A hand held GPS is useful for several things. Since it's lightweight, and about the size of a large candy bar, you can carry it with you on a wilderness trek, take it on your next fishing trip, and you can even use it in your car to find your way through the city and to the boat ramp.
I have a hand held GPS--a Garmin GPSMap60c--that I use on and off trail, in the boat, or in the car. But a larger screen would be helpful for both automotive and boating use. For the backcountry, however, I'm looking for lightweight stuff, and my Garmin fits the bill.
The Navigator's Biggest Challenge
Before hand held GPS, the biggest challenge for a wilderness navigator was to keep up with where you were. If you could do that, you could find yourself on the map, then figure out where to go next. If you couldn't find yourself on the map, you had a problem.
Nowadays, your hand held GPS can pinpoint your position to within 10 meters. If you lose track of exactly where you are, your GPS can tell you. Plus, it will tell you the bearing (true or magnetic) to your destination.
Saving Battery Power in the Backcountry
Most wilderness travelers need to save battery power. My GPS, for instance, is powered by two AA batteries, and lasts around 30 hours if I don't use the backlight. Because of limited battery life, it doesn't make sense to keep it turned on during a multi-day trip.
To conserve batteries, I turn off the GPS, and navigate across the terrain using a compass. Every now and then, I turn on the GPS to get a new position fix and new bearing. How easy is that?
On the boat, too. I get a distance and magnetic bearing to my destination, or to some intermediate point along the way. Then, I turn off the hand held GPS, and rely on the compass until I want an updated position and bearing to my destination.
Traditional Nav Skills Still Essential
Your personal safety demands that you be able to navigate with map and compass--GPS or no GPS. When GPSs first came out, I thought my traditional navigation skills would be obsolete. Not so. Navigation skills remain as important as ever. The GPS is just another nav tool to make your life easier. But never, EVER rely on it solely. What if all of a sudden it doesn't work? Or you lose it? Or you dog chews it up? Without back-up navigation skills, to put it politely: you're screwed.
A Few Things a Hand Held GPS can do
So, besides finding where you are, what else can you do with a hand held GPS?
Use it to guide you after dark through the woods to the very spot you left your truck. At each step, the GPS will indicate the distance left to travel, and about how much time it will take you to get there, based on your current speed.
At home, plan a route through the wilds, then on scene, follow that route to your destination.
Leave tracks (an electronic bread-crumb trail) going in, so you can come out exactly the same way. This might be handy in an area with lots of obstacles, such as thick brush and deep swamps. If you got to where you are, you can normally get back by retracing your tracks in.
Enter a distant point in your GPS to find out the bearing and distance to it.
Find out the time of sunrise and sunset, or maybe high tide and low tide.
Mark your favorite fishing spot.
The more you use your GPS, the more you will come to love it. Every now and then, however, I like to navigate the old-fashioned way, just to keep my skills sharp. Never know when you'll need them.)
You might like the GPS I Use
My first GPS was a Garmin etrex. It's a basic model with no map, but, still, Ponce de Leon would have traded Cuba for it. Today, it's my backup model, which I like to carry in case my main unit fails.
My current model is a Garmin GPSMap60c. It's always goes with me on trips in my pack. It's gotten me through the Everglades mangrove country, Big Cypress swamplands, downtown Orlando (you can load detailed road maps in it), and lots of other places.
It's not a bad all-round GPS for boat, car, and wilderness, although I'd rather have a different one for the boat and a different one still for the car. Garmin has discontinued the GPSMap60c, but it has been replaced with the GPSMap60cx, which allows the unit to access maps by a removable card, instead of a direct computer upload.