Metal Detectors

Gold Prospecting Essentials

gold prospecting

Gold Prospecting Essentials

When you tilt back the pan and become the first person ever to lay eyes on pieces of gold, well, there’s nothing quite like that feeling. It’s exhilarating — like a bonus for playing outside and making mud pies down at the river.

Learning about geology and our natural environment is enjoyable and rewarding and a great way to share some playtime with family and friends.  I studied geology and hydrology. These days, rockhounding and gold panning—and sharing that skill with others—are two of the ways my exploratory itch gets scratched.

Now, I’m a gold panning guide in Colorado. I enjoyed crystal hunting in our garden as a kid, coming back in with a pocket full of cool rocks—and looking for gold is another fun way of spending time in nature.

I’ll help you start in your gold prospecting adventures and find your first few flakes of gold. If you already have some experience under your belt, we have recommendations for more advanced prospecting tools as well.

You don’t need a bulldozer and a team of roughnecks to find a bit of gold. Prospecting has always been about a good pair of boots, a shovel and a pan, and the desire to explore. So we’ll start with the basics: where can you look for gold, what equipment gets you started, and some tactics for the hunt.

Then, we’ll get a little deeper. But mainly, we’re talking about finding placer gold—gold that has been liberated from the rock it was initially deposited in and moved around by water. Gold doesn’t rust or dissolve, and it is really heavy relative to other rocks and minerals—so it may be easier to find than you think. You can find some using just a pan and water!


You are most likely to find some gold where it has been found before. Let that sink in. People have searched for gold for thousands of years and done a great job finding where it lives. The good news for us? They didn’t find it all—far from it—and we know which areas to look in.

There are many ways to research where gold has historically been found. Ask at a local rock and gem shop, or find a local prospecting club. Firsthand knowledge is invaluable, and contrary to what you may think, most locals are happy to give you some tips. In addition, rockhounding and prospecting clubs are great ways to meet experienced prospectors.

Everything from government geology bulletins and gold mining reports to YouTube videos is available online to aid your research.

How to Find Gold on Public Land

Remember, gold is where it’s been found before . Gold has been found in more states than not.  With that being said, to dig on private land, you will need the landowner’s permission. Most hunters and anglers are familiar with asking permission to access private land.

Public land prospecting access requires some investigation. Some cities and counties allow recreational gold prospecting.

How to Read River

Most of the time, for gold to move, flood-level water flows are necessary. Therefore, gold will get picked up during a flood and stop moving in somewhat predictable areas with lower water pressure.

Gold is very heavy—19 times denser than water—and is deposited along with other heavy minerals. That’s why many prospectors look for the heavy minerals of black sand—gold often accumulates where the black sand deposits are most concentrated.

A rule of thumb is that most black sand is about five times heavier than water, while most light-colored rocks and sand are only three times heavier. Gold, as mentioned above, is 19 times heavier than water. Iron scrap like nails and lead shot? These are 8 and 11 times heavier than water, respectively, and great indicators for nearby gold. Look for areas where any and all of these indicators drop out of the flood flows.

How to chose the best metal detectors for gold

The people who love metal detecting love it for the hunt. If you’ve ever swept sandy shores looking for a little pot of washed-up relics or scoured scree fields in Colorado searching for a glimmering something that’s freshly rolled off the mountain, you know the thrill of the hunt. However, a successful hunt can’t happen without two things: the right know-how and the right tools. We researched numerous models from lots of different leading brands, looking for the best of the best. We took into account metal detectors we’d used, ones that peers had recommended, and ones that users spoke favorably of. Along the way, we did a deep dive into the technology behind our picks.

The methods used to detect metal falls into a few categories. The two most common technologies are very low frequency (VLF), and pulse induction (PI). These technologies both use electromagnetic waves to locate metal.

VLF Detectors

VLF detectors use a sensor coil and transmitter coil. The transmitter coil emits constant electromagnetic energy at a tuned frequency. When this energy encounters metal underground, it creates an eddy current in the metal that results in a phase shift of the reflected frequency. The sensor coil is then able to read this phase-shifted frequency pattern. VLF detectors make up the majority of metal detectors out there and tend to be the most versatile. However, they don’t do as well in more mineralized soils without calibration. VLF detectors meant for finding gold will usually be tuned to a higher frequency. Some VLF detectors at higher price points are able to emit varying frequencies.

PI detectors

PI detectors, on the other hand, emit rapid pulses of electromagnetic energy. These pulses quickly decay. When the pulses encounter a magnetic object they cause an eddy current to form in it. This magnetic eddy current then causes a measurable delay in the decay of subsequent pulse transmissions. PI detectors do a better job than VLF detectors at picking out gold in more mineralized soils and can generally be effective at ID’ing gold at greater depths. The newer technology is also generally quite expensive but can be worth it for veteran prospectors who want a device that will give them the edge in more difficult terrain.

Coil size is an important factor in VLF detectors. While smaller coils will generally be more sensitive for gold, larger coils will allow you to scour more ground quickly. Luckily some detectors allow you to swap out coils. These enable you to hone in on a gold-rich area, then switch coils for a more accurate search.

Detection depth varies substantially. PI detectors usually do a better job at detecting gold that’s buried deeper, sometimes up to two feet. Only the higher-priced VLF detectors have the penetration required to find deep gold.

Ground balance

Ground balance is used to tune a detector’s frequency to the mineral you’re after (in this case gold) and filter out everything else. A properly ground-balanced detector will filter out the frequencies of other minerals and mineralized earth you encounter, and dial you into gold, at deeper levels, and with better accuracy. Many detectors offer automatic ground balancing, while some allow you to fine-tune their balance manually.

Frequency describes the transmission of electromagnetic waves from your detector. Since gold is a very low conductivity metal, higher frequency transmitters with shorter wavelengths do a better job at spotting it. Most detectors will have one frequency that they are able to transmit, while some have a range. We looked for detectors that transmit at good frequencies for finding gold, generally 14kHz and above.

Important Articles

Best Gold Detectors 

Metal Detecting on the Beach

Best Metal Detector For Coins and Relics 2023

Gold Detector Price

Metal Detectors for Gold

German Metal Detectors