You have all your new shiny prospecting gear. Pan, shovels, buckets, and most importantly the "gold fever". You bundle the kids in the van and head to the hills to find your fortune. Having no idea what you're doing, you think to yourself, "how hard can this be?". Well, when first handling a gold pan, it's a little trickier than you may think.

I suggest you start in your back yard. All you need is a large plastic tub with some water and some gravel. You can purchase gold bearing gravel, which actually contains a few small pieces of real gold. These can be great as a learning tool. By starting with the plastic tub, you won't lose any of the gold while learning. Personally I like to teach panning by using small pieces of lead. Cut up some split-shot used for fishing, into tiny pieces. Gold is about double the density of lead, so if you can pan out a piece of lead, you will be more than able to recover gold. You can even paint the lead with gold paint to make it look real.

As gold is so heavy, it sinks much faster than stones or gravel, which are made of rock minerals many times less dense than gold. The gold pan is nothing more than a means to sort material based on it's density. By agitating the gravel while under water, the heavy material sinks to the bottom of the pan, and the lighter material rises. By continually swirling the material and discarding the top, lighter material, you end up with only the heavier particles, including the gold in your pan.

Back to the practicing. Make sure your tub is large enough to work the pan inside of it. Also have enough water to completely submerge the pan. Place a handful of gravel into your pan. It is best to start with a small amount at first and then progress to a full pan later on. Next drop in one or two lead flakes. Add water from the tub to the pan so that it more than covers the gravel. Tilting the pan slightly forward while gripping it on the sides, swirl it in one direction by making small circular rotations with your hands. The gravel should move enough that you see some sorting start to take place. While doing this, the lead is sinking to the bottom. After a few seconds or swirling, submerge the front of the pan into the water, tilting it a little further forward. Now wash water gently into the pan so that as it flows out, the top layer of gravel is washed out of the pan. After doing this a couple of times, remove the pan from the water and tilt it back again. Continue swirling again to settle the lead some more. Then wash off the top layer again.

Repeat this process until you have only a small amount of heavy material along the bottom of the pan. Your lead or gold should now be in this remaining gravel. Now with just a little water in the pan, gently wash the water in a circular motion around the bottom of the pan. In so doing you wash the lighter of the remaining gravel to the back of the pan, while the heavy gold or lead remains in the front. You can now suck up the flakes with your sniffer bottle. Another way to pick up flakes of gold from the bottom of the pan is to tip the pan backwards so the water is not covering the gold, then lick your finger and touch the gold flake. The flake will stick to your sticky finger. Then touch it against the top of the water in your vial and it will fall to the bottom.

If you do not see your lead in the pan after you have finished, it means it got washed out. There are two main reasons this can occur. The first is that you never settled the lead enough and it wasn't on the bottom of the pan when you washed the lighter material out. The second, and more common mistake made by beginners, is that the washing of the lighter material out of the pan is too vigorous. This is the part that takes practice.

Repeat this panning exercise, and try and do it faster and faster to see at which point you lose the lead. You will be surprised how difficult it actually is to discard it by accident. Now when you venture to the gold bearing stream, you will feel confident that you aren't dumping any gold nuggets out of your pan.

The modern plastic gold pans have riffles on one side of the pan. If you have settled the material properly, these riffles will help prevent the gold from being accidentally washed out. They certainly make it easier to learn to pan with. When panning in a stream, you should usually be ending up with a layer of black sands. This is called magnetite and is commonly found with gold. If you are not seeing black sands at the end of your panning, it may indicate you are in the wrong spot and need to try elsewhere.

With a little practice you will quickly become proficient with the pan. The more time you spend in the stream, the more confident you will feel. The hard part is not keeping the gold in your pan - it's getting it in the pan in the first place! Knowing where to dig is the key, and that just takes experience.

Good luck and have fun.

About The Author

Graham Armitage, is founder of the family outdoor website, Georec. The site allows anyone to discover new outdoor places and invites you to review and comment on outdoor locations. To access all the free hiking, fishing, paddling and other information available, or to add your own content, visit

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