Responsible Metal Detecting

Preserving history, culture & metal detecting
Written By: Marc McDermott
Last Updated:

Metal detecting is a hobby loved by many different types of people including history buffs, coin collectors, relic enthusiasts, and those who just love the thrill of a treasure hunt.

This is a hobby that brings genuine joy to many people, including myself. I know many would agree that it’s important to raise awareness for responsible metal detecting to protect our hobby for future generations.

This guide is intended to promote the practice of responsible and ethical metal detecting and should be used as a reference by all detectorists. See our beginner’s guide to metal detecting. For help choosing a metal detector, read my guide to the best metal detector.

Getting permission to metal detect

Let’s start off by talking about permission. Every piece of land you could possibly swing your coil over is owned by someone—either a private landowner or the government.

Private land​

The first and most important step in responsible metal detecting is to seek out the owner and request permission to metal detect. Often it’s best to get permission in writing, print it out and carry it with you while detecting (just in case any neighbors or law enforcement stop to inquire about your activities).

Here is a great resource for requesting permission for private land.​

Public land​

While requesting permission to hunt on private land is pretty straightforward, getting permission to hunt on public lands can be a bit more complex. First, you must understand that there are different layers of regulation at play:

  • Federal laws
  • State laws
  • County laws
  • City/town laws
  • School district laws
  • Individual park laws

Each one of these entities will have different regulations when it comes to metal detecting and will require you to request special permission. Often you can check the laws of the appropriate government entity on their website – usually in the parks section. In general, nearly all federal and state lands are off-limits – except if you are given special permission or issued a permit. In some states, many counties also strictly prohibit metal detecting in all of their public parks.

If you can obtain written permission and/or a special permit, understand that it does not grant you free reign to do whatever you want – you MUST abide by the metal detecting code of conduct, practice responsible detecting, and follow any/all special instruction given (i.e., digging to a maximum of 3”).

The last point I’d like to make with getting permission is that once it is granted, always be sure to check-in with the landowner/park supervisor/manager when you arrive at the site.

Here are the current metal detecting laws for State Parks by state: *

AlabamaYesWith permission of Park Manager
ArkansasYesOn beach areas in some parks with permit from park office.
CaliforniaYesPermit may be required.
ColoradoYesWith permission from the park manager.
ConnecticutYesSome areas may need a permit. 
FloridaYesThere are exceptions. Check with park manager.
HawaiiYesBeach areas only
IdahoYesWith permit from park ranger.
IllinoisYesWith Permit from the park office
IndianaYesOn beach areas only with permission from the Park Manager.
KansasYesPermitted on most beaches, but check with specific park office because most are federal lands.
MaineYesWith permit from the park office.
MarylandYesPermit required.
MassachusettsYesOn beaches with permission of the Park Supervisor
MichiganYesSome parks completely open, many have designated areas and some are closed.
MississippiYes​Need written approval
MissouriYesNeed to register
MontanaYesMetal detecting is OK but you cannot remove anything from the parks.
NebraskaYesOn certain beach areas only below the vegetation line.
NevadaYesWith permit from the park office.
New HampshireYesNeed permit
New JerseyYesWith permit from the Park Superintendent
New MexicoNo​Must obtain superintendent’s permission to use metal detectors for scientific activities. Many of the parks are National Parks.
New YorkYesWith permit from the Park Manager
North CarolinaNo
North DakotaNo
OhioYesOn beach areas.
OklahomaYesWith permit from the park office
OregonYesWith permit from the park office
PennsylvaniaYesWith permission from the park office.
Rhode IslandNo
South CarolinaYesOn beach areas only with permit from park official.
South DakotaYesWith written authorization from the park office.
UtahYes​With permit
VermontYes ​With permit
VirginiaYesWith a permit from the Park Manager
WashingtonYesWith a permit.
West Virginia​No
WisconsinYesA special permit is required.

​Data source: FMDAC. Updated 11/10/2021

* If you notice a discrepancy in the table above, or if a state has updated its laws, please contact me here so I can make the change.

Metal detecting best practices

Here are some other examples of best practices to follow when hunting on any land

Always use the smallest digging tool possible.

The only reason you should be carrying anything larger than a simple hand digger is if you’re on a large piece of unmanicured private land like farm fields and wooded areas. The only other exception to this rule is if you’re beach metal detecting and want to use a long-handle scoop – as long as you cover and compact all holes.

Be aware that some parks will have limits to how deep you can dig, so you don’t disturb any archaeological evidence. Holes should be dug as small “plugs”. A metal detecting pinpointer is highly recommended to keep your holes small.

Always dispose of your trash finds.

​Always dispose of the trash you dig like bottle caps, foil, cans, etc. There is a reason most treasure pouches are made with two pockets – one for the trash and one for the treasure! Removing trash will help clean the site and may even help prevent future injuries (I once dug a needle at the beach that someone could have easily stepped on). ​If you’re unsure of what your find is, NEVER assume it is trash or throw it away.

Always leave site as you found it – or better!

​You must always leave the site exactly the same as it was – if not better! Here are some basic rules:​

  • Do not disturb areas of obvious historical significance like old cellar holes or stone foundations. It is important to preserve this history.
  • Do not disturb any plant life, crops, animals, or nesting birds.
  • Always close any gates you go through.

Sharing your finds

​If hunting on private land, always present your finds to the landowner and allow them to keep anything of particular interest to them – especially personal items lost by them, their family or even their ancestors that once owned the land.

​Whether hunting on private land or public, you should share any finds of historical significance with the local historical society. Depending on the find, they may arrange for the item to be placed in their collection or in a local museum for the public to see. In some cases, they may also arrange an archaeological dig.

Bag n’ tag

Because you’ll be sharing your historical treasures with various groups, it is critical that you ‘bag and tag’ your finds. A handheld GPS device comes in handy as you’ll be able to log the exact coordinates of the find.

One last note on finds of historic significance on public land is that you must be aware of laws about the removal of artifacts. It is against the law on public land in certain states – so don’t do it. When in doubt, never remove the find. Instead, log the coordinates, take a photograph, check the laws, and either come back to collect the find or alert the proper authorities. And always remember to contact an archaeologist if you think your find is historically significant.

​Remember, ​archaeologists depend on finding artifacts in their original, undisturbed position. They can use this information as clues in their research of the site.6

Alerting the authorities

​In the rare event you come across something like human remains or even hidden weapons, you must report this immediately to the proper local authorities.

​Archaeology implications

While I briefly touched on archaeology in previous sections of this article, I think it’s important to dive into more detail. ​It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a lot of tension between the detecting community and the archaeology community. 

​One of my goals in this article is to bridge those tensions and create a sense of respect for both parties. It’s important for all detectorists to fully understand the legitimate concerns​ that archaeologists have with our hobby. For that, I think it’s best to look at a synopsis of their code of ethics according to the Society of Historical Archaeology (SHA).

  1. Adhere to professional standards of ethics and practices.
  2. Support the preservation of archaeological sites and collections.
  3. Disseminate research results in an accessible, honest and timely manner.
  4. Collect data accurately and appropriately curated for future generations.
  5. Respect the dignity and human rights of others.
  6. Items from archaeological contexts shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods, and it is unethical to take actions for the purpose of establishing the commercial value of objects from archaeological sites or property that may lead to their destruction, dispersal, or exploitation.
  7. Encourage education about archaeology, strive to engage citizens in the research process and publicly disseminate the major findings of their research.​

An interview with Dr. Charles Ewen

Dr. Ewen served as an advisor to National Geographic for their hit show, “Diggers.”

Archaeology is more than just finding stuff. It’s determining the story the stuff has to tell.
Dr. Charles Ewen, Former President of the SHA, current Director of the Phelps Archaeology Laboratory and Professor of Anthropology at East Carolina University.
Dr. Charles Ewen

I reached out to Dr. Ewen to get his input on how our two worlds get better work together.  He was kind enough to share his time with me and offered the following advice:

Q: What can detectorists do to get involved with local archaeologists?

Probably the easiest way is to join the local or statewide archaeological society.

Every state has one and these are organizations that embrace both amateur and professional archaeologists.

If there are digs in your area, visit them and get to know the archaeologist. Offer your services, but don’t be surprised if you are not taken up on your offer right away.

Q: What steps should a detectorist take if they uncover an item of archaeological significance?

If you know an archaeologist contact them. If not, the state archaeologist is a good place to start. They might refer you to a nearby university.

You can usually save yourself a trip if you email them a picture of the artifact(s) in question.

Q: What is the one thing you want all metal detectorists to know about responsible metal detecting?

Do not trespass!

If you want the respect of an archaeologist, work with them. If all you want is a guy to identify and authenticate your finds, you probably won’t get many takers.

Always record where your finds are coming from. To take something out of context, removes its meaning.

​Understand laws regarding historical artifacts

​Should you be so lucky as to uncover some truly amazing historical artifacts, here is what you need to know: Because this guide is primarily intended for folks detecting in the United States, you must familiarize yourself with both the American Antiquities Act of 1906 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.

For example, sites on National Forest System lands are protected by the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979 which means you could be charged with a felony if you disturb, alter, remove, or damage archaeological sites and objects that are over 100 years old on federal lands.

Additionally, there may be regulations about your site from the USDA Forest ServiceBureau of Land Management (BLM) or the National Parks Service.

​Advice from industry leaders

I also reached out to a few well-known people in the detecting community and asked them what ‘responsible’ metal detecting means to them. More specifically, I asked them all the same question:

What is the one thing you want all metal detectorists to know about responsible metal detecting (especially those new to the hobby)?

Here are their replies:

Make sure you have permission to be on the property, and if possible, get to know the landowner and find out if there is anything he needs help finding, or if there are any areas you need to avoid, pay attention to, etc.

Close all gates behind you so cows, pigs, chickens, horses, llamas, ostriches, and fainting goats don’t escape, and fill your holes, even if the landowner isn’t concerned about it.

It’s good practice for a number of reasons, including the fact that you won’t trip and break your own ankle when you grid off that section and return on a cross path!

Tim “Ringmaster” Saylor, Nat. Geo’s “Diggers”
Tim “Ringmaster” Saylor
Remove all trash that you dig, and leave the ground in as good a condition as you would do on your own land. Always make sure that you have proper permission to do so before you search any site.
Steve Moore, Garrett Metal Detectors
Steve Moore
The most important thing I would want those new to the hobby know about responsible metal detecting would be to fill in your holes and take trash items with you. All Items on the detectorist code of ethics are extremely important!
Mike Scott, Fisher, Teknetics, Bounty Hunter Metal Detectors
Mike Scott
From a beach and water hunters perspective, you have to cover any hole you scoop out at the beach. It is just common sense not to leave any situation that may cause injury or harm to other people using the beach.

That also includes removing anything you dig up but decide to discard (jagged pieces of aluminum can, broken bottle necks or rusty clumps of iron only take a few seconds to pick up and drop in a trash can).

Metal trash helps to mask valuable targets at the beach, so being a responsible treasure hunter often leads to more good finds when you keep your local beaches clean.

Gary Drayton, Author of Several Popular Beach & Water Detecting Books
Gary Drayton
For the beginners, please don’t copy what other people do on YouTube. Just because someone’s using a big long handle garden shovel to recover coins & artifacts doesn’t mean you should.

In the UK & Europe, people use long-handled shovels because they are searching in plowed fields.

In North America, some beginners are applying this technique in our city parks – this is very concerning. This will be the end of metal detecting as we know it.

Join a metal detecting club in your area and learn the code of ethics.

Christopher Turner, Founder, “The Ring Finders”
Christopher Turner
A lot of new hobbyists assume that because a property is “publicly” owned (such as a park, school, or curb strip) that you can detect there.

That is not always the case. A lot of townships and counties have ordinances in place that can result in fines and a confiscated machine if someone is caught detecting where it isn’t allowed.

Many times these ordinances don’t simply state, “no metal detecting.” Its more like, “no disturbing the ground or removing anything from the premises.”

So it’s really important to check with local municipalities before taking your detector to a “public” area.

Jocelyn Elizabeth, Relic Recoverist
Jocelyn Elizabeth

Ways to get involved

In addition to the best practices to follow while detecting, here are some other things to consider.

Volunteer your time

You should offer to volunteer your time to your local archaeology and historical organizations. While they may never need your help, it’s always good for them to have a trained metal detectorist at their disposal should they need it. Developing relationships with types of groups can also be beneficial to you as you can learn about proper recovery, cleaning and storage techniques.

​Join a metal detecting club

You should also strongly consider joining a metal detecting club as they likely already have relationships with these types of groups. Here is a state-by-state list of clubs.

Final thoughts

At the beginning of this guide, I spoke of the joy that metal detecting brings to many people. This guide is not intended to scare people or take the joy out of detecting. Rather it is to raise awareness and promote responsible metal detecting. By practicing responsible metal detecting, you’re helping to preserve our country’s history, our culture and you’re protecting the future of this amazing hobby.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with the official ‘Metal Detecting Code of Conduct.’

Metal detecting code of conduct

  • I will respect private and public property, all historical and archaeological sites and will do no metal detecting on these lands without proper permission.
  • I will keep informed on and obey all local and national legislation relating to the discovery and reporting of found treasures.
  • I will aid law enforcement officials whenever possible.
  • I will cause no willful damage to property of any kind, including fences, signs, and buildings.
  • I will always fill the holes I dig.
  • I will not destroy property, buildings or the remains of deserted structures.
  • I will not leave litter or other discarded junk items lying around.
  • I will carry all rubbish and dug targets with me when I leave each search area.
  • I will observe the Golden Rule, using good outdoor manners and conducting myself at all times in a manner which will add to the stature and public image of all people engaged in the field of metal detection.