These days it probably seems silly to take a handheld GPS on your standard, everyday hike. Trails are generally well used, well marked, and well populated that you almost couldn't possibly get yourself lost. So why do I decidedly bring along a GPS on my hikes? No, it's not so I can tell you how many miles I did... Well, not only... Allow me to share the reasons I will never leave my GPS behind on a hike!
Typically, you won't need this feature on your everyday standard hike with trails being well marked and all. Supposed you go out hiking to your favorite park and can't park near the trailhead of your favorite trail? Well, if it's a park like those I frequent where there are trails zigzagging all over and often interconnected, you could start your hike from a different trailhead and still make it to the trail you want to get to! Sure, you could just grab a trail map if you had the foresight to know how crowded it would be. Sure, you could check that repeatedly throughout the trek to make sure you're on the right path. Hopefully the lesser used connector trails are still worn enough to be visible but, in the event they are not, a map may not be enough to tell you whether you were actually on the dotted line or not. Enter the GPS! With a routable trail map, you will be able to see your position, real-time, relative to the trail so you will have no doubts as to whether you were on or even near the trail. Let's face it, we aren't going to be rock stars at orienteering unless we've had plenty of practice.
Although your Garmin, or other brand, device will likely come with preloaded maps, they are not equipped with routable trails in most cases. What I did was utilize a resource from HikingGuy.com to find and load open source maps equipped with greater detail and routable trails that would have otherwise cost money from Garmin or another provider. Consider doing the same if your device permits!
Tracking Routes & Using TracBack (Garmin Feature)
I can't tell you what name this feature would exist as under different brands, however, I would be surprised if it didn't exist at all. TracBack, as Garmin calls it, is a feature that, when GPS tracking is enabled, will allow you to follow your exact route back the exact way you came. This is great when you are making your way out in the open where there are no clearly defined trails or landmarks to orient yourself. It is that much more useful than a waypoint if you are making your way along a precise route, maybe utilizing a particular stream crossing spot or other technical spot that is preferred, and you don't want to just blaze a straight path back to your starting point. You may not need this feature in all cases but it is particularly nice when your adventurous side takes you out of your comfort zone. TracBack to the rescue!
Hey, remember that really neat cave you saw along the trail? Where was that again? It sure would be nice to get a closer look at it next time you're on that trail. If only you knew right where you saw it. Waypoints are just what you need! Waypoints are GPS identifiers you can set along the way, anywhere you want, for any reason you want! Mark that rock formation, that stream crossing, the crazy looking tree, the bear den, or whatever else you might want! Once you set your waypoint, you will never be lost returning to that point ever again.
What makes waypoints even better is that once you set them, you can use them as part of your routing with the GPS. Just find your waypoint on the map or in the menu and set the GPS to direct you "as the bird flies" or via defined roads, trails, or other navigable elements. Leaving waypoints does tend to lessen the surprise of stumbling upon those amazing sights to behold when you do cross them again but, it does continue to encourage you to find new ones every time you go out! New surprises, new waypoints, and more reason to go out again and again!
Beyond simple mileage, your GPS can record a wealth of information while you move. Everything from speed to direction and even elevation! Your GPS will likely feature some way to display this data to you visually, like with a graph of elevation, speed, and direction changes. If you choose, you can even offload your trek telemetry to a program such as Garmin BaseCamp, or whatever program your brand may offer with devices, if not a different 3rd party option altogether. These programs offer a multitude of ways to display your data where you can continually add each of your treks over time to see across all sorts of areas. It probably goes without saying that, if you are a telemetry or information buff, you probably want a GPS unit of some kind provided you don't already have one.
That said, they do carry a steep cost in some cases, usually tied to the features offered, so a GPS may not be for everyone. However, with a range of units to cover a range of features, there is almost certainly something in your price range that does what you want! You certainly won't regret carrying a GPS for piece of mind especially if you do like to venture into the unknown or unfamiliar territory that may or may not be as well marked as what you are familiar with.