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Gold Panning Instructions  -  Learn How to Pan For Gold


Gold Panning – a basic primer

The gold pan is most often used to find the richest gold bearing ground (sampling), so that heavier equipment such as dredges, high-bankers and even simple sluice boxes can be brought in to work only the most promising materials.

Prospecting Tip: a most common error for novice prospectors to make is not doing enough sampling before setting up operations for the day. Take the time to find the best paying areas before lugging all your equipment in. You are going to be moving a lot of material so why not take a little time beforehand to make sure it is the good stuff. As little as 5 feet in one direction can mean the difference between 5 colors and 20 in each pan!

Panning for gold is actually very simple. In your pan you are trying to recreate on a very small scale what Mother Nature does herself in the riverbeds. You will be attempting to concentrate the heaviest materials (gold) into the bottom of your pan.

Basic Gold Panning Procedure:

Find a good spot to do your panning. It's best to choose a spot where the water is not too deep and moves just swiftly enough to keep the water clear from the panning. Clear vision is vital – you don’t want to wash away a big nugget! Don’t pan in fast moving water - this will cause the water action in your pan to be unpredictable and potentially cause you to lose some of your gold.

Gold Panning Tip: Pick a spot where you will be most comfortable. Wear rubber boots or hip waders so you can get further down to the water level and not wreck your back by stooping all day.

First use a screen, sieve, or classifier to size down the material to a manageable size – one that is as close to the size of the gold you expect to recover. Most of the classifiers are designed to fit over your 14” gold pan or 5 gallon buckets quite nicely. Remember, large nuggets are very rare so you will recover mostly fine gold with an occasional “picker” nugget. Use at least a quarter inch screen (4 mesh). While gold is heavy, very small flakes will have a difficult time displacing the larger rocks. Screening or classifying material down will make this much easier and speed your panning greatly. Pan the screened off rocks and gravel separately and look for the gold nuggets – nuggets of this size will be hard to miss.

Place a small amount of material in your pan – maybe 1/4 to 1/2 pan full at first. Submerge the pan just below the rim and shake side to side or around and around fairly vigorously. Be careful not to wash a lot of material out of your pan while doing this. The old and other heavy material (black sands) will work their way down to the bottom of your pan while the lighter and valueless materials will rise to the top. You will repeat the process often during your panning with the goal to keep the gold in your pan last. This method is often called “stratifying” the material.

Tip: don’t be shy about getting your hands in the wet material to break it up. You want to be sure to rinse off any large rocks and break up any clay balls or roots. Clay balls are gold robbers - break those up.

Next, raise your pan out of the water but keep the material in a semi-liquid state. Tilt your pan forward with the riffles or “traps” facing away from you. Start shaking slightly so that the gold has a chance to settle in the forward and bottom part of your pan but not enough to cause any material to wash over the side. Be sure your material is always in a semi-liquid condition – add more water if needed.

Now you should have your forward edge of the pan just in the water. Start moving your pan slowly up and down in the water so that the water itself is washing off the lighter sands and gravel. Don’t try to pour the material off – doing this will cause your material to “lock-up” and your gold will be lost. Keep the material semi-liquid and continue to use the action of the water to wash the lighter material out of the pan until you see the darker more heavy material coming to the surface. Sweep just a little material off each time – don’t get a huge tidal wave going in your pan or you are sure to lose your gold. When you feel it’s time to re-stratify the material go ahead and bring the pan back and shake it up again finishing with a slightly forward angle. Remember you can never do this too much – keep the gold in the bottom of your pan. Try to shake your pan for at least 10 seconds at first to be sure to get all the gold back down to the bottom. After shaking the pan again you should see the lighter material coming up. Continue sweeping this material out of your pan with water slowly.

Tip: Re-stratify more often than you think is necessary to make sure the gold stays put in the bottom of your pan. Heavier materials are often comprised of iron and are darker than the lighter weight blond sands making it easy to know when to re-shake. Re-stratify your pan whenever you see the dark material coming up. Go slow – you are outdoors so enjoy your time!

As you get further down in the material of your pan you will see the heavier material turn darker and darker and it will be increasingly more difficult wash this material out. Resist the urge to wash the water in harder. Continue sweeping the material out little by little until you have almost just black sand. Luckily gold stands out well against this dark background. If you start to see gold flakes in the heavy sands it’s time to re-shake your pan again.

Tip: most novice panners stop panning with far too much material in their pans. Work your material down to almost all black sand (a few tablespoons at most) before bringing the pan back to look for gold.

Back and forth, round and round, or side to side motion- it’s up to you! As you continue to prospect for gold you find as many methods to panning as there are gold panners. Whether you shake the pan from side to side, use a circular motion, or maybe a little nervous twitch it matters little – whatever you are comfortable doing. After a while you will find your muscles will develop a memory for your technique and you will sink into a habit which you can continue to perfect. Your panning will become swifter and your gold losses will become smaller.

Tip: whatever method you use try to keep it smooth and rhythmic. Trying to wash the water in and out at the same rate each time will help control the contents of your pan. Periodically bring your pan all the way back flat (level) and re-shake so your gold will not creep too far forward in your pan.

Use a magnet to quickly separate the gold from the black magnetic sand concentrates. Place the magnet to the bottom side of your plastic pan and move it in a small circular motion with the pan slightly tilted. This will quickly remove the gold from the magnetic black sands.

Final Tip: you can use a sniffer (snifter; snuffer bottle) to quickly suck up any gold you see. A snifter bottle is a small flexible clear plastic bottle with a small tube attached to its end. Squeezing the snuffer bottle creates a vacuum inside, and submerged gold from the pan can be easily sucked up through the tube and saved by releasing the bottle and moving it around the edges of your pan showing gold. However, because time is often limited at the river, I recommend you use your time to actually dig, pan and find gold – use the time at home to finish the clean up and separate your fine gold from the black sands. Take your black sands home with you where you can pan in a controlled environment – go over each pan several times with a catch basin underneath to be sure you got all you can. Use a wetting agent like “jet-dry” or detergent to break the surface tension of the water and keep the very fine gold from floating.


We wish you much luck in your gold prospecting. We are always happy to help our customers in any way. Feel free to email us with any questions about gold prospecting or if you have an interest in buying natural gold nuggets we'll help you find some at a great price.

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