I came across this fantastic guide from Smarterhobby.com – so all credit goes to Mark Orwig for writing this article. (Some products and prices changed to fit in line with the South African market)
Ever since James Marshall’s 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, prospecting in the United States has been the ultimate treasure hunt.
Prospecting gold nuggets with a metal detector is a thrilling hobby that’s both fun and (financially) rewarding.
But with so many machines on the market, how do you know which is the best metal detector for gold?
This go-to guide is packed with useful information that will help you make the right choice so you can start digging your very own gold.
How to Choose
Before we get started, I want to make a public service announcement if I may.
All metal detectors will find gold nuggets if they’re in the ground (and big enough) – not just gold detectors.
A gold metal detector is simply a detector designed specifically to detect tiny targets in mineralized ground. That’s pretty much it.
So what makes a good gold detector?
It may surprise you that it’s much easier than you think to choose the right detector.
Some of the biggest factors include:
- Where (geographically) you’ll be doing most of your prospecting.
- The size of gold nuggets that have been found there in the past. If you don’t already know, I recommend joining a local prospecting club or talking to local claim owners.
- Ground conditions. Is it highly mineralized? Is there a lot of trash?
- Other uses. Do you want to use the same detector for coin, jewelry or relic hunting?
You’ll need to ask yourself these questions before you even consider which detector you’ll buy.
Spoiler alert: there is no universal ‘best metal detector for gold’.
Although the GPZ 7000 is close for those of you who can afford a detector that’s the same price as a car.
The question should be, what is the best gold detector for your answers to the above questions?
Just because the Minelab GPX 5000 costs more than 6x the amount of a cheap VLF machine, doesn’t mean it’s better.
If I were hunting in low/moderate ground on top of bedrock in an area where the nuggets tend to be small, I would actually opt for a cheap VLF machine over the GPX 5000.
Am I crazy? No….not the last time I checked anyway…
Now let’s dive into the reasons why this is the case by deciphering the most important elements of any gold machine.
The first thing you have to decide is which technology to use – VLF or PI.
VLF stands for Very Low Frequency and is the same technology used in detectors built for coins, jewelry, and relics.
VLF detectors broadcast at frequencies measured in kilohertz ranging from 3 kHz to 70 kHz.
Here are five reasons why you might choose a VLF over a PI
- You’re a beginner.
- You want to use the same detector for other detecting like coins, jewelry, relics.
- You’re hunting for small to medium sized nuggets at depths under 20cm (most common).
- You’re hunting in areas with lots of trash and need to discriminate.
- You want to spend less than R20000
PI stands for Pulse Induction and is used in specialty detectors designed for maximum depth in highly mineralized ground.
PI detectors broadcast pulses and are measured by pulses per second.
Here are five reasons to opt for a PI machine over a VLF:
- You’re an experienced gold hunter.
- You want a specialty machine built just for gold nugget hunting.
- You’re hunting for larger gold nuggets at greater depths AND aren’t so much interested in the smaller, shallower nuggets.
- You’re hunting in highly mineralized ground with low levels of trash.
- You have over R20000 to spend.
Now that we’ve identified the two camps let’s talk about some technical differences.
We already discussed that VLF detectors are best when searching for nuggets that are small to average in size.
The next thing to decide is the operating frequency of the VLF.
As mentioned above, VLF machines typically range from 3 kHz to 70 kHz with the most popular gold VLF machines in the 13-50 kHz range.
That is a huge range. So which is better?
Again we go back to nugget size.
Side note: This guide is not about where to find different sized nuggets, but larger nuggets will most often be at the highest elevations of your site, while the smallest will be at the lowest elevation – usually in a stream bed.
In the United States, larger nuggets are most often found in Alaska, medium in Western States, and small in Eastern States.
The biggest and best nuggets in the world are typically found in Australia. (* Africa has also been known to produce plenty of small to large sized nuggets)
Now back to the techy stuff…
There is an inverse relationship between frequency and nugget size (as well as maximum detection depth).
Both lower frequency VLF and PI detectors will find larger nuggets at greater depths – but will struggle to find smaller nuggets at shallow depths.
Alternatively, higher frequency VLF machines are better at finding smaller nuggets at shallow depths – and struggle to get greater depths.
So which is better? Well, neither…
It all depends on your particular area and the what’s been found there before (and at what depths).
The same concept holds true for coil size. Again there is an inverse relationship where larger coils get bigger targets at greater depths, and smaller coils get smaller targets at shallow depths.
Smaller coils are also better for rocky areas where you need to maneuver around large rocks and get into tight spaces.
They’re also preferred over large coils in highly mineralized ground since they will ‘see’ less of the ground at any given time.
Let’s revisit my comparison at the beginning of this article between the GPX 5000 and a cheap VLF machine to help understand my reasoning.
The Gold Monster 1000 is a 45 kHz VLF machine with a small, 5” coil.
The GPX 5000 is a PI machine with a large 11” coil.
So if you’re hunting on bedrock in an area with small nuggets and ground that is not highly mineralized, the Gold Monster is the clear choice.
Using the GPX 5000 in this scenario might actually cause you to miss nuggets altogether!
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather dig several small nuggets than no nuggets at all because my machine is only looking for large ones.
For more information on frequencies, have a read through this article: https://treasurehunters.co.za/
Another factor in determining what range of frequencies to look for when choosing a gold detector is the ground mineralization for where you’ll be hunting.
After all, gold is most commonly found in areas of mineralization – at least to some degree.
Lower frequency VLF and PI machines will handle high mineralization much better than high-frequency VLF.
If you’re in areas of extreme mineralization such as black sand in a stream bed, then a PI will likely be your only option as it will see through the ground and not false.
So you probably don’t want to hunt with a cheap VLF machine for example if you’re in areas of high mineralization if you want to avoid constant falsing.
Another feature to consider when dealing with mineralization is the ground balance.
Almost every gold detector comes with automatic ground balance (or ground tracking) – but not all ALSO have manual ground balance.
So I recommend you invest in a machine that has both forms of ground balancing.
Is your head spinning yet?
It’s really not as complicated as I’m making it sound.
In fact, it’s probably more complicated for me to explain all this in writing than it is to decide on a detector.
In addition to the varying degrees of ground mineralization, you also need to consider how much trash is in the ground.
Now I use the term trash loosely here. When I say trash, I’m referring to anything that’s not gold.
VLF detectors have the advantage of electronic metal discrimination – meaning you can choose to ignore trash signals and only focus on good, gold signals.
Alternatively, PI detectors either struggle with discrimination or have none at all.
So if you know you’ll be in areas with a high trash density, you might do well to opt for a VLF detector. Otherwise, you’ll spend your entire day digging trash.
That wasn’t so bad, was it?
If you’re new to metal detecting and these concepts are not already familiar to you, I recommend reading this article a few times.
Once you understand everything we’ve talked about in this article, your biggest question should be: “What if I want to find both small shallow, small nuggets, AND large, deep nuggets?”
The reality is that unless you can anti-up for a Minelab GPZ 7000 (currently R168000 MSRP), you’re going to want two machines.
My best advice is to get a VLF machine for your small, shallow gold, and whichever of the Minelab PI machines your budget allows for the deep, larger nuggets.
Now that you have a better idea of which gold detector is best for you, here are a few accessories I highly recommend for all prospectors:
- Plastic scoop to wave dirt/rocks over coil during recovery.
- Pick to hammer through rocky ground
- Pinpointer or coil probe to quickly pinpoint those small nuggets
- Coil Cover to protect your coil from damage
- Vials to store your fine gold
- Shoulder or chest harness to take the weight of the detector off your arm
- Different coils to adapt to the location your hunting
- Headphones to hear those faint gold signals
- Strong Magnet to quickly pickup iron trash and ‘hot rocks’ before digging
End of article
MY RECOMMENDATIONS (in conjunction with Mark Orwigs’ recommendations)
For Intermediate and Expert Nugget Hunters (Best of the Best)
- Garrett ATX: Submersible to 10′, a PI gold detector also great for saltwater and relic hunting. Easy to use, excellent value for money.
- Garrett ATX (Deepseeker Package): Includes a 20″ coil for finding those deep large nuggets. A hard case is also included in this package, best value for money.
- Minelab SDC 2300: Easiest expert-level detector to use for less serious gold prospectors, most compact for easy travel
- Minelab GPX 5000: For serious gold prospectors. Most coils and accessories. – good for deep large nuggets
- Minelab GPX 6000: Newer, lighter and easier to use then ever before.
- Minelab GPZ 7000: Best of the best (and most expensive) – best for both deep large and small shallow nuggets
* The GPZ 7000 uses Zero Voltage Transmission (ZVT) which effectively gives you two machines in one – a deep PI machine, and a high frequency VLF machine.
For Beginner and Intermediate Nugget Hunters
- XP ORX with 9.5″ ellipitical HF coil: The lightest machine on the market and you can manually select from a wide range of frequencies from 13 kHz to 81 kHz.
- Minelab Gold Monster: Automatic sensitivity and ground tracking, operates at 45 kHz – best for shallower small to average size nuggets
- Nokta Makro Gold Kruzer: Waterproof, wireless headphones and 61 kHz – best for fine gold / jewellery and shallower small to average size nuggets
- Nokta Makro Gold Finder 2000 – Extremely easy to use, turn on and go! – best for shallow small to average size nuggets
- Garrett Goldmaster 24K – Easy to use, 48 kHz for super sensitive gold finds. Rainproof and automatic ground balance.
* All gold detecting recommended machines can be purchased from Treasure Hunters Online Store in South Africa.