Treasure Hunting With a Metal Detector

Apart from blenders, toaster ovens and computers, another realm the microchip has improved immensely are the new state-of-the-art metal detectors.

Metal detectors have been around for a long time, about seventy years or so, but until relatively recently they've been severely limited as to the type of ground they could penetrate.  All of the iron in the ground in California, Nevada and Colorado has been like a solid wall to metal detectors, until now.  This new wave of metal detectors can now penetrate these ferrous-rich areas, and great discoveries await those who try.

The technology has also enabled metal detectors to work correctly in salt water.  The old style worked somewhat, but not nearly as well as the new ones do.

I'll list out some popular ways in which this new metal detector technology can be used for fun and profit.  You don't have to buy the fanciest one on the shelf, but you'll certainly get more options, the more you pay.  A more-expensive model can not only tell how deep a coin is buried, but even what type of coin it is.  It can also tell basic metal types, such as "iron", "silver", "gold", and can even isolate and identify pull-top tabs, the all-time bane of the treasure hunter.  So, a few extra dollars spent now will probably save you endless hours later in the field.


We'd better get this one out of the way first.  Sorry, but gold, as a detectable metal, is really a bust with a metal detector, no matter how sophisticated.  It's way down near the end of the scale as far as metal detector sensitivity goes.   If you're after raw gold, go buy a sluice box and dredge a river.

The Submarine Bar

"Bartender!  Drinks are on me!" you holler as you enter your favorite pub after fishing a nice 'nugget' out of the ocean that day.


With a spit and a rub, looking like the day they were born.

And probably worth a pretty penny, too.

Out in the ocean, around the place where the waves crash, is a trough that runs the length of the shore.  Walking down from the beach, you first hit shallow water, then the trough, then there's a small rise, then the gradual descent continues.

That small rise, where things like lost diamond rings get lodged up against, is called the submarine bar.

First, you find out which local beaches are the hip beaches for the rich crowd.  There's Mom in her big mansion, finally allowing the kids to drag her to the beach for the day.  There's always that one precious age when the kids are big enough to go in the water, but not unsupervised.  So there's Mom up to her waist, with that big fancy rock on her finger — the one she never takes off, not ever — and there she is in that cold, foamy ocean water.

Her fingers shrink from the cold, the foam acts as lubricant, and suddenly there's little Billy tossing her the football or frisbee shouting, "Throw it, Mommy!  Throw it, Mommy!  THROW IT!!"

And she does.

And that big rock flies off her finger and is just a glint in the sunlight, never to be seen again.  Or so she and her insurance adjuster thought.

And now here you are, bellied up to the ol' submarine bar.  You've got your wet suit on and metal detector in hand.  Nearby floats a tethered inner tube with a sieve made from a wood frame and 1/2" screening lodged in the center.  You walk the length of the submarine bar, dodging the occasional wave and in general having a ball.  The weather's warm, children play, gulls keen in the summer sky.

Suddenly, you hear a little beep in the headphones.  You center in on the beep, grab the tethered scoop floating nearby, and dig out the area you've got marked with your toe.  You dump it into the inner tube, and the natural lapping motion of the waves from beneath sifts the sand and pebbles through the screen.  Nothing is revealed except for a few old shells.

Keeping your toe firmly on the spot, you grab the detector and try again.  This time it seems to pinpoint a few inches to the right.  You grab the scoop, make a big cut, and dump the contents into the sieve.

Bingo!  Your eyes catch a glint in the sunlight as you reach down to pick up a first-class nugget on a first-class ring.  "Thanks, Mom!", you say aloud as you pocket your first find of the day.  You believe the occasional emerald or ruby is okay, but diamonds are really the best, holding their market value the way they do.  All in all, you're quite the little realist.

Happy little scenario, eh?  And very real, and very obtainable.  And you don't need a very sophisticated metal detector to do it with, just a saltwater-proof one.  An old wet suit if need be, some cheapie headphones so you can hear the metal detector over the crash of the waves (made waterproof with glue and baggies), an inner tube, some wood and screen and you're in business.

And one thing that makes it particularly attractive, as referred to land hunts, is that most metal objects will quickly dissolve in the salt water and you won't be presented with false leads.  Diamond-laden gold alloy rings, however, are a different breed of cat.  When you hear the headphones chirp, it'll probably be something interesting.

The two basic factors involved in selecting the right beach are 'where the rich people go' and 'shallow slope'.  Some beaches are just too steeply sloped and you'll be over your head before you get to the submarine bar.  So you'll need to do some homework.

On the other hand, there's always scuba gear.

You can also do this routine at what I'll call "Brown's Beach".  In the early part of the past century there were lots of small, independently-owned beaches in the coastal cities.  You'd pay your nickel and spend the day there.  Well, ol' Brown's Beach is long gone, but those gems that flew off those fingers aren't, so your mission is to dig up some old city maps, do a little triangulation if need be, and find Brown's Beach.  It might just be part of some vast public expanse of public city beach or it might be some sandless, rocky, abandoned beach just outside of town.  Either way, you know what to do.

And if you really want to get serious, there's this:

The neap tide is the lowest tide of the month.  'Spring tides' are even lower.  But every great while, there's a special spring tide that goes lower still.

There will come a time when the tide is supremely low, when the offshore breezes blow stiff, when there's a high-pressure area out to sea, when both the sun and moon's pull are just right…

and then, just maybe…

you might reach the diamond-shooter's Sacred Ground:

The second submarine bar.

What doesn't get caught on the first submarine bar will most likely get caught on the second.  By that time the water's much deeper and there aren't any crashing waves to upset things.

The diamond rings that we don't find will lie there forever.

Coin Shootin'

Like to do a little coin shootin'?  With the new state-of-the-art metal detectors, you can hunt for coins like nobody's ever been able to before.  This is a statement with immense impact, in great part because the trail has already been blazed by treasure hunters of yore, but you're going to find what they were unable to detect.  There are scads of books on the subject, both on treasure hunting in general and treasure hunting with a metal detector specifically.

Let's take it step-by-step:

First, a 'key coin' is a coin that's extra-valuable, usually because a mint burned down that year so not many were made.

Second, we redefine the term "Boom Town".  We traditionally think of them in terms of gold, silver, even logging, but there were thousands of Boom Towns in the 1800's, booming for a few years over bauxite or molybdenum or zinc, then abandoned, becoming ghost towns.  But Boom Towns were what made Big Industry thrive, and what made Boom Towns thrive was cold, hard cash.  So the Boom Towns always received their share of fresh coinage from the mints, even during times of shortage.

Now let's take a map of the western half of the United States and make our first overlay just those areas that are rich in ferrous material; those areas that have successfully defied metal detecting for more than half a century.  Colorado has some pretty nasty areas so we'll concentrate our efforts there.  There are, of course, ferrous-rich areas all over the world.

Now we overlay the dates of the key coins over our map.  Then we overlay the dates of the Boom Towns.  Ah-ha!  Here and there will be matches.  Let's say Rockdale, Colorado, located in a ferrous-rich area, boomed during the years 1871-76 until the bauxite mine petered out.  But, lo and behold, the Denver Mint burned to the ground in 1873!  Rockdale was a full-fledged "industrial town on the rise" by then, so, when the other mints doled out the cash, Rockdale got its share.

Now it's today, and here you are with your trick metal detector, and for the first time this ferrous ground, which has been gone over in vain by hordes of treasure hunters in the past, might finally yield its secrets.

Examining ruins, themselves, is kind of a bust, just because there's so much iron junk around.  These metal detectors are good, but not that good.

One axiom all treasure hunters focus on is, "Until relatively recently, the ground has been the bank of the common man".  In the 1800's, banks were constantly being robbed (and the bandits were burying the treasure and later getting killed in gun fights and never reclaiming the loot and we're going to find it — but I'm getting ahead of the story), so the average man did what man has always done with his most precious of possessions; he buried them.

Another thing treasure hunters key in on is the idea of "putting yourself in their shoes".  Okay, there you are, you finally hit it big in the saloon's casino, you've got $572 in coins and bills in a metal cash box, you live on a little farm a mile from Rockdale, it's 1875, the family's asleep, and you want to hide your new-found wealth.  And, because everyone saw you walk away with all that cash, you want to hide it now.

So, what do you do?

Well, it's got to be outside, 'cause you can't rip up boards while the others are sleeping, and cabins are pretty easy to tear apart if someone's intent on finding something — and besides, it just seems like it should be outside.  You want to stash it for a while, so just walking out the back door and burying it behind some bush won't work, and some nosy person might notice the freshly-dug earth and reach the obvious conclusion.

So you start walking down a fence line.  Maybe the fence posts are buried in the ground every twenty feet, braced by a pile of stones.  You walk to the third fence post, dig a hole, bury the box, carefully brush over the ground, then promptly die from some sudden, nameless disease a week later with the location of the box unrevealed.

And now it's today.

You walk out in straight lines from the ruins of the foundation, looking for signs of fence posts.  You find in the undergrowth what might be an old pile of stones.  You rope off guidelines, then proceed to methodically inspect the area, from house to stones and beyond.  Twenty feet later you find another crumpled pile of stones… and another!  You start carefully sweeping the area with the detector, side to side, a couple of feet at a time.

Suddenly, you hear a different sound coming from the speaker.

A sound that says, Here.  Buried Deep.  Find me.

Stashin' The Cash

Discounting the infamous 'treasure map', there are lots of tricky ways to hide loot in a non-obvious place that you want to be able to find later.  For example, a large tree with a dipping branch would serve quite well.  You throw a rope over the dip in the branch, then walk a straight line from the tree trunk, through the rope, out 50 paces and start digging.  Then you'd probably half-bury a big rock there to mark the exact spot.

A hundred years later, that gnarly old tree might very well still be there, and, with a little extrapolation for growth, you should be able to mark off a fairly credible line to try.  Or just check under and around any boulders within 50 paces of any likely-looking tree stump.  Any old tree or stump on the top of a hill, all by itself, is always worth checking out.  Remember, while people can be smart and dream up clever places to stash things, it's also true that certain places just seem like they're meant to be hiding places — like lonely trees on tops of hills.  Again, there are lots of books and web articles on the subject.

The best places to hunt are those that are way off the beaten path, just to minimize the amount of junk in the ground.  The more out in the wilds you are, and the less often you hear sounds on the detector, the more thrilling they are when you hear them.

Bad Bill

That's what I'll call him.  He's not Jesse James or Billy The Kid or anybody famous, he just robbed the local stage, hid the loot up by his camp in Red Bluff Canyon, got into a big shoot-out with the posse the next day and died with the location of the strongbox unknown.  Since the metal detector hit the scene, thousands of treasure hunters have looked at their maps and headed for Red Bluff Canyon, hunting for Bad Bill's treasure, but nobody's ever found it.  The ground isn't ferrous-rich or anything; they just plain ol' haven't found it.

And now here you are in the little town library, reading through the journals the pioneers kept, looking for clues.  Suddenly, you read something about Red Bluff Canyon being "acrost the rever", but Red Bluff Canyon is south of the river!  The topographical maps are wrong!  Somehow, in all those canyonlands, Red Bluff Canyon got mixed up with Wild Deer Canyon by the government surveyors.

You head for desolate Wild Deer Canyon.  There are no roads so you end up hiking in six miles from where you could leave your camper.  The going is tough as you fight your way through the scrub in the hot noonday sun.  You finally make it to the head of the canyon.  It doesn't look like anybody's been there since the dawn of time.

You patiently mark off the already-detected areas with rope or little flags as you carefully examine likely-looking places to bury loot.

Two hot, dusty days pass and your arms ache from holding the detector, even though you're using the special arm brace.  Your feet are sore, you're tired, you'd just as soon give up.  The sweat drips from your brow as you carefully sweep behind a big boulder.

Suddenly, you hear a low, pulsing tone issue from the speaker.  Even though it's hot out, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise.

You dig into the earth with your pick, and, two feet down, it thunks into something solid.

Something not made of stone.

You pick your way around the object and brush off the loose dirt from the top of what appears to be a large box.  Under your fingers appear the letters:


Could there be a greater moment in one's life?

You lift the heavy Wells Fargo box from the ground and stand over it.

And I'll leave you right there.  The lesson learned is research.


Pick a stagecoach trail that leads between the local Federal Bank and the local Boom Town.  The cash must go through!  Except that Bad Bill's brother, Bad Sam, has other plans.  He robs the stage, kills three people, then runs off with the loot and ponders where to hide it.  Unlike his brother, who's got that nifty canyon hideaway, Bad Sam's on the move.  But he knows of a secret cave up in the mountains, so he goes there to stash the loot, clever him.

Too bad he wasn't clever enough to avoid that hanging posse two days later.

And now here you are.  You did your homework.  Enthusiastic you even joined the local spelunkers club and you have maps of hundreds of caves in this part of the state.  You checked your key coin dates and Boom Town years, the stage routes and Bad Sam's known locations.  Off you go, metal detector in hand, you search a number of caves and…

You don't find a damn thing.  These places have been poked over by generations of metal-detectin' fools.

But then something occurs to you.

That Bad Sam was a pretty clever dude, right?  So, okay, what would you do if you were clever Bad Sam?

You'd bring a tall box with you, stand on it, then bury the loot in the wall as high above your head as you could reach, then take the box with you.

And that's when you remember that unusually high wall in cave #2.

The Present

Okay, how about today?  Through some incredible happenstance, you suddenly own a metal box full of gold or cash or jewels or something, and you want to stash it for a long time.  Perhaps a real long time — like until things cool down, heh.  A safety deposit box would involve keys and names, so you don't like that idea.

You decide to bury it.

And you never can tell when something crazy will happen, like the power company will come rolling through your back yard at 5 AM installing a new gas line, so you want to bury it far, far away.

But where?  That is the question, and has always been.

Go ahead, take a minute and answer this one yourself, then see if we agree.  It's 10:30 at night, you're in your car, you've got a shovel and a pickaxe in the trunk, a great big coffee in the cupholder, you've just pulled out of the driveway and you're off to bury this box.  You don't expect to dig it back up for maybe ten or twenty years, so it's imperative that it (1) be safe, and (2) you remember exactly where it is.

Where do you go?
First off, if you're not going to dig this thing up for ten or twenty years, it's GOT to be someplace absolutely permanent.  Since you never can tell what vacant hillside lot will suddenly burst into a shopping mall, your natural inclination will be to head outside — way outside — the city limits.

You can't take the chance of being seen while burying it, so a field or the open desert seems kind of risky.  And how do you tell one thing apart from another in the desert? On top of that, you're burying it in the dead of night, so you won't be able to make a lot of visual references to act as reminders… twenty long years down the road.

And, yeah, you could go back the next day and make some notes and visual references — except that I'm poking around the rocks with my metal detector a quarter-mile away, wondering what you're doing there.  I pull out my heavy-duty binoculars, watch you walk around for a while making notes, then watch you drive away.

Want to guess where I'm heading next?

So, you start thinking of the woods.  But you can't just drive aimlessly around, stopping at "the eleventh hairpin turn" or whatever.  You're smart enough to know you'll never remember that in twenty years.  It's got to be near someplace distinguishable and memorable.

Perhaps a landmark or monument?

So, you might think of some famous 200-year-old tree or natural stone formation.  Fine.  You go there, walk past the monument another thirty paces, then bury it on the far side of the largest boulder.  Maybe roll the boulder back a bit, on top of it, if you can.  Does that seem like a credible scenario? That's what I come up with — except for one little hitch.

Here's my reasoning: As soon as you want to get away from the city limits and people and the potential for land developers unearthing your little prize, you end up with the woods, the beach, or the desert.  The desert seems kind of open to be burying something, and besides, those canyonlands all look the same — just ask any government surveyor.  The beach is simply too unpredictable for long-term planning so you head for the woods.  But, dang, those trees and hairpin turns all look the same.

So you end up at some landmark or monument, wondering "Now what?".  You obviously aren't going to leave a mound of freshly-dug earth right at the base of the monument, so deeper into the woods you go.  That big rock isn't going anywhere — it's 3 am and there's nobody around — so you bury your little treasure.

The one little flaw in the plan is, of course, the local monuments would be one of the first places we metal detectin' guys would scour.  Unfair?  Unethical?  Don't be silly.  Anything legitimate would be in a safety deposit box.  You find it, it's yours.  Those are the rules, and have always been.

Break It In Right

"Officer, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?"

"Practice, practice, practice."

While the impression you get reading over the detector sites is that the needle on the unit will just flip over to "Really Valuable Old Necklace" when you're over one, it's not qui-i-ite that way out in the field.  So you definitely want to practice using this thing in the back yard and local fields before heading off to a real site.

As a quick example, that business about it reading what type of coin it is is based on the assumption that the coin is lying flat, albeit underground.  Put a coin on edge or even at a sharp angle and that capability goes out the window.  So if you're doing some serious coin shootin', you can't just idly dismiss a hit because the detector doesn't label it "coin".

Also, some everyday rocks contain trace amounts of metal and will set the thing off, so you really need to become familiar with its 'everyday' handling so you can mentally filter it out when you get to the real site.  That is, being able to tell the subtle difference in speaker tone between the normal background clutter and an actual strike. 

If you're looking for pretty much anything of value, the 'pro' way to do it would be to blow some bucks at the pawn shop and pick up examples of what you're looking for (gold ring, bracelet, Civil War musket ball, etc), then bury them at different depths, and take a few samples with you to the real site.


There are certainly as many clever ways and places to hide things as there are people.  But it's also true that a smart person would realize that certain places are "natural" hiding places, so he wouldn't hide anything there, it being an obvious place for snoopy people to poke around.  Snoopy people with sophisticated, expensive microchip-controlled metal detectors, for example.  Hence, the crooked tree branch idea; something random.  There are scads of books on all of this; none of it's particularly new.  What's exciting about the field today is our ability to penetrate previously unreadable ground.  Just following in the footsteps of famous coin-shooters of yore would turn up lots of ripe stuff.

It should also be mentioned that going out into the wild can be somewhat dangerous and you should give it the attention it deserves.  First aid kit, survival knowledge, adequate foodstuffs, spare parts, topographical maps, a strong vehicle (hopefully one you can sleep in), maybe another person for safety, companionship and morale-boosting, high boots for snakes, possibly a gun for protection, a way to recharge the detector's rechargeable batteries from the vehicle's auxiliary battery, the whole deal.

And certainly a handheld GPS unit would be great when it comes to locating some outlaw hideout or 'lost mine' you think you've got pinpointed on a topographical map through clues you've researched.

And there are variations on the above, of course, such as shooting for coins in parks, abandoned or freshly torn-down buildings, on the beach itself, under grandstands at ballparks; whatever interests you.  You can also make money looking for items, such as lost jewelry and underground pipes.  My mom once hired a guy to find a gold bracelet she'd lost while gardening, so it happens.

Good hunting!