Summer is the perfect time for teens to discover the keys to lifelong recovery.

In American Camp Association’s Camping Magazine, camp director and school psychologist Stephen Gray Wallace recounted stories of three campers who found what he calls the “Three Rs” — risk, resiliency and reasons to believe — through their summer camp experiences.

Realizing the transformative power of the summer-camp experience, Wallace suggested that summer camps could provide support and an alternate experience for teens facing addiction.  

“Much as we implement safety protocols for other predictable events — such as falls, fights, and thunderstorms — we can do the same for those campers who one day might find themselves stuck at the bottom of a bottle or at the end of a needle,” Wallace theorized.

How Can Summer Camps Benefit Teens in Recovery?

According to the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey, the prevalence of illicit drug use by teens in grades eight, ten and 12 had increased by 0.6% in the last year. At 27%, the 2018 rate was higher than that of the previous three years.

Teens are as vulnerable as ever before to substance use and addiction, and many experience full-blown addiction before parents or other loved ones can intervene.

Teens who have been through the courageous fight against addiction sometimes feel that the road never ends. As they navigate a new lifestyle and realize they must sidestep triggers to avoid relapse all too often in the real world, it can seem like there is no safe space to breathe, relax and have fun.

Summer camps give teens the opportunity to spend time with other kids their age during a time when there is typically no routine and frequently no constructive way to spend the long, hot, idle days.

Camps not only provide teens with the fun and distraction they need to stay on track but also allow them to test their own abilities and prove their worth to themselves and others, which can be crucial to their confidence and self-image.

Decision-making skills are enhanced as teens exercise critical thinking. Conflict-resolution is part of any team-based endeavor and with professionally trained counselors, teens can learn to express themselves to others with respect and honesty. Responsibility fosters a sense of pride, which builds self-esteem, and teens with higher self-esteem are more likely to get and stay substance-free.

Lastly, the strong bonds built at a summer camp for teens in recovery are powerful. According to one of Wallace’s campers, Michael, the “positive relationships that form the basis for the ‘sponsorship’ model common in addiction treatment” are the most compelling benefits of summer camps.

Summer Retreats for Teens

With summer and camp seemingly made for each other, there are many programs and retreats that offer teens and young adults the opportunity to make connections with others and explore keys to acceptance and lifelong recovery. One example is Outward Bound’s Intercept Program.

Outward Bound was founded in 1941 in Wales. When the first Outward Bound USA course launched as part of the Peace Corps, the camp maintained its mission of empowering young people to become leaders in their communities by challenging their own physical and mental limits set Outward Bound apart from other organizations.

The Outward Bound Intercept program was established specifically for at-risk teens. The program allows them to build their communication skills and develop compassion and confidence while creating supportive friendships with other teens who share a common experience of facing adversity.

The adversity could be substance-related, mental health related or interpersonal, but the underlying feelings are the same, and teens benefit from relationships with others that understand them.

With several courses to choose from, including canoeing, hiking and rock climbing, teens can learn to weather the victories and failures with perspective, humility and a spirit of openness and discovery.

Other Camp Models

While summertime is the most common time of year to think about summer camp and the activities they offer, there are many programs that offer the support and life-skill development that a teen needs for a successful, fulfilling recovery.

Additionally, just because a summer camp doesn’t tout its policies on substance use, doesn’t mean it can’t offer the same benefits to teens in recovery. Most summer programs are built on the same foundation of teamwork, leadership and skill-building that makes camps for teens in recovery so unique.

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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD
Kevin Wandler holds multiple positions at Advanced Recovery Systems. In addition to being the founding and chief medical director at Advanced Recovery Systems, he is also the medical director at The Recovery Village Ridgefield and at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake. Read more

American Camp Association. Beautiful Boys: Addiction, Recovery, and[…]arned at Summer Camp. September 2014. Accessed May 19, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2018 Overview the Sponsored by The National Institute on Drug Abuse at The National Institutes of Health Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use. January 2019. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Outward Bound. About Outward Bound, Wilderness Adventure School. n.d. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Outward Bound. Outward Bound’s At-Risk Programs For T[…]– Making an Impact. January 26, 2011. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Outward Bound. What Is Intercept? n.d. Accessed May 19, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.