Hiking with Shawn’s
Ultimate Safety Guide
For Safely Enjoying the
Shawnee National Forest
Welcome to the Ultimate Safety Guide for Safely Enjoying the Shawnee National Forest, created by Hiking with Shawn. While Hiking with Shawn supports the efforts and management strategies of the US Forest Service, this guide is NOT an official creation of the US Forest Service or any other public land management agency, organization or entity. This guide only recommends safety measures and is meant as an educational tool to the reader. Entering and recreating in the Shawnee National Forest is to be done at your own risk. This guide is not meant to be legal and/or medical advice. The contents of this guide have been customized to meet the conditions and environment of the Shawnee National Forest and other public land within the southern Illinois region.
The #1 Safety Rule
The #1 safety rule that can apply to all safety hazards and topics within the Shawnee National Forest is to think before you take your next step! Watch your step. You can avoid all hazards and issues by putting safety before all else and thinking about what you’re doing next. In the end, you are your own safety measure and you should fully understand that before enjoying the outdoors. Safety first before all else and always watch your step!
Top 3 Hazards of the Shawnee National Forest
These top 3 hazards are based on their common occurrence within the Shawnee National Forest:
The first top hazard is fall fatality/injury. Each year, at least 1 person dies from a fatal fall occurring within the Shawnee National Forest. The falls are usually involved at popular destinations such as Garden of the Gods and Burden Falls. Aside from the fatalities, there are multiple serious injuries reported throughout the year from falls. Falls can be completely prevented by putting safety first and watching your step. Leave the Shawnee with good memories, not bad injuries. Please don’t become a statistic for this guide.
The second top hazard is getting lost in the forest, especially in wilderness areas. The Shawnee National Forest comprises of almost 300,000 acres stretching across the eastern to western portions of southern Illinois. While the forest is small compared to other more giant forests in the western United States, the Shawnee still has miles upon miles of land and thousands upon thousands of miles of trail. Getting lost in the Shawnee isn’t rare, in fact, it happens a lot. Most of the time people get lost because they have no form of navigation and they don’t plan their trip out properly. Again, this can be prevented by putting safety first and thinking about your next move.
The third and final top hazard of the Shawnee National Forest is heat exhaustion. Southern Illinois summers can be brutal in terms of heat and humidity. Add that on top of the rolling hills and steep terrains of the forest and that can be the perfect ingredients for heat exhaustion and even dehydration. Whether it is due to drinking too much alcohol to not packing enough water, multiple heat-related illnesses occur each year during the warmer months within the Shawnee National Forest. Heat illnesses are no joke and can be completely avoided by safety first and thinking ahead. Now you see what I mean by thinking ahead. It is common sense and can keep you alive while enjoying your experience recreating in the beautiful Shawnee National Forest.
Criminal Activities in the Shawnee National Forest
I often get asked if the Shawnee National Forest is safe to visit and recreate in. Usually the questioner wonders about going alone and how crime is. Like with anywhere, there is some criminal activities that takes place in the Shawnee National Forest. However, violent crimes are extremely rare. Aside from a few fugitives being sought out in the forest over the years, there hasn’t been too many reports of violent criminal activities taking place.
The biggest crimes that seem to commonly occur within the Shawnee National Forest are vandalism and littering. Trailheads are often subject to vandalism by vehicles. Signage is often subject to vandalism with graffiti. Natural features such as bluffs and trees are often targets of the graffiti as well. Some of the graffiti is very inappropriate, especially for young children. Littering often occurs at the edge of bluffs in more popular areas as well as areas of the forest where people usually gather for alcoholic consumption activities.
In the end, I would personally suggest that the Shawnee National Forest is safe and even to those who decide to use it solo. However, natural hazards can still occur and if one experiences them while alone, it can result in a significant negative consequence. So, with that being said, I highly recommend you recreate with another person or a group of people. If something happens, the other person can get help or help the person who may be injured. However, I wouldn’t be too worried about criminal activities if you avoid areas of common behavior especially at night.
If at any time you observe illegal activity taking place in the Shawnee National Forest, you should call 911 and report it immediately. Dispatchers will rely it to US Forest Service Law Enforcement. If you see something suspicious, say something. Never try to stop illegal activity yourself or interfere with it.
Animal Hazards of the Shawnee National Forest
There are numerous potential safety hazards involving pets, pack animals and wild animals within the Shawnee National Forest:
Pets should always be put on a leash while recreating in the forest. This is an official rule of the Shawnee National Forest. Some people do not always leash their pets and that can lead to problems if an unleashed pet interacts with another pet that it does not know. Dogs are known to be territorial to other dogs and may fight one and another. While it is extremely recommended to keep your pet on a leash, do understand that not everyone else will. Be extremely careful with this while using horse trails as often horse riders will have loose dogs accompanying them. Your pet could also frighten the horse causing even more safety issues.
Horseback and mule riding frequently occurs within the Shawnee National Forest. There are thousands of miles of equestrian trails within the forest and horses are also allowed on the River to River Trail as well. All forest users should always YIELD to horseback riders! Horses are unpredictable and often become scared when they see things out of the ordinary. This is especially true with sudden hazards that appear without warning such as mountain bikers and trail runners. It would be a good idea to install bells on your bike or bag if biking or running. When encountering a horseback rider, give the rider plenty of space, standing still and talking calmly to the rider. This will let the horse see that you are a human and not a threat. Some inexperienced horses will still act very scared. But remember, the horse is not only a hazard to you, but the rider could get hurt, too. Please always put your safety first while respecting the safety of other trail users as well.
Wild animals are present in the Shawnee National Forest. Bears, wolves and mountain lions DO NOT occur in the Shawnee National Forest. It isn’t impossible for one to pass through but there is no confirmed population of these species in the forest. Some people will disagree and say there is but again, there is no evidence, and everyone has a camera in their pocket these days. There are bobcats, foxes and coyotes in the Shawnee National Forest. These animals, if provoked, could become hazardous to humans during an encounter. This is extremely rare, though. Other wild animals include birds, raptor birds, squirrels, beavers, otters, rats, skunks, chipmunks, opossums, raccoons and armadillos. There are other types of critters present as well. The most dangerous of them all is deer. Deer are the most dangerous wild animals because they cause more vehicle accidents than any other hazard created by wild animals. There are also spiders, stinging insects and other biting insects present.
I wanted to create a full paragraph for snakes. We have dozens of different species of snakes in the Shawnee National Forest. We have three venomous snakes including the copperhead, cottonmouth (often called water moccasin) and the timber rattlesnake. These are the only venomous snakes in the Shawnee National Forest. Any of these three venomous snakes can serious injure to even kill you if you are bitten by them and do not get treated. Some people will have instant allergic reactions to venomous snake bites. The good news is that there has not been a fatal snake bite in the state of Illinois for over 200 years. This should not be a reason to ignore the hazards though! Treat all snakes as venomous snakes and if you encounter them, give them plenty of room and move away from them. Snakes will not chase you and they do not want to interact with you. Do note that harming or killing a snake in the Shawnee National Forest is a crime. Avoid getting bit by a snake by using common sense!
Plant, Tree & Fungus Hazards of the Shawnee National Forest
There are some hazards associated with plants, trees and fungus within the Shawnee National Forest, including but not limited to:
Trees can be dangerous in many ways. Dead trees (often called widow makers) can serious injure to even kill people, hammocks and tents if they become loose or fall. When taking a break, setting up camp or generally moving through the forest – you should always be looking at the conditions of the trees. Never rely on a small tree to act as a balancing tool as it could break at any time. If the weather conditions are windy, trees will fall. If we have had a lot of rain or snow before the wind event, trees falling will become a much higher occurring hazard. Most of the pine trees in the forest are not native – I have noticed that these trees frequently fall, snap and uproot during windstorms.
There are multiple plants present in the Shawnee National Forest that could be of concern to forest users. The most common of these plants is poison ivy which carries an oil that when contacted with skin, areas of the skin become irritated and often break out in rashes. Some people are so allergic that getting the rash can lead to serious injuries. Remember the old saying, leaves of three, let them be! Try to avoid coming into contact with the plant by simply staying on the trail. Other hazardous plants may include those that cause allergies and plants with defensive features on them such as brier and thorn bushes and devil’s walking stick. Giant Hogweed is not reported to be present in the Shawnee National Forest at this time.
Fungus and wild mushrooms are present in the Shawnee National Forest. Edible mushrooms are often sought after by many during mushroom season. The Shawnee National Forest is a wonderful area to hunt wild mushrooms. We see them all year long! However, along with edible mushrooms are plenty of non-edible mushrooms and fungus. Some mushrooms in the forest look like the edible ones but may be deadly if consumed. It is important to completely understand what can be eaten and what should not be eaten and how to identify these wild mushrooms before you attempt to gather them. If you are not intending commercial activities, mushroom hunting is the forest is completely legal without a permit. Some plant hunting, such as ginseng, does require a permit!
Bluffs, cliffs, ridges and the Hills of the Shawnee
There are plenty of steep hills throughout the Shawnee National Forest. We often call this area, Shawnee Hills. Some of these hills are even called mountains by locals as well as me. While they’re not official mountains, they sure do mimic them. With that being said, you need to understand that we have plenty of steep points throughout the forest and the hazards that come with them. The biggest cause of fatalities in the Shawnee National Forest are falls. People fall of bluffs and cliffs to their death. Our bluffs are that high in many different areas of the forest. Before you venture into it, you need to remember that safety must come first before all else.
During wintry weather and wet conditions, many of the cliffs and bluffs become exceptionally slick. These are often the periods when the most fatalities, injuries and rescues occur. If the rock is wet, it is slick. If it is green, it is slick and if it is wet and green, it is triple slick! Watching your next step is often critical to your health and safety when walking along the bluffs and cliffs. Some of the most seasoned hikers have died after losing their balance at the edge of the bluffs. It can happen to anyone, including you. Don’t become a statistic that everyone uses to warn others about the deadly hazards of falling of cliffs and bluffs in the forest. Your safety is more important than that selfie.
Water Safety in the Shawnee National Forest
There are many different water hazards throughout the Shawnee National Forest. We have rivers, creeks, streams, lakes and ponds all over this region. You will likely encounter them at some point when visiting the forest. Water safety is extremely important because often, there will be no lifeguard and no water rescue agency standing by to help you when you’re in need. You should never recreate in the water alone. You should always wear a Personal Flotation Device when you plan to be in the water. If you’re at the beaches, know that there will not be a lifeguard present. If you plan to use or cross our creeks and stream, prepare for deep water and strong currents if conditions are right. Most of our creeks and rivers are muddy and your feet can easily sink and get stuck in the mud. Southern Illinois is prone to flash flooding conditions during heavy rain.
The other water hazard is drinking water. It is important that you pack enough drinking water to safely hydrate while you recreate. Most recreation areas will not have drinking water available. Unless we have had recent rainfall, most creeks will be dry. We do not have an abundance of springs that are always running – most of them are very dependent of rainfall. Never attempt to drink natural occurring water without filtering it. Most nearby agricultural operations use deadly chemicals that will often drain into natural waterway systems. This along with the rise of natural occurring toxins can be a hazardous situation for humans who consume the water without filtering it beforehand. If you do carry a water filter, make sure you know how to use it and have used it before you desperately need it.
Navigational Hazards of the Shawnee National Forest
The Shawnee National Forest is nearly 300,000 acres and stretches across the entire region of southern Illinois. While the Shawnee isn’t the largest National Forest out there, it isn’t super small by any means. Getting lost in the Shawnee National Forest isn’t anything uncommon. Don’t take that as me trying to scare you. You can avoid getting lost completely by using common sense, planning ahead, telling someone where you are going to rescue will know in case you don’t come back and by carrying proper navigational equipment. A good compass is my first suggestion and map but make sure you know how to read it before you venture out.
There are maps available online at Friends of the Shawnee National Forest, the US Forest Service maps website and Ranger Stations in Vienna and Jonesboro as well as the Supervisor’s Office in Harrisburg. Please call the offices before visiting in case special closures are in place concerning COVID-19. You can also use applications for your smartphone including Avenza with the River to River Trail map bundle and multi-day hiking maps, All Trails, Gaia and others. I am a fan of using the OnXHunt app (not sponsored) which shows me property boundaries and topography features. Many trailheads also provide a sign with a map on it that you can take a photo of to later look at. Do note that most areas of the Shawnee National Forest will likely not have cell phone data.
The one and final suggestion I can give to avoid getting lost is to stay on the intended trail you wish to take. The moment you get off a trail, the more risk you gain of getting lot or turned around. You should also know that when you get off trail, there will be more unseen hazards present such as trip hazards, holes, snakes and stuff like that. By staying on the designated trail always, you have a less likely chance of getting lost in the Shawnee National Forest.
Open Wells in the Shawnee National Forest
Before the Shawnee National Forest was made into a National Forest, most of the land was failing farmland and home sites of pioneer settlers and the generations after them. Many of these home sites are still evident in the forest. A lot of them often include open, unprotected wells. If one were to fall into one of these wells, they would likely drown. They’re deep – really deep. These wells are off the trail, but some are close to the trail. Most are marked with tree ribbons or branches and sticks are sticking out of them or on top of them. But some are not marked at all and very difficult to see. This is the one reason why I advise folks to not only stay on the trail but to never hike off the trail at night.
Many of these old home sites are neat to see. You can usually find them around old wagon roads. Often time, during the spring, flowers like iris and daffodils will grow near them. You often find Yucca plants growing near them as well and larger older looking trees often called “wolf trees”. Some old home sites still have foundation or piles of rocks that was once used as foundation. Sometimes there are full structures, water troughs and even cemeteries close by. Chances are though, there will always be at least one or more open, unprotected wells in the vicinity of these sites. Make sure you are keeping a lookout for them! And be careful getting too close in case the edges of the ground around them may be unstable from erosion.
Hunting Season in the Shawnee National Forest
There are three types of hunting-specific seasons in the forest each year. These are bow, muzzle loader and shotgun. Bow season runs from October to January. Muzzle loader season consists of a few days in December. Shotgun season occurs in Mid-November and again in early December. It is highly recommended to avoid non-hunting recreation in the Shawnee National Forest during shotgun hunting seasons otherwise you risk getting shot – accidents can happen! If you do enter the forest during these seasons (as well as bow and muzzle), you should wear blaze orange. Please respect hunters! The Shawnee if often used by local and out-of-state hunters who give their money to the state and local communities to be able to hunt. Hunting programs often fund many recreational programs and budgets for the state and federal public lands. Without hunters, the forest may not be as good as it is today. Do note that hunter harassment is against the law in Illinois.
Weather and Natural Disasters in Southern Illinois
Southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest are no strangers to severe weather occurrence. Throughout each year, we experience multiple forms of severe weather and natural disasters of all shapes, sizes and levels. In the spring, we often see severe thunderstorms with deadly lightning and winds, tornadoes and large hail events. We often see flash flooding throughout the year. Two major rivers surround each side of the forest (Ohio and Mississippi) and during heavy rain and winter snow melt, the river often backs up the creeks and floods different sections of the forest. Ravines nearby to creeks will often flood and become deadly hazards to those recreating within them. Flood water will often cause severe erosion to forest roads making them impassable until they are fixed.
The winter season is often really hazardous in the Shawnee National Forest. Many fatal falls occur during the winter season. Trees fall across roadways and icy conditions make forest roads impossible to use. There are many hills and steep one lane roads within the forest. Most forest roads and backroads near the forest are not maintained during wintry conditions. Tow bans are often put into place during the most severe conditions. Southern Illinois commonly gets sleet, snow and freezing rain events during the winter months.
Extreme heat and cold occurs in southern Illinois during their respective seasons. During the winter, temperatures can often be below freezing with even colder windchills. Frost bite during our coldest days isn’t uncommon. It is important to wear proper layers and clothing when recreating in the cold. During really hot days, you should bring plenty of hydration and fuel for your body. Droughts do occur and this often means that all creeks and streams are dry for months leaving no water for filtering to drink. During our droughts, deer often suffer disease such as EHD.
While very uncommon, wildfires do occasionally occur in the Shawnee National Forest. These are often cause by human negligence. You should always make sure a fire is cold to your touch before leaving an area. Never throw down a lit cigarette. Don’t bring fireworks into the forest – it is highly illegal and never make a fire outside of a fire ring or too large that you cannot control it. The Forest Service does controlled burns throughout the year in many remote portions of the forest. They do well to announce these burns and locations of the burns on their Twitter and Facebook pages. Never recreate in an area where a controlled burn is occurring. You not only risk your safety, but you also risk the safety of firefighting personnel if they are forced to provide rescue services to you. Only you can prevent wildfires!
COVID-19 and the Shawnee National Forest
As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic is still occurring (as of March 2021 when this guide was created) or other public health concerns may be present. This can create a life-threatening hazard to humans using the Shawnee National Forest. In areas where recreators gather the most may be hot spots where viruses and germs can spread from person to another more rapidly. It is advised to pay attention to and abide by all rules, suggestions and guidelines concerning public health precautions within the Shawnee National Forest. See the Recreate Responsibly campaign for more information on how to stay safe in an era of public health hazards while enjoying the outdoors. The Forest Service and Illinois Department of Natural Resources will provide updates on their websites concerning new public health advisories, closures and conditions at various sites and areas.
Vehicle Hazards in the Shawnee National Forest
For drivers, there are various hazards associated with driving to be aware of in the Shawnee National Forest. Trees have been known to fall across roadways. Be careful around trees that have fallen in case there are power lines down as well. Deer and other wildlife are often abundant in the National Forest areas and will often cross the roads with no warning a lot more frequently than in non-wooded areas. Drivers should be on the lookout for hikers, cyclists and equestrian forest users as well. During heavy rain and flooding, many area roads in the forest may be blocked by water or impassable due to severe erosion. During the winter, many roads will not be maintained. A lot of the designated forest roads that you can drive on are often one lane, extremely rough, full of potholes and debris and often impossible to turn around on.
For recreators on foot, bike or pack animal – be wary of roads and highways. Many trails cross them. The R2R for example uses roads a lot as a part of its trail. Be careful, look both ways and assume all vehicle drivers are not paying attention. It is wise to yield to all vehicle traffic because chances are, they will not yield to you.
Recommended Gear to Keep You Safe!
While recreating in the Shawnee National Forest, at minimum, you should bring the following gear with you in a sturdy and comfortable backpack:
- Plenty of water, food and a water filter
- Tools to cut sticks, small branches and a fire starter
- An oversized rain poncho for a rain suit and an emergency shelter if needed
- A basic first aid kit
- A stop-bleed clotting powder
- Compass, map and GPS or application for navigating with your phone that doesn’t require cell phone signal
- Extra layers sealed in a water-proof bag
- A knife
- A whistle
- A flashlight with extra batteries
- Sturdy hiking footwear
- Reliable hiking clothing appropriate for the weather/temperature conditions
- Bug-spray, sunscreen and tick repellent
- A mask or face covering
- Hand sanitizer
- A roll of toilet paper and a small hand shovel
- A camera!
For more information, check out my Gear Guide to learn what kind of gear to take with you while enjoying the Shawnee National Forest.
What do I do if…
The following scenarios cover hazards that could happen while recreating in the Shawnee National Forest. Avoid these hazards by planning ahead, thinking about each next step or decision and always putting safety before all else:
What do I do if I get bit by a snake? Assume the snake is venomous. Do not attempt to kill or take the snake. If you have signal, immediately call 911 and do what they instruct you to do. If you do not have signal, blow your whistle and yell for help. Try to remain calm and start heading back to where you started unless 911 tells you different. Do not use a snake bite kit, they do not work and often create more damage than good. Avoid this hazard by watching you step. If you see a snake, allow it plenty of room to escape and move around it at least 6 feet. In most cases, the snake will be very still and assume you don’t see it. Most people get bit when they step on a snake or touch it.
What do I do if I see someone fall off a cliff? Call 911 immediately or go somewhere where you can get enough signal to call 911. Unless highly trained, you should never attempt to climb down a cliff to rescue someone who has fallen. If you are able to safely get to the victim, do not move them. Moving them will likely cause further and more serious injuries. They should only be moved if their current position immediately threatens their life such as in a creek that is starting to flood.
What do I do if I become lost? First of all, stop and calm yourself down. Look around and see if anything looks familiar. Listen. Look. You might be able to easily find your way back to where you need to be as long as you’re calm. If you cannot then stay where are, attempt to call 911 and blow your whistle and scream for help. Use any gear you have to help you survive staying in place. Avoid this situation by staying on the designated trail at all times. Always tell someone exactly where you are going to be before you leave. If you don’t come back, that person can give important information to first responders that might be used to find you and potentially save your life.
What do I do if I see a horseback rider coming while mountain biking? First, stop riding your bike and get off of it. Look around on the ground and if it safe, move out of the way of the horseback rider. Talk to the rider to let them and the horse know that you are there. Keep talking as this will make the horse know that you are human and not a threat. Be courteous to the horseback rider and show respect. I suggest putting a bell on your bike in case you ride up on a horse or mule so that they will not be surprised by you. A spooked horse could harm you, the rider or other riders in your or their group. We must all learn to Recreate Responsibly together and share the trail.
A Plead for the Safety of Local Responders!
Please understand that most of the Shawnee National Forest is comprised of some of the most rural areas of southern Illinois. These areas are often made up of villages, hamlets and unofficial towns that do not have first responder services available within them. This means that when accidents occur in the forest, help will usually not be that close to respond. For example, the main agency that responds to emergency situations at Garden of the Gods comes from the fire department in Equality which is miles away from the recreation area. To top it off, most agencies responding are made up of volunteer departments with little or no budget at all for responding to such emergencies.
If you get yourself into an emergency situation, help getting there could take a long time. This is even more especially true during COVID-19. And the safety and health of the first responders will also be threatened as well. Plan ahead, think before you act, be responsible and always put safety before anything else to ensure that you and the lives of others helping you are not threatened.
One last thing!
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Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.