wikiHow to Prospect for Gold

Four Methods:Preparing for a Prospecting VentureLearn to Pan for GoldPan for Gold from Placer DepositsObtain Lode Gold from Solid Rock

Many people dream of going into the mountains and streams and finding an unclaimed deposit of gold. While most land has been heavily prospected, particularly in the United States, you can still have an adventure by learning how to prospect for gold.

Method 1
Preparing for a Prospecting Venture

  1. 1
    Determine where prospecting is permitted. There are a number of rules about prospecting, so make sure you familiarize yourself with the regulations before starting.
    • Obtain permission from the landowner to prospect on privately owned land.
    • Avoid national parks, which are all closed to prospecting.
    • Consult the Forest Service and the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to see if certain parcels of land are open for prospecting. You will find public land records in the appropriate state BLM office.
  2. 2
    Study mining records and the geology of mining districts. Most gold will be found in areas that have already been prospected and within samples of 3 to 5 pounds of mineralized rock.
  3. 3
    Obtain sufficient capital. You’ll need funds to travel to the area in which you want to prospect as well as money to support yourself during your prospecting adventure.
  4. 4
    Train for physical hardship. Prospecting isn't for everyone, as you'll need to be fit enough to spend long hours traipsing through the backcountry. Things you might have to contend with:
    • Carrying a large backpack into the wilderness.
    • Walking or climbing for long distances.
    • Traveling at high altitudes on mountainous terrain.
  5. 5
    Obtain a high-quality vehicle that can handle many types of terrain.
  6. 6
    Use the appropriate equipment. You’ll need a variety of tools:
    • A small prospector’s pick
    • Extra clothing and boots
    • A bucket or wheelbarrow to transport materials to the washing site
    • A compass for establishing claim lines
    • Adequate maps
    • A magnifying lens for identifying minerals
    • Plastic bags to identify samples
    • Camping supplies including an axe, a flashlight, a knife and matches
    • A 2-quart or larger canteen and water purification tablets
    • A miner’s lamp or gasoline or propane lamps
    • A camping stove for cooking meals
    • 2 pounds of dehydrated or freeze-dried foods per person per day
    • Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat
    • First aid kits and snakebite kits
    • Lightweight sleeping bag

Method 2
Learn to Pan for Gold

  1. 1
    Purchase a gold pan. You can find these online or at a hardware or department store that specializes in mining equipment.
    • Look for a pan that is 2 to 3 inches (5.1 to 7.6 cm) deep, slopes at a 45-degree angle and is at least 15 inches (38.1 cm) in diameter.
  2. 2
    Travel to your desired prospecting location and set up camp. There are a number of places in the United States known for having a rich mineral supply.
  3. 3
    Fill your pan half to two-thirds full of soil, gravel, and small rocks from the stream channel.
  4. 4
    Put the pan under water. Break up the lumps of clay and discard any stones.
  5. 5
    Hold the pan level under water with your hands on either side of it. Rotate it halfway back and forth rapidly to wash out the clay and to concentrate the heavy material at the bottom of the pan.
  6. 6
    Tilt the pan forward, away from your body and down slightly, still holding it under water. Let the light gravel and sand dribble out of the front, and push the top material and large chunks of rock out with your thumbs.
  7. 7
    Repeat the previous steps until a layer of fine-grain dark material overlain by a small layer of light material remains at the bottom of the pan.
  8. 8
    Remove the pan from the stream. Rotate the pan in a circular motion separating the heavier material from the lighter material. Any gold should remain lagging behind the other material at the bottom of the pan.
  9. 9
    Drain out all water and let the black sand and gold dry.
    • Lift out black sand with a magnet.
    • Separate any remaining gold out using tweezers.

Method 3
Pan for Gold from Placer Deposits

  1. 1
    Obtain gold in California. Check streams draining the Mother Lode region, including the Feather, Mokelumne, American, Consumnes, Calaveras and Yuba Rivers, along with the Trinity River in Northern California.
  2. 2
    Pan for gold in Alaska.
    • Check the Yukon River basin that crosses central Alaska.
    • Dredge in the Fairbanks District and the Nome District in the south-central part of Seward Peninsula.
    • Check the drainage basin of the Copper River and the Kuskokwim River.
  3. 3
    Look for gold in Montana, particularly in the southwestern part of the state.
    • Look for gold at Alder Gulch near Virginia City in Madison County.
    • Check the Missouri River in the Helena mining district.
    • Prospect in the headwaters of the Clark Fork in the Columbia River near Butte.
  4. 4
    Obtain gold in Idaho.
    • Look in the Boise Basin, a few miles northeast of Boise in the west-central part of the state.
    • Check along the Salmon River and the Clearwater River and its tributaries at Elk City, Pierce and Orofino.
    • Look for fine deposits, or “flour gold,” near the Snake River.
  5. 5
    Pan for gold in South Dakota. Look in the Black Hills region, on French Creek near Custer and in the Deadwood area.
  6. 6
    Pan for gold in Washington, near the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries.
  7. 7
    Look for gold in Oregon.
    • Check the northeastern part of the state where the streams drain the Blue and Wallowa Mountains.
    • Look for gold in Sumpter, on the upper Powder River.
    • Check the Burnt River and its tributaries.
    • Look in the John Day River valley.
    • Check tributaries in southwestern Oregon along tributaries of the Rogue River and streams in the Klamath Mountains.
  8. 8
    Look for gold in the Southwest. Because of the lack of water supply, you may have to use expensive dry or semi-dry concentration methods for obtaining gold.
  9. 9
    Obtain gold in the Eastern states.
    • Be aware that most land is privately owned and that prospecting can only be done with prior permission.
    • Deposits will be low-grade, difficult to recognize and costly to explore and to sample.

Method 4
Obtain Lode Gold from Solid Rock

  1. 1
    Understand that the odds are against you. Areas that contain likely deposits of lode gold have been explored thoroughly. The inexperienced prospector with minimal capital has little chance of discovering a lode worth developing.
  2. 2
    Look in volcanic and sedimentary rocks.
    • Water enters the ground through cracks and is drawn into hotter regions that are heated by magma or molten rock.
    • The heated water dissolves many of the rocks around it.
    • When the magma reaches cooler and shallower rocks, the metals in the hot water show up as veins or as larger and flatter ore bodies.
  3. 3
    Look in granitic rocks. As magma moves up through the Earth’s crust, cooling and solidifying, the gold-bearing solutions from the magma are immediately precipitated in granitic rock.
  4. 4
    Look for gold in metamorphic rocks.
    • Rocks are forced under continents in mountain building and experience high pressures and temperatures.
    • Chemical reactions rearrange the rock’s mineral constituents.
    • Metamorphism causes precious metals to be expelled from the rocks and to move to the surface.


  • If you have no experience in the wilderness or have no experience panning for gold, then consider going on a group mining expedition before tackling the wilds on your own.
  • Enjoy the solitude while you are on a prospecting expedition. You can enjoy swimming in mountain lakes or fishing in addition to panning for gold.


  • Check state laws for information about prospecting in state parks.
  • Understand weather patterns in the mountains. You’ll need to make sure that you aren’t caught in a mountain storm and that you avoid lightning, which is more common at higher elevations.

Things You'll Need

  • Capital
  • Vehicle
  • Backpack
  • Prospector’s pick
  • Extra clothing
  • Bucket or wheelbarrow
  • Compass
  • Maps
  • Magnetic lens
  • Plastic bags
  • Axe
  • Flashlight
  • Knife
  • Matches
  • Canteen
  • Water purification tablets
  • Miner’s lamp
  • Camping stove
  • Food
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • First aid and snakebite kit
  • Lightweight sleeping bag

Article Info

Categories: Rock Gem Mineral and Fossil Collecting