If the Southern Illinois outdoors has an ambassador, it very well might be Shawn Gossman.
Over the last five years, the Metropolis resident has been promoting the region’s natural resources and recreational opportunities through online posts he calls “Hiking with Shawn.”
“It’s pretty much a social media content, promotional or tourism company so most of my product is free and it’s mainly to promote tourism in Southern Illinois, the Shawnee National Forest and our natural resources,” he said.
Primarily, Gossman posts videos about the region on his YouTube channel, but he also offers written content on his own website as well as frequently posting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
He said he never intended to be a social media influencer or tourism advocate. Rather, he was just trying to get more fit.
“In 2012, I realized I was in bad shape, health-wise,” he said. “I was making the wrong decisions: smoke, drank, didn’t exercise, ate badly. I was in my 20's and didn’t want to live that kind of life any more.”
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Gossman said he started bicycling as a way to lose weight. Falling in love with cycling — almost too much — so he began to get “burned out” on riding. As a balance, he began hiking throughout the region.
After a friend commented on the photos he was posting of his hikes online, he began taking video and posting those to YouTube in late 2016, expecting only family or friends to watch them.
“I started getting emails from total strangers,” he said.
The emails kept coming, as did the watch statistics. Since joining YouTube, Grossman’s channel, “Hiking with Shawn,” has gained more than 3,000 subscribers. To date, he has posted more than hundreds of videos, some garnering thousands of views.
“I am nearing 1,000 videos. I try to cover the main thing as hiking, but I do put up some cycling stuff, some geocaching videos and some gear tips, but the main purpose is to show people where they can go to hike and to shop places that maybe a lot of people don’t go,” he explained.
Gossman said most of his work is free because filming for commercial purposes on public lands requires paid permits. He does monetize his videos through merchandise sales on his website, and he has plans to take his venture further.
“Soon I’m going to launch a ‘Hiking with Shawn’ guided touring business where I’ll do hikes with people,” he said.
The guided service will be day trips, focusing on families and beginners. He added that he also is discussing some partnerships with area tourism bureaus.
“I want to try to show them the beauty that they probably have never seen and I want to try to instill in them some basic safety tips and what I would call hiking hacks so they will know what to do, how to dress, what to bring and how to be safe so that they can have a positive experience outside,” he said.
He said his goal is to make the guided tours very affordable so others can share some of the experiences and benefits he has gathered from hiking.
“Hiking has completely changed my life,” he said. “I’m more environmentally concerned, I’ve made a lot of better health decisions and because of hiking with Shawn, I me the girl of my dreams. All of this wouldn’t have been possible if I wouldn’t have decided to go hiking.”