Gold Panning

How To Pan For Gold

"The Oldtimer" Series-

Panning For Gold.....The Science, Mechanics and Luck of It!

The mechanics- The idea is to put dirt, rocks, leaves, twigs, dead bugs..about half of whatever you think your"goldpan" will hold. then using the mechanical energy of your hands and arms moving the pan in a particular way to use the current of the water to lift or float the contents that are not gold out of the pan, so another person downstream can do the same thing later.

Gold weighs more than most everything you will find in the river-bottom or in the dirt from the nearby river-bank. As you will soon see, when you gyrate your goldpan, in and out of the water causing most everything to floated out or eliminating it by picking it out with your fingers, you will be left with only some sand. Some of it will be finer darker sand with some specks of different colors sparkling in the sunlight. (Or your miner's headlight if you are panning at night.)

The Science- There are other minerals that are likely to be in that potentially valuable sand in your pan.. My personal favorite is "fool's gold", pyrite, and some other less interesting ones like Chromite, Garnet, Magnetite and the occasional piece of lead split shot from snagged fishiing lines.

The Technique- .The idea is to get the lighter contents to wash out of the goldpan with the least amount of energy, leaving the gold behind so you can collect it with tweezers and place it in your screw-top, collection bottle..NOTE- Exercise great caution when transfering the gold to you little bottle. Have several bottles, keep in mind if you drop the bottle, you would not want to lose all of your gold.

The Pan-.If you find yourself in an area that is famous for gold miining, the local hardware store may have better quality goldpans than the local tourist oriented souvenier store. They are in generally the same shape and sizes. They are usually 10-20" in diameter, two or three inches deep, with a flat bottom and sides that slope about 30 to 45 degrees. Some have some grooves on part of one side that with proper technique can help trap the small pieces of gold. In gold rush days, they were metal and often doubled as a wok or frypan, using the sand and the river to wash the burnt eggs, meat and vegetables from the pan. No wonder the Cook spent so much time washing the Pan... NOTE- The plastic gold pans are not generally microwave safe.

The Screen- Many different screens are availaible, they range from 100% plastic units that can rest inside the top of a gold pan, with a grid about 3/8 to 1/2 " to allow only the dirt, sand, small rocks (hopefully nuggets), to fall into pan. Other screens are plastic with metal screen grids ranging from 1/2" squares to #100 screen mesh.(very fine). the prices range from about $6.00 to $20.00.

The Bottle- Small screw-top bottles made of glass and plastic are availiable to place gold into. The range in price from $.45 to $1.25. NOTE- Remember use great care when tranfering the gold with tweezers into bottle. Also do not keep all your gold in one bottle incase you drop it.

The Tweezers- There are many sizes and styles of tweezers, the points at thte end should be very pointed. Caution should be exercised in use, transportation and storage of your tweezers. They range from 4 " to 10" in overall size. Stainless steel imported models seem to be the most popular. Prices range from $3.00 to $7.00

Smart Shoppers- If you plan ahead, you can find many places on the internet that sell gold pans, tweezers, bottles, tools, and books on gold panning and prospecting. For less than $30 you can have a lifetime gold panning set up delivered to you. You can get a perfectly serviceable pan for $10 or less. Stay away from the ones that take the AA batteries, or have a "gold magnet" accessory.


Unwritten rule- If there is a convenient, comfortable place to pan, the gold is not there. However, you can bring a bucket full of dirt, river or stream bottom to that area and "pan" there. Comfort is a consideration...pads or cushion for knees are smart to use. Dress appropriately, wear sturdy shoes or boots, have spare change of clothes incase you fall in to the water. Don't forget you may need your reading glasses to utilize the tweezers to pick up your gold. If you are going to squat down to pan, wear extra-long t-shirt, you do not want to attract wildlife of anykind.

Safety- Remember, you are near the water, and should use care in walking near the edge, or wading, deep holes, and slippery rocks have caused injury and death to fishermen and gold-miner alike. Do not consume alcoholic beverages or use gold panning enhancement sports drugs when near the water.

Location truisms- There are places that gold is more likely to be trapped for years waiting for you to find. You may as well look there. Some considerations are the speed of the water, if the the current is slower, it gives time for any gold carried in the current to settle to the bottom. Another factor is if there are some rocks that might trap gold, you want to collect the sediment from that area. Look upstream for a turn in the river or stream, and on the inside edge changes in current, or flooding may deposit gold there. By the same token do not overlook the crevaces of boulders.

Gravel Bars in the middle of streams, or around areas of heavy run-off. The very edge of the stream, especially if the water level has been reduced by melting snowcaps. Also the bottom of center channels of streams or rivers. Ofcourse these locations are more usually mined with dredges.

Ofcourse after storms, changes in river or stream bed, and the ever-mysterious tree roots. If you discover a recently fallen tree at the edge of the water, or large exposed roots that might trap that gold ...take a look.

You should exercise caution with prybars, and other tools as you may wash away the gold in the same actions you are doing to expose potential little pockets of interest. New battery-operated pumps with hoses that have ends resembling vaccum cleaner accessories can suck the contents of these cravaces into a bucket for you to examine in a settling area gold contents. (With these devices you do not usually need a gold pan, they usually have an internal filter to trap the gold.)

The Technique... How to separate the fool from the Gold

NOTE- Polarized visual correct glasses are very useful when trying to look into water, and working near the water that will reflect light into your eyes, much like sun and snow. Take care of your eyes, they are helpful for locating gold. A Hat or Cap on your head, and sun-block are not bad to have also.

  • Depending on how strong you feel on a given day, fill the pan to about half to 3/4s full of gravel, soil, sand, small rocks, pull-tab rings, from the stream, river or bucket of good looking dirt.

  • Put your new best friend the "gold pan" slowly into the water, keeping it horizontal, and as it goes under the surface, pick out big rocks, taking care to be sure they are not a large nugget. Then holding the pan with both hands (unless you are particularly muscular), Tip the pan back and forth about 30 to 60 degrees and "wash" the dirt, and lighter rocks, twigs, etc..

  • Lift the pan out of the water and remove unwanted larger rocks, break up lumps of clay or rocks stuck to eachoer, and place the pan in the water, repeating the procedure.

  • Repeat this same procedure a few times until you are left with fine sand light and dark, that may contain small amounts of gold, or the wayward nugget, etc.

  • Now...the most important stage of "panning".. add some water from a nearby bucket, enough to allow you to "swish" the fine sand slowly back and forth as you carefully watch what is suspended in the water or deposited on the sides of the pan, or into the grooves of the pan if any. This is the stage that you often find the Gold

  • Gold being heavier than the sand or most other minerals will tend to congragate together as you move the pan, and you might find some gold.

  • If there looks like there is something promising left in the pan, If so, you want to place those contents in another container (one that will not get kicked over, back ito the stream, or on to the ground..) so the sand can dry, and later you can take your tweezers and pick up the "gold" and carefully place it in a small twist top container.. Some use a paint roller pan, with a double layer of paper towels weighted down by a couple of metal bars to keep the wind from blowing the gold away,etc..You can develop your own methods... After the sand dries out, use your tweezers and locate your "gold"

    Where is it legal to Pan for Gold.... How not to get Shot or Arrested

    Want to find REAL GOLD-. Visit local "Gold Country" museums, jewelry stores, and bookstores. As an alternate, just go to the grocery store or gas station... and look around.

    REAL GOLD- How to Identify it

    Remember This is a Hobby!

    Personal Safety While Gold Panning

    Other Outdoor Survival Suggestions

  • Follow the usual environmentalist outdoor rules- Nothing worse than being assaulted by a gray-haired 68 year old with a rolled up copy of the Sierra Club magazine.. (JUST KIDDING...)

  • Stop at the rest room or have meal and use the rest room.

  • If you open a gate, close it.

  • If you are on private land, get permission first, in writing is best if you are going there again..

  • If you carry food and snacks in , carry the foil, paper,plastic,etc out with you.

  • If you drive, stay on the road, no matter what the brochure in the glove box says.

  • Lock your car, keep valuables out of site, or leave cheap wallet with 4 one-dollar bills on front seat, with picture of someone elses family inside., with car unlocked to avoid broken window.a
  • Hide $20 in your wallet, along with extra car key, take some snacks and water, have your gas tank atleast 3/4ths full.
  • Purchase a small glass bottle with gold in it to show your significant other when you return home...Incase you took that tall blonde from work to assist you on your "gold panning" adventure at one of the many fine places to stay when visiting in Trinity County.



    Anonymous Sources in Trinity County- last revised 5/07

    GOLD PANNING, MINING & Metal Detecting LINKS

    Shasta, Trinity, Northstate Organizations

    GOVERNMENT LINKS- Camping/Use of lands


    Epilog- Personally, I have the same 14" pan I bought 30 years ago, but ever since it started to rust a bit, I have not considered cooking anything in it again. The fact is, that I use the 10 year old plastic two-piece gold pan set with the ridges inside the most. The top piece fits inside the pan, and is a screened steep sided pan, that you can screen the dirt into the pan before it gets into the water.... Be sure to watch what is not going into the pan!... You would not like a big nugget to get lost..... I still think I saw one drop into the water a few years ago, as I carelessly tossed some large pieces river sediment into the water...move deliberately and carefully...oh well..

    I am writing this in February of 2003, because of all the requests through the TrintyCam Website. Thee last time I panned for gold was in Alaska...1997...OK it was a tourist attraction on a tour outside Fairbanks, using dirt from a bag that was salted with a small amount of gold...It was nice to see it in the pan...and was fun to watch all the others excitedly find their gold!

    Frankly, that was more gold than I had seen in my pan in prior years of casual panning in California on fishing trips.. Soon I will be out with my pan... writing this article has reminded me that it is about time for that big nugget to find it's way into my pan... I just know that one of these days..I will find a nugget in the Trinity River. Besides the way the economy is going, I may depend on reviving this entertaining skill soon. However, it is more likely the fish I eat from the river will be more valuable than the gold I will find!

    Have Fun Gold Panning!- "The Oldtimer"

    First Draft of this page: February 20 , 2003


    Last Updated: May 22, 2007