the job entails: the highs and lows, perks and annoyances, and how to deal with being stranded in the desert with a group of teenagers.
What is “wilderness therapy” anyway?
The wilderness therapy industry is a broad scope of programs mostly in the U.S., New Zealand, and the U.K. that operate entirely outdoors as an intervention for young people experiencing significant chaos in their lives. Different programs have different focuses, including adventure sports, animal care, horticulture, and primitive skills. Some programs operate deep in the backcountry, hours from civilization, and some access modern conveniences in the frontcountry regularly. Young people in wilderness therapy (WT), often called “students,” are enrolled in programs for a variety of reasons. It’s often easy to list the presenting behaviors, like life-inhibiting technology addiction, substance use, sex addiction, not leaving the house, or complicated relationships with food. Trying to find the basis for these behaviors is essentially the rabbit hole that is wilderness therapy, and a lot of that involves work on depression, anxiety, social skills, trauma, learning challenges, adoption and attachment, and of course, family dynamics.
Is there a unifying theory behind this kind of therapy?
In the 1990s a number of U.S. programs got a bad rap for being “behavioral modification” programs, which is a therapeutic philosophy heavily steeped in external motivation, incentives, and disincentives. Most wilderness therapy accreditation systems today favor “relational therapy,” a philosophy that guides staff members to build meaningful, professional relationships with young people so as to develop internal motivation and lasting change. The difference between the two philosophies can be simplified: If I (a staff member) leave my baggie of granola on the ground, is a student going to return it to me because they a) see my humanity and want me to have my food (relational), or because they b) see my authority and fear the consequences of me finding out they took it (behavioral)? Let’s be real, though. In reality, most of us make our life decisions with both internal and external motivational factors in mind. The recent history of WT really addresses head-on Machiavelli’s question of whether or not it’s better to be feared than loved.
What’s your background, and how did you get into this field?
I did a lot of dumpster diving for my undergrad art degree and I got a master’s in social work a month after I moved into my Subaru Forester. I knew early on in college that I was a die-hard fan of experiential education and saw the physicality of the body as an essential ingredient in both my own and other young people’s healing and growth. Most of my coworkers have never studied therapy formally, and they had rad lives leading up to their employment encounter with WT.
What is your current job title? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Right now I’m a field therapist, which means that I’m a field guide with special clinical training and I get access to clinical resources for my social work license and career growth and such. (I use “staff” and “guide” interchangeably throughout this interview.) I work eight days on and six days off from Wednesday to Wednesday.
A lot people describe two kinds of skill sets in WT: hard skills and soft skills. A lot of the work in all programs involves soft skills like managing group dynamics or having conversations with students that encourage them to think independently and critically about their lives.
Hard skills are often what differentiate programs from each other. I currently work for a “primitive” program, which in this industry means a large part of our program is making fire and teaching young people in our programs how to make fire, largely with the bow-drill method. We make our own backpacks from juniper trees and move nomadically through mountains and valleys. I used to work for a company that focused on adventure activities, so instead of woodcarving, leather-working, and wandering, we drove vans around with students and facilitated rock climbing and mountain biking and hiking and such. Adventure is a lot sexier, but I saw equal amounts of personal growth opportunities for students in both programs.
What are your coworkers like? Working environment? Bosses?
Having an unusual work schedule of eight days on and six days off, as well as regular trauma-bonding opportunities available to you when things sometimes go awry with your students, makes for good community building among coworkers. All of my friends in Utah are people I met at the two WT companies I’ve worked for. A lot of people date each other, which sometimes goes well, and sometimes doesn’t. Just like in any large group dynamic there will be people that rub you the wrong way, people that remind you of your ex, people that bring out your insecurities, people that complain about the company. Conveniently, working in WT, most of the time you’re on your own with one to three other staff members in the middle of nowhere guiding young people through meaningful, life-changing work.
What are essential qualities for a person working in this field?
The outdoors must feel like home to you, or if not a home, it should at least feel like a really awesome vacation spot that you wanna come back to all the time and spend all your money going to. Specifically, you should feel that way about the terrain in which the company you would be working for operates on. Are you a desert person? A mountain person? A tropics person? A snow person? An outer-space person?
Being self-aware and interested in giving and receiving artful feedback to and from your students, coworkers, and superiors is also a recipe for success in the spaces of the industry that I’ve worked in.
How far are your longest hiking days? How much weight are you carrying and what are you packing?
Wilderness therapy is pretty much the opposite of ultralight backpacking. We backpack with large pelican boxes full of important equipment and extra gear I would never take on a personal trip but find essential at work. However, if your baseline activity level includes intense outdoor recreation anyway, many people find that they are doing less physical work than they expect when they enter the WT field.
One of my brilliant coworkers once reminded me, while one of our students was in tears, sitting still on a dirt road in the middle of a night hike, that, “We are not here to hike. We are here to grow.” And frankly, in WT, sometimes the growing takes up more time than the moving does. The slowest I’ve ever hiked with full packs is 1.5 miles/4 hours. The fastest I’ve ever hiked without full packs is 15 miles/8 hours. I find it important to get my wilderness fix on the “off-shift” (a.k.a., when I’m not at work), otherwise I get antsy when I’m at work.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I like that I get to bring a machete to work. I like getting to see people in their full complexity. I like getting to know people deeply. I like the sunsets. I like feeling like a badass. I like that it’s OK that I’ve cried in front of most of my superiors in the company, because the work is hard. I like giving people the time and space to heal. I really like crisis work. I also love the crisp stars and hearing packs of coyotes howl in the distance in the middle of the night. I like building safe places for people in a scary world.
One of my brilliant coworkers who works with a group of young people on the autism spectrum and with other neurological differences once said, “Wilderness therapy is like a puzzle that swears at you.” For those of you who were not your best selves as adolescents, imagine living with yourself during that time of your life 24/7 while being challenged to do reasonably challenging things physically and emotionally.
Is there a typical “career arc” in this field? What might that look like? Do you need specific education to advance?
Most people are only in the WT field for under a year, even under six months. But for those who want to stick it out, I’ve seen career arcs towards three different ends: therapists/psychologists, outdoor educators, and professional guides. If you want to be a therapist you need at least a master’s. Most outdoor educators I know have a bachelor’s. And my understanding of professional guiding is that the best education for it is getting down and dirty with the rivers you wanna run or the mountains you wanna climb. In other words, WT hires both grads of life and grads of academia.
What do you think people who are outdoorsy and thinking about getting into this field should know about the job?
I think it is very important to know that wilderness therapy is a very high level of mental health care. It is often the first major intervention in a young person’s life. This means that most students enrolled in WT are mandatory clients, meaning they did not choose to be in your perfect amazing outside therapy program, and their guardians deemed a major intervention necessary in order to either save their child’s life or significantly alter the course of it. I love the young people I work with. However, if you want to work with perpetually compliant young people who always listen the first time and have never done bad things, I would suggest looking into working at a different level of care. You don’t need to know how to work with complicated teenagers right off the bat, but you definitely need to be interested in growing and learning and making mistakes.
Comment regarding #vanlife (must include anecdote about peeing in a bottle).
Dirtbags come and go with the seasons, as well as with the trends of the winds. If you don’t know anyone living in a vehicle near you, and you are interested in the financial and spiritual opportunities made available to you by a transient lifestyle, do it anyway! My partner in crime is a #vandweller and I’ve never seen him pee in a bottle, but he claims he does it when I’m not around. There is indeed chivalry among the dirtbags! Also, if anyone has insider tips on how to use a Go-Girl properly without peeing all over yourself, please DM me.
Any parting words?
One of my favorite quotes, which I think beautifully relates to the WT industry, is from Lilla Watson, an artist, activist, grandmother, and indigenous Australian: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
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