In October 2016, a 15-year-old boy named Samuel Argumaniz passed away while participating in an outdoor educational program by Trails Carolina. The Trails Wilderness Therapy program is located in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and aims to treat behavioral and emotional issues in teenagers through outdoor activities like hiking. Samuel died of cardiac arrest after experiencing fatigue during an overnight 10-mile hike in Hot Springs, North Carolina. He had a pre-existing heart condition.
His family sued Trails Carolina, alleging negligence as staff failed to properly assess Samuel’s fitness level and medical history before the strenuous hike. The case shed light on concerns about the lack of requirements and oversight of wilderness therapy programs, which are not licensed or regulated in many states. In 2021, a jury found Trails Carolinas liable and awarded $3 million to Samuel’s family for wrongful death. It was later reduced to $2.5 million on appeal. Samuel’s death sparked calls for greater transparency and minimum standards regarding health screenings, staff certifications, and emergency protocols at such wilderness programs. It remains a cautionary tale about ensuring participant safety, health disclosures, and risk mitigation in intensive outdoor treatment programs.
Wilderness Therapy Programs That Are Licensed And Regulated
Anasazi Foundation (AZ, UT, NM) – Licensed residential treatment program. Staff are trained professionals. Accredited by Joint Commission.
RedCliff Ascent (CO, UT) – Licensed residential treatment facility that Adheres to state regulations. The clinical team consists of licensed therapists and psychologists.
Open Sky Wilderness Therapy (OR) – State-licensed residential treatment center. Clinical staff are licensed mental health professionals. JCAHO accredits it.
Ranch Creek Residential Treatment Center (UT) – Licensed residential treatment program. The clinical team includes licensed therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
Canyon Wilderness Therapy (AZ) – Their respective state boards have a license. The Joint Commission accredits the Licensed residential treatment program Clinical teams.
Independence Academy (UT) – State-licensed specialty hospital Clinical staff are licensed professionals in psychiatry, psychology, and counseling.
Anasazi Foundation (AZ, CO, TX, UT) – Multiple licensed residential treatment programs across states. Clinical staff qualifications verified by state offices.
Accreditation Process For Wilderness Therapy Programs
The Joint Commission and the Council on Accreditation (COA) are the two central accrediting bodies. Accreditation is voluntary but signals a program meets high standards. It often involves an on-site survey every 1-3 years. Programs must demonstrate they comply with quality, safety, and staff credentialing standards set by the accrediting body. Areas reviewed include client intake/assessment, treatment planning, behavioral healthcare services, emergency procedures, staff training, and performance review.
Medical records, client satisfaction surveys, and outcome data are examined to ensure programs deliver effective treatment. Accreditation requires maintaining compliance on an ongoing basis. Programs must report incidents and changes in services/policies and undergo focused monitoring as needed. Surveys are unannounced. Surveyors include medical professionals and experts in wilderness therapy who evaluate entire operations. Programs accredited by JCAHO or COA must undergo a rigorous qualitative and quantitative review process, providing more oversight than state licensure alone. Accreditation helps programs improve and protect clients by ensuring standards are met across physical and mental healthcare dimensions of treatment.
The tragic death of a student while participating in the Trails Wilderness Program is undoubtedly devastating for all involved. As authorities continue investigating the cause and circumstances of the incident, many questions remain. The loss of life is always profoundly saddening, particularly when it strikes down young people merely seeking challenge and adventure through such experiential education programs. Trails Wilderness will undoubtedly review its protocols and procedures to understand if any lapses occurred.