Gold Prospecting: Complete Guide

by Chad Eicher

Gold prospecting guide

Since ancient civilizations ruled, people have used gold prospecting methods to search for gold. While many traditional prospecting methods are still used today, modern prospecting techniques have been developed. While gold prospecting is still done on a large scale today, people worldwide partake in recreational prospecting. 

Traditional gold prospecting methods include gold panning and dry washing. Modern prospecting methods include biological, geochemical, and geophysical methods of locating gold deposits. To take up gold prospecting, you must choose a way that suits your resources.

Whether you have a casual interest in gold prospecting or want to take it up as a hobby, we’ll break down everything you should know in this gold prospecting guide. Once we’ve discussed what gold prospecting is, we’ll outline the different traditional and modern prospecting methods. We’ll also discuss the equipment used, the best places for prospecting, and some tips for beginners! 

What Is Gold Prospecting?

Prospector throwing a shovel of gold bearing dirt
Prospector throwing a shovel of gold
bearing dirt

Gold prospecting refers to the process of searching for new gold deposits. While gold prospecting was widely used in the gold rush of the 19th century, you might be surprised to learn that this process dates back to antiquity. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used traditional prospecting methods to extract gold. 

Perhaps the oldest gold prospecting method is using a gold pan to search for gold in sediment deposits in streams and rivers. This method proved successful because the high density of gold caused it to sink to the bottom of the pans. Due to this, gold panning is still widely done today, with panning kits readily available online

While there are other traditional prospecting methods, there are also modern methods that we’ll outline later. However, regardless of which gold prospecting method is used, location remains one of the most important factors. While rivers, streams, and bodies of water are arguably the best places to search for gold, many factors can affect the yield of gold prospecting efforts. 

Although traditional methods can uncover a moderate amount of gold, deeper placer deposits of gold often require trenching and drilling. If someone using a gold pan prospecting method were to discover placer deposits, the gold pan method would be replaced with a modern way capable of extracting greater volumes of material.

Since gold deposits in Iode and Hardrock are more varied than placer deposits, these deposits require more complex extraction methods. While drilling will often be used to explore the subsurface of the deposits, more advanced methods will be necessary to mine the gold. Before we outline the different methods, let’s discuss why people use gold prospecting methods! 

Why Do People Use Gold Prospecting?

Gold prospecting is a popular form of gold mining. Gold that is recreationally collected through prospecting techniques is often sold. Since gold is easy to work with, nearly 80% of the gold mined annually is turned into jewelry. Many gold prospecting methods give miners a low-cost way of extracting gold. 

Understanding Gold Prospecting Methods 

This section will explain the various modern and traditional methods used to mine for gold. While some of these methods have been used since antiquity, modern methods have been developed. 

Traditional Gold Prospecting Methods 

Let’s discuss two traditional gold prospecting methods: panning and dry washing.

Gold Panning 

Gold panning is one of the oldest prospecting methods. Gold panning is a form of traditional gold mining that uses a specialized pan to separate and extract gold from placer sediment deposits. This method utilized gravity to separate low-density particles from higher-density gold particles. 

Many all-in-one gold panning kits can be purchased online. These kits typically include a gold pan, a classifier, and a scoop for collecting deposits. These sets also come with sniffer bottles, storage vials, tweezers, magnifiers, and a magnet to help clean gold. 

Dry Washing 

Dry-washing is a widely used mining technique that uses a dry washer to recover gold. A dry washer is a waterless sluice, allowing for dry recovery of gold flecks and nuggets. This device uses air pulsations to separate gold from sand. This method is commonly used in the desert when mining for gold.

Modern Gold Prospecting Methods 

Let’s discuss three modern gold prospecting methods: biological, geochemical, and geophysical. 

Biological Prospecting 

Biological gold prospecting is often considered a valuable addition to conventional prospecting methods. This prospecting method utilizes plants, humus, and bacteria to assist in locating buried mineral deposits. Once buried mineral deposits have been found, other prospecting methods can be employed to extract gold, gems, and minerals.

Geochemical Prospecting 

Geochemical gold prospecting includes any exploration method based on the scientific measurement of a naturally occurring material’s chemical properties. The property that is usually measured is the content of key trace elements. Geochemical exploration aims to locate mineral deposits in soils, stream sediments, water, and rocks. 

Geophysical Prospecting 

Another form of gold prospecting uses geophysical instruments to locate mineral deposits. These instruments include gravimeters, magnetometers, electromagnetic systems, and self-potential and induced-polarization equipment. These instruments aren’t just used to find new deposits but also to reevaluate known deposits for more minerals. 

What Equipment Is Used For Gold Prospecting?

Ultimately, the equipment used will vary between traditional and modern methods. While some methods are low-cost, others require advanced machinery. 

The most popular form of recreational prospecting is gold panning. Anyone can use a gold pan and classifier to find gold in sediment deposits! Furthermore, gold panning accessories like vials, tweezers, sniffer bottles, and scoops are inexpensive. Gold panning kits are also available to purchase online. 

While gold panning is easy to learn, many modern methods involve complex techniques to find gold deposits. For example, geophysical prospecting requires expensive instruments like magnetometers, gravimeters, and electromagnetic systems. 

In many cases, traditional and modern prospecting methods will be used together. Once a placer deposit is discovered through gold panning, current methods can be used for large-scale extraction of gold. Overall, prospecting equipment differs significantly between the different techniques. 

Where Is Gold Prospecting Commonly Done?

The great thing about gold mining is that it’s done virtually everywhere! While gold prospecting is often done near bodies of water, there are many prospecting sites in deserts. Ultimately, where gold prospecting is done will depend on the method used and the available resources.

For recreational prospecting, your best bet would be sticking with streams and rivers! With a gold panning kit, you’ll be able to analyze sediment deposits to uncover gold flakes. Regardless of where you live, there will be plenty of great places to prospect for gold. 

5 Best Places For Gold Prospecting In America 

From Fairbanks to Rogue River, here are the five best sites and locations for gold prospecting in America!

1. Fairbanks, Alaska 

Fairbanks owes its existence to the discovery of gold there in the early 1900s. These discoveries were made along the Chena River. Some people might be shocked to learn that there are still many mining operations along the Chena River. It’s also a great place to prospect for gold! Gold can be panned from any of the historically mined waters in this region. 

2. American River, California

American River in California is another great place to search for gold. This Californian river is one of the richest in the country! When gold was initially discovered at Sutter’s Mill, it brought many gold prospectors to America – and you could still be one of them!

3. Northern Nevada 

Did you know that more gold has been mined in the state of Nevada than in any other state in America? If you’re looking for an excellent prospecting spot, Northern Nevada is a great place to start! However, most of the gold deposits in this state are in remote desert areas that aren’t near streams or rivers. Due to this, you might want to add a metal detector to your prospecting tools arsenal. 

4. Pike’s Peak, Colorado 

Pike’s Peak played an important role in America’s famed gold rushes. While Pike’s Peak was once the richest placer mining area in Colorado, prospectors still have plenty of gold waiting to be discovered. If you find yourself around Colorado with your prospecting gear, you should check out Pike’s Peak! 

5. Rogue River, Oregon

Rogue River is one of the richest gold-bearing rivers in America. The river drains into the southern part of the Cascade Mountain Range. Generally, people prospect at sites along the Grants Pass and Gold Hill areas. There are many sites along the roadside ideal for panning gold. There are also plenty of places for prospecting in the Hellgate Recreation Area. 

Tips For Successful Gold Prospecting 

From researching your local gold mining history to practicing patience, these tips will ensure you successfully prospect gold! 

Research Your Local Gold Mining History 

America has a rich history of gold mining. If you want to find gold deposits successfully, you should start by researching the history of mining sites. Ultimately, this will allow you to find suitable locations to prospect for gold. 

There are even geological indicators that can help you find ideal prospecting sites. If you’re ever exploring an area with your prospecting equipment, you can use these indicators to uncover gold! You should look out for rocks that are lighter than the surrounding rocks, as this could indicate there is gold present. 

If you spot any rock formations with noticeable veins, you should move your gold prospecting toward those rocks. You should also prospect near rocks in fault zones, where two different types of rocks come into contact with each other. While geological indicators vary between locations, you’ll get the hang of spotting these signs when you’re prospecting! 

Choose The Right Prospecting Method 

If you want to take up gold prospecting as a hobby, you’ll need to choose a suitable prospecting method. Gold panning is the most advisable prospecting technique for beginners, especially since many all-in-one mining kits can be purchased online. These kits contain everything you need to start prospecting!

If you decide to use the gold panning method, you should practice your technique to ensure you uncover gold! You can mix fine pieces of copper wire into some sediment and then use a panning kit to extract the copper wire. Since copper has an even higher density than gold, this is excellent practice for finding gold! 

Follow The Stream To Find Gold 

While it’s possible to prospect for gold in desert regions, the best places to start are near bodies of water. By following the stream, you’re sure to find some gold with your prospecting gear! However, gold isn’t easy to find, so you shouldn’t be afraid to get a bit dirty while wading through rivers and streams. 

You should pay close attention to the inner bends of rivers. When examining the shoreline, you might be able to spot gold in the heavy sediments. You should use your scoop to collect dirt near the shoreline to check with your gold pan. You can do this to determine whether there’s gold in the soil. 

Add A Metal Detector To Your Prospecting Gear

You should purchase a metal detector if you plan to prospect for gold in desert regions like Nevada. Using a metal detector will allow you to avoid areas without metal. Most metal detectors are capable of detecting gold. However, metal detectors that use higher frequencies will be better able to find gold. 

You should also use headphones with your metal detector. Without headphones, sounds will be drowned out due to background noise. Using headphones will allow you to head minor variations in tone, which can help you find gold deposits. 

Be Gentle When Prospecting For Gold

Many beginner prospectors are too aggressive when searching for new gold deposits. If you’re too aggressive with your tools, you can negatively impact the gold’s quality. You can even lose valuable amounts of gold dust by carelessly using your equipment. 

For instance, harshly sifting sediments with a gold pan can damage any gold you find. You should be using fluid motions when panning for gold. After you’ve extracted gold with prospecting methods, you should be careful when cleaning any nuggets. Ultimately, patience is critical for successful gold prospecting. 


Traditional methods of prospecting that have been used since ancient times include gold panning and dry washing. Gold panning remains a popular recreational hobby and a low-cost form of mining. However, modern prospecting methods have been developed for the large-scale extraction of gold. 

Check out the best gold pans to start gold prospecting

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Article by

Chad Eicher

Detectorist Chad is passionate about metal detecting since he got his first metal detector as a gift when he was 12 years old. He created Metal Pursuits to share his knowledge and create the ultimate metal detecting resource on the web.

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