Published on February 28, 2024. Updated on March 10, 2024

gold prospecting 101

Some of us have gold fever. Yes, it's a thing! 

I know because I have it too.

There is something exciting and magical about finding gold in the wild, it’s similar to the feeling of finding money on the ground, winning a lottery ticket, or even finding lost treasure.

If you have gold fever (like me), at some point you will need to scratch that itch. But before you go running to the nearest river with your gold pan, you need to understand the gold.

You need to have decent knowledge to know the different types of gold deposits, how gold accumulates, and what tools you need to have to recover that gold.

I will also say that a half-day outing will result in some gold but probably not a whole lot. You need to choose a place, study the map, and work that place frequently.

In this guide, I go over all the tactics you will need to learn to find gold in the wild.
Let’s get started!

The Different Types Of Gold Deposits

In order to find the gold, we must understand how gold is deposited in the wild. If we do not have this simple understanding, then we will look in all the wrong places which many do.

Lode Gold Deposits

a lode is a deposit of metal (in our case, gold) that is embedded in a fissure, or crack, of a rock. This creates a vein of gold within layers of rock. You will find gold veins encased by quartz.

rich gold vein found in Alaska in quartz host rock

Could you imagine finding this gold vein?? What an amazing discovery!

Hydrothermal quartz gold vein 

A quartz gold vein is created by a hot aqueous solution depositing liquified quartz and gold into rock fissures and cracks. The cracks in the rocks create a vacuum in which the space becomes filled by the laws of nature.

Veins can appear in different shapes, colors, and sizes. They can be a cloudy white color, or have staining, which makes them harder to see. They can be skinny and they can be huge. The host rock can vary as well, from sandstone to schist.

quartz vein in phylite where gold can be formed

Quartz vein in phyliite

quartz vein in sandstone with gold deposit

Quartz vein in Sandstone

quartz vein stained with rust as an indicator for gold deposit

Quartz vein stained with rust

Gold can be found within quartz veins as tiny particles, blobs, gold leafing, and even huge chunks, which would be known as a motherlode.

lustrous gold in quartz host rock

If you do find a beautiful specimen of gold in quartz, do not try to remove the gold. This is because there can be additional intrinsic value added to the piece.

Placer Gold Deposits

Placer gold is essentially gold found in a secondary deposit, which has been corroded away from the primary lode. Placer gold is then carried away by rain, snowmelt, and rivers, streams, and creeks running through a lode deposit. The nuggets and flakes of the gold are carried downstream from its originating source, just waiting to be discovered.

gold nuggets deposited by placer movement

The great thing about placer gold is that every year more and more gold gets swept away by moving water, making it a renewable resource.

Now, I will say that the gold rush miners of years past got the low hanging fruit. Imagine all the gold deposited in the rivers and streams over hundreds of thousands (of millions!) of years just plum for the pioneers’ taking! However, a good fifty to one hundred years have gone by since the major gold rushes allowing for some gold to be redeposited.

We also have more advanced gold finding tools at our disposal. These guys had pans, pickaxes, and a whole lot of gumption. We have a huge advantage of finding gold that they missed with modern-day advances in tools and devices.

Alluvial gold 

alluvial is a term for soils, sands, clays, and gravels that are deposited by water. Alluvial gold is the gold dust, flakes, and nuggets found within those materials. Essentially it is the third step in the gold depositing process: step one is the lode, step two is the placer gold breaking away from the lode, step three is alluvial deposits in water sources.

Alluvial materials can be scooped and panned for gold, which is one of the most primitive yet accessible ways to find gold.

alluvial gold found by panning for gold

Alluvial gold builds up when the water slows and the gold sinks to form a deposit. This is a great way for hobbyist prospectors to find gold in rivers, streams, and creeks.

Stockwork Vein Deposit

this is a type of deposit that occurs by filling random veinlets within the fracture of a rock. It can include individual or multiple vein systems that are highly variable and irregularly shaped.

stockwork gold vein deposit

Gold Bearing Breccia Pipe 

A breccia pipe is also known as a chimney; it is a cylindrical shaped mass of rock. The rock pieces are irregular and are usually silicified.

Breccia pipe lamprophyre deposit possibly containing gold ore

Gold can be found in this silicified material.

Sedimentary Exhalative Deposits

These deposits, also known as Sedex deposits, are ore deposits that have been created by hydrothermal fluids released into a body of water, typically the ocean.

Gold Skarn Deposits

a skarn is a coarse metamorphic rock that is created by the process called metasomatism. Metasomatism is a hydrothermal process that chemically alters the rock. The rock becomes replaced by another rock. Typically a skarn is made up of silicates which can bear a good amount of gold ore.

gold skarn deposit

In this guide, I will be focusing on placer gold, as that is the most attainable deposit of gold that hobbyist prospectors can find.

Minerals Commonly Associated With Gold

Gold can be hard to find, but gold has buddies that it likes to hang out with indicating where gold could be hiding.

Pyrite - also known as Fool’s Gold, Pyrite is an indicator that gold is hanging out nearby. Note that Pyrite can be mistaken for gold, but is light and flakes will actually float instead of sinking like gold.

Pyrite is commonly associated with gold deposits

Black sands - black sands are a magnetic mixture of fine sands made from iron and magnetite that are heavy and collects in gold pans along with gold.

Black sands in gold pan, commonly associated with gold deposits

Iron - Iron can be a great indicator of gold as iron forms around gold veins and breaks off before the veins corrode. Iron appears as reddish and green rocks in the wild.

Iron is commonly associated with gold deposits

Garnet - red Garnet sands and pebbles can be found side-by-side with gold and would annoy the old-timer miners because the red pebbles would clog their sluice boxes. Keep any big ones you find as these have gemstone value!

garnet pebbles found in a gold pan can be a good indicator of gold

Zircon - another gemstone, Zircon likes to appear with placer gold. Zircon is a transparent gemstone that can be colorless, blue, tan, yellow, green, and deep red like garnet. However, in their natural form, they appear to just be rocks. Keep an eye out for these as they cut into beautiful gemstones!

zircon gemstone often appears with placer gold deposits

How To Find Placer Gold

Before you jump off into the nearest river and start panning, it is important to know how to locate the highest probable gold-bearing target. It's easy to get excited to go gold prospecting and not take the proper planning to give yourself the highest potential to find gold (I have done this plenty of times!).

Homework: Locating Active Claims and Public Lands

Before heading out, you need to figure out if your desired location is on public land, if there is a claim on that land, and if there are prospecting restrictions.

An easy way to find out if the land is public is to do a search on Google Maps. If the land is green, then its public. However, if it is a National Park, these are closed off to prospecting.

locating gold prospecting locations on a map

You will need to check with your local forestry service for the restrictions. Usually, the restriction is against using mechanical equipment. Panning and metal detecting is typically allowed.

Finding claims used to be a challenge, but a most excellent website called has the most up-to-date claim information on a handy map (although the map lags and is annoying to use). The information on is usually even more up to date than your local claim office!

Once you have verified you are on public land and are not claim jumping, then its time to get researching.

Step One: Locate the Lode Gold Deposit

The first thing we need to do is locate the source of the gold, the motherlode. We know that all gold originates from a lode, so we need to do the research and pinpoint where the lode is located.

gold motherlode location on a map

Mark your motherlode location on your map

Now, gold can be found anywhere as proven in several youtube videos where prospectors are finding gold in states that are not known for deposits. The problem is that you will have to work pretty hard to not find much gold. If you have gold fever, you will either be living in a gold-rich state or are willing to travel to a gold-rich state to find the nuggets!

After you have identified which state you will be prospecting, find yourself a reliable gold map for that state. I have had much success with finding gold maps through USGS in pdf format. There are also plenty of gold books that will point you in the right direction.

Step Two: Locate water sources

Now that you have located the lode, look at the map (Google Maps is good, Google Earth is more detailed) and inspect water sources, namely rivers, streams, and creeks, that are flowing or have flowed through the lode. These could be ancient dried up water sources (known as tertiary riverbeds) or currently flowing water sources.

water sources running through the lode gold deposit

Step Three: How to find gold in creeks, streams, and rivers

When gold flows down a water source, it will settle in various places along the waterway. Gold is heavy and it resists movement so you want to find places where the gold could easily collect. These spots could be:

Waterfall - the water from a waterfall carves a gouge into the bedrock where gold will happily settle and never move. These deposits are called “glory holes” due to the potentially high concentration of gold. Watch out if you go for this gold - you will get wet!

Location of potential gold deposit in a waterfall glory hole

Where two rivers meet - when to moving bodies of water meet, it creates a vortex where the gold will drop out of the flow onto a calm part of the riverbed and can be an excellent gold find.

two rivers meeting can be a place for gold deposits

Obstructions such as boulders and timber - obstructions create eddies behind the object moving water where gold can accumulate. The gold accumulation will be on the backside of the obstruction.

boulders in a stream can have a buildup of gold

Slow-moving inner bends - the inner bends of a river move slowly and gold can accumulate in great amounts after storms or heavy snowmelt. These gravels can be panned for gold!

slow moving inner bends of a river can have gold deposits

Cracks and crevices in the bedrock - if you find exposed bedrock in or near the riverbed, immediately stop what you're doing and prospect it! Gold loves to settle on bedrock, and gouges, cracks, and crevices can hold a bunch of hidden gold that the old day miners couldn’t get to. Give it a shot!

crevices in bedrock can have gold nuggets

High benches - as the river runs through time, it eventually carves itself lower and lower into the rock. This forms high and low benches that could have gold. These benches may not be so easy to get to, so tread carefully!

high bench and low bench in riverbed can have gold

How To Find Ancient Tertiary Riverbeds

Ancient riverbeds are quite easy to identify and were not prospected by the original gold rush pioneers, so you have a good chance of finding gold in these locations.

ancient tertiary riverbed

Tertiary riverbeds are easy to spot on Google Maps and Earth!

The topography around lodes are constantly changing and rivers, streams, and creeks get cut off and rerouted many times over hundreds of thousands of years. This leaves ancient riverbeds high and dry - and usually never prospected before.

Smooth rock and gravels - The easiest indicator of an ancient tertiary riverbed is smooth rocks. Water smooths rocks, simple as that. These smooth rocks will appear as strips and stand out from the surroundings.

smooth river rock can indicate gold deposit

Greenery and trees - Another indicator of an ancient riverbed are trees growing atop gravels that are greener than other trees around it in the fall. Also, look for green growth in pockets.

greenery and trees can indicate ancient riverbed

Smoothed bedrock and boulders - look for exposed bedrock and boulders that have clearly been smoothed by water.

bedrock and boulders indicate ancient riverbed

V notches in the mountains - there is a good chance that those v notches in the mountains were carved out by water.

notch in mountain can have gold buildup

Once you have located the area that you want to prospect, its time to figure out which techniques and tools you will use to recover the gold.

Gold Prospecting Equipment And Techniques

We have an advantage with modern-day tools to recover gold that has been overlooked by our forefather-prospectors. It is amazing how much gold they had found in their time with their limited equipment, but we can now expand and find gold in places that they overlooked and didn’t even realize existed.

Technique #1 - Digital Mapping

This is a MASSIVE advantage we have over our forefathers - Google Maps and Google Earth. Before we even step foot into prospecting for gold, we can locate and pinpoint lode locations on a map and inspect all the geology around it. We can easily look up public lands and claims so we can avoid trespassing and claim jumping all from the comfort of our computer screen.

This is such an amazing advantage that we should use, but so many people jump the gun and head straight to the water. Take the time and examine your locales on map software, pinpoint areas of interest, and then put the physical effort in.

Many people do not know that you can actually make your own private custom map in Google maps, drop all your pins, and even sync the map into Google Earth. I have one map with a ton of pinpoints of all the places I plan to explore. I can also save parts of the map offline so if I lose service I can still use the map.

To make your own custom Google Map:

1. Visit
2. Click the menu in the left-hand button
3. Select My Places
4. Click on the maps tab and select Create a Map

create custom google map for finding gold

You can drop pins by selecting the pin icon then clicking on the map. You will have access to the coordinates of your pin, you can change the color and icon of the pin, and you can add a title and notes about the pin. So cool!

Technique #2 - Gold Metal Detecting

Metal detecting for gold nuggets has catapulted hobbyist prospecting into the opportunity to find big gold!

Metal detecting works well for finding gold on dry land, such as scoping out ancient tertiary riverbeds, detecting old spoil piles from past mining operations, and even metal detecting on gravel beds by rivers.

You can either get a basic metal detector or a gold metal detector.

Pulse Induction Metal Detector vs VLF

Pulse induction metal detector (PI detector) uses short and powerful pulses of energy through one or more coils. This pulse creates a magnetic field that reverses when the pulse ends, creating a flip in polarity and makes an electrical spike. This, in turn, creates an opposite magnetic field when hovered over a metallic object.

pulse induction gold metal detector

With this new technology, the PI detector has high functionality in mineralized soil. Since gold is usually found in mineralized soil, it’s hard for standard detectors to discern the gold from the minerals around it. PI detectors have great depth and detect nuggets at two feet or more! These detectors are more expensive than their counterpart.

A Very Low Frequency detector (VLF detector) works by transmitting energy between a transmitter and a receiver coil which generates an electromagnetic field. This field emits into the ground and will bounce off a metal object. VLF detectors are designed to find gold and have a higher frequency which allows for finding small gold nuggets.

VLF metal detector

Since small nuggets are more plentiful in nature, many gold prospectors opt for the VLF. VLF detectors use a smaller search coil for increased sensitivity but a smaller coil means less ground coverage.

Technique #3 - Crevicing For Gold

Using a range of tools with various ends, you can work bedrock crevices by digging out all the material in the cracks and panning the contents.

There are several tools you can use from homemade to manufactured tools. It’s important to have a wide variety of tools from a crowbar to dentist like cleaning tools.

crevicing gold kit

The more material you can get out, the higher the chances of getting the gold. Paintbrushes also work really well to sweep out the material. And don’t forget to have a canister to collect what you crevice!

Here's a good video of how to crevice for gold:

Technique #4 - Using A Gold Vacuum

Vacuuming also works really well to suck gold heavy materials out of crevices and cracks. This works very well in conjunction with crevicing since it is hard to get all the materials with tools alone.

Vac pac gold vacuums are an excellent product that is premade and ready to go. They are pretty expensive, however!

vac pac gold vacuum

Technique #5 - Using A Hand Suction Gold Dredge

The gold siphon works to suck up heavies in crevices and cracks in the water. Oh, how the old-timer miners would have loved to have this tool!

You stick the tip of the dredge into the underwater crevice, suck up the materials, and the squish out the materials into a gold pan. I think this is a must-have tool for prospectors everywhere!

hand suction gold dredge

Technique #6 - Panning For Gold

I saved gold panning for last because it is the most historic and well-known technique but is not efficient for finding large amounts of gold. Ever gold panned for hours? You will end up with a sore back, I can guarantee that!

Lots of gold panning = sore back!

Rather, gold panning works well in conjunction with other techniques. You use a gold pan to isolate your gold from the materials you suck up with a gold siphon. You use a gold pan to retrieve gold from your gold vac and your crevicing material.

You usually need water to gold pan, but you can also dry pan materials. It is not a beginner’s technique but is very handy for desert gold prospecting situations.

panning for gold leads to a sore back

A gold panner tries his luck on Minnie Creek in the Brooks Range on the Dalton Highway, Alaska.

No matter what, you will need to develop your gold panning skills. 


THE GOLD IS OUT THERE. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

Using modern mapping methods and gold extraction techniques open our doors to a whole world of gold. I like to call it, gold rush 2.0!

The only way to get it is to get off your duff and find it. So what are you waiting for!

I hope you have enjoyed my article on how to find gold. If you found this information helpful, have questions, or comments, please feel free to leave your thoughts below.

Regina Cal is a solo homesteader on 30 acres in Southern Arizona. She specializes in off grid water system design, homestead gardening, minimalism, and self-sufficiency.

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