Wild West - Coming Soon
Heroes & Villains - Coming Soon

Send this article
to a friend!


How To Pan For Gold

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

Prospecting to me is one of life's great lessons in patience. If all you have is a weekend to prospect then you must have even more patience. First you'll spend hours using topographical maps searching for a reachable gold bearing area. Maybe you can get lucky and visit a prospecting supply store in your area and they will point you in the right direction. The United States has many gold bearing areas from the west to the east coasts many of which are open to public use or are available to clubs for a small membership fee.

Once you have been sent into a gold bearing area where do you start to look? Hopefully you have read some books about what to look for but if not, the most fun and relaxing place will be down by the river. Most gold will start out in a lode and through erosion work its way down the sides of the mountain to benches and eventually to the rivers. Look to see if there are other people prospecting the area. You'll be surprised how friendly prospectors can be. When I work the waters around the San Gabriel River in Southern California I always take the time to help a beginner to learn.

The fun of prospecting is finding the strongest source of gold in an area by taking samples and then panning them out. Most of all of the large strikes in this country were made by prospectors who tested and sampled until they hit a good spot. Usually they would sell their claim, get a pile of money for it, and then go to town and blow it all on booze and women. When the money was all gone they would find someone to grubstake them and head out to find more gold. Many prospectors simply love to roam the desert or mountains on their quest for the elusive gold that man has so loved since the dawn of time.

When you're ready to pan for gold I suggest finding first a shady spot with running water deep enough to fit your pan in the water and still have room to submerge it a bit. Get comfortable with a large rock. You need very little in the way of equipment. A pan, a shovel, a classifier, and tweezers will do. You can pan for gold with these items more or less as your pack will allow. Actually all you need is a pan, but the other items will make life more simple and they don't weigh that much.

Click To Enlarge
Classify your material to remove the larger rocks and twigs. Be sure to check for nuggets before you discard.

Once you've found some ground or gravel's you would like to try, settle in by the river and put the classifier into your gold pan. The classifier will keep the larger rocks, twigs, and roots from getting into the gold pan. Then take your shovel or sampling bag and dump the contents into the classifier and gold pan.

Now take the pan and submerge it into the water completely covering the pan and its contents. Vigorously shake the pan. Shake it from side to side. This action will force the smaller and finer material to settle through the classifier into the bottom of the pan.

Remove the classifier from the pan and before discarding the contents insect the remains for large nuggets of clumps of clay that should be broken up.

Click To Enlarge
After stratifying the material it is washed. Always keep the contents in a liquid state and in motion.

Keeping the gold pan completely under water reach your hands into the material and mix it into a freely moving mass with no clumps. Shake the pan back and forth and from side to side. This is called stratification. This process moves the heavier minerals to the bottom of the pan and causes the lighter materials to come to the top. Gold and black sands will settle to the bottom of the pan and be known as "heavies." After stratifying the material you can rake or flick off the larger pebbles.

The next step is known as washing. While keeping the pan mostly submerged, tip the pan downwards and start a circular clockwise or counter clockwise movement. It is important that the contents of the pan are always kept in a liquid state and in motion. This action will cause the lighter materials known as overburden to wash off the end of the tilted pan.

Click To Enlarge
In the cleaning phase the lighter material will be washed off leaving the "heavies"

Now we go to the cleaning phase. Instead of the circular motion you will use a dipping movement. First resettle or stratify the material to get the "heavies" back down to the bottom of the pan. Then tip the pan into the water with a forward and backward motion rising the pan as it comes out of the water. The lighter "blonde" material will slowly be washed off. Continue this motion being careful not to wash off the black sands. You should stratify the material quite often.

Once you have the material cleaned all that should remain are the black sands and hopefully some gold. Our next step is called inspection. First put a small amount of clear water into the gold pan. Tap the side of the pan while at a tilt to resettle the gold along the edge where the sides meet the bottom. Hold the pan almost level out of the water and gently swirl the water in the pan in a circular motion fanning the material around the bottom of the pan. If done properly you should see your gold "colors" around the rim of the pan.

You can now remove your finds with tweezers, match, or for really fine pieces I recommend a watercolor paintbrush. Many people use a snifter bottle.

The entire panning process may take 3 to 10 minutes depending on the material. Most important to me is stratifying the material constantly so that gold is not carelessly lost over the edge. Beginners and even experts often use a backup pan under the discards just in case something goes over.

Click To Enlarge
A profitable day prospecting!

There are many different styles of gold panning and as you begin to understand the principals of each step you will probably develop your own style.

When mining gold many different methods are used. One method is dry washing by which gold and other minerals are extracted from dry sand and gravel's by means of a machine that uses air or vibration as a separating device. Another method is known as dredging. In dredging, gravel's and gold bearing materials are excavated and elevated from the river bottom by means of a suction pump to a separating device usually mounted on floating pontoons. One of the most affordable ways to move a lot of material and get more gold is the sluice box. A sluice box is a long wooden or metal trough like box that has riffles in it through which gold bearing materials are run with a stream of water, all of which separates the "heavies" for you in bigger quantities. Some miners do what is called sniping. Using crevice tools they pry into the cracks and seams of rocks along the river and pull out material wedged in between.

Whether it's large scale mining with a bucket line dredge, or the old timers that used hydraulic mining to get to the gravel's, in the end they all sat down and had the pleasure of panning for gold to get the end result.


1. U.S. Department of the Interior Technical Bulletin 4. PLACER EXAMINATION.
2. Joseph F. Petralia, Gold! Gold!, Sierra Trading Post, 1980.
3. Personal experiences of the author.

Home Search - Coming Soon Search - Coming Soon Search - Coming Soon