Beginning Tips for Metal Detecting

Article

Metal detecting is a fascinating hobby (some say “sport”) that is gaining more and more attention, due to TV shows like “Diggers” and news reports of recovered treasures. Metal detectors are used by construction crews to find buried pipes and cables before digging, by coin hunters in local parks and playgrounds, by gold prospectors looking for nuggets, people searching old settlements for relics, and even by archaeologists looking for ancient buried ruins.

Many people end up buying a metal detector for one reason, then branching out to explore other areas of the hobby. The same detector that is good for coinshooting can also find relics, or can be used at the beach to look for lost jewelry. More than a few people have bought a cheap detector at the local hobby store to find a lost wedding ring or set of keys, and have been “bitten” by the treasure hunting bug.

You don't have to start out with a $1000 machine to find things, Plenty of experienced detectorists with a $150 machine have followed directly behind “newbies” with an expensive detector and found things they missed. It isn't the price of your machine, it's how you swing it! Check our guides to decide on a metal detector suited for your interests and your budget, as well as tips on different types of treasure hunting:

This guide is aimed at covering some of the basics that apply to all types of metal detecting.

Where To Hunt With A Metal Detector

Where To Hunt With A Metal Detector

If you're just starting out, some popular places are:

Playgrounds, community sports fields, hiking trails, schoolgrounds, old home sites, beaches, swimming holes, and campgrounds.

If allowed, detecting where sidewalks or streets are being torn up can yield some old coins or artifacts. Sidewalks are usually placed where people had already been walking, and streets could be hiding items that were lost there back when it was just a dirt road. Construction sites, again, with permission, may yield items lost in the early history of the area.

Do some research on the internet or the local library to find where old buildings such as churches, schools, taverns, and hotels once stood. Old aerial maps and plat maps are a good resource for this.

For specifics on where to hunt for particular things, check the Guides to Metal Detecting linked above.

Revisit old turf/ hunted-out spots

If you've hunted-out all your usual places, go back over them after a rain. Not only is wet soil more conductive, which means your metal detector can see deeper, but sometimes a hard rain can expose previously unreachable targets. Check after a heavy storm for toppled trees and uprooted bushes. There may have been long-lost things hiding in or under the roots. The spring thaw can also reinvigorate old hunting spots. As the frozen ground thaws, it can churn new targets to where you can find them.

Learning To Hunt With A Metal Detector

First, read the manual (or watch the instructional DVD.) Seriously.

Even if you're a super genius or an electrical engineer, you need to learn how to bring out the potential of your new machine (remember what we said about the experienced hunter finding things the new guys had just missed.) You won't be able to get the best performance from your detector if you haven't learned how to adjust it for various conditions.

Practice

Practice

After reading your manual, go try out what you've learned in your back yard. If you're a little sloppy in digging your first targets, there's no one to yell at you (except your spouse!) Make a testing area in a flower bed, or a corner of your yard, with different types of targets at different depths. This is a great way to practice learning what you detector is “telling you.” A penny or bottle cap just below the surface can sound very different than one that is deeper. Even if it's just for a few minutes, bury a gold ring and practice telling the difference between the signal it gives off, compared to a pull tab.

Take care of your detector

Take care of your detector

Don't drop your detector when starting to dig a contact. It's a delicate electronic instrument. Clean it after returning from every trip. Wiping down the wires, brushing dirt out of joints and seams, checking connections, and examining the battery compartment after every hunt will catch little things before they become big problems. Remove the batteries if won't be hunting for a while. Buying plastic covers for your coils to keep them from being scratched up is a small cost that saves you from shelling out hundreds of bucks to replace a damaged coil.

Know Local Metal Detecting Laws and Regulations

Know Local Metal Detecting Laws and Regulations

Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Fines and/or seizure of your machine because you didn't check ahead before digging is a rotten way to spend the weekend. Simply possessing a metal detector at a National Parks battlefield site is a FELONY, and will result in your machine being seized. Also remember, always get permission to hunt private property! That said, many city and county parks are open to metal detectorists.

Dig everything

Dig everything

When starting out, you want to dig every signal. This is the only way to learn for yourself how your detector reacts to each type of target. This is especially important if you're hunting in an area where there may be jewelry. Small pieces of jewelry can ring up just like a pull tab or piece of foil. The only way to learn the difference is to dig tons of junk until you find that golden target.

On the other hand, don't try to learn to metal detect in an area full of junk. If you're hitting iron or pull tabs with every swing, you're going to get tired and discouraged. Even if you discriminate out the iron and pull tabs to look for old coins, the trash can mask good targets until you learn to refine your technique.

Have Reasonable Expectations

Have Reasonable Expectations

While you want to have a positive attitude when heading out to metal detect, don't let yourself get down if you don't make a big score on every trip. Learning how to get the most out of your detector takes time and experience, but sometimes you won't find anything good because there was nothing good to find!

Rescan Every Hole

Rescan Every Hole

After you dig a target, always scan the hole again before filling it back in. You can probably ask any metal detectorist who has been hunting a moderate length of time, and they will tell you about digging several targets out of the same hole. These are called “coin spills,” and are not uncommon at all. One hunter I know dug a pull tab, scanned the hole again, and found a dime. He scanned the hole a third time, and eight inches deep found a Morgan silver dollar! Both those coins were hidden by the signal of the pull tab on top.

Some people give the hobby a bad name by not picking up trash, and not filling in holes. These are also the sort of people who don't know enough to rescan their holes. Check the hole left behind by the “bad actor” and see if they missed something, before pushing the dirt back into the hole.

How To Dig A Proper Hole (Plug)

How To Dig A Proper Hole (Plug)
Photo By: Detecting365.com

This is a very important subject. Leaving a place looking like demented gophers attacked it is a surefire way to get the city council or county commission to outlaw metal detecting on public property, or making a landowner angry enough to tell everyone to take a hike when they ask to hunt their property. You always, even at the beach, want to leave no trace that you were there at all.

Don't take big shovels with you, even to the beach.

This is a great way to draw unwanted attention to yourself. Use the right digging tools for the job, and cover your holes appropriately. (You can read more about choosing a digging tool in the “Guide to Coin Hunting”, and “Guide to Relic Hunting”.) Digging a plug involves cutting only as much grass as needed to retrieve the target, and firmly placing the grass back into the hole. You want to do what you can to keep the grass from dying. There are a few methods you can use to keep from killing grass when digging:

Dig Straight Down

You want to keep as much of the root ball intact as you can, so don't angle your digger. This also decreases the chance of scratching or gouging the target with your digger. Digging straight down, deeper than the grass roots, allows you to pop the plug out with a minimum of damage to the roots.

Make a “U” Turn

Making a “U” -shaped cut means that one side of the plug will stay connected to the rest of the lawn, helping the grass to recover. Try cut at least 2” away from the pinpointed spot on three sides, then flip the plug over by using the uncut side as a hinge. Leaving one side intact also helps prevent dogs, squirrels, or lawnmowers from pulling the plug up. Coin hunters working in parks have reported thieving squirrels going behind them and digging every single plug up, to see if the human was burying food.

This is where having a hand-held pinpointer assists in making a smaller hole. You want a plug big enough to recover on its own, but you don't want the mess that results if you end up having to dig out the sides of your hole to find your target. You can find information on pinpointers and other essential gear in the various metal detecting guides linked above.

Be Neat

Carry a small cloth or piece of cardboard to place the dirt you dig from the hole on. After recovering the target, pour the dirt back in the hole, and replace the plug. This way, there's no dirt patches showing on the ground for finicky people to have a fit over. Sooner or later, you will have some busybody berate you for “ruining the park.” There is no small satisfaction in asking them to point out where you dug, and they can't.

Work Quickly

Once you flip the plug over, use your pinpointer to scan it for your target. You'd be surprised how many times a coin or other target will be in the plug. If it isn't there, sweep the inside of the hole, to see if the target is in the sides of the hole, or at the bottom. Every second that the plug is out of the ground, the roots are stressing and drying out in the air. Also, you want to be efficient so that you can hit as many targets as possible in one trip.

Give the Grass a Sip

Especially in the summer months when the grass is already stressed, a little bit of water on the plug can go a long way towards preventing the grass from dying. Carry a water bottle, and dribble a little on the plug after you replace it.

RESPECT

Respecting other people and the property you are hunting on is best thing you can do to help preserve the sport of metal detecting. Many parks, playgrounds, and private property where metal detecting was once allowed are now off limits due to the actions of ignorant or selfish people. Don't be that guy!

Other People

If there are other people at a location when you arrive, start hunting in a location a good distance away, even if they're where you had planned to start. Sunbathers at the beach, parents with children at a playground, and others can feel uneasy if you show up and start rooting around right next to them. They have the same right to enjoy themselves as you do, so be considerate. Once you've been around a while, they are likely to forget completely about you.

If you'd rather hunt the playgrounds, parks, and beaches without with over-curious kids trying to “help” you, you may want to try detecting early in the morning or near sunset.

Be A “Ringfinder”

One of the best ways to put metal detecting in a positive light in the public's eye is to volunteer to be a “ringfinder.” These people agree to respond when someone loses a ring or other important item that can be found with a metal detector. There is even a nationwide database of metal detectorists willing to help distraught people find their lost property, at www.theringfinders.com .

Make Friends – Haul the Junk Out

Make friends with the park rangers or beach patrol by hauling out your trash. I carry a plastic grocery bag with me, just to hold the trash I dig up. Be sure to show the ranger or officer all the trash you've cleaned up, and mention that you will throw it in the garbage bin on your way back to your car.

Be A Good Guy

Become familiar with, and follow, the Metal Detecting Code of Ethics. Every metal detecting club will have a similar version, and many metal detector manufacturers and retailers also display the Code of Ethics. Being a responsible hunter saves our sport for all of us. You can read a sample Code of Ethics here.

Metal Detecting Safety

Metal Detecting Safety

As much fun as metal detecting can be, all detectorists need to take some simple precautions. Many problems can be avoided simply by staying aware of your surroundings.

It's easy to tune out the world while wearing a headset and focusing on what your detector is finding, but you should get into the habit of pausing and scanning your immediate area. Are there any unleashed dogs around? A playful dog can knock you over or grab that detector you're waving around, wanting to play tug of war. Check for wasp nests, poison ivy, and other such natural hazards. Snakes are common surprises when relic hunting in the woods, and you might not hear a rattlesnake's warning while wearing headphones.

You should have a charged cell phone and small first aid kit, and let someone know where you're going and when you'll be back. Just do the same common sense things you'd do if you were going on a hike.

Is there anyone hanging around that seems to be watching you, especially people that seem out of place? Don't set yourself up for a mugging. Find a partner to hunt with, especially in remote areas or at night. If you decide to take personal protection when treasure hunting alone, make sure that you aren't violating any laws.

NEVER show off finds to strangers while hunting. Someone may claim it and go to the police, saying you stole it, or they might wait until you're alone and take it (and your detector) by force.

If someone comes to you saying they lost something, ask them what it looks like and where they lost it BEFORE you show anything you have found. If someone asks you “Find anything good?” you tell them “Nothing but bottlecaps and pulltabs.” On a similar note, if someone asks you how much your detector cost, tell them you picked it up at a garage sale or pawn shop, or your uncle/cousin gave it to you, or just say, “Not much, this is just a basic model.” You don't want to be knocked in the head for your machine!

So, Get Started, Already!

Treasure hunting with a metal detector is a great way to enjoy the outdoors, test your skills, experience the thrill of digging a great find, and discovery a bit of history. Alone, or as a member of a club, metal detecting is a sport that can be enjoyed for decades. Find a buddy or club near you at sites such as the Friendly Metal Detecting Forum or TreasureNet.

Get out there, get swinging, and good luck!