How to Prospect for Gold: The Ultimate Guide

If the stories and experiences of prospectors have inspired you, and now you have a “gold fever” to deal with, you are ready to try this activity yourself. Refining and improving your skills can take time and patience, and, in the beginning, you are likely to see only a little “color” in your pan. However, with time, you will see satisfying results!

A guide to prospect for gold includes understanding how free gold behaves and learning about the relevant placer geology. Then, once you have selected the prospecting method that suits your needs and learned about the legalities of this activity, you can start your search.

Read on to get started prospecting today!

Learn More About Gold Deposits

Gold can be theoretically found in most rivers. However, only in some locations, you can find enough gold particles to make your search worthwhile. In some cases, this metal is so fine that particles do not appear visible to the human eye.

Understanding how free gold behaves in nature is essential to identify the location in which you will be prospecting. Of course, their characteristics can change depending on the state or country you have picked for your activity. However, generally, understanding the properties of gold is the first step to learn more about prospecting.

Where Does Gold Come From?

Since it is one of the 96 naturally-occurring elements on Earth, gold cannot be broken down any further[1]. It cannot be produced artificially in a way that could be considered convenient and extremely rare. On Earth, gold can be found in several locations, like inside mountains, under streambeds, and at the bottom of the ocean.

Studying the more recent history and geology of Earth, scientists have determined that, on this planet, gold lies at its dense centers. Through several millennia of volcanic activity and eruptions, limited quantities of this material have been brought to the surface, where some prospectors can find it today. 

When looking for potential gold-bearing locations, prospectors tend to identify a “lode.” [2]That is a rock that boasts quartz veins that contain gold particles. Of course, gold nuggets, flakes, and fine gold can be found in other locations, such as rivers and eluvial deposits. That is because the forces of nature tend to erode the lode and carry such fragments away from it.

Looking at the nuggets found, an expert prospector can also estimate how far from the “lode” that is and whether there are other gold-bearing grounds in proximity. 

The Properties of Gold

Aside from the fact that gold is valuable, there are some properties of this element that make it unique. These characteristics are also the most important ones for prospectors to keep in mind while searching the grounds. 

Firstly, while it is an excellent conductor of electricity, gold is not magnetic[3]. This characteristic is fundamental when deciding what tools to use on your prospecting trips and while devising a strategy to separate it from the magnetic black sand that is likely to remain at the bottom of your pan. 

Additionally, gold is an extremely dense and heavy element[4]. Indeed, its specific gravity is 19.3. In perspective, any volume of water has a specific gravity of 1. Translated into simple terms, this means that gold is 19.3 times heavier than water, and around 6 to 8 times heavier than surrounding materials. Indeed, gold is about eight times heavier than the quartz rock.

This characteristic is essential to understand how free gold behaves in nature. Due to its weight, it is likely to sink rapidly when in water, and fall even further when placed in dry materials such as sand and other types of placers. 

Erosion and Transportation

When found in its rock form, gold usually derives from a “lode.” However, most prospectors are likely to find gold in rivers, streams, or creeks. 

That is because the natural forces of nature will erode the lode over time, transporting the gold for various distances – from a few centimeters to several miles or kilometers. For example, gold deriving from glaciers in Canada can be found in some northern states in the USA. 

When fragments are eroded from the lode, they will roll downhill, reaching the foothills of the mountain or hill due to their heavyweight. Since they will also reach these locations before other materials, they are likely to be at the bottom of a deposit. 

From here, particles are then swept and transported by winds and rains[5]. That is how gold particles reach eluvial deposits, which are where gold deposits before reaching streams and rivers. If it is moved further from here, gold is likely to reach a stream that will transport it for miles. 

Understand Placer Geology

Once you have learned more about the history of the place where you wish to prospect and how gold performs in nature, it is time to understand your area’s specific placer geology[6]. 

Indeed, there are some telltale signs of gold-bearing grounds that a prospector cannot ignore when looking for gold. Below you can understand the different deposits and how to look for gold in each.

Rocks That Indicate the Presence of Gold

Firstly it is worth understanding which rocks and formations could indicate the presence of gold. Indeed, as the gold is eroded from the lode and reaches a stream, it will be transported for miles. 

However, if the rocks along the banks of the stream present crevices and cracks, gold particles are more likely to remain trapped[7]. Instead, if you can see smooth stones such as granite surrounding the area, you should keep moving downstream until you notice more irregular rocks. 

Additionally, some rocks and minerals are directly associated with the presence of gold. One of the most common ones is quartz[8]. Indeed, gold is often found in quartz vein when in its rock form. However, not all quartz veins contain enough gold to make the mining viable or profitable. 

It is crucial to notice that quartz is much lighter than gold. So, it is likely to see “floats” – pieces of quartz – along the banks of a river or stream. If you notice them, you should attempt to trace them back to the main “lode,” which is likely to be nearby. 

Prospecting in Rivers

Since the number of not-yet-mined lodes across the world is limited, many prospectors prefer to use simpler prospecting methods and search for gold in rivers and creeks. This is an efficient way to enjoy outdoor recreational fun while finding some fragments or nuggets. 

Due to the limited amount of materials that you will be able to process with just a pan or sluice, it is not likely for you to become rich fast by prospecting in rivers. However, this is also the most accessible and affordable way of enjoying this activity. 

When prospecting for gold in rivers, it is essential to understand where gold is more likely to be and where you should position yourself. Here are the three factors to keep in mind.

  • Follow a rapid river until it slows down.[9]

If you notice a river to flow rapidly downhill, follow the course until you reach a flatter part of the stream, where the water suddenly slows down. Indeed, gold might be heavy, but the strong current will have pushed the particles along the course. However, once the water flows slows down, the gold will rapidly sink to the bottom of the stream, where it will remain trapped. In this case, head with your pan, where the water is slower.

  • Pick the location along the river where the course enlarges.[10]

If the river you wish to prospect is flowing rapidly, follow it along until the course rapidly expands. Indeed the power of the water will dissipate once it has a broader space to flow through. In turn, its velocity will decrease, allowing any particles of gold it was carrying to sink to the bottom.

  • Understanding the path that gold follows [11]

Rivers and streams are likely to curve several times along their course. When you are looking for the perfect position to start panning or sluicing, you need to know that gold always follows the shorter route. 

It means that, instead of following the river along its curves and twists, it will continue in a line. Therefore, position yourself inside (on the shorter side) of any curve. Here is where you are likely to catch more particles and where the soil might be more fruitful.

You can identify all of these formations through the use of topographic maps.

Prospecting in Dry Environments

If you have opted to prospect in a location where there are no nearby rivers or streams, you might need to opt for a different approach. In these instances, many prospectors opt for the use of a metal/mineral detector. Indeed, dry dredges and panning can only be useful in a limited number of situations, such as if you decide to fail a mining claim.

For the beginner or recreational prospectors, a metal detector is by far the easiest and most accessible tool to search for gold. Below, are all the information on this type of prospecting. Still, you should keep in mind that a knowledge of the geology and history of the location is essential for success.

Prospecting in Eluvial Deposits

Prospecting in eluvial deposits[12] can be tricky and might need you to have specific skills and equipment. Indeed, these can either be nearby bodies of water or drylands, both pans and metal detectors might be required. Usually, you can find these deposits on the mountainside of where the original lode is.


Seasons can affect your ability to find gold in the same locations. In the case of a river, especially, the water flow can change drastically from months to month, making it more difficult during the winter months to find an adequate place in which to pan for gold.

Generally, in summer, rivers flow slower, allowing you to set up your equipment on the banks without requiring additional knowledge or tools. In winter, the water might be too high, and the current too strong for the gold to settle. While prospecting can also be done in winter, only some locations will allow you to do so.

Select your Prospecting Method

Understanding the geology of the place where you wish to prospect is essential to select the right equipment for your activity. Indeed, if you are heading toward the banks of a river or creek, you are more likely to opt for a gold pan or sluice. Oppositely, in the case of drylands, a metal/mineral detector can be more manageable and profitable. 

While you don’t necessarily need to follow these guidelines if a specific location requires a different prospecting method, these are good ways to start prospecting if you are a beginner.


Panning is undeniably the oldest and most popular method of prospecting for gold[13]. Modern gold pans have evolved through the years, and today plastic pans have become the preferred tool for exploration for beginners and novices. 

At the same time, expert prospectors still make the most of these tools to sample a terrain before filing a claim. Panning can require you to refine your skills and knowledge to be effective, yet it boasts some advantages that can’t be ignored. 

Firstly, panning for gold is the most inexpensive method of searching for gold. Theoretically, everything you need to succeed in this activity is a gold pan. In order to implement your kit and become more successful in your efforts, it is recommendable to include the following:

  • A shovel or spade
  • Vials
  • Magnifying tweezers
  • A bucket
  • Classifiers
  • A black sand magnet

Through these simple, inexpensive tools, beginners can understand the basics of prospecting and learn more about the geology of a location. The effectiveness of panning derives from the characteristic of gold of being denser than the surrounding materials. 

In turn, this means that, after collecting the selected streambed material on the pan, you will leverage the water flow to get rid of the lighter materials in the mix. As you do so, the heavier elements, such as gold, platinum, and iron, will fall at the bottom, where they will remain until the end of the process. 

During the last stages of your gold panning process, you will need to separate the black sand[14] remaining at the bottom of the pan from the gold. Many expert prospectors have mastered the art of panning so well that they can pan down the material until only the gold is left on the pan. However, beginners can leverage other tools such as a black sand magnet, to separate the magnetic materials from the gold. 

Some of the benefits of panning include:

  • It is inexpensive.
  • Anybody can attempt panning for gold, without the need for additional equipment.
  • Some of the latest technologies allow you to pan for gold with just a pan.
  • Modern pans boast “cheater’s riffles,” a kind of riffles that trap the gold better and will enable you to keep all of the retrieved particles in the pan.
  • They are made of plastic, which means that they are lightweight and easy to carry with you on your trips.

However, panning for gold has considerable disadvantages that intermediate and expert prospectors should consider when opting for this method. Firstly, gold pans allow you to process only limited quantities of streambed material at a time. The panning process is also lengthy and time- and energy-consuming. This means that you might spend entire days panning for gold and only be able to analyze limited locations.

Additionally, it is worth considering that most of the gold to be found in gold-bearing location comes in the form of fine gold. If this is the case, your skills should be refined enough to avoid losing any precious particles in the panning process. Indeed, while panning, you will be out in the open and among nature. While this can make the whole experience much more exciting, it is also easy to lose gold through a wrong movement or swing of the pan. 


Investing in a sluice box is the first step that prospectors opt to when they decide to upgrade their panning equipment. While still inexpensive, this tool is much more efficient than just using a pan on your prospecting trip. 

Indeed, a sluice can help you process the streambed material 10 to 200 [15] times faster than you would just by using a gold pan. In this case, the presence of a stream is essential for the correct functioning of these devices. 

Sluice boxes are three-sided devices that boast a series of riffles along their bottom edge. Alongside these features, sluice boxes are equipped with prospector mats and mesh nets. These are essential additions when you are attempting to retrieve fine gold particles since they will trap the gold and prevent it from flowing off. 

However, when using a sluice box, it is essential to understand the effects of different water velocity and pressure on the box. Indeed, properly setting it up along a river is potentially the most critical aspect of using a sluice box. 

Once you have understood what the right water velocity [16] is, a sluice box simply works by leveraging the extraordinary weight of gold. Effectively, as you pour the streambed material through its entrance, the water flow will push the material through the box. 

As this happens, the heaviest particles – including gold – will rapidly fall to the bottom edge of the box, where it will remain trapped between the riffles or the mat. The water will then continue to clean the material, allowing you to notice the particles at the bottom. 

Once you are satisfied with the material processes, you will pour and rinse all of the box components into a bucket to avoid losing any gold particles in it. It is essential to keep in mind that by allowing the water to flow through an empty sluice box, you might be losing the particles that had remained trapped there when you poured the material through.

The advantages of using a sluice box are many. In addition to the ones we have seen for a gold pan, these include:

  • The possibility of processing much larger quantities of material compared to a standard gold pan.
  • Allows you to recover fine gold better
  • Sluice boxes are affordable and adaptable to the different requirements placed by the location.

There are not many disadvantages of using a sluice box for your prospecting activities, but you should consider that they can be cumbersome to carry, especially while on longer excursions. Additionally, understanding the importance of water velocity is essential for the correct functioning of these devices.

Electronic Prospecting

Electronic prospecting is a broad field, but most prospectors undertake this activity using a mineral/metal detector. Finding gold with such a device can be extremely entertaining and exciting, especially if you do so in locations that don’t have direct access to a body of water or river.

There are two main kinds of detectors on the market [17]:

  • VLF (Very-Low Frequency)
  • BFO (Beat Frequency Oscillator)

The first ones boast a much more refined technology and circuits, which allow them to identify gold better. However, when prospecting for gold, it is essential to remember that gold targets don’t sound or show well of metal detectors. 

Indeed, in most cases, gold lies nearby or underneath highly-mineralized grounds. These represent a significant interference for detectors, which, in turn, will indicate the presence of these minerals instead. 

Gold prospecting through a detector might require you to have refined abilities and wear a pair of noise-canceling headphones. After you have selected the best detector for your needs, remember to tune it properly and test how it sounds when detecting gold (you can acquire a gold target for such tests).


Dredges are not among the most accessible tools to prospect for gold. They might require a substantial initial investment, and they are prohibited in many public-use lands. Therefore, the prospector who opts to use a dredge is likely to file a mining claim and further his prospecting activities.

Retrieving Fine Gold

During your prospecting activities, you are likely to find gold under the form of fine gold[18]. Indeed, while not less valuable, such small particles are far more common than more significant nuggets. 

To retrieve fine gold, you might need to refine your panning skills to avoid losing them in the process. You could opt to enlarge your prospecting kits with a micro sluice box such as the Fine Gold Recovery Mini Sluice

Check out this video to learn more about retrieving fine gold!

A prospector can make the most of these devices by storing away the black sand they have retrieved in their process. They can then analyze it at home, in a more controlled environment.

Learn About the Legalities and Regulations of Prospecting

Prospecting for gold is not permitted and allowed everywhere. In most states and countries, you will be able to find locations labeled as “public-use land.” These are often areas that don’t belong to someone else’s mining claim, and they are free for prospectors. 

With the necessary permits[19], you can also prospect for gold in other areas, such as private properties. However, especially in these cases, not all prospecting methods are allowed.

Generally speaking, the use of a pan and a sluice box is permitted in most locations. These tools don’t create a substantial environmental impact, which makes them suitable for most areas. However, if you wish to use a metal detector or a dredge, you might be required to obtain the right permits to carry on with your activity.

To obtain such permits, you might need to get in touch with the local authorities. If in doubt, they will be able to help you identify suitable locations. Alternatively, you could opt to join a prospector’s associations such as the Gold Prospectors Associations of America. This membership allows you to have access to several claims and locations without the need for additional permits.

Identify Gold Particles

Gold prospecting can be an exciting activity to carry on in the company of your whole family. However, if you wish to make this hobby more profitable, you need to identify and store away the gold found correctly. If you are using a pan, you should opt for using a suction bottle. 

This simple device allows you to store away all the black sand at the bottom of the pan. Then, you can proceed with the analysis at home, in a more controlled environment. Moreover, especially beginners prospectors, carry on the separation between black sand and gold through a magnet. 


Prospecting for gold is a broad discipline that you can enjoy with your family or alone. If this is a recreational activity for you, prospecting through a pan or sluice box allows you to explore different areas without the need for additional permits. Additionally, these devices are accessible and inexpensive but extremely efficient. 

Before undertaking any kind of prospecting activity, it is essential to get in touch with the local authorities to understand where to prospect. Understanding the history and geology of the location is crucial to increase your chances of succeeding. 

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