Reassessing Risk: The Trails Wilderness Program Death

Reassessing Risk: The Trails Wilderness Program Death

The tragic event surrounding the Trails Wilderness Program in November 2014 has stirred a significant conversation about the safety and regulation of wilderness therapy programs. The death of Alec Sanford Lansing, a 17-year-old participant, has raised crucial questions about the responsibilities of these programs toward their participants. This article delves into the incident, the aftermath, the broader implications for wilderness therapy, and the necessary steps forward to prevent such tragedies in the future.

The Incident: A Tragic Outcome

In the serene setting of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest, what was intended to be a therapeutic journey turned into a heartrending tragedy. Alec Lansing, while participating in a group camping trip organized by Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy program, wandered off alone and subsequently lost his life. The cause of his death was determined to be hypothermia, compounded by a broken hip likely caused by a fall. This incident spotlighted the safety measures and emergency protocols of such programs.

Wilderness therapy programs like Trails Carolina are designed to help young people struggling with various issues, from mental health challenges to behavioral problems, through immersive nature experiences. These programs often operate under the belief that the wilderness setting can catalyze personal growth and healing. However, the tragic death of Alec Lansing raises fundamental questions about the balance of therapeutic benefits versus potential risks in such uncontrolled environments.

Investigating the Trails Wilderness Program Death

Nantahala National Forest: Snowbird Creek Trail, Sassafras Creek Trail, and  Burntrock Ridge Trail Loop, Robbinsville, North Carolina - HIKING THE  APPALACHIANS AND BEYOND

Following Alec’s death, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services thoroughly investigated Trails Carolina. The findings were concerning, revealing several violations of staff training and emergency procedures. These findings pointed to a significant gap in the safety protocols of the program, which possibly contributed to the inability to prevent or effectively respond to such a critical incident.

The investigation highlighted a need for more adequately trained staff to supervise and ensure the safety of participants in challenging wilderness settings. Moreover, it brought to light insufficient emergency response plans that could have been pivotal in preventing Alec’s death. The outcome of this investigation resulted in increased regulatory scrutiny over Trails Carolina and similar programs, underscoring the need for more stringent safety standards in the industry.



The Response from Trails Carolina

In the wake of the incident, Trails Carolina expressed deep sorrow over the loss of Alec Lansing. However, they also denied any wrongdoing in the events leading to his death. The program emphasized its commitment to participant safety and pointed to its history of successfully helping numerous young individuals. Despite their defense, the incident was a wake-up call for Trails Carolina and all wilderness therapy programs. It highlighted the necessity for improved safety measures and raised public concerns about the adequacy of existing protocols.

Implications for Wilderness Therapy Programs

The Truth About Teen Wilderness Therapy | Newport Academy Resources

The Trails Wilderness Program death is a critical reminder of the inherent risks of therapeutic interventions in wilderness settings. While these programs can offer unique and powerful experiences for young people, the incident underscores the importance of balancing therapeutic goals with the physical safety of participants.

It has sparked vital discussions about the responsibilities of wilderness therapy programs. These include ensuring stringent safety measures, hiring qualified and well-trained staff, developing comprehensive emergency plans, and implementing regular oversight to safeguard the well-being of all participants. The industry must reassess its practices and policies to ensure that such tragic events are not repeated.

Calls for Regulatory Changes and Industry Reforms

Forest Service releases final plan for Nantahala and Pisgah National  Forests | WPDE

In response to the tragedy, there have been calls for more stringent regulatory oversight of wilderness therapy programs. Advocates for change are pushing for standardized safety protocols, more rigorous staff training requirements, and regular audits of these programs. The goal is to establish a framework that will ensure participants’ highest level of safety and care.

Moreover, this incident has prompted a reevaluation of the criteria used to judge the effectiveness and safety of wilderness therapy programs. There is a growing consensus that these programs should be evaluated based not only on their therapeutic outcomes but also on their ability to maintain the safety and security of their participants.


Also Read: Mystic Monks Scandal: Controversies of the Carmelite Monks’ Coffee Business


Moving Forward: Enhancing Safety and Oversight

The Trails Wilderness Program death has been a catalyst for change in the industry. Moving forward, there is a need for enhanced safety protocols, better-trained staff, and more robust oversight mechanisms. Programs must develop risk management strategies that include comprehensive emergency response plans, regular safety audits, and clear guidelines for staff training and participant supervision.

Furthermore, there is a call for greater transparency in the operations of wilderness therapy programs. Parents and guardians need to be fully informed about the risks and safety measures in place. They should have a clear understanding of the qualifications of the staff and the procedures followed in case of emergencies.


The loss of Alec Sanford Lansing is a profound tragedy that has raised critical concerns about the safety of wilderness therapy programs. It has prompted a much-needed dialogue on how these programs are conducted and regulated. The Trails Wilderness Program death is a stark reminder of the risks involved in such therapeutic settings and the paramount importance of ensuring the safety and well-being of all participants.

As the industry moves forward, it must take concrete steps to enhance safety, improve training, and ensure rigorous oversight. This tragic incident should be a turning point, leading to more robust and safer wilderness therapy practices that genuinely benefit those they seek to help without compromising their safety.