What is the Difference Between a Youth Ranch and a Wilderness Program

When you are looking at various retreat options for your troubled teenager, the variety of types of camps can be confusing. The first step you must do to try to grasp the range of options you have at your disposal is to set aside any preconceptions. The idea that “sending your child away” to a youth camp or boarding school is similar to the old fashioned concept of sending a child to military school must be discarded entirely.

Two very popular and successful programs for helping troubled youth turn their lives around are youth ranches and teen wilderness programs. While both of these types of youth rescue programs involve an extended stay at a facility that is away from home, they are not “military school” and they are significantly different from a teen boot camp style of reorientation that you may have heard about.

While boot camps and boarding schools have their advantages and they work well for certain types of rehabilitation, the youth ranch and wilderness adventure programs put the focus on lifestyle changes and adventure to both excite and inspire youth to make changes in their lives. But like all of the programs we have mentioned, youth ranches and wilderness programs take advantage of highly trained and skilled staff counselors and youth workers to help troubled kids understand themselves and the world they live in better.

In order for you to decide whether you should invest your teenagers time and your family resources in a wilderness program or a teen youth camp, you have do understand the differences. By looking into both types of retreat style therapy camps, you can sort out which style of rehabilitation is the right fit for your child.

Different Programs – Shared Goals

A wilderness program and a teen youth ranch are significantly different from one another. But in terms of the goals of each organization, there are similarities. With both programs, youth are separated from their peer group and from family for anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Both programs expose their attendees to a dramatically different lifestyle. What the youth will do all day, who they interact with and the priorities of their lives will be profoundly different from their lives at home.

With both programs, the goal is to thrust troubled youth into a different type of life and to allow them freedom from family and peer relationships to reexamine their own lives and begin the path toward recovery and a healthier outlook on life when they go home. Both types of youth retreat programs combine an active lifestyle of outdoor activity with teamwork, counseling, healthy living and counseling to help youth who are struggling with various problems begin to find a new path to success from the ones they had been engaging in before coming to a wilderness program or youth ranch.

There is a lot of variety in terms of focus, curriculum and training styles for both wilderness programs and youth ranch facilities. Some youth retreat programs are organized entirely to help kids in trouble with the law where others may include therapy and counseling for kids who are dealing with more serious emotional or physical programs such as substance abuse. Even after you make your choice on whether to send your son or daughter to a youth ranch or a wilderness program, you should look a little closer so that you find a program that is the best fit for the problems your teenager is dealing with. The programs are heavily customized so take the time to find out what each individual program strives to achieve.


Many of the differences between a wilderness program and a youth ranch are obvious because the types of facilities and the lifestyle of the youth in either facility will be dramatically different. If you remember the comedy movie, City Slickers with Billy Crystal, that is the image many people get of a youth ranch. In some ways, that image is accurate. There are numerous “dude ranches” that offer people the chance to live a western lifestyle, herd cattle, ride horses and do farm chores.

The difference between a dude ranch and a therapeutic youth ranch is that those designed to help teenagers turn their lives around put an additional focus on counseling and hard work that is not just work for its own sake. It is hard farm work that instills in a young person the love of work and the emotional rewards of a job well done.

How the teenagers will live is a significant difference between a wilderness program and a youth ranch. A wilderness program puts the youth into a more extreme lifestyle with more exposure to nature than a youth ranch. Teenagers attending a wilderness program will typically spend a large amount of time in a remote location with other youth and skilled and trained counselors who know how to keep kids safe while they are camping. They also know how to take advantage of the “roughing it” lifestyle to get through to kids in ways that may not be possible otherwise.

Target Students

The fact that there is such a diversity of youth ranch and wilderness programs available stems from the diversity of types of kids and types of problems that need to be resolved in troubled youth. The environment of a youth ranch is less demanding but it still gives youth ranch administrators ample exposure to the youth to customize their programs to address the problems your son or daughter may bring to a retreat environment.

A wilderness program is, by design, more difficult and demanding and because the youth are isolated in the wild with their counselors, they can experience “survival” experiences that can bring them to a decision point in life. As a result each program targets specific kinds of youth and specific issues to be resolved.

Wilderness programs often realize their greatest success with kids who have trouble in school or who are involved with criminal activity or other antisocial behavior. The life skills working in a team setting performing survival activities such as fishing, securing the camp, building a fire and cooking outdoors gives this kind of troubled kid the chance to evaluate his or her life in a new light and get a fresh perspective on his or her priorities.

Youth camps are able to focus on a more therapeutic environment and put more emphasis on individual and group counseling. Teenagers dealing with medical, emotional or physical problems can thrive in a specialized youth camp that has the expertise on staff to care for a problematic young person and customize the activities of the camp to the needs and abilities of the child. But because a youth ranch offers a more refined living environment, it is a better choice for a youth who would respond poorly to the extremes of a wilderness challenge.

Levels of Stress

Generally speaking, a wilderness program uses stressful situations and training techniques more often and in more diverse ways than youth camps will attempt. Both types of youth rehabilitation programs will impose systems of authority, rules and discipline on troubled youth and those programs will be implemented aggressively and without exception. This kind of structure is important to lay the groundwork for the turn around that troubled youth need.

The stress of a wilderness programs derives from the limited living arrangements and the difficulty of living in the wilderness for an extended period of time. For the right kind of teenager who is ready to respond to that kind of challenge, those stresses are part of the therapy. However, for some youth with emotional, medical or physical difficulties, the harsh living conditions of a wilderness experience could be a recipe for disaster.

The good news is that both youth ranch and wilderness programs are well equipped to evaluate your child and recommend if the type of programs they have to offer are a good fit for their curriculum or not. These institutions do not want a kid in the program who is going to struggle or fail because they were not a good fit to their approach to rehabilitating teenagers. By working with your child’s counselors and talking to the counselors and administrators of youth camp or wilderness programs that you are considering for your son or daughter, you can find the perfect fit that will be the right thing to help your child experience a new start in life.