skip to main content
Washington State Institute for Public Policy
Back Button

Wilderness experience programs

Juvenile Justice
Benefit-cost methods last updated December 2018.  Literature review updated September 2015.
Open PDF
Wilderness programs are typically non-profit education organizations that expose troubled youth to the outdoors in varying ways. These programs, for example, Outward Bound, use challenge and adventure as a means to help delinquent youth through self-discovery and typically take place over a 7 to 30 day period.
The estimates shown are present value, life cycle benefits and costs. All dollars are expressed in the base year chosen for this analysis (2017). The chance the benefits exceed the costs are derived from a Monte Carlo risk analysis. The details on this, as well as the economic discount rates and other relevant parameters are described in our Technical Documentation.
Benefit-Cost Summary Statistics Per Participant
Benefits to:
Taxpayers $5,724 Benefits minus costs $10,770
Participants $1,038 Benefit to cost ratio $2.64
Others $11,293 Chance the program will produce
Indirect ($715) benefits greater than the costs 95 %
Total benefits $17,340
Net program cost ($6,570)
Benefits minus cost $10,770
1In addition to the outcomes measured in the meta-analysis table, WSIPP measures benefits and costs estimated from other outcomes associated with those reported in the evaluation literature. For example, empirical research demonstrates that high school graduation leads to reduced crime. These associated measures provide a more complete picture of the detailed costs and benefits of the program.

2“Others” includes benefits to people other than taxpayers and participants. Depending on the program, it could include reductions in crime victimization, the economic benefits from a more educated workforce, and the benefits from employer-paid health insurance.

3“Indirect benefits” includes estimates of the net changes in the value of a statistical life and net changes in the deadweight costs of taxation.
Detailed Monetary Benefit Estimates Per Participant
Benefits from changes to:1 Benefits to:
Taxpayers Participants Others2 Indirect3 Total
Crime $4,998 $0 $11,032 $2,491 $18,520
Labor market earnings associated with high school graduation $590 $1,300 $604 $0 $2,494
Health care associated with educational attainment $261 ($72) ($286) $130 $34
Costs of higher education ($126) ($190) ($57) ($63) ($435)
Adjustment for deadweight cost of program $0 $0 $0 ($3,273) ($3,273)
Totals $5,724 $1,038 $11,293 ($715) $17,340
Detailed Annual Cost Estimates Per Participant
Annual cost Year dollars Summary
Program costs $6,389 2015 Present value of net program costs (in 2017 dollars) ($6,570)
Comparison costs $0 2015 Cost range (+ or -) 10 %
We calculated the cost per participant based on the costs of the programs delivered by Outward Bound, a non-profit organization which provides wilderness experience programs for troubled youth ( Based on the average length of days in the programs for the studies in our review that reported length of participation (31 days), we estimated a cost per youth participant for one month of programming ($6,389).
The figures shown are estimates of the costs to implement programs in Washington. The comparison group costs reflect either no treatment or treatment as usual, depending on how effect sizes were calculated in the meta-analysis. The cost range reported above reflects potential variation or uncertainty in the cost estimate; more detail can be found in our Technical Documentation.
Estimated Cumulative Net Benefits Over Time (Non-Discounted Dollars)
The graph above illustrates the estimated cumulative net benefits per-participant for the first fifty years beyond the initial investment in the program. We present these cash flows in non-discounted dollars to simplify the “break-even” point from a budgeting perspective. If the dollars are negative (bars below $0 line), the cumulative benefits do not outweigh the cost of the program up to that point in time. The program breaks even when the dollars reach $0. At this point, the total benefits to participants, taxpayers, and others, are equal to the cost of the program. If the dollars are above $0, the benefits of the program exceed the initial investment.

Meta-analysis is a statistical method to combine the results from separate studies on a program, policy, or topic in order to estimate its effect on an outcome. WSIPP systematically evaluates all credible evaluations we can locate on each topic. The outcomes measured are the types of program impacts that were measured in the research literature (for example, crime or educational attainment). Treatment N represents the total number of individuals or units in the treatment group across the included studies.

An effect size (ES) is a standard metric that summarizes the degree to which a program or policy affects a measured outcome. If the effect size is positive, the outcome increases. If the effect size is negative, the outcome decreases.

Adjusted effect sizes are used to calculate the benefits from our benefit cost model. WSIPP may adjust effect sizes based on methodological characteristics of the study. For example, we may adjust effect sizes when a study has a weak research design or when the program developer is involved in the research. The magnitude of these adjustments varies depending on the topic area.

WSIPP may also adjust the second ES measurement. Research shows the magnitude of some effect sizes decrease over time. For those effect sizes, we estimate outcome-based adjustments which we apply between the first time ES is estimated and the second time ES is estimated. We also report the unadjusted effect size to show the effect sizes before any adjustments have been made. More details about these adjustments can be found in our Technical Documentation.

Meta-Analysis of Program Effects
Outcomes measured Treatment age No. of effect sizes Treatment N Adjusted effect sizes(ES) and standard errors(SE) used in the benefit - cost analysis Unadjusted effect size (random effects model)
First time ES is estimated Second time ES is estimated
ES SE Age ES SE Age ES p-value
Crime 15 8 441 -0.313 0.096 17 -0.313 0.096 27 -0.515 0.001

Citations Used in the Meta-Analysis

Castellano, T.C., & Soderstrom, I.R. (1992). Therapeutic wilderness programs and juvenile recidivism: a program evaluation. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 17(3/4), 19-46.

Cytrynbaum, S., & Ken, K. (1975). The Connecticut Wilderness program: A Preliminary Evaluation Report. Hartford, CT: The Council on Human Services.

Elrod, P.H., & Minor, K. (1992). Second wave evaluation of a mulit-faceted intervention for juvenile court probationers. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 36(3), 247-262.

Gillis, H.L., & Gass, M.A. (2010). Treating juveniles in a sex offender program using adventure-based programming: a matched group design. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 19(1), 20-34.

Hileman, M.A. (1979). An evaluation of an environmental stress-challenge program on the social attitudes and recidvism behavior of male delinquent youth. Unpublished master's thesis, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Kelly, F.J. & Baer, D.J. (1971). Physical challenge as a treatment for delinquency. Crime and Delinquency, 17(4), 437-445.

Metametrics, Inc. (1984). Evaluation of the Breakthrough Foundation Youth at Risk Program: The 10-day Course and Follow-up Program.

Willman, H.C., & Chun, R.Y.F. (1973). Homeward bound: an alternative to the institutionalization of adjudicated juvenile offenders. Federal Probation, 37, 52-58.

Winterdyk, J., & Roesch, R. (1982). A wilderness experiential program as an alternative for probationers: An evaluation. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 24, 39-49.