Surviving the Shawnee

An Ultimate Safety Guide

for Hiking in the

Shawnee National Forest

Welcome to Surviving the Shawnee, an Ultimate Safety Guide for Hiking in the Shawnee National Forest. The Shawnee National Forest consists of over 250,000 acres of mainly forested land. The area is made up of thick Road-less forests, high cliffs and bluffs, a diversity of wildlife and many hidden hazards that are not exactly known by the masses.

(Fountain Bluff Region, Shawnee National Forest)

Like any National Forest, the Shawnee can be dangerous for hikers who do not know how to perform safe hiking techniques. However, try not to be discouraged of using the Shawnee due to safety risks because with common sense and smart safety practices, anyone can enjoy the forest while surviving the Shawnee and be safe the entire time. This guide has been written to allow for updates. If you have further safety questions, please leave a comment below to get an answer and such information may be added to this guide. Please consider sharing this guide with others, especially on social networking sites, to support my efforts of creating it.

Understanding your

ability to hike

The first safety topic we need to focus on is your ability to hike in the Shawnee National Forest. The shortest and easiest trails of the forest are going to require specific skill-sets for all users. The more rugged and longer trails of the forest will obvious require a lot more specific type of abilities by hikers. Can you determine your ability to hike before you hike? How strong of a hiker are you? Can you handle hills? How about rough and muddy trail conditions? How are you with heights? You need to make sure you audit yourself so to speak to ensure that you know your personal ability before you actually go hiking. If you go blindly and realize that you are not able to hike as much you thought you would be able to, it is likely going to be a negative experience for you. It could even be a dangerous experience!

My suggestion is very simple. Find a short trail that is considered easy and safer and start with it. For example, Millstone Bluff would be a great choice! This trail is only a few miles in length and it offers areas featuring optional heights (i.e. the edge of bluffs) as well as rolling hills and some rugged terrain on the trail. Hiking this trail will help you determine your ability to hike on other trails that you might be interested in checking out. Just make sure you also follow the other safety suggestions listed below before experiencing a short trail to determine your hiking abilities.

Keep in mind that even I had to start out with easier trails when I first become passionate about hiking. As I continued to do it, losing weight and shaping up in the process, I was able to take on more challenging hiking conditions. What helped me take on longer and more rugged hiking trails was a cross-fitness strategy if you will. I also road bike (bicycling on the road) as another form of fitness! Road biking has done and continues to do significant strength building for my lower body (legs, joints, etc.) and because of that; I am a much stronger hiker. I tend to focus the most on hill climbing when on the bike. Hills are much easier for me while hiking because of that strategy.

As you continue your journey as a hiker, you will start to see major improvement to your own health, fitness and ability to hike in the Shawnee National Forest. This is especially true if you integrate other forms of fitness into like how I have done with cycling. Hiking (and cycling for that matter) is fun so to me, it is easier to do as fitness because I’m not just working out, I’m having a good time while doing it. Because it has changed my fitness abilities, I’ve also changed many health decisions. I quit using nicotine. I don’t drink very much alcohol. I hike even more than I did when I first started. And I also have changed the way I intake food including cutting down fast food and quitting soda altogether. As you continue to better your ability to hike, I strongly encourage you to start focusing on better health and fitness strategies as well. You’ll essentially live longer!

Planning your hike

before you go

Before going for a hike in the Shawnee National Forest, you should first, ask yourself what kind of hiking you can do in relation to your physical strength, experience and know how. If you choose a trail that is going to be punishment the entire time, hiking is going to be a negative experience for you most likely. Hiking should never be a negative experience. When I hike, I feel like a youth again and I want everyone else to be able to have that feeling as well. The main reason we need to ensure we choose the right trail is because of safety – don’t create an unsafe situation by choosing to hike a trail you’re not quite ready for.

Before you go hiking, nominate someone who isn’t going hiking to be the go-to person in case you don’t make it back when you’re supposed to. This can be a family, friend or co-worker. Create a detailed “trip plan’ showing where you are parking, the trail you plan to hike and when you plan to be back. If something goes wrong and you become stranded or hurt and cannot continue to hike, someone knowing at least the area where you are is better than no one knowing where you are at all. Always tell someone where you are going even if the trail is short and popular because this will make rescue efforts a lot more successful if you don’t make it back when you’re supposed to.

Plan and be prepared for weather changes and natural disasters. Be sure to check the weather in advance and on the day you plan to hike. You need to dress for the weather and pack for the weather later on that night or the next day in case you have to stay overnight for some reason. Base-layering clothing articles are lightweight and can save you from a cold night of being stranded in the forest. Pack them in your pack and feel better knowing that you can layer up if required. Always be prepared for a natural disaster as well because southern Illinois is no stranger to severe thunderstorms, wind, flash flooding, droughts, extreme heat and cold and even tornadoes. Know where to go and what to do when disaster strikes in the Shawnee National Forest.

Be sure to ask for information before you go hiking. People and agencies may have additional information that will help you have a safe hike while enjoying the forest. I recommend visiting one of the US Forest Service offices in Harrisburg, Vienna or Jonesboro and requesting maps and information about the trail you are visiting. You can also ask questions on groups such as The Shawnee National Forest and Southern Illinois Hiking on Facebook as there are many people willing to answer questions about your trip. In order to have a safe and prepared hike, I highly recommend you ask for help from fellow outdoorsy folks and the Forest Service because their feedback can make you hike even better and potentially save your life if you get into a hazardous situation.

How to dress

for a hike

There have been so many times have I seen beginner hikers make the mistake of not considering their clothing choices when going for a hike. The guy who wears shorts hiking off trail at Snake Road during an active snake migration. The person who decides to wear long sleeve shirt and pack very little water while hiking in an area with rolling hills! The clothing and amount of clothing you decide to wear during you hike will make or break the stability of your overall hike. Let’s look at some of the clothing tips that you might try to consider before your next outing in the National Forest.

During the summer, southern Illinois is fairly diverse. We’ve had cool summers with pleasant temperatures for several months. But in most cases, we get pretty warm summers often times beating record highs from the previous year. When it comes to summer hiking in the Shawnee National Forest, I am a short and t-shirt kind of person but that often presents risk for me as well and this is something I have to weigh in with other alternatives. Wearing shorts and t-shirt during the warm months will keep you cooler but it also exposes your skin to bug bites, sticker bush and even direct fang to skin snake bites. Now snake bites in the forest are extremely rare but not impossible. I try to make an effort to really pay attention to wear I am stepping while hiking especially if I’m just wearing shorts. If you can do that to, it shouldn’t be an issue but not everyone can really focus their attention on that sort of thing while doing other things.

In my opinion as a pretty advanced hiker, I think the one piece of gear that you should spend the most on is your footwear. I have summer hiking shoes and winter hiking boots. If the water and temperatures are warm, I prefer ankle socks and hiking shoes. I wear as little as legally possible when hiking in the heat! But when it’s cold and wet, my goal is to keep my feet dry so I wear waterproof insulated hiking boots. I used to wear hiking shoes all year long but too many times getting my feet wet in the frigid cold really made me learn my lesson quickly. What I wasn’t thinking about during those times is how quick that could have hurt me. It took some close calls to make me start paying better attention to my feet and I don’t want that same fate for you. Take care of your feet even if that means spending the most money on them. One more tip, especially during the winter months – keep an extra pair of insulated socks with you and put them in a waterproof bag, just in case!

As mentioned above, protecting your feet is important, especially during the winter hiking months. On that note, protecting everything else during winter hiking is also just as important. Hiking in the winter is awesome! There are little to no bugs, no poison ivy, very little snake activity and you can see everything. And frozen waterfalls folks, waterfalls that are ice!!! But winter hiking will be a complete nightmare if you don’t dress for it. I highly suggest you partake in the art of layering. Make synthetic apparel like wool, Lycra and spandex your best friend during the winter. I love my trustee insulated running tights and insulated compression shirt under my winter hiking pants, hoodie and weather-proof coat. Dress in ways that you can take layers off if need be. You will much rather be warm and have to shed clothing rather than be freezing cold and have nothing left to cover up.

On a last note when it comes to clothing for hiking, might I suggest extra clothing to put in your pack? It is always a good idea to do this no matter the season, from summer to winter. It something happens and you need a change of clothes or even more clothes; it’s nice to have some spare articles of clothing around. And as mentioned above, spandex clothing is your friend because it can often be bought for summer or for winter insulation and it weighs absolutely nothing. Throw it in your pack. You won’t realize it is there until something happens that makes you need it to be there.

What to bring

on your hike

It is important that you take the right amount of gear with you when hiking in the Shawnee National Forest. While there is such thing as packing too much gear, there is defiantly such a thing as not packing enough gear. If you find yourself in need of important gear that you decided not to pack, you are going to significantly regret it. However, don’t become too overboard about taking every possible thing you will need because then you might be killing your back since all the weight will be on your shoulders at that point, literally. So my advice for the right gear is as follows.

The majority of your weight should be water. The majority of your weight should be water. I meant to repeat that sentence. It wasn’t a grammar structure mistake. You really need to ensure that you pack plenty of water – enough to survive on longer that you expect to be outside. And also, take a water filter with you, too. But before you pack that filter, open it up and use it and learn how to be really good at using it because so many people get them and never learn how to use them and are completely confused when their life depends on them. The Shawnee National Forest isn’t a huge forest by any means but it’s big enough and hilly enough to cause you to dehydrate very quickly if you don’t have anything to drink. Dehydration can kill you!

Again, bring plenty of water but also bring plenty of food. Food should be high in carbs and fat because it will give you fuel for you hike. Salty foods will replenish your lost electrolytes and help you stay hydrated as well. I always suggest bring enough food and water to last 72 hours, that’s three days but don’t assume that means you need to pack full course breakfasts, lunches and dinners. It means you need to pack a RATONAL amount that can last up to three days. Ration is the keyword here. A little bit of food here and a few drinks of water there can keep you happy for several hours. Make sure you have enough to keep you happy a few days.

Safety gear is important especially if you plan to hike in areas where less people will be. Always carry a first aid kit and only carry supplies that you know how to use. And remember, you’re not going to perform emergency surgery on the trail so don’t carry items that you’ll never use or that is not practical for using in a rugged outdoor environment. Aside from first aid supplies, you need a shelter – I recommend a rain poncho! It will act as a rain guard and can also make a quick tent if you need to escape some of the elements and its light weight, too! Make sure you bring at least 2 forms of light (flashlight and headlamp is good) and spare batteries for each light source. If you get caught in the dark without a light, you’ll learn really quickly what dangerous conditions are. Aside with lights, bring something that can be used to start a fire. If you get stranded and it gets cold, a warm fire can help save you and make sure the matches/lighter is resistant to water and wind. And lastly, emergency communication – be it a cell phone, emergency locator device and a whistle (or all three). Make sure you have some kind of tool to call for help if you are unable to keep moving.

Have you seen all those restrooms they have scattered out in the Shawnee National Forest? No? I’m sure you have! They’re called downed trees as well. Truth is – there are little outdoor restrooms provided in the forest besides the major populated spots like Garden of the Gods and Rim Rock. But the rugged areas have none. Pack toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you. If you got to go, you will likely be going outside. Be sure to look around where you plan to use the “facilatrees” at so that you’re not interrupting a resting venomous snake or a nest of biting ants. And don’t feel bad if you have to go in the forest, it happens to the best of us, usually every other hike. Pack a hand trowel with you too so you can practice Leave No Trace (or rather, don’t screw your fellow hiker) and buy that stuff after you are done.

How to hike


You ever seen the meme that tells the geared out hiker to relax because their 3 year old is hiking crocs with a Barbie doll in her hands? People like to share that with hikers who pack too much gear. But I really don’t think they pack too much gear – see I think they practice smart hiking and they simply prepare themselves for the worst. Not everyone feels this way and something those people fall of cliffs, get swept away by flash floods and get bit by copperhead snakes. People who are prepared for hiking often have a much better experience that people who are not prepared. That meme just tells me that someone is a bad parent and nothing more. Hooray to the hiker that wear the right amount of gear that will not only save their life but also potentially save the life of another as well. Hike smart!

One way to hike smart is to prepare for biting insects and bugs. You might choose to avoid chemical protection from bugs – if you do, please comment with suggestions for those who wish to follow. For those of you who are fine with chemical protection, I have two lone solutions for you: Permethrin and DEET. Drench your hiking clothes, socks and shoes in Permethrin and your backpack as well. This stuff is so strong that it will stay on gear after several wash cycles. It keeps ticks off you and its success rating is well over 90%. But try not to apply it around children or animals as it can do serious damage to their nerves. Do not spray it directly on your skin and let it sit 24 hours before using the gear. Aside from that, soak yourself in DEET to keep the mosquitoes and biting insects off you. You might need to apply DEET several times during your hiking adventure. Be smart and accept that fact that you are going to stink like DEET for your entire hike.

Hiking with someone else is always a good idea. Solo hiking is nice but it presents a much larger hazardous environment because no one is there to help you if you need it. So if you can hike with one or more people, do it. If you are hiking with multiple people, hike smarter by figuring out which one of you hikes the slowest. Now put that person in the lead. This will help set the pace of the entire group so that everyone is going the same speed based on the slowest hiker. Going too quick for the slowest person is going to make that person rush and create a bad hiking experience and potentially cause them to be injured in the process. Hiking should be fun for the whole group and sometimes that means slowing it down a bit in time to stop a smell the flowers if you will.

It is important that you rest, hydrate and fuel when your body requires it while hiking, especially on more longer and rugged hiking trips. The frequency of this should be determined based on how hard the hike is. If there is a lot of up and down and rugged hiking conditions, I suggest taking a 10-15 minute break once an hour. Sit down and rest, take a few drinks and eat some sort of filling snack like jerky or a trail bar. If you feel like you need to rest even more times, do it. Don’t play around with depriving your body of rest and refueling. It can do serious damage to your health and cause you to ignore other hazardous elements in your path. If you start to get dizzy or feel sickly, then it is time to sit down, take some deep breaths and let your body chill out a little bit. It will make the rest of the hike worth it in the end.

My one last “hike smart” tip for surviving the Shawnee National Forest is to consider packing a trekking pole with you. If you find yourself being the type that has a much better experience using trekking poles during all your hiking activities, then invest in some good ones. But if you are like me, you really only need a trekking pole for a couple of reasons! I like to have one to knock spider webs down from the trail in front of me during the summer months and I also like to use one for balancing when crossing creeks on downed trees or rocks. Since I don’t need one all the time, I spent less and just got something that works and that collapses so I can easily carry it in my pack during 90% of the time I don’t use it during my hiking adventure.

Sharing the Shawnee

with wildlife

Before you assume you are alone while hiking in the Shawnee National Forest, the truth is, you’re not alone. Animals and creatures live in that forest and have made it more of a home than you have a recreational area. They know the forest more than you do. The Shawnee is nothing like the Grizzly Bear infested virgin growth forests of Alaska but there are some animals present that can hurt you, and even kill you if you are not careful about it. It is important to understand what’s out in the forest before you venture off into it.

If you research old texts written from 1700s to 1800s in southern Illinois, you might find literature about sighting of black bear, gray wolves, mountain lions and even elk. This is because southern Illinois was once a habitat of these large predator animals. However, when the region was founded by settlers, most of the old growth forest was wiped out for resource consumption and farming needs. This caused these bigger predators to become extinct from the region or simply move on away from the region. At this current day, confirmed black bear populations are in both Missouri and Kentucky. There are no black bear in southern Illinois nor are their wolves, cougars or elk. These species have been long gone from the area. People will try to say they’re here but not only has no evidence been brought forth but the current overpopulation of deer proves these predators are not in the Shawnee National Forest. But that doesn’t mean that an occasional cat doesn’t pass through.

So do we have any large dangerous animals left? The answer is yes! We have bobcat and they can do damage if threatened. I’ve been close enough to a wild bobcat that is was hissing and growling at me to warn me of its presence. Once I moved away from it, the animal quit being defensive towards me. These cats are larger than domestic house cats and they are completely wild, so if they feel threatened, they may defend themselves through means of crawling and biting but they are not known to attack humans. We also have coyotes and a significant abundance of them which also proves that wolves are not present. Coyotes will mainly flee from humans but like any wild animal, if they feel threatened, they might become dangerous towards you. And lastly, we have deer and like any other animal in the wild, a deer protecting its young or a buck protecting its territory may become defensive and harm a human if they feel threatened by them.

The chances of getting attacked by a bobcat, coyote or deer in the Shawnee National Forest is so rare that I’ve never heard of it happening at least in the 35 years that I’ve been alive. But while it is extremely rare, I have heard of people getting bit by venomous snakes in the region. But before you start hating on snakes, remember that the forest is more their home than it is yours and we scare them way more than they scare us. We’re much larger than them and we have arms and legs and they know it. But you can be rest assured to know that there hasn’t been a confirmed snake bite death in the State of Illinois for at least 209 years, yes, that’s two-hundred and nine years. We have three species of venomous snakes in the Shawnee National Forest and those are copperhead, cottonmouth and timber rattlesnake. To avoid a bad situation with snakes, watch where you are stepping and also look in the trees around you. I remember witnessing a rattlesnake at face level in a tree a few years ago near Pine Hills. If you see a snake, just walk around it (while also watching the area you are stepping) and give it plenty of room and that’s all you will need to do – snakes do not chase people and they don’t want to interact with you at all.

We have a lot of ground critters in the Shawnee National Forest. These animals are what you will be seeing the most while out hiking in the forest. Squirrels, skunks, chipmunks, groundhogs, rodents, beavers, possums, raccoons and even armadillos are common critters. Most of these animals will keep away from you and avoid contact with you at all costs. However, like any wild animal, if they feel threatened or their young are threatened, they might defend themselves and become dangerous towards humans. Watch where you are going and stay on the trail and you’ll avoid most contact with animals of the forest. If you do get bit by these critters or scratched, assume that they are infected with rabies and go to the doctor. You don’t want to let a disease stay in you for too long otherwise it will become life threatening at that point.

The once critter that you will likely encounter the most in the forest are bugs and many of them can be hazardous! Venomous spiders (black widow and brown recluse) are present as well as bees, hornets and wasps. There are stinging caterpillars, wheel and assassin bugs, biting ants and even velvet wasps out there. But the most common dangerous bugs that you will encounter are mosquitoes and ticks, two species that have caused more serious illnesses and deaths than any of the other bug and animals listed above. Mosquitoes can carry dangerous diseases such as Zika, West Nile Virus and other serious health threatening elements. Ticks are known carriers of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and even Alfa-Gal which may give you a red meat and dairy allergen that could be life threatening if you consume it. These biting insects are no joke and measures should be taken to prevent their bites.

Encountering other

trail user types

Hiking isn’t the only recreational activity taking place in the National Forest but it is likely the most financially beneficial activity. You will find there are more hikers than any of outdoor recreational user as a whole for all national forests spread across the nation, including the Shawnee National Forest. So it is safe to say that the forest belong to the hiker more than anyone else even if not as an official capacity. However, there are other trail users out there and we should all share the trails and enjoy them together yielding for one and other when possible and whereas appropriate. Let’s take a look at some of the other trails users you will likely encounter while hiking within the Shawnee National Forest.

Mountain biking is a growing interest within the forest. Rumor has it; a more organized effort is going to take place to improve mountain biking policies for the forest and to encourage designation. The US Forest Service has already expressed interest in designating trails for use by mountain bikes. Mountain bikers should always yield to hikers but this isn’t always the case. If the biker can’t see the hiker until they are right on them, they might not be able to yield in time. Like with driving and any other circumstance, accidents sometimes happen. However, we as hikers can help avoid them by remaining vigilant. If you see a mountain biker or hear a bike approaching, be prepared to be the one who yields first. I yield to every user, no matter if they’re supposed to yield to me or not – I just want to ensure that we can all enjoy the forest as safe as possible.

Equestrians are the likely other trail use you will encounter the most in the Shawnee National Forest. It is important that you yield to folks on horseback and mules. These animals have a mind of their own and as herd animals, they are often scared of things that are obviously not other pack animals. If a horse panics, it can be dangerous for the rider as well as you the hiker. If the horse charges at you, everyone involved can get hurt. If you see people on horses or mules, talk in a loud but calm voice to alert both the rider and the pack animal and continue to talk in a friendly manner while yielding until the rider can get past you. In most cases, the animal will be nervous but hopefully realize that you are not a threat. With that being said, if on trails where horses are permitted, watch out for horse damage as such damage can be dangerous to hikers, especially when wet. Horse and mule droppings will also be present on the trail – avoid it because it doesn’t smell very good. For your safety, if you encounter a loose/runaway horse, don’t try to catch it. You can get hurt and you are not responsible for that animal. Try to remember where you saw it and report it.

During hunting seasons, you can expect hunters to be present in the Shawnee National Forest where hunting is allowed. Hunting is allowed in areas that are not protected nature preserves, recreational areas, on designated trails, around buildings and facilities and around campgrounds. Wilderness areas are often subject to hunting activities during hunting season. By going into the forest during firearm hunting season, you are significantly putting your safety at risk. You could get shot! You could get shot even if you are wearing blaze orange or blaze pink! I highly suggest and recommend that you stay out of the forest where hunting is allowed during hunting seasons and take that time to hike in areas where hunting isn’t allowed such as recreational areas, nature preserves and non-hunting areas of state parks. Hunting brings a lot of money and tourism to the region, share the forest with hunter and respect each other when sharing the forest.

I wanted to touch base of criminal activity in the Shawnee National Forest. It is extremely rare that criminals are actively using the forest. However, there have been instances of dangerous wanted criminals for sought after in the forest. There have also been criminals in the forest violating laws concerning poaching, wildlife harassment/harming/collecting, illegal digging/collection, grave robbing, graffiti activities, vandalism, drug/alcohol use, firearm violations and commercial use without a permit. If you ever encounter persons who are suspected of criminal activities, please leave the area as quickly and safely as possible. Report the criminal activities by calling 911 or contact US Forest Service Law Enforcement. Never try to detain or intervene during a criminal activity taking place in the National Forest. By doing so, you will put your safety at risk.

Staying on

the trail

The Forest Service, National Park Service and State Conservation agencies will always recommend that you stay on the designated trail at all times. This is very good advice for folks hiking in the National Forest especially in terms of safety aspects. In most cases, hikers can avoid most safety concerns by using common sense and by staying on the designated trails at all times. Once you get off the trail, it allows you to be exposed to many new hazards that were not previously included while hiking on the trail. Staying on the trail in the Shawnee National Forest will allow you to be safe from the following common hazards associated with off trail hiking in southern Illinois.

If you don’t like snakes, stay on the trail. You might see snakes on the trail but there is way more snakes off the trail. In most cases, I see the most snakes in the Shawnee National Forest when looking for them off of the trail, aside from areas where snakes are common like Pine Hills. Most snakes want nothing to do with us humans and when they observe us humans constantly trafficking on the trail, they tend to avoid those areas. But when you get off the trail, you’re now in the snake’s turf and seeing one is a lot more likely than it was when on the trail. Remember – there are venomous snakes in the Shawnee and bites from the venomous snakes could be life threatening if action is not taken promptly.

I do get off trail – it isn’t a secret. However, I try to only get off trail during months of late fall and winter because ticks and other bugs are usually gone and precious plants and flora are easier to spot. When hiking off trail, you risk harming plants and flowers that are rare, endangered and important for the balance of nature in the Shawnee National Forest. Most people who hike off trail are not looking for these special plants and flowers, either. I suggest before going off trail on frequent basis, try learning the methods of going off trail without damaging important elements. Remember, the forest is home to the creatures that thrive in it more so than it is home to us humans. We must preserve that!

By going off trail, you risk the hazard of falling off of a cliff or bluff. There are many overlooks on the trail that have been used so much that they are safer to edge. These areas are still dangerous though and many people have been seriously injured and have even died as the result of falling. When you go off trail, you risk falling even more because many of the fall, trip and slip hazards are hidden from plants, trees and the elements of the forest. You should also note that the Shawnee was once areas of farming and homesteads. This means there are plenty of unfilled and unprotected cisterns, wells, ponds and holes around areas where the trail isn’t present. Some wells are well over 10-20 feet and more deep. Stay on the trail to avoid these areas.

The most important reasons to not leave the trail is to make it back to where you started. The moment you leave the trail, it is likely that your sense of direction or navigational course will change. By getting off trail, simply put, you might get lost. It is true that because the Shawnee National Forest is small, you can probably walk 10 miles in any direction and hit a road or a house to get help at. However, what is not often said is the forest and terrain elements that are between you and that road or house. For example, I went off trail around Eagle Mountain area to get back to Glen O Jones Lake and ended up hiking 8 more miles with about 118 floors of rolling hills. If you get off trail and start going in one direction to find your way out, expect rolling hills, sticker bush, seed ticks, bodies of water, creeks and even bluffs that have no safe way down. Needless to say, you might consider staying on the trail!

Avoiding most incidents

by doing one thing

You can avoid most all the hazards and dangers of the Shawnee National Forest by doing one thing. WATCH YOUR STEP! When you watch your step, you are seeing what is around you. When you watch your step, you can avoid hazards that you come up to. When you watch your step, you can create a safety plan for dealing with negative incidents. The moment you quit watching your step is the moment you increase your risk of serious injury and even death. Watching where you are hiking is common sense and common sense says to watch where you are going. And remember that safety should always come first. Put safety before selfies! Put safety before Instagram! I put safety well before Hiking with Shawn because Hiking with Shawn can’t exist without Shawn (me).

Try not to

hike alone

If you can, you should try to always hike with at least one other person or a larger group. Hiking alone is riskier because if you get hurt, you are alone and have to rely on yourself. If you can’t walk or are no conscious, you may be in a world of danger from there and on. So check with friend and family members and see if anyone else wants to go hiking with you! Hiking is an excellent form of exercise and one of those fitness types that doesn’t feel like exercise, so it is usually very easy to do. It would make an excellent activity for you, your friends and your family members to do together.

If none of your friends or family wants to hike with you, don’t be discouraged. Instead, find folks who do want to hike. You can usually find these folks on Facebook on groups such as Southern Illinois Hiking or The Shawnee National Forest. There are tons of people in southern Illinois that love to go hiking and many of them are looking for friends. I just suggest you meet them in widely used hiking spots like Garden of the Gods or Giant City Nature Trail at first, somewhere in the public, for safety. There are also several groups out there of various friends who get together to hike. Just always make sure you practice safety when meeting new people to go hiking with.

Another alternative to a hiking buddy is to participate in a public hiking group. I am a board member of the River to River Trail Society. We host free public group hikes every spring and every fall. These group hikes are open to everyone and often include easy hikes to rugged hikes that prove to be challenging. The best part about it is that everyone is hiking together, making new friends and enjoying the trail as safety as we can. It is a great way to hike with total strangers in a safe environment because there are so many people in the group. I never really go into group hiking until I met these folks and now I look forward to it each year.

You can also hire a hiking guide if you don’t want to hike alone. Southern Illinois has these as well. For hiking guides and even a shuttle service in the Shawnee National Forest, I highly recommend Bart Lane. Not only is he a friendly guy who I’ve personally met, he knows all the spots around the Shawnee because he used to ride it all on horseback. He is also a licensed outfitter of the Forest Service and his business is a legit registered business in the State of Illinois. If you need a ride or need a hiking guide, I highly recommend him and his wife, they are lovely people who care a lot about the folks that enjoy the Shawnee National Forest.

What to do

during an emergency

While the forest is host to a large and diverse set of hazards, some hazards will occur more than others. It is important to create a plan for all hazards when enjoying the outdoors. But some hazards need to be planned for more than most. Let’s take a look at some of the common emergency situations that you might encounter in the Shawnee National Forest and what you should do about it. Now I’m not saying these will happen but if they did happen, I want you to be able to be as prepared as possible. So I am putting these out as disaster scenarios for surviving the Shawnee.

Severe weather and wild fires are hazards that can occur much more frequently than other hazards. Fires don’t occur much but on a nationwide scale, wild fires are a big risk for National Forests and the Forest Service does conduct prescribed fires around the forest to help control invasive plant species and benefit small forms of wildlife. But severe weather in the forest is so common that is frequently occurs throughout the year, every year. This includes severe thunderstorms, wind/derecho, flooding, drought, extreme heat, winter and even tornadoes. It is important to have a plan for each of the weather extremes that are likely to hit the forest throughout the year and most of all, it is important to watch the weather forecasts to determine if it is safe enough to go hiking in the first place.

I am a snake advocate. I am educated enough to understand the importance of snakes and even venomous snakes. Without snakes in the forest, the balance of nature will not be normal. But it is important to understand that there are dangerous snakes in the forest. The Shawnee is home to venomous snakes like the copperhead, cottonmouth and timber rattlesnake. If you are bit by any snake in the forest, assume it is venomous and seek medical attention as soon as you can. If you are allergic to bees, you will likely have an allergic reaction to a venomous snake bite. Avoid snake bites by staying on the trail at all times and not disturbing nature. For example, people who collect rocks to make invasive cairns are more likely to get bit by venomous snakes that are under those rocks. I’ve seen many copperheads under rocks that are off trail. Copperheads tend to be the venomous snakes that bite the most frequent. Anti-venom treatments usually result in more than hundred thousand dollars charged per person. The good news is that there have been no human deaths caused by a venomous snake bite in the State of Illinois for at least 200 years.

Two things that I recommend adding to your gear back is a sound emitting device (such as a Sound Grenade) and a pack of blood clot powder. These two items will be life savers for if you are to injure yourself enough where you cannot move normally. The sound grenade will emit a very loud sound alerting people nearby that something is wrong. When hurt and stranded in the forest, you don’t want to waste your energy focusing on screaming or blowing through a whistle. Using a flair gun could start a fire and potentially cause harm to you or other recreational users. The sound emitting devices these days are loud enough to get the attention of folks that are several miles away. Carry the ‘stop bleed’ power pack to pack the powder in an open wound that is causing a lot of blood loss. After you lose a certain amount of blood, you will no longer be able to walk and death will be knocking on your door. A blood clot kit is a good thing to have for in case of an emergency in the forest.

Lastly, emergency planning is important! I have a Master degree in emergency management which concentrates on national emergency and disaster planning, preparedness, response and recovery. I have found that emergency management is so important that it should be integrated into our daily lives. In the Shawnee National Forest, many different types of risks and hazards are present that we’re not used to in our daily lives. To avoid disaster in the forest, we should all be planning for it. Consider the emergency situations that are the most likely to happen in the Shawnee National Forest with you present. Now create a basic plan about how you will deal with it and what your next steps will be after the incident has occurred. It is quite true to not that people with a plan have a better survival chance than people who don’t have a plan. Plan for anything, plan for everything!

Thank you for reading this guide about surviving the Shawnee. Please share this guide with others as it took me a few weeks to create. Consider following me on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more videos, articles, photos and resources about the Shawnee National Forest and southern Illinois State Parks. Become a Patreon Member and support me with a low monthly contribution or buy some official Hiking with Shawn Merch today! Thanks again for reading my article and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail!

Shawn J. Gossman

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.

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