National Forest



If you’re reading this, chances are you’re looking for Shawnee National Forest backpacking information – and it looks like you found the right place for that information.

With nearly 300,000-acres, there are a lot of areas in the Shawnee National Forest for backpacking opportunities. I define backpacking as multi-day hiking where you hike for more than one day and disperse camp in the forest. I’m sure you also define backpacking as this, and this guide was created just for that.

Shawnee National Forest is vast, and there are many different difficulty levels for hiking activities. Backpacking shouldn’t have to be for an expert hiker only. Beginners need good backpacking areas, too, to get better at it, right?

I created this guide to help anyone interested in Shawnee National Forest backpacking be able to start at any hiking ability and difficulty level.


How to Get Prepared for Shawnee National Forest Backpacking?

First of all, it’s critically important that you plan for your backpacking trip before you try to do it.

For Shawnee National Forest backpacking, I suggest you plan with essential factors. These factors are weather, backpacking area, seasonal conditions, hunting season, and difficulty level.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements:

Weather – Southern Illinois is often known for its volatile weather conditions. It can be shorts-weather one day and snow the next. Over the years, our winters have been more ice than snow, too. We might have a drought in the summer or flash floods all season long. The Shawnee National Forest is nestled between two major US rivers, Ohio and the Mississippi, and I think it impacts our weather. So, make sure you’re thoroughly checking weather conditions before backpacking. I recommend local southern Illinois weather sources such as WSIL TV 3, KFVS 12, and WPSD 6.

Backpacking Area – Choosing the right backpacking area during the planning phase is essential. I’ll get more into the regions to backpack later in this article, but it is a crucial factor to consider because not all areas allow overnight hiking or camping. For example, you cannot disperse camp in a Recreation Area like Little Grand Canyon, but you can camp for free and for up to 14-days straight within any designated wilderness area. You also want to make sure you’re not biting off more than you can chew with the ruggedness of the site you want to backpack in.

Seasonal Conditions – This is sort of related to the weather element because each season will bring different temperatures but different conditions and potential conflicts as well. Our winters are usually below average for precipitation, but they can be pretty cold. Spring has appeared to be cooler these past few years giving us a few warm days and then quickly returning to frost levels. Summer is usually sweltering and humid. Fall has been rather wet these past few years with many severe weather events. But you also want to look at potential conflicts. Snakes tend to move more frequently during fall and spring as those are migratory seasons. The forest undergrowth tends to grow trails during the summer and early fall months, and ticks become a problem. Each season has its conflicts to deal with, and it’s essential to plan for them.

Hunting Season – I’ve noticed in recent years that thru-hikers on the River to River Trail go during our deer hunting season. Listen, it is your right to use the trails whenever you want (unless otherwise posted), but backpacking during firearms season is asking for trouble. You can wear orange all day long, but bullets don’t see color. We have shotgun and muzzleloader game seasons in southern Illinois. During those times, people flock to all parts of the Shawnee National Forest to hunt. It brings in a lot of money to our local communities who depend on it. Hunters are very welcome in southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest. You are encouraged to respect the few days a year hunters get and protect your safety by knowing Illinois Hunting Season Dates and choosing not to backpack or day hike in areas where hunting occurs during those days.

Level of Difficulty – For this element, I highly recommend you learn how to use basic topo map reading skills. Once you know essential map reading, including contour lines, it will help you understand the difficulty level of each area. The Shawnee National Forest is often mistakenly called Shawnee National Park. The truth is the forest is far from a walk in the park. There are a lot of rugged and remote areas throughout the Shawnee. Southern Illinois is not flat like the central part of the state – it’s primarily rolling hills with steep ridgelines. Understanding the level of difficulty each area has will help make or break your Shawnee National Forest backpacking plans.


Shawnee National Forest Backpacking Gear Suggestions

Packing the right gear for a Shawnee National Forest backpacking trip is essential to the enjoyment and comfort of the journey. You don’t want to be miserable when away from everyone else in nature. Hiking is supposed to be fun and a way for us humans to reduce stress. If you come out of the forest more stressed than when you came in – something is wrong! So, prevent that by choosing the right backpacking gear for the right trip.

My suggestion is as follows but with the intent that you pack only for maybe a day over the amount you plan to be in the forest. A day’s worth of supplies is for emergencies if you don’t make it out on time. The first thing to get before all these items is an excellent backpack to hold it all in. Learn about liters and backpacking storage limits. You also want to make sure you get a pack that fits you. I like going to Shawnee Trails in Carbondale to get equipped for a better pack selection. After that, start getting the following:


Clothing & Footwear – With the assumption that you planned for the weather and seasonal conditions, wear the clothing you plan to backpack on the day you start. Save weight by not packing additional changes of clothing. Who cares if you stink a little after a day (or more), that’s part of being in nature? Extra outfits mean extra weight, which requires supplementary hydration and fuel, which is also more weight! Only pack layer clothing or additional essential items like socks and maybe underwear. Choose clothing that you can layer with to add and subtract as conditions demand it. Choose comfortable, outdoor-rated footwear such as hiking boots or trail runners. I suggest water-resistant, but it isn’t going to be for everyone. The more resistant the shoe, the more it will likely weigh.

Shelter & Warmth – If you’re going backpacking solo, get a solo tent or hammock. They’re often lighter, and they take up less space. If you’re going with others who will share your tent, I suggest choosing backpacking-specific tents. They tend to cost a little more but are made with weight and space. Saving weight on your back makes a difference. Chain retail stores that sell cheaper tents will have the heaviest tents you’ve ever carried. Bring an oversized rain poncho as your rain suit and doubles as a quick shelter from spontaneous rain events and storms. Get a comfortable sleeping bag rated for the temperatures you will be sleeping in (the low temperatures, not the highs).

Food & Water – Water should be the heaviest gear you take. Bring enough water to last you more than the number of days you plan to be out in the forest if possible. The idea is to have enough to ration if something significant occurs prevents you from making it back in time. Bring a water filter that you’ve tested and know how to properly use but do understand that creeks throughout the Shawnee is not always running, especially during dry seasons. Pack food that will give you fuel (high carb and calorie-based foods) and do not require particular temperatures to store. As you hike, you’re going to burn calories, and if it’s warmer, you’ll lose a lot of salt through sweating. It is essential to refuel your body to avoid significant illnesses. Make sure you bring plenty of snacks to eat along the way. I like trail bars, mixed nuts, and Mountain House meals for dinner.

Navigation – Having at least three forms of navigation is essential for any Shawnee National Forest backpacking trip. You don’t want to get lost. You also want to know the more accessible routes so that you can conserve fuel and hydration if needed. If you need to get back earlier, navigation can make this helpful, especially if you understand how to read topo maps and contour lines. I suggest taking a dedicated GPS device, an app for your phone (that doesn’t require a cell phone signal), paper maps, and a working compass. Ensure you know how to use all forms of these types of navigation if you plan to take them; otherwise, it will not be helpful when it matters the most. You might even consider acquiring a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).

Tools – Basic tools are essential to bringing on your Shawnee National Forest backpacking trip. The necessary tools I recommend taking is a good study knife for cutting and defense, if need be, a fire-starting rod and a pack of water/wind resistant matches, fire-starting chucks or fatwood, three forms of flashlights with extra batteries, a tick remover tool, charging brick and cell phone cord, cookware, spork, and a gear repair kit. You might find other essential tools to pack, but the trick is only taking what you’d need and knowing how to use such items.

First Aid – Make your first aid kit and put the supplies in a Ziploc bag. Make your kit because you won’t need everything in a standard all-in-one kit. As I said, extra weight means extra wear and tear on you. Bring only the essential items you’d need and only the items you know how to use. If you don’t know how to use it, why bring it? You also might need to pack things that are not in standard kits, like blood clotting powder and anti-diarrhea pills.

Journal & Camera – A journal might sound old-fashioned, but it might make the trip better. You can record your activity and reflect on it later after completing your journey. They have some tremendous waterproof journals and pens on the market for this sort of thing. Also, consider bringing a camera, even if it’s the camera on your phone. You might as well take some photos to show off to family and friends after you’ve completed your trip. It is good to have tools to collect memories of fun times in the Shawnee National Forest.


How to have a Safe Shawnee National Forest Backpacking Experience

Safety is a critical step in ensuring your Shawnee National Forest backpacking experience is a positive experience. A lot of people ignore crucial safety tips when enjoying the outdoors. Many of these people get into a severe accident where the injury is significant or die. Don’t be one of these people. Instead of ignoring safety measures and becoming a statistic for my next safety article, why not be safe and enjoy the next backpacking trip.


Falls – The number one cause of death in the Shawnee National Forest are from falls. This often occurs when visitors get too close to the edge of cliffs and the tops of bluffs, lose their balance or slip on a wet rock. No shoe or boot can prevent every slip on wet rocky surfaces – the Shawnee has proven that to be the case again and again. It is critical to watch your step when close to dangerous areas where you can fall. It doesn’t take that high of a fall to kill you if you land just right. And remember – safety before selfies.

Wildlife – Some members of the southern Illinois wildlife species could harm you. There are three types of venomous snakes in the Shawnee. These include copperhead, cottonmouth, and timber rattlesnakes. A bite from any of these will often require anti-venom treatment. Sometimes if an allergic reaction occurs, the situation becomes way more critical. Avoid a snake bite by watching where you step, never attempting to touch or handle a snake, and giving the animal plenty of room when you pass it. Luckily for you, there hasn’t been a recorded snakebite death in Illinois for over 200-years. Do note that killing snakes on National Forest land is a criminal act. Don’t approach other wildlife or corner them if you don’t want to be potentially injured by them. And don’t worry, there isn’t a population of bears, wolfs, and cougars in the Shawnee National Forest.

Temperature Related Injuries – Another common injury involves temperatures. Many people become injured by extreme hot and humid temperatures and freezing temperatures. You need to understand how to hydrate properly, rest when needed, and take action to cool down during warmer days. It is essential to learn how to dress and layer up for colder days. You don’t want to start sweating when the temperature is below freezing. Ensuring you bring plenty of water and food on your backpacking trip can prevent illnesses associated with temperature hazards such as dehydration from not getting the correct number of fluids in you.

Tell Someone – Before you even head to the trailhead where you plan to start your Shawnee National Forest backpacking adventure, you need to tell someone your plan. Tell someone who isn’t going with you. Give them a map with the area you’re going to with a circle around it. Give them GPS coordinates if you can as well. The idea is that if you don’t come back from your trip, your contact can notify the proper authorities and give them information on where to start looking for you. If you become injured and cannot leave the area, someone knowing where you are; will be a critical tool for your rescue efforts.

Not A Park – You need to understand the difference between a National Forest and a National Park. A lot of visitors misidentify the Shawnee National Forest as a National Park. This often means that visitors think they are getting the same comforts of a National Park in the Shawnee. In reality, that isn’t what you get. The forest is raw and wild, and many trails are not maintained as much as trails in a park. The Shawnee National Forest is far from a walk in the park.

Phone Reception – In most cases, cell phone reception throughout the boundary of the Shawnee National Forest will not work. If you fall or become injured, you are less likely to be able to call for help. This is why it is important to tell someone where you’re going. If backpacking on more remote trails, don’t expect too many people to be on the trails. Do not mistake relying on cell phone reception to work while on your Shawnee National Forest backpacking trip.


Shawnee National Forest Backpacking Locations

As I said earlier in the article, the Shawnee National Forest is nearly 300,000 acres. While that is not super huge, it isn’t that small. With that being said, there are plenty of areas to go backpacking in. There are plenty of places for each type of backpacker, too, no matter your abilities. Shawnee National Forest backpacking is often done to practice for the longer trails such as the AT and PCT. I’m sure there is a perfect Shawnee National Forest backpacking route for you.


Beginner Shawnee Backpacking Trips

Let’s take a look at some of the more accessible Shawnee National Forest backpacking areas that would be perfect for beginners:

  1. Red Cedar Trail – This 12-mile loop trail is located at Giant City State Park. This is a great two-day backpacking loop. A primitive campground with vault toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings is in the middle of the loop. There is no water present! You can park overnight at the Giant City Campground, but it requires a permit which is under $10. This is a great backpacking trail for beginners, and I used it myself when I started backpacking.
  2. Indian Point Trail – This 3-mile loop trail is located in the Garden of the Gods Wilderness. It starts at the Backpacker Parking lot. It is an easy loop and short. Many people backpack camp along this trail since it is allowed in the wilderness. You can park overnight at the Indian Point trailhead for free.
  3. River to River Trail Sections – If you don’t mind doing out and back hiking trips, the River to River Trail is perfect for beginners. You can do section hiking and see a lot of different parts of the Shawnee National Forest. While some of the trails could be moderately rugged, I feel this is a good beginner’s trail because it is often the most maintained within the Shawnee National Forest trails inventory.
  4. Jackson Falls Area ­– You could park overnight at Jackson Falls (free and legal) and hike into the canyon, camp overnight, and hike back to your vehicle the next day. This would be an excellent option for a beginner who wants to backpack in an area that is more remote and rugged for a better adventure. If you want to add climbing to your trip, assuming you are an experienced climber, this would be a great area to do it in as it is a designated rocking climbing and bouldering area.


Experienced Shawnee Backpacking Trips

Let’s see what areas of the Shawnee National Forest are better for the more experienced backpackers wanting a rugged adventure:

  1. Garden of the Gods Backdoor Loop – This is not an official trail; it consists of several officially designated trails. Users of All Trails created this. I’ve done this loop a few times and have even led paid hikes on it (I’m a Licensed Guide). It is a fun 10-mile loop with nearly 1,500-foot of elevation gain. It goes through quite a bit of the Wilderness Area, so there is ample opportunity to disperse camp on this route. You could do 5 miles one day, center, and finish the rest the next day. Parking is free at Golden Circle Trailhead, where the loop starts.
  2. Garden of the Gods Loop – This is another All Trails user-generated hiking loop, but it consists of officially designated trails. This loop is about 6-miles, so it is less than the backdoor loop if you’re looking for a shorter but more rugged backpacking route. It also goes through the designated Wilderness Area, where you can camp for free. This trail starts at the Backpacker’s parking lot, which you can park in overnight at no cost.
  3. Trail 049 – I have created a nice 10+ mile loop that starts at East Trigg Trailhead, follows some of the River to River Trail, and goes through Millstone Lake and Jackson Falls. You could hike this trail and camp at Jackson Falls or even Millstone Lake. This is one of my favorite longer walking loops because I feel like you get to see a little bit of everything that the Shawnee National Forest offers. Overnight parking is allowed and free at East Trigg Trailhead, or you could even start at Jackson Falls Trailhead as an alternative.
  4. 6-Multiday Loops – I’d like to promote the 6-map multiday backpacking loops that the River to River Trail Society has put out. The US Forest Service officially created these maps in partnership with the R2R Trail Society. They feature six different multiday hiking loops on both sides of the Shawnee National Forest. They work on the Avenza app for smartphones which doesn’t require cell phone reception. You can buy the six maps in paper form or digitally for about $10 for the set. I officially recommend these maps and have bought them myself!

There are many other areas to plan a Shawnee National Forest backpacking trip. Many of these loops and out and back trips can be found on All Trails. Just understand that many of those routes are user-generated and may consist of trails that are not as often maintained as others are. Do note that you can’t just camp anywhere you want, either. You can camp in designated campgrounds, wilderness areas, and abandoned or unmaintained areas such as Jackson Falls. You cannot camp within any Natural Area or designated Recreation Area. You cannot camp on any trail itself – it must be at least a couple hundred feet from the trail.


Shawnee National Forest Backpacking Hacks, Tips, and Secrets

As we conclude this article, I want to share some hacks, tips, and secrets that will help make your Shawnee National Forest backpacking trip the best trip it can be. I’m sure there is even more advice out there than what I am giving you here, and with that, I suggest you ask around more. You can always join my free Facebook group of more than 20,000-people in Southern Illinois Hiking & Outdoor Recreation to learn more.

  • Spandex! People laugh at me for this, but I’m a cyclist, and I’ve learned backpacking hacks because of my cycling experience. Spandex is a perfect layering option for you during colder months, and it barely weighs anything. The compression warms your muscles and blood up as you become active. Leg warmers and arm warmers used for cycling are great options for quick layering.
  • Duct tape everything you can put on. Duct tape around your water bottles. Tape around your lighter and your walking stick. All that duct tape can work wonders to repair gear, bandage a hole in your clothing or boots, to even pull seed ticks off your clothing and skin. Carrying a roll can add weight but taping it to things takes some of the importance off.
  • Pack dryer lint with you for your trip. Dryer lint is a perfect fuel to get a fire started quickly.
  • Save the “Do not eat” packets you get with food and bought items. You can toss them into compartments with gear that you want to keep dry to help collect moisture from rain or your sweat dripping down into it.
  • Buy long synthetic moisture whickering towels. I sweat a lot, and these things are a lifesaver because they dry out quickly. I get them long and in a stretch material to use them as a headband for sweat on those hot days.
  • Don’t pack a snake bite kit. It’s snake oil! Venom quickly spreads, and attempting to suck it out is pointless, but it could do more damage to the bite area, leading to a quicker infection. If you get bit, get to medical assistance rapidly.
  • If you’ve never been on a Shawnee National Forest backpacking trip, I advise you to do it with another person, especially someone with experience. It is so easy to make mistakes as a beginner that you could even ruin your trip. Don’t hike alone if you don’t have to do it.
  • Don’t pack what you don’t need. Carrying useless items means adding useless weight. Too much weight can hurt you. Learn how to get multiple uses out of one thing. For example, you don’t need a fork and a spoon; you need to use a spork.
  • Permethrin is a beautiful invention to consider using. Spray your boots, clothing, and gear with it away from kids and pets and let them sit for 24-hours. This will keep a lot of ticks off you, but you definitely should still check yourself frequently during your trip.
  • Stay away from Cotton unless there is a drought. If there is a drought, the sweat from being held in by the cotton might moisturize your body enough to help you stay hydrated. But cotton is just asking for trouble during the winter or other conditions.
  • Take your time. Rest often. It’s not a race. Rushing will get you hurt. Enjoy yourself and enjoy the nature around you.


And this concludes my Shawnee National Forest backpacking guide. I hope you have got something out of this guide. If you want to have a successful and memorable backpacking experience in the Shawnee, I recommend you follow the above advice. If you have enjoyed this free guide and want to see more like it, please share this with a friend who would also enjoy it.


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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!



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. I hope you enjoy my website and I encourage you to interact with me!

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