If ever there was an activity suited to the RV lifestyle, it is prospecting for valuable minerals. Whether it is strictly a hobby, an avocation to generate some extra income, or a significant mining effort to fill the motor coach treasury, the prospector is rewarded with time outdoors in a wild setting, exercise and, with perseverance and luck, valuable minerals with high monetary value.
There’s more to it than gold
Many people equate prospecting with gold. I have omitted the word “gold” because there can be more to prospecting than gold recovery. There is, of course, silver. You can find platinum, too, which is often present along with gold. If you like gemstones, there are opportunities for gem recovery in many states, western Canada, and the Mexican deserts and mountains. But the focus here will be on prospecting for gold.
You can get started prospecting with a minimal investment in equipment, as little as a garden trowel, crevice tool (which can be an old screwdriver), and a steel or plastic gold pan. Your prospecting equipment can be as elaborate and expensive as you wish, with sluices, motorized panners, “high-bankers,” or machines that pan values from dry ground. There are motorized machines that will do most of the work for you.
We’ll focus on the vast array of equipment choices in the weeks ahead. For now, I’ll begin with a very basic example of a very low-cost, easy prospecting adventure that you can enjoy with minimal investment of money and effort. You’ll then be able to decide if prospecting is an activity that you will enjoy.
Traditional hand tools
The American West’s early-day prospectors used a pick, a shovel, and a gold pan. The essential prospecting tools that have been in use since the Western frontier days are still the standard. You can find them at prospector’s supply stores, online, or hardware stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot.
Search for good ground
The common prospector term “gold is where you find it” is not very helpful to the prospector, other than to suggest that it can be anywhere. Geologists have said that there is gold in all fifty U.S. states. But there is not much satisfaction in gold prospecting unless you find some, so here is a basic primer on locating precious metals.
Gold, platinum, silver – all the precious metals – are deposited in rocks that formed under tremendous heat and pressure in ancient geologic time. Gold is often embedded in quartz veins resulting from super-heated rocks during volcanic activity. Over hundreds and thousands of years, weathering and erosion of rock formations result in gold washing down from higher ground into streambeds. The streambeds may be the ones we seek to camp next to, or they may be “ancient rivers” or streams that have changed course over time. An excellent book on this subject is Dave McCraken’s Gold Mining in the 21st Century.
You can often find gold in current streambeds, in gravel that has washed down the mountain slopes and lies on hard bedrock in the stream. An even better place to prospect is in those ancient stream gravels mentioned earlier. Here, the gold lies trapped in the gravel of the old (now dry) streambed against the underlying bedrock. Digging out this layer of gravel, or removing the gravel found in cracks in the bedrock, will often yield amazing paystreaks of the yellow metal.
Be mindful of your prospecting grounds–you’re fine on most public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service. In Alaska, prospecting and mining are regulated by the state government. You’re generally OK on stream beds below the high-water mark. Prospecting on private property requires permission of the property owner.
Where you see the heavy gold, you may also locate platinum, which weighs even more than gold – about 30 percent heavier. Identifying silver in a stream or “placer” deposit is tough.
Extracting the treasure
You will extract this treasure by filling your gold pan about half to two-thirds full and then submerging it in the water. Shaking from side to side causes the heaviest material in your pan to gravitate to the bottom. Start slow and do not hurry. By shaking the pan and swirling the water around, you will loosen the lightest rocks, sand, and gravel, and then when you tilt the pan slightly in the stream, these more lightweight materials will roll off and wash out of the pan. It takes some practice, but you will soon be panning like a “’49er.” Keep at a slow, steady pace and wash the gravel down to just sand in the bottom of your pan. Haste makes waste because you could, by rushing the process, wash gold right over the edge of your pan! Watch Garrett Detector’s Gold Panning Like a Pro video for a visual tutorial on this process.
Next time, we’ll examine upping your equipment game once you become hooked on prospecting!