How to Use a Metal Detector

Metal detecting can be a fun and (at times) thrilling hobby. However, it can be a little tricky to get started. Although it’s not complicated, if it’s not done right it can result in a lot of frustration and failure. 

Below is a guide of how to get started with your metal detector, where to go hunting, and what to do when you get a signal. 

Basics

Before you go “treasure hunting” you’ll need a metal detector, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the most expensive device. Here are a few crucial features you should look out for when getting a metal detector:

  • Detection Mode: Most modern metal detectors come with pre-configured settings which will focus on different kinds of objects. The most common items they focus on are jewelry, coins, relics and other metals. 
  • Discrimination: This setting allows you to filter the objects you don’t want to find. Using this will allow you to focus on specific metals, which is handy if you’re in an area with lots of trash.
  • Sensitivity: The higher the sensitivity, the more a detector will pick up. If you’re in an area where the soil is highly mineralized, your detector will still be able to pick up signals from treasure. However, having high sensitivity isn’t always a good thing. If you’re in an area with lots of pipes, it’s best to turn the sensitivity down. 
  • Ground Balance: As soil contains traces of metals, these can often trigger a detector. For example, if you’re constantly getting signals for iron but discovering nothing when you dig, you can use the ground balance detector to ignore iron up until a certain level. 

Step 1: Know Your Metal Detector 

It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first or tenth metal detector; you need to know how to operate your device. Once you understand the functions and features, you’ll be able to thoroughly enjoy each hunt you go on. 

Go through each setting until you understand how each works and how they can be adjusted. For more in depth guides, following tutorials online can be a great way to start. 

It’s also a great idea to test your metal detector before you head out on a real search. You can do this by burying different bits of metal and different depths (sand pits are great for this, but use any place you have permission). 

Adjust the settings, especially sensitivity, ground balance and discrimination, to see how the signal is affected and which metals are detected. 

Step 2: Choose Where you Want to Dig 

Choosing the right location to go metal detecting can be the difference between success and disappointment. Before you decide to go hunting for treasure, be sure to research any potential sights, especially if you’re on the hunt for historic items. 

The key to choosing a location is to find somewhere that hasn’t been searched yet, or somewhere that is constantly being replenished with new items (like beaches). 

Wherever you look you’re likely to stumble across something, however, you’re more likely to find better items at some of these locations:

  • Beaches: There’s a reason why a lot of people head to the beach with their metal detectors. This is a great place to find jewelry, or even old coins – you never know what might wash up on the shore from the sea. However, a downside to hunting on a beach is that you have to deal with other metal detector enthusiasts. It’s best to go beachcombing after a busy day (when lots of people have visited) or after a storm. 
  • Private Land: Private land is a great place to go hunting, as it’s most likely never been searched before. You can find some pretty rare items, particularly old artifacts, however, obtaining permission to go hunting on private land can be a little bit tricky. 
  • Busy Public Locations: Places like parks, sports fields and fairgrounds are the perfect places to search. People lose objects all the time, so you never know what you’ll come across. 
  • Old Sites: If you’re into relic hunting, you need to take more time researching historical sites. It doesn’t have to be the most significant place, but it should be land that’s been around for a long time. For example, a field that was once a park would be a great place to go hunting. One of the best ways to find old sites is to look at old maps, but searching online or at a library is also pretty handy. 

It’s important that you make sure you’re allowed to detect at whichever locations you choose, as not doing so can result in fines for trespassing, or being banned from other locations. 

To get permission to hunt on private land, always talk to the landowner. Make sure you know the boundaries of the land too as it’s easy to wander onto someone else’s property. 

For government-owned property, like parks, get written permission from the local government. Metal detecting is almost always banned in federal parks. 

Most beaches are fine for metal detecting, however, there could be issues surrounding privately owned or federal/state owned beaches – it’s best to seek permission first. 

Step 3: Move Slowly 

Once you’ve begun searching, you’ll want to move as slowly as possible. Keep your detector’s coil close to the ground, and avoid bumping or touching it. You want to put your detector about two feet ahead of you, and slowly sweep it in a semi-circular motion.

Note: Make sure you’re walking in a straight line so you don’t search the same ground over and over. 

Step 4: Dig a Plug

Once you’ve heard a beep from your detector, start moving the detector with smaller circular motions – this will help you more accurately determine where the object is. 

Once you’ve pin-pointed it, it’s time to start digging a “plug”. Unlike a hole, a plug doesn’t destroy the grass roots, meaning the ground will recover faster. 

How to Dig a Plug:

  • Use a digging tool to cut a horseshoe shape around the target location – it doesn’t need to be a full circle. Make sure the cut is at least 3 inches deep to protect the grass roots. 
  • Use the digger to then flip the plug upside-down, with the uncut area acting like a hinge. Place a towel next to the hole.
  • If you can’t see the item, use a pinpointer to check whether the item is in the plug or further underground. 
  • If you need to dig, remove the soil and place it on the towel until you’ve recovered the object. 
  • Before covering the hole back up, rescan to check if there are any more objects in the same area, as it’s pretty common to find more than one item in the same spot – especially on beaches. 
  • Tip the excess soil back into the hole, and then flip the plug back into position. Step on the plug a couple of times to help reseal the hole. 

This may seem like a long process, but with practice you’ll become a lot quicker at digging plugs. It’s an essential skill to learn as you want to leave the land in the same condition you found it. 

Step 5: Put your Findings Away Safely

Carefully put away any valuable finds in a pack or a pouch. If they’re dirty, give them a gentle clean with a toothbrush before you store them away. 

Step 6: Continue Hunting 

More often than not, you’ll come across junk, so it’s important to have a lot of patience if you want to pursue metal detecting as a hobby. Just think every piece of trash is one step closer to finding treasure! So, as long as you have the right equipment/permissions, there’s no reason why the fun should stop.

Equipment You’ll Need

Besides your metal detector, there are a few more accessories you will need. 

  • Gloves: As you’re going to be digging through dirt, sand and metal, it’s important you get yourself a tough pair of gloves. 
  • Headphones: Headphones are the best way for you to hear your metal detector’s beeps when it finds a signal. Any headphones with volume control will do. 
  • Digging Tools: A small trowel will come in handy when digging plugs, however you may also want to get a sand scoop if you’re going to be hunting on beaches. 
  • Coil Covers: These are relatively cheap, and do a good job of preventing any dents and scratches from damaging your metal detector’s coils. 
  • Pinpointer: A pinpointer is a small (and relatively cheap) metal detector that will help provide a more precise location for an object once you’ve dug a plug. If you’re just starting out, a pinpointer isn’t a necessary tool you need, however, if you go hunting regularly, a pinpoint can help you save hours of time per session. 


Written by Gavin Bowler

Keen history and blogging enthusiast. I love metal detecting. Read more of Gavin's articles.