Recreational panning for gold

Elvis Elvis

“To take a pan of gravel from a creek bed and to find gold, regardless of the amount, is to share the fever that lured men to the Klondike”

This article deals mainly with “Placer Gold” which is gold that has been eroded or washed away from its host rock. The term “placer” also refers to deposits of gold bearing gravels. This is the type of gold that is of most interest to recreational prospectors.

Some interesting facts about gold :
Gold is measured in Troy ounces. A troy ounce is about ten percent heavier than Avoirdupois (or a US) ounce.
Gold is very malleable and ductile.
Gold is very heavy. Having a specific gravity of over 19 makes it and platinum the champs in the precious element division. Lead weights in at only 11 specific gravity-wise.
Gold does not tarnish or oxidize and is resistant to most naturally occurring chemicals.
Pure 24 karat gold is rarely found in nature. It is usually alloyed with copper or other precious metals such as silver or platinum.

Some of these facts will come in very handy when you are attempting to determine if the shiny gold-colored stuff in the bottom of your gold pan is really gold. For example, if you find a gold colored pebble-size lump (nugget) in the bottom of your gold pan, and you remember that gold is malleable, put the material on a flat rock and hit it with your hammer (or geology pick). If it flattens out, it is likely gold. If it shatters into pieces, its likely pyrite or arsenopyrite which are forms of “fools gold”.

Recreational panning for gold
Specific gravity, the most important property of gold as far as panning is concerned, will be discussed later.

A few of the terms you will run across regarding gold prospecting :

Assay: to test or analyze for the quantity of gold in an ore or a mineral.

Auriferous: a term used to describe a gold-bearing substance. Auriferous gravels are those thought to be rich in gold. The chemical formula for gold is Au.

Bedrock: the rock type most common to an area which can either be exposed to view or covered with sediment.

Bench: a flat area above a stream.

Bench Deposit: mineral bearing sands or gravels in the bank of a river or stream which has been left high and dry due to the stream changing course or drying up. (sometimes referred to as “bench placers”)

Black Sand: usually made up of minerals containing iron (magnetite or hematite). Black sands are heavy and will settle to the bottom of your gold pan almost as fast as gold will. They are often an indicator that gold may be present in the area.

Color: (Colour): A term used to describe small specs or flakes of gold in sands or gravel. Often used in terms of panning: “Getting any color yet”? This question is rarely answered truthfully.

Concentrates: the materials remaining in the gold pan, sluice, rocker, or dredge, after washing. Concentrates usually consist of gold, black sands, silver, and other heavy metals.

Crevice: A crack or narrow opening in rock which tends to accumulate and trap heavier materials such as gold. Crevices can often hold good quantities of gold and are good targets for recreational prospectors.

Deposits: areas where gold and other minerals are found. There are two types of placer deposits: eluvial deposits which are located close to the source lode and, alluvial deposits which are found at larger distances from the original lode.

Dust: very fine gold specs. Also called “fines”.

Dry Placer: A deposit of gold found in dried up stream beds.

Fool’s Gold: pyrite, arsenopyrite, or muscovite mica can all be mistaken as gold by beginners because of their “glitter”. However,” all that glitters is not gold”. (had to get that in here somewhere).

Host Rock: any rock formations containing (in this case) gold.

Nugget: a rough lump of native gold of no particular size. Nuggets can range in weight from a few grams to over a hundred pounds.

Outcrop: the point where a mass of rock comes to the surface and is visible. The rock mass may or may not contain mineral bearing veins.

Overburden: low grade material consisting of stones, gravel, and sands lying on top of the richer gold-bearing gravels just above bedrock.

Panning: the technique of separating gold from lighter materials using a gold pan. Panning is a washing technique for recovering gold. (more about gold pans later).

Pay Streak: a concentration of gold in a placer deposit: often under water.

Placer Gold : (see above).

Placer Mining: the method of recovering gold from placer deposits usually by one or more washing techniques: panning, sluicing, etc.

Rock: a random mixture of two or more minerals.

Sniping: recovering gold-bearing sands and gravels from underwater cracks and crevices in bedrock for future panning. A gold sniffer is used to clean out underwater crevices. (You can also use a caulking gun or a grease gun with a long tube attached to one end to suck out the material from a crevice).

Tailings: waste material remaining after gold is removed. Tailings from older mining operations are often good targets for recreational prospectors since sometimes nuggets were discarded with waste stones.

Vein: a lengthy occurrence of minerals in a host rock.

How does placer gold occur ? Gold occurring in river banks or stream bottoms is a result of gold bearing host rocks being eroded over long periods of time. The host rock may be on hill tops, mountain sides, or near the river itself. During and after erosion, the gold gets washed down into streams or other low lying areas. After the gold and other materials get into the stream, a separation and transportation process occurs. Gold, being heavy, tends to get sorted out from the other materials in the stream, usually in areas where there is a slackening of the water flow. The water flow in the stream sorts the material into various strata in accordance with the different specific gravities or weight of the materials. Therefore, in a place in a stream where the water velocity slows down, the heavier materials, such as gold, will settle out while the lighter sands and gravels will continue down stream. Over a period of time, other materials will also settle out when the stream velocity slows down even more. The gold will seek the bottom in these spots because of its weight. This is a continuous process and enrichment of gold in these locations could occur year after year during spring floods or other rainy periods. If the bottom of the stream beds in these slower velocity areas is too smooth, the gold will continue to travel downstream until it gets trapped or lodged in or behind rock ledges or any other obstruction that will cause a riffle effect.

Where to look for placer gold

Often the best place to look for gold is where it has been found in the past. A visit to your local state or provincial Department of Mines library will provide lots of information on where gold has been found. Concentrate on the river and stream systems in these areas since it is these areas where the recreational prospector will want to start the search for placer gold. After you have selected a few areas for investigation, get topographic maps of the areas. In addition to showing you the location of rivers and roads, a topo map will show elevation changes along waterways as well as twists, turns, and constrictions in the waterways. This in turn will give you a good idea of where the stream flows rapidly (constrictions) and where the quiet spots are. Topo maps will also show you the location of rapids and waterfalls – places where gold may flow quickly, then settle in calmer pools at the base of rapid movement. In general, any place where there is a change in the rate of flow in a stream, river or any body of water, is a place to pan for gold. Look for streams that flow across potential or known gold-bearing areas.


1. Where water flow is quiet and gravel and sand are deposited on the stream bottom. For example: (a) The down-stream side of large rocks within the stream. (b) The inside of bends in the stream.

2. Downstream from the junction of two or more streams.

3. Along ledges or benches crossing streams where sands and gravels accumulate.

4. At the base of water falls.

5. Beach sands, particularly at the mouths of rivers.

6. Flowing streams at the foot of steep cliffs.

7. Roots and materials under trees that have been undercut and toppled over by the stream.

8. If it is summer and the water is low, look at areas behind boulders that are currently high and dry but which are in the stream during high water periods.

9. Learn to read the water and pay attention to what it is telling you. If you are an accomplished trout or salmon fisherperson, you already have most of these skills. If not, practice, test, and learn.

10. Looking for gold on the downstream side of a power dam is usually not a good idea.

If you get color in your pan in one location on a stream, it is normally good practice to continue panning upstream looking for more positive signs as you go in order to track down the source. If you suddenly run out of color going upstream, start looking for feeder brooks. Don’t forget to check out the material from the roots area of uprooted trees in your quest for the source of the color. Keep an eye out for dried up stream beds in the area and wash a few pans of gravel from the most likely looking spots.


Prospecting for placer gold does not require expensive or bulky equipment. Some of the tools needed can be found around the home. The recommended minimum equipment is as follows: 1. gold pan 2. small paint brush 3. garden shovel and a spade 4. bucket 5. sniffer bottle 6. bulb snifter 7. hand lens 8. prospectors pick 9. tweezers 10. small plastic bottles with caps 11. plastic zip-lock bags or leather pouches 12. small magnet Here are some pictures of some of the items you may not recognize: These are courtesy of Keene Engineering who carries a complete line of prospecting equipment as well as gold recovery equipment for prospectors and other equipment dealing with mineral extraction and recovery. The web site for Keene Engineering is : http://www.keeneeng.com

Gold pans: unpainted steel and black or green plastic. The 12 inch gold pan is the most widely used. Before using a new gold pan, it must be cleaned thoroughly and any oil or grease should be removed. This can best be done by burning the grease out of a steel pan and by using a grease cutting detergent on a plastic pan. Don’t worry if the steel pan gets a bit rusty on the inside since the extra roughness of the surface may help in trapping fine gold particles when panning.

Sniffer bottle:

The approximate cost of the pan, bulb snifter, pick, hand lens, and sniffer bottle combined should be less than $ 90.00 (prices for all of these items are given on the Keene Engineering web site).


The art of panning is best mastered by experience. The more practice and experience you have, the more gold you will recover with less effort. Panning is normally done in 6 to 10 inches of gently flowing water. The water should be flowing just fast enough to wash dissolved mud and clays out of the pan.

Stage 1: for the first few times, fill the pan to about half full of gravel using a spade or shovel. You will be using more material as you gain experience. With the pan held just under the surface of the water, stick your hand in the bottom of the pan and stir the material vigorously. This action will allow any gold to settle to the bottom and will release the mud content in the gravel to be washed out over the top of the pan.

Stage 2:(Picture Courtesy of Keene Engineering.) After all the clay is dispersed and any lumps of dirt are thoroughly broken,give the pan several vigorous shakes back and forth and from side to side. Be careful not to loose any material over the side of the pan at this stage.Now impart a gentle circular movement to the pan so that the rest of the dissolved clay, moss, and other dirt can be gently washed out over the top of the pan. Pick out the larger rocks after making sure they have been washed clean.

Stage 3:(Picture Courtesy of Keene Engineering). Repeat Stage 2 in order to get the smaller rocks to the surface and to allow the heavier materials (gold, black sands, etc.) to settle to the bottom of the pan.Now, hold the pan just under the water and tilt it slightly away from you. Swirl the water from side to side and with a slight forward tossing motion to move the lighter gravel out over the edge of the pan.Level the pan from time to time and lightly thump it’s side with the palm of your hand to settle the gold to the bottom. Repeat this stage until there are only about 2 cups of heavier material, (gold and black sands, or “concentrate”) remaining in the pan.

 Stage 4:(Picture Courtesy of Keene Engineering). Time to wash off the black sands and other concentrates.Beginners should take the pan completely out of the water but leave about an inch of water in the pan. Tilt the pan towards you and swirl the water slowly in a circular motion. Check the pan carefully for nuggets and other pieces of gold that are easily picked out by hand or by tweezers. Do this several times making sure that you do not wash out any gold. If you are using a plastic pan, a magnet applied to the outside bottom of the pan will help separate the black sands from the gold. (black sands will most likely have a high concentration of iron oxide).

Stage 5:(Picture Courtesy of Keene Engineering). A little squirt of detergent in the pan at this stage will lower the surface tension of the water and speed up the separation process.It is a good idea to carry out stages 4 and 5 over another pan or a bucket to lessen the chance of a slip and a loss of gold back into the stream. Some panners prefer to wash all the concentrates from stage 4 into a container which they take home with them for final separation in a more controlled environment.

You can use a sniffer bottle to remove fine particles of gold from the pan containing the concentrates and water. The sniffer bottle has a tube protruding out of the cap and extending down into the bottle. The bottle is squeezed and released with the tube under water and near the gold. The gold gets sucked into the bottle and, because the tube extends into the bottle, squeezing the bottle again will squirt the water back into the pan and leave the gold in the bottle. When squeezing the bottle, always point the tip of the bottle into the pan.

CAUTION Mineral rights come under both state (or provincial) and federal jurisdiction, and for that reason there are differences in the way that the regulations are administered in different parts of the country. If there is any question of whether or not you are allowed to pan in any specific location, you should contact your state’s Bureau of Land Management or Provincial Department of Mines.

The author again wishes to thank Keene Engineering for their kind permission to use several of their photos and graphics.