Metal Detecting How-To Guide


If you’ve ever wondered what the metal detecting hobby is about, how to get into metal detecting, and what it takes to get started, I’ve written this metal detecting “how-to” guide just for you.

Metal detecting is a popular hobby in which you use an electronic device called a “metal detector” to find metal items buried under the ground. Some call it treasure hunting.

What makes it a great hobby is it gets you outdoors, it can be as passive or active as you want it to be, it builds anticipation over what you’ll find, and provides you with a jolt of excitement when your detector hits on something. Digging it up to see what you found is the icing on the cake.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the basics and show you exactly how to get started with metal detecting.

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Metal Detecting Equipment

What do I need to go metal detecting?

Your buddy is your detector. You need one. A metal detector is a hand-held device with a control box at the top and a pole extended toward the ground that is attached to a circular or elliptically-shaped sensor at the bottom.

metal detecting for beginners

The pole can be lengthened or shortened to accommodate people of different heights. This allows the operator to comfortably hold the detector so the coil is an inch or so off the ground. Modern detectors are designed so they’re as easy and comfortable to use as possible.

One feature that helps to achieve that is an arm cradle, seen above. This helps keeps your wrist from having to do all the work as you gently swing the detector from side to side as you search. My first detector (a 1980’s model) wasn’t built that way and my arm got pretty tired after an hour or so of detecting!

Aside from the detector, you’ll benefit from a decent pair of headphones. This is optional, but the reason to use them is two-fold:

  • It helps you hear fainter signals that might be getting drowned out by surrounding noise
  • It keeps your detector’s target alert noise from bothering other people who might be trying to relax nearby

One more essential item – a digging tool. You’ll need something to help you dig up whatever you find. A garden trowel works, a foldable shovel works, a sand scoop (at the beach) works, too.

There you have it, a minimum equipment list.

Total cost for the basics if everything’s brand new, about $150 – $350. Sometimes you can find a decent beginner package like this one currently on Amazon:

Where To Go Metal Detecting

Let’s start with where NOT to go. Generally, any place posted with a sign that prohibits metal detecting is off-limits. Private property without the owner’s permission is a no-go. Also, Federal land is extremely likely to be off-limits.

Beyond that, it gets to be a bit of a research project. Some town property you can hunt on, some you can’t. Beaches may have specific regions that aren’t allowed. The secret is to determine who manages, owns, or controls the land you want to use your detector on. In most cases, they can tell you if it’s allowed if you simply ask.

Other than that, you can detect on your own property, beaches, parks, schools, fairgrounds, campgrounds, a lot of public open land, creek beds, old trails, jetties and piers, and more. Remember, it’s safest to double-check so you don’t break a law or get chased off the property. Places like schools and fairgrounds should only be visited when they’re not in session. Remember to leave them in as good a shape as when you arrived.

Wherever you go metal detecting, be courteous and respectful of others. The hobby won’t be around if the general public sees us as a nuisance.

What Can I Find with a Metal Detector?

Coins and jewelry are generally the items most often found when metal detecting. Depending on how well you set up your metal detector and where you’re hunting, it’s fairly easy to find these items.

However, you’re also going to detect pieces of iron, bottle caps, and soda can pull-tabs. Think about it – you’re carrying a metal detector.

Thankfully, the people who design and build metal detectors include settings to help filter out the junk items and make finding whatever good targets are down there a lot easier.

Here are some of the things that people have found with metal detectors over the years:

  • Coins
  • Jewelry
  • Gold
  • Watches
  • Horseshoes
  • Nails
  • Buttons
  • Belt buckles
  • Knives
  • Guns
  • Rifle plates
  • Ox shoes
  • Ring bolts
  • Rings
  • Ball bearings
  • Civil War bullets
  • Barbed wire
  • Pins
  • Badges
  • Toys
  • so much more!

These examples show why metal detecting is such a cool hobby! You never know what’s down there. It’s a bit like fishing only you can’t eat what you catch.

Metal detecting is a bit like fishing, only you can't eat what you catch Click To Tweet

What Should I Know About My Metal Detector?

Most things you can learn as you go along.

To get started you really just need a detector and a digging tool. As you shop around for a detector, be aware that there are two basic technologies used for metal detecting. The most common is VLF or very low frequency. The other is PI, or pulse induction.

As a beginner, you’ll want a good VLF detector and I recommend you don’t go cheap but don’t overspend, either.

PI metal detectors are much more expensive and for specialized use cases.

The big-box store metal detectors you can usually skip over. The build quality and/or technology may not be the best. Do a little research, however, because there are some models found in the big box stores that are well-respected. Remember that you want something that’s been well-engineered, but designed for the hobby beginner.

There are some different models listed on my Recommended Gear page to get you thinking, but something in the $150 – $300 range is adequate.


TIP: you may find a higher-end (but used) model at a decent price if you search around on a good metal detecting Facebook group, Reddit, Forum, Craigslist, etc. Just remember “buyer beware”


Metal Detector Target Testing

Your metal detector is good at finding targets, but with a little practice, you can improve your chances of finding stuff. Here’s how:

First, read the manual that came with your detector. Seriously. The designers know what it’s capable of and that information is embedded in the manual.

Check for any “quick start” info in the manual. Set up your detector that way, then use it that way, making minor tweaks as you hunt. This will help you learn what changes made a difference. Don’t hesitate to go back and forth between the quick start default settings and your changes. make note of what improves things.

One step better: Figure out what it is you’re hunting for and test for those targets in the type of ground you’re going to hunt. For example, if you’re looking at the beach, get a few bags of sand from the beach or a hardware store and fill a small pit in your part or even a small sandbox or washtub. Please a few links of a gold chain or a US nickel or dime at various depths. See what changes make the most difference in finding those targets.

Do the same in your yard. If you have to, make some notes until you learn the differences. Check sensitive settings and ground balance adjustments.

This is generally a much better method than copying someone else’s settings from an online video.

What Else Do I Need?

To make your day in the field the most productive, there are some accessories you should consider. I’ve already mentioned headphones and a digging tool. In addition, you should consider these:

  • Good pair of gloves to keep your hands from getting scraped up or cut
  • Kneepads if you have bad knees or plan to be kneeling a lot on hard surfaces
  • Pouch to collect the items you dig up
  • Sand scoop if you’re planning to do beach metal detecting
  • Spare batteries or power pack
  • Gold pan and/or sluice box for gold prospecting
  • Small First Aid kit
  • A pinpointer
  • A Frisbee disc – (yeah…. as you pull dirt of of the hole you dug, put it in the disc Then it’s easy to dump back in without losing any. Easy to clean, too)

Can I Really Find Gold with a Metal Detector?

Why yes. Yes, you can. Gold is a metal. A non-ferrous (not iron) metal. There are a few things to consider when looking for gold.

One is that you need to be hunting in areas that are likely to produce gold. Since gold comes from veins within the Earth, it has to have been released from the surrounding rock and deposited in areas available to metal detectorists like you. Larger nuggets will often be at higher elevations at the site you’ve chosen and the smallest nuggets and flakes will be in low-lying areas like stream beds.

Gold can also be detected in the form of watches, jewelry, and other manufactured items containing gold.

Equipment for Finding Gold

All metal detectors can find gold if the pieces are big enough (nugget size) and the ground isn’t highly mineralized. So you don’t really need a specially designed gold metal detector, just one with good ground balancing to help minimize mineralization effects. Read the product information and see if it mentions the ability to find gold and contact the manufacturer if in doubt. However, If you’re serious about metal detecting for gold in its various sizes and at various depths, it’s best to get a machine that’s purpose-built for gold.


How big is a gold nugget? Well… it varies. Bigger than a flake but keep in mind that gold is usually valued by weight and purity, not size. Knowing the size is somewhat irrelevant. For example, a 1 gram nugget is about as big as a match head and weighs maybe 0.033 ounces. Nonetheless, it’d be awesome to dig something like that up!


So what’s the best metal detector for finding gold? I’ve posted some useful information on my Recommended Gear page.

Making the Most of Your Adventure

Prepare and Enjoy: A day spent metal detecting is a day of fun and adventure. You can go it alone or with a group. Joining a metal detecting club will give you a great education and help you meet other hobbyists.

To make the most of your hunt, bring some water, sunscreen if necessary, appropriate clothing for the weather, and make sure the area is not off-limits to metal detecting. Tell someone where you’re going, when you plan to be back, and bring your phone with you.

Be a good sport: Metal detecting can easily get a bad name if we don’t approach it with some degree of etiquette and respect for others. Our bad behavior will get us banned in more places. So be a good sport and a hobby ambassador. Don’t leave holes unfilled after you dig for your finds.

Click here for my FREE Metal Detector PDF Checklist

How to dig a plug in the grass

Here’s a good example of how to dig a plug in the grass when you’re metal detecting. Notice how he doesn’t cut a full circle, rather leaves one edge connected so the plug can be cleanly replaced. This helps fill the hole, leaving it as found, reduces chance of injury, and helps keep the grass from dying!


What matters when you choose a metal detector

  • What are you trying to do with your metal detector? What are you searching for?
  • Where are you searching and what are you likely to find there?

These criteria will keep you from chasing after technology you don’t need yet and money you can avoid spending.


More tips for you!

Here are some other tips you should follow to make it the best day and keep the future bright for all of us.

Need a Checklist of items for your outing? Jump over here and download a copy!

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