Eureka! Color! Gold! These are the words that stir the minds and warm the hearts of those who have seen placer gold for the first time in the wild.

The renewed interest in gold has generated a new gold rush, and revealed the ancient affinity people have for gold. I’ve learned that you don’t have to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into making an annual income as a gold miner and prospector.

Many successful one-man, husband-and-wife, and even family operations have not only started with, but carried on with, a very small investment. The key is getting the proper research done, collecting or building the right gear and becoming a student of geology very quickly. If you don’t know where gold is likely to be, you’ll be like a parched traveler digging a waterhole in desert sand.

From my own experiences (yes, I can actually say that I’ve had 100-percent success in finding gold wherever I go) I’ve learned that there is gold just about everywhere. The key is finding gold in enough concentrations to make it worth your while. Here’s how to start.

Gold Prospecting
“Just about every prospector has a different rule for concentrations. I want to find at least 10 to 20 colors in my pan sample.”

Golden Clues

Mention that you’re a gold miner or gold prospector and people immediately ask where they can find gold, too.  Make it easy on yourself: Go where gold has already been discovered. Placer gold is replenished in streambeds during every flood season.

Often there are gossans and/or white quartz that’s been streaked and tainted by rusted iron particles in the area where that gold has been found. Gossan is a rock formation that is tinted a rust-red color by all the iron mineralization that has permeated throughout the rock. Iron and gold often go hand in hand. Iron is in the black sand that we take as a good indicator of gold. If there’s black sand in your pan, it’s likely that gold will be under it.

Let Trout Help Out

So, you’ve found a likely area to get gold. Grab your pan and classifier and take a gander at the flood bench that might be just above stream. This is an area where the stream was hundreds of years ago. Just as that stream is dumping gold into the present streambed, its ancestor dumped gold into the bench above and to the side of the present waterway.

You can either work the present waterway or you can explore the bench. Just as I did when trout fishing as a teen, I look for areas that trout would position themselves behind, like rocks and other obstructions to current. Gold is heavy and falls from the current at the earliest opportunity, just like a salmon egg or fly that swirls down behind a large rock or log.

Dig a sample from behind the rock, either in the water, where you find rocks polished round by ancient rushing on the bench, or just outside of the water such as on a sand bar or bank. The larger nuggets, because they are larger and heavier, are deposited by the current in front of the obstruction and to the side of the rock. The fines and flakes continue to  drop behind the rock. This occurs in a type of fanning action, creating a pay streak (a zone that is profitable enough to mine).

Start by scraping away the large baseball- and grape-sized gravel with your shovel. If you’re one of the really lucky ones, you’ll see a nugget that large just sitting there and won’t have to worry about losing it. Get down to the smaller gravel. Where it is smaller than a dime in diameter, I start digging.

With that smaller material you fill a 14-inch gold pan, with a classifier above it. I like the quarter-inch size that comes with most gold panning kits. Pan it out. If you like what you see, move to another sample area not more than 10 feet away. What you’re doing is outlining the area you think the pay streak covers. Drive a construction wire stake into the ground where your sample came up with a good number of colors: flakes, nuggets, pickers, fines. Once you outline an area you think holds the largest concentration of gold, you’re now ready to mine actively with a sluice.

Modern Gold Rush
The renewed interest in gold has generated a new gold rush, and revealed the ancient affinity people have for gold.

When To Mine

For many it’s hard to tell when to stop prospecting and just buckle down and mine: panning, sluicing, dredging, or even bringing in the big machinery. First, I figure out how much it will cost for me to travel repeatedly to, stay in, and mine the area. I then compare that to the projected take for a season, knowing that pay streaks sampled during prospecting can have major concentrations but may quickly thin out to nothing within only a few yards.

Since I’m looking to make a profit, and I might even bring someone in with major machinery to move many square yards of ground in a day, I’m looking for an area that has strong indications of high concentrations spread over a large area.

Just about every prospector has a different rule for concentrations. I want to find at least 10 to 20 colors in my pan sample. As one person with only a pan, and maybe a sluice, the area that would make me happy is to sample an area of 15 to 20 square yards, finding those 10 to 20 colors in each pan-full. I’ll do seven to 10 samplings.

If I’m looking to mine the area with something bigger than a sluice, dredge or power sluice, or high banker, such as an excavator and bulldozer, I like to see those 10 to 20 colors sampled in each panning from an area that covers 50 to 60 yards.

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Stake Your Claim

For many the biggest dilemmas are how to deal with the legal aspects of prospecting and mining: Getting shot at or sued for claim jumping, or getting slammed with a number of fines as the result of breaching land use or environmental agency regulations. This is easily avoided by first checking with the state or federal government that has jurisdiction over the area you want to explore. Many agencies, such as the Forest Service, fish and game and state departments of natural resources, now offer the process of staking a claim, paying and collecting fees to be done over the internet. Save yourself from a major source of grief by doing the research with them and following the rules.

Black Sand and Gold
If there’s black sand in your pan, it’s likely that gold will be under it.

Tools Of The Trade

Before you start prospecting, you need to acquire the basic tools and the know-how to use them. Developing good techniques takes time, but it’s part of the adventure.

PANNING: Without doubt the gold prospector’s gold pan is one of the more important pieces of equipment a prospector needs in his kit. It’s essential for a variety of duties: sampling an area, processing concentrates out of a sluice and even the day-to-day extraction of gold. In the old days of mining, the steel pan was even used for cooking.

Cooking with your metal pan, though, is not recommended. If you contaminate your mining equipment with oil, it’s likely you’ll lose gold with fines riding the flotation of the oil right out of your pan, as it does so well out of sluices that haven’t been properly washed.

Not enough can be said about becoming good at using a gold pan. No matter what your personal style or form is, and there are as many as there are sizes and shapes of people. It’s the start of every sampling of an area, and often the end of many sluice cleanups. Master the rudimentary techniques of getting the large gravel out, working your way down to blondes, then black sand, and finally to the colors for easy removal with tweezers and a sucker bottle.

PORTABLE SLUICE: There are many available. One I’ve enjoyed using is a mini-sluice that Todd Osborn over at Bazooka Gold Trap designed and fabricates. It’s fast, simple and compact. I’ve also made my own out of 4-inch corrugated sewer pipe that rolls up and fits in a small daypack.

BACKPACK: Though designed for getting dropped into some very dangerous places, the Blackhawk Velocity X3 Jump Pack and the Titan Hydration Pack serve amazingly well on prospecting trips. You can carry pretty much everything you need inside in comfort and use the MOLLE system to attach anything else externally.

NAVIGATION GOODS: A professional goes forth prepared. That means a good topographical map, camera, GPS and a notebook to record coordinates. If you are looking to stake a claim, you’ll need those coordinates to lay out the area you’ll be mining to file your claim. [Editor’s note: is an excellent source for buying heavy-duty maps (and digital ones) to bring along on your next outdoor adventure.]

High Concentration gold areas
When prospecting for gold, the author is looking for an area that has strong indications of high concentrations spread over a large area.

Of late, I’ve found myself leaving the more traditional GPS and SLR camera at home, and simply bringing a portable solar charger for my Apple iPhone, and using the Spyglass application from Happy Magenta. Spyglass is such a multi-faceted piece of software. I’ve used it to teach range estimation and elevations to my long-range tactical shooting students, measure trees to cut for my handcrafted log home building, and most especially for navigating and recording my gold prospecting sites. There’s also an added bonus of being able to take photos with your iPhone, which makes the use of an iPhone for much of your field research collection a no-brainer. Word of caution: If you plan to share your photos with friend via the internet and Facebook, make sure that it’s sanitized for EXIF data, unless you want everyone who views your photos to be able to see exactly where it was taken.

Remember, this is only an introductory article on items that could easily fill chapters in a book, much less a feature article on the subject, but with these bits of information, you’ll be able to grab a pick, pan and shovel and start looking for your own piece of the mother lode. 

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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