If you love the great outdoors and local history, there’s no better hobby than metal detecting.
Here’s our step-by-step beginner’s guide to choosing equipment, researching locations, and detecting responsibly.
This find comprised thousands of pieces dating to the 7th century, painstakingly crafted from gold and silver.
(Above) The famous folded cross from the Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard.
Ever since the discovery, researchers have been examining, cataloging, and analyzing each and every piece for what it can tell us about its slice of medieval history:
- Who made these pieces?
- How were they used?
- Why were they buried?
Dozens of other metal detectorists have made spectacular finds over the years. From two-pound meteors and Viking hoards to Roman coins and Iron age jewelry: it’s easy to see the allure of this intriguing hobby.
Feeling inspired to give metal detecting a try?
Well, before you get ahead of yourself, keep in mind that your odds of turning up medieval treasure (especially if you’re detecting in the United States) aren’t great.
But with the right equipment, some skill, and a little luck, you can find some fascinating historical artifacts: coins, jewelry, buttons, tools, toys, keys, military items, the list goes on.
We can’t all stumble upon a massive hunk of gold like the Mojave Nugget, a 4.9kg gold nugget found in California in 1977. But there are countless reasons to give metal detecting a try:
- Metal detecting gets you outside, walking around in the fresh air. If you already enjoy going for walks, you may well enjoy adding the thrill of metal detecting. It’s sort of like Pokémon Go, but you’re hunting for actual, tangible goods.
- Interested in history? Imagine holding historical artifacts in your own two hands. Many people nurture their love of history (or find that an interest arises) through metal detecting.
- You’ll learn about your region as you explore it with your metal detector. This hobby will take you to nearby beaches and parks, historic homes and schools. It’s the perfect excuse to go on a few local adventures!
- And finally, the treasure. If you do your research and keep at it, you’re quite likely to turn up some shiny items—like coins and jewelry—that would satisfy anyone’s magpie impulses.
Overall, metal detecting is a great way to learn a new hobby and even collect a lot of neat historical artifacts.
You can really learn a lot about history and your local area while out looking for treasure. If you’re a naturally curious person, metal detecting may be the perfect new hobby for you.
Some people do sell their finds for profit (at pawn shops, for example), but you’ll find that many people simply do it for the thrill of hunting and the satisfaction of connecting with history on a deeper, tangible level.
Naturally, you may have some questions about just how to get into this new activity. It may even seem like a daunting task to learn what you may need to know, but really it’s quite simple.
Here, we’ll go over some of the basics to help you get started without making things too complex or expensive. This will be a beginner’s guide to metal detecting.
What equipment do I need?
Okay, so you’re obviously going to need a metal detector!
There are tons of them on the market, ranging from pretty cheap to so expensive you’d have to sell your car to buy one.
Here’s a good rule, really not just for metal detecting but for a lot of things in life: you don’t need to spend a ton of money, especially as a beginner, on all the fancy gadgets and toys. Just buy a good, solid piece of gear and learn how to use it proficiently.
That said, here are a few good options and tips for a first metal detector.
You have several solid brands to choose from, such as Garrett, Fisher, Minelab, and plenty of others.
Whichever metal detector you decide to buy, make sure to do your research beforehand. Read reviews, and if possible, ask friends who metal detect for their personal experiences and recommendations.
A solid intro metal detector should cost you more than around $150—any less and you’re probably settling for a lower-quality machine that will ultimately let you down.
Depending on the brand and model you buy, expect to spend up to about $400. Within the $150-400 price range, you can get a good-quality metal detector that will serve you well for years.
Some high-end metal detectors retail in the thousands (up to around $10K!), but that is completely unnecessary unless you are a serious prospector.
Now, you may be asking what makes the $300 machines different from a $10,000 machine?
Simply put, the more finely made and expensive a machine is, the more information it can give you about what it’s detecting beneath the ground.
All machines can identify the presence of metal.
A cheaper machine will reliably tell you that it has found something, but a high-end machine will be able to provide more details without you actually digging anything up—have you found a rare golden nugget or a piece of trash? This will save you some time, but at considerable financial cost.
So do your research while looking for a machine, keep an eye out for sales, and think about buying used! Just remember that you shouldn’t have to break the bank to buy your first metal detector.
What else? Do I need additional equipment?
Besides the metal detector, what else do you need to make your time out there searching is fun, fulfilling, and worthwhile? A couple suggestions:
- A hand digger
- A pinpointer
- A bag or other container for holding your finds
First off, you’ll probably want a hand digger for digging plugs. A plug is the term for the small hole you dig to get your hands on the object you’ve found.
The industry standard is the Lesche Digging Tool. There are other, cheaper tools out there, but the Lesche is the best bang for your buck. Don’t bother with plastic, unless you want it to break when you need it most.
The Lesche has a serrated edge to allow you to cut through roots. It’s basically a narrow trowel that will let you dig neat, easily filled holes and make sure that you leave as minimal of an impact on the land as possible.
Another useful tool for a metal detectorist is a pinpointer, which has a pretty self-explanatory name.
Pinpointers give you the location of your target with far more precision than your metal detector itself will. This allows you to dig far fewer plugs, saving time and energy and making less of a mark on your area.
The gold standard for pinpointers is the Garrett Pro Pointer AT. If you really need to save money, the Garret Pro Pointer II is also solid.
Third, you need a bag of some sort to carry your finds, whether junk you’ll sell as scrap or a precious artifact.
A fanny pack is a simple yet effective solution, though if you think you may find anything really nice, keeping something with individual containers for storage may be useful. A pouch with multiple pockets or a fishing tackle box works well for this.
If you use a hard container, stuff it with rags to keep your finds protected.
There are also specialized carry bags for metal detectorists, but to be totally honest, unless you are very serious about metal detecting, you are probably better off saving your money and using something you have on hand to carry your finds in the field.
Additional accessories to consider include:
- Extra coils: search coils come in different sizes and are tailored to different conditions and terrains. If you hunt in multiple kinds of locations, you might want to invest in an additional coil.
- Coil covers: these inexpensive covers protect the search coil of your metal detector from scratches and other damage.
- A purpose-built carry bag: this will let you transport your metal detector easily and conveniently. The alternative is using a standard backpack, but this means dismantling your detector every time you transport it.
Finally, remember that metal detecting involves spending substantial time outside.
Dress for the elements, wear good shoes, don’t forget your sunscreen and bug repellant if necessary, and bring along some snacks, water, and extra batteries.
Where should I go metal detecting? How should I conduct research on potential locations?
All this equipment won’t do you any good if you don’t go looking in the right place.
First, you need to decide what you’re looking for. Then, do some research on places that may turn up those items.
A good first step is the local library, which often will have old records and maps of the area.
You can compare these old maps to new satellite images and see where old structures once stood and now are abandoned in the forest.
This kind of research can give you great insight into how an area used to be a couple decades or even centuries back.
Consider perusing old newspapers, as they may also reference places in the area which are worth your time and interest.
In a similar vein, if your city or town has a local historical society, there may be people and resources there who can help you.
Local historical societies often keep archival records, and knowledgeable staff members can likely point you in the right direction.
(Above) Old map of Sebastian Inlet, Florida.
If you’re planning to look in coastal areas, check old navigational charts to see how the coastline has shifted.
You’d be surprised how much the ocean can move in some areas and this can open up opportunities for metal detecting.
If you’re detecting in the United States, you can take advantage of the app Clio, which is searchable by location and maps out nearby sites of historical interest, from old battlefields and schools to historic homes and parks.
Another good way of getting information is reading metal detecting guide books, but you should be aware that basically anything in them is well-known enough to be fairly picked over.
That is one of the advantages of metal detecting on private property, as you may well be the first person to ever search the area around an abandoned farmhouse since its owners left in in the Great Depression.
Of course, exercise caution around old buildings, but they can often have really neat things hidden inside or in the vicinity which your metal detector can find.
Some areas even have historical aerial photos, which allow you to see change over time in a way that even an old map isn’t able to.
Check out Historic Aerials if you’re interested in trying out this tactic. The site allows you to compare new aerial maps to historic ones, showing you at a glance how things have changed in your area over the past few decades.
You can even talk with people who know the area well.
While of course no one alive today lived through the Civil War, someone who has lived since the 1940s may have a memory of a building or other place related to the war which once stood in a certain area and is now collapsed into ruin. So don’t be hesitant to ask around a local bar or café; you never know what you’ll find out or how many new friends you’ll make.
All in all, you really do have a lot of options when it comes to researching the areas you want to search.
Before you actually head out into the field, conduct some thorough research, make sure you have a firm grasp of what you’re looking for, and know the area well enough to be confident of your metal detecting plan.
What are the relevant laws and regulations concerning metal detecting?
Now that you’ve got your equipment sorted out and gotten some ideas for metal detecting locations, it’s important to talk rules and regulations. After all, you can’t just walk anywhere you want and start searching.
There are rules to abide by, some written in law, others more like guidelines. All must be respected.
So here are some ideas for making sure you don’t break laws or cause harm to anyone or anything while metal detecting.
First off, in the United States it is not legal for you to roll into a National Park and begin looking for artifacts with your metal detector.
It would be awkward if the police caught you digging up buttons in the middle of Gettysburg National Battlefield, so don’t. In fact, it would be a lot worse than awkward.
Metal detecting in National parks is a crime, as is relic hunting and removing artifacts. Doing so could land you in serious trouble: you may be arrested, prosecuted for a felony, fined up to $10,000, and/or imprisoned. Plus, your awesome new equipment will likely be confiscated.
Where are you potentially permitted to dig?
You’ll have better luck with city parks, public schools, beaches, and private property—but you’ll still need to acquire the proper permissions.
Before starting your hunt, make sure you check with the authorities who run the given area.
Want to go metal detecting in a local park? Contact the town government or local law enforcement.
Interested in looking for artifacts on school properties? Give the school district superintendent a call to acquire permission to metal detect on school grounds all over the district.
In general, and especially if you’re on public land, it’s a good idea to get written permission from the owner or administrator of the area. Bring this written permission with you when you search in case anyone questions your right to be there.
A great place to look for buried treasures is on private land, especially since there you are not bound by public land regulations. Simply ask the owner for permission to metal detect and dig on the property.
It often helps if you explain your basic procedure to property owners, letting them know that you dig only small plugs and leave the land just as you found it. If you feel uncomfortable with knocking on someone’s door to ask permission, try sending a letter instead.
As long as you follow these common-sense rules, you should be safe from trouble while out metal detecting.
What about metal detecting etiquette?
Now that we’ve gone over the more formal aspect of ascertaining whether you have the legal right and permission to metal detect in the first place, let’s talk about some unwritten, informal rules.
These guidelines will ensure that you don’t do any damage or give metal detectorists a bad name.
As a good first rule, do no harm.
This applies to life as a whole, but you need to be careful of it here, since when you metal detect you can end up digging quite a few holes. Fill them in. No exceptions.
Be conscientious about where you dig and make sure you leave everything looking about the same way you found it.
If you get permission to dig on private land and in the process you dig two hundred holes, none of which you fill in, that is a surefire way of never being allowed back on that land. And the landowner will probably never let any metal detectorist on their property again because of those damages.
You’re bound to find more junk than treasure. So what to do with all the rusty nails or bolts or soda cans?
It’s bad form to leave them just lying there in the dirt, so pick up and pack out any trash you may find. If nothing else, you will make the area you’re searching a cleaner, safer place for everybody.
Also, cleaning an area up will absolutely help the reputation of metal detectorists like you in that area, so be considerate and do what you can to pick up trash and improve the area.
Time to get out there and metal detect…
Now comes the fun part.
1) Learn how to use your metal detector
This should happen before you take off on a major treasure hunt.
Your detector almost certainly arrives with a manual or instructional DVD, and there are also plenty of model-specific tutorials you can search for online. Do your homework, then get outside and give it a try!
2) Once you’re in your location, you’ll start your search
It’s a common misconception that you need to stare at your metal detector’s screen to know when you’ve hit the jackpot—actually, it’s most important to listen.
Your machine will make a number of bleeps in different tones, which you’ll learn to interpret as you gain experience. If you have trouble hearing your detector over background noise, try using headphones.
3) Walk slowly.
If you powerwalk around, you’re bound to miss things. Keep the coil low and close to the ground—but not too close. It shouldn’t touch or bump into the ground, just hover over it.
4) Got a good signal? It’s time to dig a plug
To learn how to do this, it’s easiest to watch a tutorial like this one. With a little hands-on practice, you’ll get the hang of it in no time.
Let’s say you’re hunting on a lawn: In essence, the plug is a small hole cut in a U-shape that remains connected on one side to the grass. This allows you to flip it back over and replace it in the ground once you’re retrieved your target. A good plug is at least 3” or so deep to avoid severing the grass roots.
5) Can you see your target immediately? If not, get out your pinpointer and put it in the hole
The pinpointer will let you know (by beeping or vibrating) when you’re super close to your find and will direct where you should look. This way, you avoid digging up a massive hole and can get straight to your target.
6) Place your finds in a pouch or pack
If you want to clean your finds (***not always advisable: more on this below), you can do so with a soft toothbrush or similar implement before you stow them away.
If you’ve just found junk, you should pack that away too, ideally in a different section of your container.
7) Replace any loose dirt into the hole
And flip your plug back down into the ground.
8) Keep hunting!
Where to go next time? It’s sensible to switch up your locations.
Once you’ve thoroughly searched a particular area, you’re unlikely to turn up anything good the very next week.
Whether you rotate through a few favorite spots or always try somewhere new is up to you.
What to do with my finds? Should I clean them?
Let’s say you’ve had a successful day and you’re now holding some 18th century French coins once lost in the Ohio River Valley! What do you do with these? Well you have a couple of solid options.
Many metal detectorists keep their finds for their own personal collections.
As I said earlier, a natural curiosity about local history is a strong motivator to go metal detecting in the first place, so those French coins would make a fine addition to a collection and give a good reference point for, say, an interest in the Seven Years’ War.
If you plan to keep your finds, then you may want to consider cleaning them so that you can maximize your appreciation of them.
There are several ways to clean old metal items, but the simplest is to use warm water and gentle soap. Rub gently with a cloth or soft brush to remove stubborn dirt or debris.
However, if you think you may want to sell your finds, or if you are a historical collector who values authenticity highly, do not clean your finds. This is especially true for coins, but goes for other objects too.
Remember that Winchester Model 1873 rifle found leaning against a tree in the Nevada wilderness back in 2014?
Well in case you don’t, a National Park employee found a Winchester Model 1873 rifle made in 1882 just leaning against a tree in Great Basin National Park. This rifle went to a museum, naturally, since it was found in a National Park (remember what I said earlier about that?).
Museum conservationists took great pains to conserve this antique gun in its present condition and prevent further damage—but otherwise altering or restoring it was out of the question.
Now what if you found a gun like this on private land out there in Nevada? Well, whatever it was worth to a vintage arms collector would be greatly reduced if you went and cleaned it up, or even worse, refinished it.
The same goes for cleaning a coin. To a rare coin collector, the coin is worth most in its found condition, uncleaned.
Cleaning a coin will almost certainly damage it, either by leave abrasions on its surface from scrubbing it, no matter how gentle you are, or by depositing chemical residues from any cleaning agents you use.
So if you may have any plans of selling your finds, keep them in their original condition!
Metal detecting is awesome!
There’s no doubt about it.
There’s also a lot to consider when getting into metal detecting.
To sum it up: you can buy a solid beginner’s metal detector without exceeding $400.
Check out my recommendations for the best metal detectors for beginners here.
Other than that, the only pieces of equipment truly necessary for beginners are a pinpointer, a hand digger, and some sort of container.
Yes, you can add a literally endless list of gear until you have a wagon full of it in tow behind you, but keep it minimal for now and you’ll be just fine.
Be careful regarding local, state, and federal regulations. Don’t metal detect where you don’t have permission and make sure that no matter what, you respect the land.
Respecting your surroundings is an absolutely essential component of this wonderful hobby.
Brush up on your local history knowledge before going out. This will save you from a whole lot of manual labor, wasted effort, and frustration. Plus, you’ll learn a lot about local history in the process.
Expect some trial and error as you learn the ins and outs of operating your new metal detector and scope out different potential locations.
All in all, you can learn tons while out metal detecting, and you can even collect all sorts of unique finds along the way, along with a cool story or two.
Whether you go into the field looking for old coins for your personal collection and seeking to strike it big with some gold, have fun and good luck hunting out there!