Metal Detecting in a National Forest: What You NEED to Know

National Forests provide a wealth of area for prospecting for those interested in metal detecting. it is important, however, to know some of the ground rules before you venture into your nearest National Forest. Below is a comprehensive list of what you need to know about metal detecting in a National Forest.

Make Sure You’re Headed for a National Forest

While this one may seem rather obvious, it is a commonly made and costly mistake. While many National Forests are open to metal detecting, national parks strictly forbid it. There is a huge difference in purpose between forest versus park. We’ll let the Department of Interior explain.

According to the National Park Service, fines could reach up to $10,000 depending on where and what you dig up. has a handy Find a Forest tool to help you locate the closest area to you.

Contact Forest Ranger About Your Prospective Area

Most areas within National Forests are free to enthusiasts to search, however occasionally certain areas are sectioned off for archaeological, construction, or other reasons. Making a quick call to your local Forest Ranger about the area you would like to prospect could save you a heap of frustration in the future.

Understanding Metal Detecting Law – Minerals

The goal of most recreational metal detectors is to find something of interest while enjoying the great outdoors. Mineral deposits are some of the most common finds when metal detecting in National Forests, and for the most part digging up small mineral deposits is totally acceptable. As a general rule however, if the mineral deposit requires anything more than a hand shovel you should probably stay away.

While they aren’t exactly closely policed, most large mineral deposits within National Forests have already been claimed by either individuals or the Forest Service itself. Small deposits, such as gold nuggets (if only they were as common as the Forest Service makes them sound) or other minerals, can be removed without validation, even if they are near larger deposits. If you happen to find a large deposit and are curious about its ownership, you can contact the Forest Service records department for more information.

Metal Detecting Laws Continued – Artifacts

An artifact, according to the National Forest Service, “means any material remains of prehistoric or historic human life or activities, which are at least 50 years old, and includes the physical site, location, or context in which they are found”. This means that arrowheads, tools, and other popular finds cannot be gathered from National Forests unless you are part of a scientific survey team (more detail below). Anything found that can be clearly identified as less than 50 years old is fair game.

Identifying the age of artifacts for amateur enthusiasts can be a difficult task, so it is worth taking the time to research whether or not there have been artifacts found in the area you are metal detecting in and if so, what they were. A bit of research can both aid you in identifying possible artifacts that you may have missed and allow you to recognize what is safe to keep and what should be left behind. In the event that you do find one of these artifacts, contact the Forest Ranger immediately.

Getting Involved in Scientific Research

In the event that searching for archaeological relics is your interest, there are many ways that you can effectively pursue your passion without going full “National Treasure” on the Forest Service. Both the National Park Service and the National Forest Service work closely with “citizen science” groups on large scale research projects. These projects focus on combing large areas such as battlefields or historical sites with metal detectors in an attempt to find new relics.

Getting involved in one of these initiatives is as simple as contacting the respective Park or Forest Ranger in charge. The need for labor means that the Forest Service will be sure to advertise when citizen science opportunities arise, so as long as you keep an ear to the ground you will be able to satiate your Indiana Jones spirit.

Packing the Right Gear for the Job

It is important to remember that while National Forests are regulated environments, you are still wandering into the woods. Packing basic survival gear is recommended for any outdoors adventure. Bringing a map of the area you are planning on detecting in, along with a compass and water bottle, should be sufficient for any short-term exploration. It is also recommended that you bring bug spray and some form of water-resistant clothing to keep mother nature off of your back.

Don’t Stray Too Far Off the Beaten Path

While part of the allure of metal detecting in a National Forest is the feeling of being lost in the woods, it is important to recognize that ACTUALLY getting lost in the woods would significantly dampen your afternoon mood. Staying on established paths is the easiest way to guarantee you won’t end up in the Forest Service’s heavily wooded version of the Bermuda Triangle. Having a general idea of where you are planning to metal detect at and the route you would like to take in and out of said area will ensure a safe metal detecting experience.

Keeping these tips in mind will assure a care free metal detecting experience. By following the steps above the only issue that you might run into is realizing that those after work beers might not have been the best choice for your explorer’s physique.

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