Gold Prospecting and Gold Panning How-To

As if I needed yet another hobby, I got interested in gold prospecting several years ago. My travels around the West often took me to old mining towns and mine sites where the pioneers had made a living by pulling the yellow stuff out of the ground. Eventually I got the bug too. Gold fever is a terrible thing. There is no known cure. It leads you to work harder on your vacations than you do in your normal working life, and all you have to show for is a little dirty, yellow metal.

I started out in prospecting using a metal detector to hunt for gold nuggets. I never had much luck. Nuggets are rare but metallic trash is plentiful. All I ever got out of nugget hunting was a lot of bullets, shell casings, nails, tin cans, aluminum foil, barbed wire, sunburn and frustration. It wasn't until I started panning for gold in various places around the West that I actually began to collect some of the lovely yellow stuff. This page presents a brief introduction and How-To on the art and science of gold panning.

The principal behind gold panning is really simple. Gold is heavy. Just about everything else is lighter. If you load a pie-pan shaped container with gold-bearing gravel and sand, proper agitation in water should cause the gold to sink to the bottom, while washing away the lighter stuff that rises to the top. Eventually, all that is left in your pan is the heaviest minerals, including (hopefully) some gold. It really is about that simple. Of course there is more to the story than that.

Equipment needed for gold panning First off, you are going to need some equipment. This photo (click on it to see a larger version) shows about the bare minimum of equipment you need to be a successful gold panner. Start with the water-proof boots. Gold panning is done in the water, usually icy cold mountain streams. You'll want to keep your feet dry. Some nice warm socks (maybe a couple of pairs) also helps to keep your feet warm in that cold water. The green thing is the gold pan. There are lots of different types of gold pans. They all work. so don't spend too much time obsessing over getting just the right kind of pan. Inside the gold pan is the sniffer bottle. It is used for sucking up little bits of gold out of your pan. More on that later. The purple thing is a classifier, also known as a sieve or strainer. It is really optional, but I find it to be a great help. I'll talk about why later. Next, you need some digging tools. A full-size pointed shovel will be real useful (remember what I said about this being hard work?). You'll also want a smaller spade and either an old screwdriver or some other skinny tool for cleaning out small cracks and crevasses in the rocks. The small white plastic pail is used for collecting concentrates. You can use just about any sort of container for that. More on why this is important later. Big five gallon buckets come in handy for lots of things. You can pack a lot of the other equipment in them along with some water bottles and other supplies, and carry it all down to the creek. Once there, a bucket makes handy stool to sit on in the creek to do your panning and another serves to carry your paydirt from where you are digging it to where you are panning it. Since empty buckets will nest inside each other when stacked, several buckets don't take up much more cargo space in your truck than only one bucket would. I always take along at least a couple of them. Other nice to have accessories are gloves. A nice pair of rugged leather gloves to protect your hands from blisters while working the shovel and protect from cuts and scrapes while digging out cracks and crevasses with the smaller digging tools. Also a pair of rubber gloves to protect your hands from the cold water while panning. Also, a pair of tweezers to pick the larger bits of gold "pickers" out of your gold pan, and a glass or plastic bottle to put them in will come in real handy. Naturally you'll want to take all the usual stuff you would take for any outdoor adventure in the wilderness. Things like a first aide kit, warm clothes, drinking water, mosquito repellant (if necessary), sunscreen, etc. I bought a lot of my equipment on Ebay. The rest came from the hardware store. None of it is difficult to find or terribly expensive.

A gold-bearing stream in Arizona The next thing you are going to need is a stream to pan in. You'll want to pick one that has a history of producing placer gold. You can strike out on your own and prospect streams that haven't been mined in the past, but odds are you won't find any undiscovered gold deposits. At one time or another, every stream, river, creek, and beach in North America has been test panned by prospectors. So odds are, you won't find anything new. Going where gold has been found in the past is your best bet. Besides, over time, more gold weathers out of the bedrock and gets carried down into the same creeks and streams that have been mined in the past. Every rainstorm deposits more gold in the stream beds. So don't worry that all the gold has been mined out.

If the stream isn't on public land, get permission from the owner first, or move on. Nobody likes trespassers. If the stream is on public land, make sure there isn't an active mining claim in the area where you want to do your panning. Also check with the agency that manages the land the stream is on. They may have restrictions on what sorts of activities are allowed there. If it is a designated wilderness area, then you probably aren't allowed to do any prospecting there. Even if prospecting and recreational mining activities are allowed on the land, there may be restrictions on where you can do it and what sort of equipment is allowed.

My secret gold panning spot This photo and the one above show my favorite little secret place to pan for gold. I'm not going to tell you where it is because I like the fact that it isn't very crowded. I will tell you what makes it such a good spot though. Not a lot of people know about it. It is on public land where recreational mining and prospecting is allowed. It has a history of producing lots of gold. It is not hard to get to. It is just far enough off the beaten path that most people miss it, even though the general area is overrun with people most weekends during the summer.

Once you've found your perfect stream, you need to find a place to pan and places to dig. They almost certainly won't be terribly close to each other (remember about the exercise I mentioned?). A good place to pan is an area of the stream where the water is deep enough to completely submerge your pan, and has enough water flow to keep the water clear so you can see what you are doing. If the current is too strong though, you will find it difficult to work the pan.

Where to dig? Gold is heavy. It is a lot heavier than most of the other rocks and minerals in the stream. It takes a lot of force from the moving water to keep gold suspended in the water and move it along the stream bed. So anywhere the water slows down is where the heaviest stuff suspended in the water is most likely to settle out. The inside of bends is one place. Water flowing down a stream moves slower on the inside of a bend and faster on the outside. So heavy material is more likely to settle out on the inside of bends. Also, anything that disrupts the flow of the stream, like a big rock, will create eddies behind it where heavy material will settle out. Dig behind and under big rocks. Also, any cracks or crevasses in the rocks are likely to catch gold. Gold will fall into the cracks but be too heavy for the current to wash it out again. Gold, being so heavy, tends to always sink as low as it can in the stream bed. So digging down in the stream bed to solid and impervious bedrock is often a good way to find the gold. Just keep these thoughts in mind as you hit the stream.

A full load of Pay Dirt in my sieve Once you've found a likely spot to dig your "pay dirt", go ahead and start digging. This photo shows my classifier sitting on top of my gold pan. I have filled the classifier with material dug out from behind a big rock in the stream bed. The classifier really just strains out the bigger rocks. Classifiers come in lots of different mesh sizes. This one is 1/2 inch mesh, meaning that it will screen out anything larger than 1/2 inch. It's not absolutely necessary to use a classifier, but it does help a lot by keeping big junk rocks out of your pan and just letting through the smaller material more likely to contain gold. I do my classifying under water. I submerge the pan and classifier in the stream and shake and rotate the classifier over the gold pan which allows all the smaller material to fall through into the pan. The big junk rocks are retained in the classifier and can be discarded.

Every source on panning I have ever seen has warned of the possibility of throwing away a big gold nugget with the rocks in your classifier. They all recommend sorting through and carefully examining the contents of the classifier rather than just tossing them away. I think the odds of tossing out a nugget too big to fit through my 1/2 inch classifier are astronomically low. So I don't waste a lot of time sorting through the junk that comes out of my classifier. I just pile it all up in a couple of spots and take the short-cut of running my metal detector over the piles at the end of the day, just to be sure. So far no big nuggets. But the day I don't double check will probably be the day one is there.

My gold pan after classifying This photo was taken after classifying. Now the gold pan only contains the smaller gravel and dirt. The big rocks are retained in the classifier. One way to make life easier is to take the 5 gallon bucket and classifier to where you are digging. This kind of classifier is designed to fit on top of a 5 gallon bucket. You can classify your material into the bucket as you dig it and only carry the classified material to where you are doing the panning. That way you don't have to waste a lot of effort hauling the big junk rocks over there. Then you can take a break from digging, sit down, and pan out your bucket load of "pay dirt". To make classifying into the bucket easier, fill the bucket to the top with water. Classifying is easier in water. Wet dirt is real heavy though. So don't over-fill the bucket and dump out the excess water before hauling it to your panning site, or you will tire out fast and be really sore the next day. When these photos were taken, I just happened to be digging an area right next to where I was panning, so I classified directly into my pan.

By the way, as I said earlier, classifiers come in lots of different mesh sizes. I use a 1/2 inch classifier just to sort out the bigger junk rocks and make life a little easier. That is the only classifier I use, just to minimize the amount of equipment I have to carry into the field. However, further classifying the material with finer mesh sizes would further reduce the amount of junk you have to pan through to get to the gold. A lot of experts recommend classifying down to much smaller mesh sizes in several stages, carefully examining what remains in each classifier for nuggets at each step of the way. You can do that if you have a lot of time and/or a lot of people to help, but I don't find it necessary or an efficient use of my time for recreational prospecting on my own. There are usually lots of classifiers for sale on . Or you can roll your own using various sizes of wire mesh from a hardware store.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about how to pan your "pay dirt" down to get to the gold. There are thousands of books, videos and web sites that cover how to work the pan. I studied many different sources, read books, watched videos and read web sites on the subject in hopes of learning how to do it. Problem was, all the experts on the subject had different ways of doing it, which just confused the hell out of me. I found that panning is something you really can only learn by doing. After I actually tried it for real, I developed my own way of doing it that was different from any of the sources I studied, but seems to work just as well. After you try it for a while, no doubt you will develop your own technique that works best for you. So I'm just going to give you some general advice and pointers. Once you start actually trying to pan, you will figure it out quite quickly on your own. This ain't rocket science, folks.

The basic idea is to agitate the material in the pan in water so as to stratify it with the heaviest stuff at the bottom and the lightest stuff at the top. Then you want to move the pan so that the water washes the lighter stuff on top out of the pan. Be careful not to pour material out of the pan, or you will lose gold. Periodically you will want to stop washing and re-stratify the material with more agitation. You want to make sure the gold is always at the bottom of the pan.

Concentrates after panning In the end, all you want left in the pan is heavy black sand and (hopefully) some gold. This photo shows the results of panning down a nearly full pan to just black sand and gold. If this is what you see in the bottom of your gold pan, then you are doing it right. The really tricky part of gold panning is separating the little bits and flakes of gold from the black sand. With a little practice, you will get the hang of swirling the black sand around the inside of the pan and concentrating the gold at the edge. If you are lucky, there will be a few bits of gold big enough to pick out with tweezers. I tweeze out these "pickers" and put them in my gold vial. The next photo shows a few "pickers" in my pan, along with a borderline nugget sized bit of gold. For the numerous smaller flakes of gold too tiny to pick out with tweezers, I use the sniffer bottle. Just suck up as many of the little shiny bits of gold as you can, while trying to get as little of the black sand as possible. Sometimes I use my finger to push the little bits of gold together into one spot, out of the bulk of the black sand mass, before sucking them up with the sniffer bottle.

Bits of gold in the bottom of my gold pan There is still gold in that black sand. So don't discard it. Further panning of the black sand to get rid of the bulk of it will reveal still more gold you didn't notice before, sometimes surprisingly big bits that somehow escaped your notice. I don't bother with panning the black sand while I'm on the creek. I dump my black sand "concentrates" into a little pail and bring them home with me. Since I only get to do prospecting while I'm on my vacations, (there's no gold here in Florida), and since vacations are short, I try to make best use of my time in the field. The best use of my time is finding still more gold. So I don't waste too much time trying to extract every last bit of gold from each pan full. I just save the black sands left over in each pan and bring it home with me. Then I can pan them out at my leasure at home and extract every last bit of gold, without any time pressure. It's good fun on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and a great way to relive memories of a great vacation.

Panning the concentrates back home This photo shows me panning out the black sands at home after returning home from Arizona. I pan them a few teaspoons at a time in a tub of water. I use a second pan in the bottom of the tub to catch the sand so I can pan through it several times and get out every bit of gold. My gold pan has riffles cast into one side of it which is very handy for this final stage of panning since they are really good at catching gold. They aren't absolutely necessary though. With care and practice, you could do it with any kind of pan. Once I get rid of the bulk of the black sand by careful panning, I use a powerful magnet inside a plastic bag to get the rest of the black sand out of the pan. Black sand is mostly magnetite, an iron mineral that is magnetic, so it will be attracted to a magnet. The magnet from a large speaker or from an old hard drive works well for this. Just remember to always use it wrapped in a plastic bag. Otherwise you will never be able to get the black sand unstuck from it. Once there is almost nothing but gold left in the pan, I suck it up with the sniffer bottle. Several times I have been surprised to find fairly large "pickers" in the pan that I somehow missed in the field. There will always be lots of little tiny bits of gold too. I always pan through the black sand several times until no more gold shows up. Panning into a second "safety pan" makes it easy to re-pan the concentrates as many times as you want to.

A glass vial containing my gold Once I have extracted all the gold I can, it's time to clean up the contents of my sniffer bottle. I clean out my pan and then dump the contents of the sniffer bottle into it. I then again use the magnet to separate out the black sand that got sucked up with the gold. Then I suck the now clean gold back into the sniffer bottle and transfer it to a storage vial. This photo shows one of my gold vials containing all the pickers, flakes and dust found from only one morning out on my secret little panning creek. Not bad for a morning's work. Ok, so I'm not getting rich, but I am having a lot of fun. It's also good exercise.

Give gold panning a try. I'll bet you'll have lots of fun too.

To see how to process more material than you can with a gold pan alone, visit my home-built recirculating sluice or highbanker page.

UPDATE 10/29/07

In October of 2007 I tried doing some gold panning in Tennessee and Georga. The area where Tennessee, Georga and North Carolina meet has a long history of gold production. It was the sight of America's first gold rush. I've always wanted to do some prospecting in that area. I finally got a chance when we took a vacation out there. The whole area has been in a terrible drought. Many of the places I wanted to pan for gold were as dry as a bone. You can't pan without water. So I had to resort to panning where I knew there was water, rather than where I suspected there was gold. I also resorted to buying some ore from one of the local gold mines and panning it. More on that below.

Panning forgold on the Tellico River in Tennessee Here is a photo of me panning in the Tellico River in Tennessee. We stopped at the ranger station on the road to Bald River Falls and asked the ranger where we could go prospecting in the National Forest. She was very helpful and provided us with maps and directions free of charge. However, she also warned me that due to the drought, most of the popular prospecting locations would be dry. She was right. Creek after creek was all dried up. So I tried my luck on the Tellico River. It isn't known for producing lots of gold, but at least it still had flowing water in it. I only found a tiny bit of gold, but at least I got a chance wet my pan. I really miss panning between vacations, and can't wait go do it again.

Gold we found panning gold ore in Georgia We moved South into Georga and stayed for a while in Dahlonega. Dahlonega was the center of a huge gold rush in the 1820s. There is still a lot of gold to be had in the Dahlonega area. We didn't have time on this trip to go prospecting out on the creeks. However, there are several active gold mines in the area, and some of them will sell you their crushed and concentrated ore (at fairly reasonable prices). They even provide troughs, pans and other equipment if you want to pan it on site. This vial represents only a couple of hours work panning out the ore. I was so happy with the amount of gold we were getting, I bought three more big sacks of ore to bring home and pan out later. There are 2 big nuggets and a whole lot of flakes in there.

A couple of weeks after we returned from our vacation, we threw a "Panning Party" at our house. We invited a lot of people over, I set up big tubs full of water out back, got out the sacks of ore I brought back from Georgia and gave people gold pans and taught them how to pan for gold and told them they could keep whatever they found. Some people thought it was a goofy idea for a party and only reluctantly participated. Once they started seeing gold in their pans though, all trace of relutance dissappeared. They all loved it. Some people got an instant and bad case of gold fever. I have a feeling a bunch of us may be going on a big group prospecting trip to Georgia in the future. After everyone left, I re-panned everything in the bottom of the tubs and recovered all the gold everyone missed. I must be a good teacher though, because there wasn't much in there. It was a great party.


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