Gold panning in seven steps – How to find placer gold with a pan

Gold panning procedures

Here are seven simple steps to follow while gold panning.  Keep in mind that you’ll need to adjust these procedures based on the type of gold pan you have and  the type of placer gold that you find while prospecting and mining.  Other reasons to adjust include, skill levels, recent floods and topography, All these will influence your gold panning steps. A gold pan is the most fundamental of gold prospecting tools. In fact the gold pan is a very, very old technology.

Gold panning still provides you the simplest, cheapest and most reliable means to concentrate gold for extraction or recovery. And gold panning is fun!

When a gold pan is used with the proper gold panning technique it is fairly easy to do and should not need that much effort to reduce each pan to gold concentrates and black sands as a result. So here is a simple guide on how to pan for gold…

Want to see these seven gold panning steps in action? 
Watch this Gold panning video training…

Gold Panning
Gold panning

Seven steps to gold panning success:

  1. Fill the gold pan 3/4 full with gold pay-dirt from your placer sample location . Gently submerge the pan slightly & soak the contents while holding pan horizontally. Stir the wet material with your fingers and remove any large rocks, sticks or roots.  Always check these gold panning tailings materials, perform a brief check for gold. Usually look for gold’s bright yellow glowing color and metallic luster, not sparkles.   Also separate this gold panning waste material into neat tailings pile that you go through later, perhaps using a metal detector to look out for gold bearing rocks that you may have overlooked.
  2. For effective gold recovery, be sure you can easily recover material from this mining tailings pile later, or put it into another clean safety pan or container when you initially practice.  This container consists of another gold pan or you can use a lid from a tub. Set theses such that you can safely pan into them without loss.  As you get good at panning or sampling for gold you’ll need the safety pan less because you be confident of the gold that you’ll recover.  Even then there are times a pro will use a safety pan because of the knowledge that there will be significant remaining gold that was missed in the previous panning cycle.  Usually this is only when there’s a lot of fine gold present.
  3. Now it’s time to break up any clay or hard packed pay-dirt material in the pan.  Stir the water into the material and submerge your pan gently and carefully to wash any twigs, roots, rocks or mossy material that may be in your pan with the dirt you picked up .  It’s a good idea to rinse  any coarse porous rocks free of any clay  material stuck to their surface.  Gold will easily stick to clay and can be washed downstream with the lighter rocks and gravel with clay stuck to them. If you don’t break apart or wash gold out of the pores and holes in the rock before the rock passes out of your pan, you can lose gold.
  4. Shake the gold pan vigorously in a slight circle mixing it up with your hand at the same time. You are going to liquify the sand, mud, rocks & gold. Be careful not to slosh over the sides before the gold gets settled to the bottom. This will wash and agitate the dirt and clay and rock material so that the heavy gold will sink to the bottom of your pan and the lighter, rocks, sticks and sandy-muddy material will float to the top.  This gold panning step is known as stratification or layering. It creates horizontal layers of material of the various densities the materials in your pan.  The layers will have lighter rock, sand & gravel on top and heavy black sands & gold sink to the bottom. Now start to tilt the pan downward while holding just under the surface & continue the shaking to keep material in suspension.  Stop shaking just when material starts to slide forward. The gold will be at the lowest point in the pan right now.
  5. This next step is where we shave the stratified pan layers out of the pan from light to heavy. This is done by tipping the pan to one edge just under the surface of the water (The edge with coarse riffles facing away from you.)  Then while holding the pan at this ~45 degree angle you begin by pulling the pan toward you. As you stop pulling you will see a small wave pile up at the back of the pan and reflect across the sand & gravel.  As the wave of water sweeps across, it will shave or sweep off a bit of layered material. Continue this action until you have removed the top layers. Do not shake and stir the layered material up at this point.  If the gold panning material starts to get stirred up, then tilt the pan back flat and re-stratify to get any disturbed gold layers back to the bottom corner of the pan. The goal is to get down to gold concentrates and black sands. Then perform the next step.
  6. In this step we swirl the gold concentrates and black sands to create a comet tail of gold colors following the black sands in your pan that will allow us to use our gold snuffer bottle to quickly suck up the concentrated gold particles and coarse gold. Of course, hand pick the nuggets and pickers out and place them in your sample vial.
  7. Keep all gold bearing black sands in a clean plastic jar for further fine gold concentration later after your gold panning is finished for the day…Next gold panning step is to start the procedures again at step 1 with a new pan full of your gold bearing material.

For more on gold panning and a detailed video demonstration…

See this detailed gold panning demonstration video offer – Gold panning video here

Another small article on gold panning can be found here. The video in the link above covers a lot more about these seven steps to use a gold pan…

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  1. Kyle says

    Hello, I live in southern Vermont and have taken to a little rockhounding and gold panning as a hobby for me and my daughter. We have an abandoned mine on our hunk of rock we call our land. It’s full of water and local rumor says they were mining lead and copper , found a little gold and hit and underground water vein . It is listed on us geological survey as an” unnamed mine” associated with a hydrothermal quartz vein” there is a huge amount of quartz up and downhill of the site, most of which is sandwiched with what seems to be foliated micaceous talc( green and greasy). There is a decent creek that runs in a gully behind the opening of the mine…. Think it would be worth panning? I’ve taken rock samples from the tailings and have found a decent amount of pyrite and chalcopyrite .

    • says

      As long as you have panning & mineral access you should pan the creek below the mine(s). Chalco pyrite can have gold in the crystal structure along with copper in significant quantities, this is often shown on the USGS MRDS records as copper and some gold. Is there limestone in the area where the quartz vein cuts through?

      • Kyle says

        Not sure if its limestone or gypsum but I did some digging in the rubble at the sides and front of the mine and found two chunks of quartz that have a faint purple color and pockets of soft white material that can be scratched with a knife attached to them.

  2. mark blum says

    I live in up-state new York, I hear stories of gold being found here in years past. im interested in looking for it, what would your thoughts be, is this gold baring land ????

    • Prospector Jess says

      Mark, I get a lot of requests about NY Gold. There is some gold on most every state or country, but NY is particularly low in terms of gold recovery. I suspect there is a geological reason, like glacier and mountain building patterns. With that said I suggest you look at neighboring states to the east like Vermont & New Hampshire. See for someone finding gold in western NY state. Another resource to check for NY Gold is:

  3. Joseph Moscatello says

    I posted this once but, I can’t find it!!!

    Gold Fever or, Dedicated Prospector?
    You be the judge!

    Two times now on different occasions, I have lost two pickers at home in the carpet.
    The better half of me, the woman I love suggested I Vac the carpet and pan the dirt!!!
    I somewhat cringed at the idea but, on a day I was board, I did it!!!
    Not only did I find the two pieces I lost but, I found around 10 others.

    P.J. About Cold River. I have found a GREAT spot. Wednesday July 31st we found 45 colors in one test hole. Four of them were good size pickers.
    Want to post a pic of it but, don’t know where to do it on your site.

  4. Joseph Moscatello says

    Maranatha P.J.

    Loved the reference to Psalms brother.
    I am in Vermont prospecting the Cold River. I have found a little so far Thanks to you and all your knowledge!
    My questions: 1 When sampling, do I need to dig far? I think I am wasting time. So far what I have found has been closer to the surface but when I dug deeper I found nothing.
    2 Another prospector says he scratches the surface to locate, is this correct?
    3 In flood stage, roughly how long does it take for gold to sink to bed rock?
    Thank you so very much.
    P.S. Josh, your a panning monster!!! Thanks for your help.

    • Prospector Jess says

      Thanks for your kind words and questions.

      Let me Get your questions:
      1. Q: How deep to dig? (paraphrase)
      A: Dig to bedrock or false bedrock for larger gold particles & nuggets.
      When you say deeper are you in the cracks at bedrock?
      That’s where most of the nuggets will hide (or clay/concreted layers above it – a.k.a. false bedrock)

      2. Q: Scratch the surface to locate?
      A: Depends on the type of gold and how close to bedrock or some layered anomaly you are at the surface.
      In general fine or flour gold may concentrate at the surface due to flow settling patterns as a major flood slows down. The friction force caused by water speed is what drives gold to move and what drives gold to bedrock unless its surface to mass is large enough (flour gold). So scratching the surface only will likely only find finer gold. If the area is mostly fine gold this may work as a strategy, but if its larger gold of nuggets this will only work if the surface is within reach of bedrock.

      3. Q: How fast will gold sink in a flood stage stream?
      A: In flood stage, think of the stream as a long cement mixer. The fluid will be viscous & loaded with mud and sand. The gold nuggets will take a little longer to settle to the bottom than they would in clear water, but not much more than double the time. In other words gold drops to the bottom FAST! At that point the gold will creep along the bottom layers being driven by rocks, cobbles and gravel/sand slurry like a conveyer belt. Gold will only move when a more massive object strikes it or friction is strong enough to overcome the sticking friction of the stream bottom. The deeper it sinks the slower and more concentrated it gets.

  5. steve hyer says

    I’m in central east Indiana prospesting creeks and rivers any info would be of help

    • Prospector Jess says

      Keep at it, crush the clay and consider if you have a lot of it then classify and wash the material well before panning.

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