If you want to be a successful hiker, much of the work happens before the hike begins. Preparation for a hike includes physical conditioning if you're not in shape, acquiring specific wilderness skills, learning about the places where you'll be hiking, and assembling the right gear. There are mental preparations as well as physical and logistical ones. This page will help you prepare.
In the 1930s The Mountaineers (a group in the Pacific Northwest) developed a list of "ten essentials" for wilderness travel. REI maintains a very similar list here. My version of the list includes comments based on my personal experience, but please look at the other versions as well.
In an interview for Backpacker Magazine, search and rescue (SAR) statistician Rober Koester notes, "The typical lost hiker ... hasn't packed any survival equipment. I'm not talking fancy stuff here, but most don't even carry the Ten Essentials." At the end of the interview he recommends, "Carry the Ten Essentials in your pack—even on dayhikes." Also, for those of us who hike in areas with no cell coverage and no other people, the time has come for an "eleventh essential": a satellite communicator. Not every remote-country hiker can afford one yet, but I hope that will change.
If the Ten Essentials apply to all hikes, we need to define what a hike is. My definition of "hiking" is "walking in areas requiring self-reliance." If you can run back inside for a jacket when the weather changes, and if you can call 911 and get help within minutes, a walk is not a hike—no matter how long the walk is, and no matter what gear you're carrying. Instead, a hike is an activity where you're on your own. In other words, on a hike it's up to you to deal with expected and unexpected challenges, using the gear you have with you and the skills you have built up in your own head.
Like the Ten Essentials, my Five Principles are designed to help you develop skills and habits that will keep you alive, healthy, and happy in the wilds. I also recommend that you read the interview with Robert Koester, to see what kinds of mistake trigger search and rescue missions. After you read the interview, the principles I list may not seem so arbitrary. You may also want to read my blog about safety measures for large group hikes, written in response to an incident here in New Mexico.
1. If you're a padawan, find a Yoda.
A GPS, topographic map, and compass aren't going to help if you don't know the difference between NAD 1927 and WGS 1984, you can't read contours, and you have no idea what a declination is. You gotta learn those things! The best way to become trail-wise is by hiking with someone who has been down that path before (sometimes literally). As you hike with different individuals, and accept or reject specific aspects of their hiking styles, you'll develop the kit and habits that best fit you.
If a family member or friend can be your guide and model, great. If not, join a hiking club or attend the training sessions and outings offered by REI and other organizations. Soon you'll have a sense of what makes a hike both safe and enjoyable.
2. Don't hike alone.
During a remote hike you may suffer an injury or illness that immobilizes you or causes you to pass out. If you're hiking with someone, that someone can provide care and go for help. If you're by yourself, you're buzzard food. Counting on your cell phone to get you out of your jam? Many parts of New Mexico, especially the wilder parts, don't have cell coverage.
The corollary to this rule is, don't get separated from your hiking partner or partners. Instead, stay in visual range. If the fastest hiker is about to go out of visual range of the slowest hiker, the fastest hiker should stop and wait for everyone to catch up. Which means that the slowest hiker sets the pace for the group. Also, if one person needs to turn around, either (1) everyone goes back or (2) when the group splits, each new group includes at least two people . I recommend the former; if the group is mismatched, the time to fix that is before the next hike, not during the current one.
I'll hike alone on trails where I'll encounter other hikers many times each day, but that's as far as I'll bend this rule. Some experienced hikers enjoy doing solo trips in remote areas, but despite their experience they're taking a calculated risk. (Solo hikes are a small fraction of the total, but trigger more than half of hiking-related search and rescue missions.) For beginners, solo hikes are a disaster waiting to happen. You can enjoy the wilds just as much without the added danger.
3. Have a written plan, and share it.
The plan for your hike doesn't have to be long, but it should cover a few basics. Where will you park to start the hike? If access to that point is complicated, how will you get there? Once on foot, where will you be going? (If your goal is to wander, fine, but state the limits of the area where a search and rescue group would need to look.) And when will you be back?
Once you have the plan, hand or send a copy to someone you trust. Be explicit about when it's time for your "plan keeper" to call for help, and let that person know whom to call. Don't assume that if you fill out a permit form and leave it with a ranger at some desk, or leave a note in your car, you're covered. And if you do run late but make it out safely, call your "plan keeper" as soon as you can, to let him/her know that no rescue is needed.
4. Have a Plan B. And maybe a Plan C.
To make the "Ten Essentials" work for you the way they should, strive for redundancy. To help with that, play this mental game before you leave home. Look at each piece of gear and ask, "If this fails, how will we repair it? If we can't repair it or we lose it, what will we do instead?" Example No. 1: you're miles from nowhere and a boot sole starts coming off. (This happened to me.) Under the circumstances, a yard of duct tape might not seem like too much. Example No. 2: a GPS unit is a hiker's joy but if it dies on the trail, it's not something you can fix. Hence the idea that you should also carry a map and compass.
Similarly, ask, "If that part of the hike doesn't go as planned, what's our alternative?" For example: suppose you get to a spring you were counting on, and it's dry. Do you have enough water to backtrack to your previous water source? If you thought about the possibility beforehand, most likely you do. For day hikers, the most important what-if questions may have to do with getting stranded overnight. I discuss my "Plan B" for that possibility on this page.
Finally, ask, "If we get separated, does each person have the essentials needed to get back safely?" This is one reason each member of a group should carry food, water, and gear. Not everyone in the group needs to bring a GPS, for example, but everyone should have a compass—even if it's just a small ball compass of the type you pin on your clothes. Completeness at the individual level also creates redundancy for the group. If all three people in a group have water, losing one backpack doesn't mean that the group no longer has water.
If you play this game and have a clear answer for every question you ask, you'll have taken a critical step toward being ready for a walk in the wilds.
5. Leave a cleaner planet than you found.
The final principle isn't about survival, but about who you are. Don't build fires when none is needed. Don't cut new trails (including shortcuts in switchbacks) where old ones exist. Don't chop down saplings to create tent poles and other camp doodads that you'll use a few hours or days. (If you need a tent pole, pack it in.) Urinate and defecate carefully, to avoid contaminating water and the next person's experience. And the most obvious thing: pack out whatever you pack in.
Unfortunately, some people don't have the same ethic. As you hike New Mexico's non-wilderness public lands, you'll find two-track roads strewn with empty beer cans and shotgun and rifle shells. Scary to think of people drinking and driving and shooting all at once, but shake off that thought and shake out the large trash bag you always take along. On an in-and-out hike you can leave the trash for the return trip. If you pick up litter as you go, you'll have moved from minimizing your own impact to giving back to the places you enjoy.