First, a word on why gold panning works:
Gold commonly occurs with other minerals that, like gold, are heavier than quartz (which makes up the majority of the silt and sand in a stream bed). Quartz has a specific gravity of 2.65, which means that its weight is 2.65 times an equal volume of water. Black-sand materials have specific gravities ranging from 3.4 to 5.5. Gold has a specific gravity which, depending on its silver content, ranges from 15.6 to 19.3, which is why it occurs at or near the base of the riverbed sand deposits and why it migrates quickly to the bottom of the gold pan.
- Find a good set of gold pans. Look for ones with riffles around the edges, since these help the gold to separate from other particles more easily. A classifier pan is useful to remove the larger gravel from your panning material (make sure you don't throw out any nuggets!). Green plastic pans work better than metal pans because they are lighter, have shallower angles (which reduces the risk of losing some of your gold), and because gold is easier to spot against the green background. We carry two affordable Garrett gold panning kits that will provide you with everything you need to start your gold-hunting adventure.
- Find out the recreational prospecting regulations of the area before you begin. Regulations vary by state, but Placer Gold Deposits books are a good place to start (if available), and the Bureau of Land Management and your state's Department of Natural Resources should have information on existing claims.
- Choose a location along a river or creek, preferably one where the bedrock is exposed or not heavily covered by clay and soil. Places where the water slows down noticeably, such as behind sandbars or boulders, are usually good spots for panning. After a heavy rain, choose a location farther downstream -- much of the gold will have been washed away from its source by the current.
- Sit your classifier pan inside your large gold pan and fill it almost to the top with sand from the edge of the creek or river. Use your hand shovel -- deeper is generally better. Gold will usually be concentrated in the bottom 6-8 inches of sand and gravel above bedrock. When your pans are full, lift the classifier pan out, shaking it gently, to remove the gravel. Check for nuggets before you discard!
- Dip the pan's edge into the stream and fill it with water. Use your fingers to mix the sand thoroughly with the water, to create a slurry.
- Hold the pan with one hand and swirl or shake it back and forth to mix the sand. Any gold will start settling toward the bottom of the pan.
- Swirl the pan faster. You will lose some of the water, along with lighter particles of sand, as you go. The more you swirl, the more the heavier materials will settle to the bottom of the pan, where you'll find the gold. Add a little more water to keep everything moving smoothly -- this also helps the gold settle.
- Scrape the top layer of sand out of the pan with your free hand, or tilt the pan and let the top layer fall away. Always keep the bottom of the pan lower than the lip. You will eventually get down to a layer of black sand (as a general rule, if you don't have any black sand, there won't be any gold). One of the components of this black sand is magnetite, which is difficult to separate from gold, but a good sign that you'll find something!
- At this point, you may want to carefully transfer your remaining material to a smaller finishing pan (this makes it easier to find the flakes of gold you may miss in the larger one). Tilt the pan at a 30% angle and swirl the pan, imitating the motion of a spinning coin just before it comes to a stop. As you move it more quickly, the gold will lag behind the other material in the pan, because of its greater specific gravity.
- Pick out larger gold samples with your fingers and use tweezers or a suction bottle for tiny particles. Put your finds in a small vial, and show them off to your friends and neighbors!
How to tell if what you've found is gold (and not fool's gold):
- Try using a straight pin to stab the specimen. Gold is a very soft metal and will bend or break when you do this; iron pyrite is much harder and won't budge.
- Take a magnet with you. Iron pyrite will stick to the magnet because of its high iron content; gold will not.
- Rub the nugget across an unglazed porcelain tile. Iron pyrite will streak black, while gold's streak is gold.
- If you have a 10x magnifier / loupe, examine your find closely. Pyrite has a cubic structure; gold does not.
For your next kid's (or grownup's) birthday, have a gold panning party! All you need is a few gold pans, a plastic kiddie pool full of sand and gravel, and some pure gold pieces and/or pyrite to "seed" the sand. Imagine the excitement when your child (or rockhound spouse) finds the Mother Lode! The traditional exclamation of success is "Bonanza!"