Shawnee Forest


Hiking Safety


Welcome to the Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety Guide.

It’s wintertime in the Shawnee National Forest. Southern Illinois is no stranger to snow, ice, and frigid temperatures.

Most people stay inside during wintry conditions, but some like to get out and hike.

There is nothing wrong with winter hiking as long as you put safety first.

And that’s why I’ve created this Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety Guide so that you can protect yourself when hiking in the Shawnee National Forest during the cold winter season.

Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety Disclaimer

The Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety Guide was created for educational and informational purposes. You should always consider the hazardous conditions and dangers of hiking during the winter.

Many fatal falls in the Shawnee National Forest have usually occurred during winter.

In no way does this guide suggest that you hike during severe winter weather conditions. This guide is merely meant for educational and informational purposes. Hiking in the winter is at your own risk.

Please ensure that you put safety before all else when hiking in the Shawnee National Forest during winter.

shawnee forest winter hiking safety

Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety: Before Your Hike

Before you go, follow these Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety tips to help you have a better outdoor experience exploring the National Forest of southern Illinois.


Planning Your Hike

Research your hiking trip before you go. Check all the available trail guides and map sites/apps, such as:

Be sure to check the weather conditions for the Shawnee Forest area. You can check multiple reports on NWS Paducah, WSIL TV 3, KFVS 12, and WPSD 6.

Be sure to check local road conditions before setting out to hike.

Print out a map of the area you will be hiking in. Draw a circle around it. Give that paper to someone who will notify emergency services if you don’t come back or check in after a specific time. That person can share that map with search and rescue personnel. It could significantly save your life. Include where you will park and what trail numbers you’ll take. Include a description of what you’ll wear and any medical information worth presenting.


What to Wear

The best way to dress for winter hiking is to layer up. You may need two base layers if the temperature is cold enough. Layering up allows you to shed layers as you warm up. You don’t want to sweat when it’s cold, but you want to ensure you’re warm.

A waterproof and comfortable outdoor-specific hiking boot is best for winter hiking. Before using them for a rugged winter hike, break them in. Wear comfortable thick socks with your boots. My favorite socks are thick alpaca wool socks.

Bring some extra layers in a sealed water-tight bag. These are for emergencies, such as if you fall into the water. To keep it lightweight, I bring an insulated running tech shirt, insulated running tights, extra socks, and two plastic shopping bags to wrap around my feet if my boots are submerged.

It is a good idea to bring rain gear with you. A rain jacket and rain pants are relatively lightweight. However, an oversized rain poncho would also do. The poncho could also be used as an emergency shelter if you need it to be one.


What Gear to Bring

You should pack plenty of water, a water filter, snacks, and a meal. Water should be your heaviest item. Bring more than you’ll need. Bring a water filter you know how to use and that you’ve tested. Bring plenty of snacks that will fuel you up. Bring a meal in case you get stranded and need to eat. I bring a pocket rocket stove and a small fuel canister with a good Mountain House meal.

Trekking poles are a good option for winter hiking. They can help you hike better in the snow. They can help you get up and down rugged hills. They allow you to maintain balance during challenging creek crossings. Get some telescopic trekking poles to store them when you don’t need them. They can also be used with your rain poncho as a sheltering system.

Navigational gear is essential. Bring at least a paper map and compass along with your phone app map or GPS if you use those. Bring some emergency gear with you. This can include waterproof/windproof matches, a folding saw, a first aid kit, and anything else you need in an emergency.

Bring a headlamp with extra batteries, even if you plan to be out before dark. You’ll wish you had some light if something happens and it gets dark. Bring a whistle if you need to use it to call for help. Consider a personal locator beacon (PLB) if you plan to do some backcountry wilderness hiking.


Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety: Tips for the Trail

Here are a few Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety tips for the trail.


Shawnee National Forest Trails

Choose the trail that is best for your physical abilities. There is nothing wrong with choosing easier trails. Check out these easy trails in the Shawnee National Forest. We have plenty of those if you want to hike on more moderate and strenuous trails. And if you’re looking for backpacking trails and overnight hikes, there are a few to choose from.


How to Hike in the Snow

Get a pair of snow cleats which is also commonly referred to as crampons or YakTrax. These fit under and over your hiking boots. They give you plenty of traction on snow and ice. You should still step carefully and not put all your trust in the snow cleats. But they will help make each step better than hiking without them.

Use a trekking pole when climbing up or down steeper and more rugged hills. Extend your trekking pole longer when going downhill. This prevents you from leaning and bending downward, which could cause you to fall. Shorten the length of the pole when going up so that you learn towards the hill rather than away from it. If you fall, you want to fall into the safest part of the hill.

Creek crossing can be challenging during the winter. If you fall in and get your feet wet, it can ruin your trip or make it hazardous. A trekking pole can help you maintain balance when crossing a creek. But we carry waterproof socks or croc shoes with us to put on, roll our pants up, and cross creeks. It might be cold at first, but it beats getting your main boots and socks wet or accidentally falling into the creek.


Make Hiking Easier

Hiking can be much easier if you understand the basics of reading a topo map. Try to learn about contour lines, ridges, and what hills look like on a map. Without this knowledge, you might be doing more hill climbing than you should be doing. Steep climbs will take energy out of you and require you to hydrate and snack more.

During winter hiking, it’s essential to take breaks. Find a dry area, such as a natural shelter, and rest for a couple of minutes. It would be a great time to cook your meal if you need a more significant feast for longer hikes.

It’s easy to not hydrate properly during the winter. No heat or humidity is reminding us to drink. An excellent technique to turn into a habit is to take a bite of your snack and wash it down with a few sips of water every half hour. You can even set your watch or phone to beep and remind you to do it. This will help keep you hydrated and fueled for the whole adventure.

If you hike with a friend, it takes your mind off the more challenging parts of hiking in rugged wintry conditions. Plus, it’s safer to hike with someone else during the winter.


Benefits of Hiking in the Winter

There are many benefits of hiking in the winter. All the snakes and biting bugs are gone for the winter. There are no significant amounts of poison ivy waiting to cover you. Fewer people get out, so it’s easier to see the areas that are usually crowded during the warmer months, like Garden of the Gods and Bell Smith Springs. And because all the leaves are down, it’s easier to bushwhack and see more of the incredible natural features the Shawnee National Forest offers.


Dangers of Hiking in the Winter

There are some significant dangers of hiking the Shawnee National Forest in the winter. For starters, everything will be slick, including areas that are not usually slick. It’s easy to forget about those areas when you’re used to hiking on them without them being slippery or hazardous. Most of the severe to fatal falls that occur in the Shawnee occur during the winter months. It’s also easier to over-exert yourself in the winter, especially if you don’t hydrate properly. Of course, other cold-weather-related injuries like hypothermia and frostbite can happen.


Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety: Emergency Situations

Here are some Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety tips for dealing with the most likely emergencies that could occur. This is not medical advice and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. This information is for educational purposes.


How to Call For Help when Disabled

If you have become disabled and cannot get out of the forest, getting help is critical. If it is safe, build a fire to stay warm so others can see the fire when searching for you. Don’t make it a large fire since firefighting isn’t an option for you. Use a whistle to call for help. Some backpacks have whistles built into the chest strap. If you don’t have a whistle, scream for help but make sure you take breaks, or it can lead to over-exertion and cause more safety hazards. If you carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), you should activate it for emergency SOS.


Bone Break (Leg or Foot)

Breaking a bone, especially in your leg or foot, can be very scary when hiking in the Shawnee National Forest backcountry. If you can limp yourself out safely, do so. If you can’t, then you need to install an emergency splint. You can use a stick to tie next to the broken bone tightly. The stick will help keep the broken bone in place while you limp your way to safety. You should be calling for help as you move. Don’t move too fast, and take breaks. Remember to hydrate. An emergency splint should be done as a last resort option.


Falling off High Places

If someone falls from a cliff or high place, emergency personnel should be called as soon as possible. You might have to leave the victim to get to a point where you have a signal. It would help if you recorded to GPS coordinates where the fall occurred. If the victim isn’t breathing and you know how to do CPR, you should administer it immediately to increase lifesaving efforts. Try not to move the victim unless their staying where they are is extremely dangerous such as in ponding water. Protect their neck by stabilizing it between your legs and gently holding their head in place. Try to keep awake as long as possible. They will be in pain and may be very audible about it.


Falling Into Water

Falling into the water during winter hiking can turn into a deadly situation. If you fall near where you parked your vehicle, get to your car as soon as possible. You need to warm up and dry yourself quickly. If you’re not near your vehicle, change into dry clothing as soon as possible. If you do not have dry clothing, build a fire, strip down and dry your clothing off. You could wear a rain poncho to protect yourself from wind chill while you dry your clothes.


Frostbite/Nearing Frostbite

If you suspect frostbite, cover the impacted area with something that will block wind and moisture. Keep moving and rubbing the area so that blood continues to flow through it. Warm the area close to a fire. Soak the area in warm water until it becomes red and warm. Don’t use hot water, and don’t get it too close to a fire. Getting to an EMS or a hospital is your main priority. Frostbite can lead to severe infections, required amputation, or even death.


Getting Lost

Try to stay on the trail at all times to avoid getting lost. If you get lost on the trail, don’t leave the trail. Many trails in the Shawnee will eventually connect to other trails to get you back on track. Try to backtrack and look for landmarks that you might have noticed before. Remember, the sun sets in the west and rises in the east, which is helpful for navigational purposes. Before leaving the start of the trail, it’s a good idea to mark the compass direction so that you know what way to get back in case you get lost.


Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety: 10 Steps to Surviving the Shawnee

Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety can be accomplished by following these ten tips for surviving the Shawnee during the winter season.

  1. Before you go, tell someone exactly where you plan to hike. Print out a map and draw a circle around the area. If you don’t return, this will be crucial for emergency search and rescue personnel.
  2. Research everything about the hike before you go. Know the weather, the elevation, the conditions, and how close it is to others. Read all the trail reviews.
  3. Bring plenty of water, snacks, and a meal (such as a Mountain House Meal), and make sure you have a water filter.
  4. Bring the appropriate gear you need on a winter hiking trip. Make sure a first aid kit is a part of that gear.
  5. Pack emergency layers sealed up in a pack with you, just in case.
  6. Layer up for the conditions. Bring some rain gear. Wear comfortable waterproof boots and winter socks.
  7. Try to avoid hiking alone and start as early as possible.
  8. Take a directional reading of the start of the trail before you start hiking.
  9. Try to stay on the trail at all times.
  10. Watch your step and always put safety first. Most accidents can be avoided by watching where you put your feet with each step and assessing the safety risks of every decision you make.


And that was the Shawnee Forest Winter Hiking Safety guide. Now you have the information and resources to make your winter hike in the Shawnee National Forest a little bit safer than before. Please consider sharing this guide with others, so they know how to be safe with you. Subscribe to my free monthly newsletter for more Shawnee National Forest hiking tips.

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Thanks again for checking out another one of my articles and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail!

Shawn Gossman

Shawn Gossman

Founder, Hiking with Shawn

Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman

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