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Gold Panning: How-To Have a Great Adventure

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 3 5


By: J. Marlando

People get bored with the routines of their lives—I often do! There’s a great alternative however and I’m going to tell you about it—it’s the fun and the fascination, the buildups and letdown and the successes and failures of gold panning.


Thar really is gold in them thar hills and in them thar streams of America’s “out west.” Most recently I was in Wyoming and the streams and woods there are not only beautiful but have that special enticement that has been giving the prospector gold fever for centuries. As for you—you can go out today and hit it rich or…you can go out for the rest of your life and never gain more than fool’s gold and callouses. I used to do a lot of prospecting in Colorado but the best I did was to bring back some Amazon stoneto sell for a few bucks.

Anyway, hunting gold panning or picking gets you outdoors, fills your head with dreams and can even be romanticfor a couple who can no longer stay awake watching television night after night. Depending how adventurous you are you can drive up into the mountains and hike a few miles to the more remote places for panning rivers and streams. 



There are options: You can backpack or even take your pet donkeyalong if you have one or travel with a pack horse.


These days, off-road vehicles can also be used. It's all up to you!


So what do you need to take with you on your exploration? Let’s start out with a list of the  basic stuff  you'll need even for overnight camping:

Matches in a waterproof case

Pans/kettles for cooking

Tent or sleeping bags will do for an overnighter (Cots for longer stays)

First aid and snake bite kit



Small crow bar


Prospector’s pick



Magnifying glass

Butter knife

Lamps and lamp fuel

Waterproof flashlight

Hunting knife and pocket knife

 Spoons and forks (plastic okay)

Can goods—pork and beans, sardines, whatever you like

Drinking water or boil the stream water before drinking

Coffee pot

Coffee and/or tea

Cups (paper okay)

Paper plates

Toilet paper

Blankets depending on weather

Anything else you think that you’ll need…just don’t forget your gold pan.

There are some pretty well known places where people try their luck at panning: The Feather Riverwas a hot spot for prospectors during the 1800s, there’s the Lower Colorado River and the AmericanI suspect these rivers are panned out but you never know when or where a “windfall” will strike. And anyway, there’s always a wealth of scenery and sites to enjoy. Indeed, while up north drop by the old mining town of Rough and Ready—if you like history you’ll love the antiquity of this place. (Find map on Google).

Anyway, if you are questioning a couple of items on the above list, I’ll explain the ones I think might be confusing below:

The tweezers are used to pick out gold flakes you find in your pan so you can put them into a jar or some other container.

While you are walking along the river bank keep your eyes open for rocks with winter cracks in them—pry open the cracks with the crowbar and use the whiskbroom to brush out the dust. The crowbar is used for rocks too big for the prospectors pick to open.

How does gold get into rivers and streams?

Gold in rivers and streams are usually from parent veins, broken off by wind, winter ice and all other kinds of forces of nature; a plant growing in the side of a mountain can break gold from the vein with the strength of its roots.  Once on the ground the rain carries it to the river. Always pan or explore the crevasse of sunken rocks and tree limbs as bigger chucks of gold can get trapped in those cracks and crevasse never sinking into the sand below. Oh yes, and always pan around whirlpools where heavier pieces of gold may have been cast aside by the inertia of the spin. 

Always pan black sand!

As for the pan itself, I use a plastic one

you can buy them at most sporting goods stores. You can dip the pan into softer sand or shovel it up and dump it in your pan. Once your pan is around 3/4th full, immerge it into the stream and break apart the dirt and clay with your fingers. Then rock the pan in a circular motion so the worthless sand and gravel slushes over the side and the heavier gold begins sinking to the bottom. The magnifying class mentioned in the list is so you can see tiny flakes that you would otherwise miss.

Leaving the river for a moment, you might also want to dry pan. You dry pan much the same way you wet pan except you are typically chipping off rock with your prospectors pick and breaking it up before trying to shake the gold to the bottom. The desert lands are best for this kind of prospecting but again, you never know. You could get the urge to chip off a few pieces of a rocky ledge or split some rocks at random on your way to Granny’s house and strike it rich. Gold, as the saying goes, is where you find it.


Years ago when I prospected in Colorado, my home state I was forever getting rich on fool’s gold. Fool’s gold is beautiful when the sun beats down on it and it looks exactly as you “think” gold should look but it’s merely iron pyrite. If you’re not sure, however, a simple test is to carry it into the shade.  Iron pyrite will lose its luster but gold will maintain its sheen. And this brings me to why I added a butter knife to the list of stuff to have with you. If you pop open a rock or dig into the side of a rocky ledge and see a patch of what you hope is gold. Take out your butter knife and cut into it. If its gold you will have sliced into it but if its fool’s gold you will have only caused some flaking and splintering.

If you are still uncertain, take the stone with you and give it to a geologist—he’ll give you the good or bad news in an instant.

Returning to the river, I will talk about dredging. Should you become a real prospecting enthusiast you will probably want to start dredging the river’s gold. You can buy a truly marvelous portable backpack dredge for under a thousand dollars that can process as much gravel as a much larger and more costly dredge.


What a dredge doesin essence is pump river material to the surface through a suction hose into a sluice box that is capable of recovering even the smallest particles of gold. There are three kinds of dredges—the surface dredge as talked about in the above, the submersible dredging tube and the underwater submersible hedge. Most amateur prospectors like me prefer the surface dredge.

So there you have sort of an overview of prospecting for gold—It happens in Colorado to California, Arizona to Alaska, New Mexico to New Hampshire, Washington to Wyoming and Oregon to Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas and in Germany, Austria and the U.K.—there is simply gold in all them thar hills waiting to be found.


If you never find it, you can bet you’ve stacked up a real payload of great memories.

A Great Prep Book

A must have if your serious about prospecting



Oct 6, 2012 12:50am
Thumbs up!
A Gold Panning vacation would be the ultimate adventure holiday.
Nov 15, 2012 6:04am
Having once been an amateur prospector, I found your article enjoyable. Thank you.
Nov 15, 2012 7:37am
I have met hobbyists who do this, and it does seem to get in their blood. Great primer on panning for gold. Thumb's up from me (and congrats on the feature -- this is a good one).
Nov 15, 2012 6:28pm
Loved the article. I think gem stone hunting would be lots of fun as well.
Nov 17, 2012 9:14am
Such an interesting article!
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