The most important thing to do before going out for any activity in the backcountry, hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, etc., is to tell someone where you are going. Let’s call this person your failsafe. This is especially important if you’re going by yourself, but also if you’re with a group, as entire groups have been known to get lost together. Give your failsafe information on the trailhead you intend to start from and your planned route. Also tell them when you expect to be back and, additionally, the latest acceptable time for your return, that is, at what point if you have not returned should they call Search and Rescue. Be sure to allow some reasonable buffer in this, as things can simply take longer than you expect even though everything is fine. You should also allow for some reasonable travel time, as cell phone reception can be spotty and you might need to drive quite a distance from the trailhead before you can call to let your failsafe know you’re back and all right. But at some point, if you’re not back, odds are good you’re in trouble. Tell your failsafe what day and time this is. Also be sure that they are willing to call Search and Rescue and know that you want them to at that time if you haven’t returned. You can also give them the county where you plan to be and the number of the county sheriff there. The county sheriff of the location is the one responsible for search and rescue requests, although they can be assisted by search and rescue groups, which are often volunteers. If your failsafe isn’t sure where you are or whom to call, the local sheriff or police should be able to help find the right place to call. With luck and some good planning, hopefully your failsafe will never have to worry about making that call.
You might also want to consider buying a CORSAR card. Anyone with a hunting or fishing license is already paying into the search and rescue fund, and does not need a CORSAR card. The CORSAR card is not insurance. But it does allow the search and rescue team, often volunteers who are already paying for their own equipment and training, to be reimbursed for the expenses of a rescue operation. Just like your failsafe friend, hopefully you’ll never need it. But it is a small fee and goes to a worthwhile cause.
Another important point, which also does not relate to any of the gear you’re taking, is, if you are with a group, keep your group together, or, if you do separate, make sure that that is deliberate and everyone in the group understands that and knows what is planned. Many bad situations have begun with someone becoming separated from the group and then taking a wrong turn, or the group changing plans and not everyone in the group knowing that. Don’t abandon the slow guy. Don’t take a “shortcut”. The group together can make better decisions than individually (“Is this the way we came?”) If someone has trouble, the rest of the group can help. Presumably, you went out together because you wanted to be together, and should be able to tolerate each other’s company at least to the end of the trip. Stay together.
A third point to make is not to rely on technology. Don’t go past your natural limits because of the great gear you have. Cell phones don’t always have reception. GPS units might not be able to find enough satellites. Locator beacons can be unreliable. Batteries in any of these units can die. Be sure you have the skills and low-tech gear to make it through if the high-tech gadgets fail. Otherwise, your failsafe friend might be calling the county sheriff. (Hope you bought that CORSAR card.)
Then there’s the usual recommendations on what to take with you and how to prepare. These are usually listed as the ten essentials, essential items or essential systems. Rather than argue over how the 10 categories break down, some things you should consider include: food (more than you expect to need), water (and a way to purify more), sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, hat), rain gear, extra clothes (layers, gloves, warm hat), map and compass (and maybe a GPS), light (flashlight or headlamp), first-aid kit, repair kit, some way to start a fire, emergency shelter, some way to signal for help (whistle, mirror, light, fire). Consider the conditions you are likely to encounter. Obviously you take different gear for a winter climb of a 14er than a family day hike with the kids in July. But you want to be prepared if the weather isn’t as good as expected, things take longer than anticipated, or something goes wrong. Be sure you know how to use the gear you take along. A spiffy UV water purifier isn’t helpful if you don’t know how to use it. Some people buy a standard first aid kit but never check what is in it. Hopefully, all you’ll use from your pack is your lunch and water. But it’s best to be prepared.
Another part of preparation is knowing where you’re going. Plan the route beforehand. All trail users should have good navigation and route finding skills. Take a map and navigation tools, and know how to use them. Trail signs are very helpful, but signs can be vandalized. In winter, snow can make trails hard to follow. All maps and related data, including the maps and information on this web site, can contain inaccuracies or become outdated as trails and conditions change. Learn what you can about your planned route.
Check the weather forecast. Check it for where you will be, not the closest city. The weather in the mountains can be quite different from the weather in town. The web site for the National Weather Service, weather.gov, can provide point forecasts. First, get a forecast for a location near where you plan to go. For example, at the web site, ask for the forecast for the city nearby. The forecast for the next 7 days then displays, along with a map. You can click on a location on the map to get a forecast for that location. Realize that in weather models, one point represents everything in a square. But the forecast also shows the elevation of the point that it is for. Check for that. Another feature of the web site is an hourly weather forecast graph. You can see how the wind, temperature, and chance of precipitation change through the day.
Despite careful planning and preparation, carrying all the right gear, and checking the weather, sometimes you need to turn around before reaching your planned destination. Accept this. Don’t succumb to “summit fever”. Reaching the summit, or whatever the anticipated destination, is optional. Returning to the trailhead is not. Sometimes those thunderstorms move in faster than expected. Sometimes someone develops foot problems. Sometimes things are moving more slowly than you thought, and you don’t have enough daylight left. Be ready to change plans and shorten the outing and not reach your goal. The trail and the destination will still be there.