How to Read a Metal Detector

I decided to take up metal detecting a few years ago. Not a big fan of exercising, I figured metal detecting would reward me for getting out and moving. Unfortunately, my first time exploring left me disappointed. I found nothing! And I didn't have the first idea how to read a metal detector.

After months of research and practice, I honed my technique and came up with this quick guide to help others learn to read their metal detectors.

How Your Metal Detector Works

A metal detector works by generating a powerful magnetic field that penetrates the ground and locates metal and magnetizes it. The receiver of the detector, made up of several sensitive wires, reacts to the magnetization of the metal underground and alerts the user to their presence by emitting sound. Wikipedia has more on how a metal detector works here.

How To Read Your Metal Detector

1. Turn it on: Simple enough.

2. Select the settings: You will need to read the manual of your specific metal detector to figure out what setting options are available. However, Ebay compiled a list of tips on using your metal detector, and they recommend using the All Metal search option. While you're bound to find junk, this option ups your chances of finding something valuable.

3. Begin your search: This step might seem obvious, but you can't just wave your metal detector around willy-nilly and expect good results. For those experienced in this hobby, the popular phrase to live by is "low and slow." Keep your coil low to the ground, without touching it. Swing very slowly to allow the machine to detect any metal in the area.

4. Dig: My first instinct when I began metal detecting was to tote around a shovel on my back while I waved my metal detector around. I guess a shovel will eventually do the job, but it is inefficient, and, quite frankly, rude to use one. You will need to use specialized digging tools to dig a "plug." A plug is a hole cut carefully in the ground to reduce your impact on the grass and dirt around you. If digging in the grass, try to disturb the roots as little as possible.

If you're more of a visual learner and need some extra help starting your metal detecting journey, check out this video:

Keep In Mind: The Ethics of Detecting

Ask For Permission To Dig

Please don't trespass on other people's property. You might be embarrassed to ask if you can metal detect on someone's land, but the worst that can happen is they say no. If knocking on doors isn't your thing, try dropping a flyer with contact info in the mail or even give them a call. It might persuade them if you demonstrate how careful you are at digging plugs. Also, make sure both parties are in agreement on who keeps what items that are found. It should go without saying that lost items or family heirlooms be returned to the property owner.

Leave It How You Found It

If you want to be allowed to detect on another's property in the future, leave the site how you found it. Or even better, leave it better than before by picking up garbage if there is any.

Metal Detecting Code Of Conduct

There are many websites dedicated to this hobby, and almost all are in agreement of following a code of conduct or an ethical code. There are several variations of this code to follow, but it can be boiled down to the following.

  • Treat our heritage with respect and protect natural resources and wildlife.
  • Do not trespass on private or government property without permission.
  • Don't destroy natural formations or disturb archaeological sites.
  • Do not tamper with private or government signs, equipment, or structures.
  • Dig in a way to preserve the environment around me.
  • Fill in every plug you dig.
  • If you find a historical artifact, report it to the proper authority.
  • Observe all laws and ordinances, whether federal, state, or local.
  • When you are detecting, you are an ambassador to the hobby. Because of this, you should be polite, respectful, and courteous at all times.


Metal detecting can be a rewarding hobby, but, like any endeavor in life, will require practice and experience to get it down. Once you learn to read a metal detector, it will increase your success at finding hidden treasure, as well as your enjoyment of the hobby. Just be sure to get permission and preserve the environment as you set out on your first dig. Also: have fun!

  • Updated October 30, 2019
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