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How to Start Rockhounding: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

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If you are intrigued by rockhounding but overwhelmed with the amount of information available, this guide is made for you.

I will give you the information you need to know to prepare for your first rockhounding trip. That includes basic research, equipment, and important rules you need to know.

If you follow the steps laid out in this article, you will be ready to embark on your first rockhounding adventure.

If you are interested in checking out the best rockhounding tools and equipment you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).

What is Rockhounding?

How to Start Rockhounding The Ultimate Beginner's Guide
What is Rockhounding? The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

First, it’s important to answer the question of what rockhounding is. Here is the answer:

Rockhounding is the activity of hunting for minerals, rocks, crystals, and gemstones. Rockhounding used to be a more popular hobby, but even now, it continues to attract enthusiasts of all ages. Part of rockhounding’s popularity is that hobbyists can explore different natural sites while hunting for the desired specimens.

People get interested in rockhounding for a variety of reasons. Jewelry-makers may want to find stones to set into their pieces, and people interested in local history and geology may be interested in hands-on experience with the minerals available in the area. Others might simply enjoy adding an extra challenge to their hiking trips.

Regardless of the reasons for getting involved with rockhounding, many people find it a rewarding and fascinating hobby.

How to Get Started Rockhounding

The first step to starting a rockhounding hobby is to do your research. By the time your research is finished, you should know:

  1. What are the best rockhounding areas in your region?
  2. What minerals are available in the area?
  3. Are there any rock and mineral clubs nearby?

After you have determined the answers to these questions, you will be ready to plan the logistics of your first rockhounding expedition.

Finding Your Local Rocks and Rockhounding Areas

As with most things, your initial impulse in looking for the best rockhounding areas and specimens in your region is probably going to be the internet.

While some broadly focused websites try to collect information from all over the US or the world, you will get better information if your search is more targeted by location.

Searching by city or state should point you to some popular rockhounding spots, and what you are most likely to find there.

Rockhounding can occur on public land, private land, or paid dig sites:

  • There are a lot of public lands where people can collect specimens as a hobby, but some lands are off-limits.
  • Private land should only be accessed with the owner’s explicit permission.
  • Paid dig sites and mines know what is available on their land, and can help point beginners in the right direction for finding interesting rocks.

I recommend researching the official state rocks, minerals, and gemstones of your state and neighboring states. Usually, these materials are made official because they are readily found in the area (although not always).

You might also be able to determine the common natural resources by the major exports and place names.

Although the internet can point you in the right direction initially, I also suggest more thorough research using the methods listed below:

Read Books and Magazines

The public library should also be on your list to get information about your new hobby. The library probably has information specific to the geology of your city or state in books or magazines.

They may also be able to provide access to additional online resources such as scientific journal articles using your library card.

Librarians are a valuable resource, so be sure to ask at the reference desk if you cannot find the information you are looking for. They will be happy to help and can direct you to resources that may not be obvious at first. 

Local bookstores are more likely to carry region-specific titles than large chain stores. They can often help to find and order books for you if they are not already in stock.

Some bookstores specialize in rare or out-of-print books, so those are an excellent source for more obscure titles.

Rock & Gem Magazine is the leading national magazine that appeals to rockhounds in the US. In addition to having a variety of articles on the topic, they advertise events and maintain a club list on their website.

You can also find articles on this subject in other periodicals that cover natural history or related subjects.

BTW: Do you want to know more about rocks and minerals identification? The books listed below are the best ones you can find on the internet (Amazon links):

Connect with Your Local Rock and Mineral Club(s)

Joining a rock club is the best way to find valuable rockhounding information in your local area, plus you can connect with some great people who share your hobby.

There may be organized trips or activities that you can join, or you might be able to find an experienced club member who is willing to take you out rockhounding.

Clubs are also very useful for accessing reference materials. There may be some interesting books about the geology of your local area that are long out of print, but fellow club members are likely to own them.

Finally, a rock club is an excellent place to learn about equipment from people who have experience using it. You may even be able to borrow or purchase equipment from other members.

Start with the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies when you are looking for rock clubs. Their website links to regional sites, and those provide listings of local clubs.

Most club listings include the regular meeting times and locations, but it is a good idea to contact the listed representative to confirm.

Other Valuable Sources of Rockhounding Information

Here you can find other valuable sources of rockhounding information:

  • State Natural Resource Agencies

Most states have agencies that oversee geology and mining. They may be called by different names depending on where you are by, but they will usually have a lot of information about local gems, minerals, and fossils.

There may not be a physical location that is open to the public, but they can generally provide information if requested, and some have a robust online presence.

  • Museums

You can find geology museums and natural history museums of various sizes around the country. Aside from showing you the specimens that are likely to be available in the area, they often offer educational programs.

  • Local Universities

If you live near or visit a university with a relevant program (geology, mineral engineering, paleontology), you can probably find resources to support your rockhounding interest.

They may have a dedicated natural history museum, or otherwise display some of the most interesting local specimens.

  • Rock Shops

Visiting a shop that specializes in rocks, gems, and minerals can be a great way to meet people and see high-quality examples of the types of materials you have been learning about.

The staff is generally knowledgeable about local rockhounding areas and rock clubs. Stores targeting tourists may also sell a small selection of local rock specimens, but are less likely to have informed salespeople than a specialty store.

  • Rock, Gem, and Mineral Shows

These temporary events usually have a low entrance fee, and give you a chance to see a wide variety of exemplary specimens. Although the vendors are the main draw, these shows often have demonstrations, exhibits, and displays as well.

TIP: If you have children, it is definitely advisable to start rockhounding from a young age. Most young children love rocks so it will be fun for them! If you’re looking for tips on how to get them started, I’ve written a complete article on this topic here:


Rock Collecting for Kids: 13 Tips How to Get Them Started


Planning Your First Rockhounding Trip

After you have decided what you want to look for and where it is time to start planning the logistics of your trip. For your initial trip, I recommend you visit a place that is not too far off the beaten track. It should be accessible and reasonably safe.

Paid sites tend to be easier for beginners since they are set up to welcome visitors. Do as much research as possible before you visit, so you can know how to prepare.

Your first rockhounding trip may be more productive if you go with a group or a more experienced person who can give you pointers.

Although plenty of people go out alone their first time, I recommend having some guidance when you are a beginner for the best experience.

Most people go to a site near their home for the first trip, but others prefer to combine this hobby with other activities like camping or hiking.

If you are planning more than a day trip, be sure to see if there are other possible rockhounding locations in the surrounding area. It is a good idea to have a backup plan in case your original site is not accessible for some reason.

Beginner Rockhounding Equipment

After you have planned out the location you want to visit, you will want to collect your equipment. When you are deciding which equipment you need, it is essential to balance usefulness with portability.

It is difficult to know on your first trip what you will or won’t use, but with experience, you will be able to get your equipment list narrowed down to your most preferred tools.

As you know, there is no required equipment needed to collect rocks. Your first step in the direction of this hobby was probably to pick up an attractive rock while you were out doing something else.

However, several things can make your rockhounding trip safer, more productive, and more comfortable.

Rockhounding Safety Equipment

Safety should be your top priority. Rockhounding can be a dangerous hobby since it involves tools and being in remote areas.

Be sure to research any hazards related to the area you will be visiting so you can prepare with any special safety equipment if needed. (Amazon links)

  • Eye protection: If you don’t already wear glasses, invest in a good pair of safety goggles. Rock chips and dust are at best unpleasant to get in your eyes, and at worst, can lead to permanent damage, so it is not worth the risk.
  • Work gloves: Heavy-duty gloves will protect your hands from cuts and scrapes, and keep them clean.
  • Appropriate footwear: Boots with ankle support are suitable for mountains and other rough terrains. You should bring waterproof rubber boots if you are planning to be in the water.
  • First aid kit: Since you might be far away from medical assistance, it is important that you have the basics on hand to treat minor injuries immediately.
  • Hard hat: If you are planning to go rockhounding in a cave, under cliffs, or other places where there might be falling rocks, a hardhat is recommended.

TIP: If you need more detailed information about safety equipment for rockhounding, I wrote a complete guide on this topic, you can read it here:


Recommended Safety Equipment for Rockhounding: Stay Safe!


Tools for Gathering Specimens

The types of tools you need to gather specimens will depend on what you are looking for. For example, the necessary tools will be quite different if in a stream searching for small gemstones as compared to breaking large rocks open to get to minerals inside.

Here are the tools most frequently used by beginners, roughly in order of priority (Amazon links):

  • Rock hammer or rock pick: This is the essential collection tool that every rockhound should start with. It is used for prying or finely chipping away at rocks, but it is not made for breaking large rocks.
  • Hand tools: There is a wide range of small tools that can be used to do precise work. These can include a sieve or colander, small picks, a trowel, or a small knife. 
  • Cleaning tools: For cleaning on-site while rockhounding, you may want to bring a small broom, paintbrush, and a spray bottle filled with water. Being able to clean your specimens will help you identify them more easily.  
  • Crack hammer: This type of hammer is like a smaller version of a sledgehammer. They are usually available in weights from 2-4 pounds. The 3-pound version should work best for most people, but make sure you can handle it easily. Crack hammers are usually used in combination with a chisel.
  • Chisel(s): Most people want a variety of chisel sizes, some with wide blades and some pointed. Be sure your chisels are rated for use on masonry; chisels for wood or metal will not be strong enough for these purposes. Chisels with handguards are recommended, especially for children, to avoid painful hand injuries.
  • Pry bar: This tool can be used to move large rocks or other obstacles that might otherwise be too heavy. 18” to 22” in length is sufficient for most uses and will not be too heavy.
  • Sledgehammer or mason’s hammer: This type of hammer breaks big rocks, and may not be required for every kind of rockhounding trip. Be sure you can comfortably swing and control this tool, as they can be cumbersome.
  • Shovel: Take a shovel if you anticipate needing to move some surface material to get to the specimens. Small folding shovels are lighter and easier to transport but tend to be more challenging to use. A standard full-size shovel will be necessary for large jobs.

TIP: If you want to know more about recommended equipment for rockhounding, check out this ultimate guide:


Recommended Rock Hammers, Picks, Chisels & Bars For Rockhounding


Tools for Carrying Tools and Specimens

Obviously, you will need some way to transport your specimens back home with you after a successful day of rockhounding. Although any container can be used, these options will make the job easier. (Amazon links)

  • Backpack: Most people use a backpack to carry their tools for rockhounding. Be sure you choose one that won’t be easily torn by sharp tools and has enough space for all your supplies.
  • Bucket: If you have a lot of specimens, a bucket is a great option. They come in a variety of sizes, and high-quality buckets can handle heavy loads. Try to get one with a comfortable handle.
  • Wrapping Material: Letting your specimens jostle against each other can cause them to get damaged. Newspaper, scrap fabric, or other wrapping materials will create a barrier between them and keep them safe during transport. 
  • Small Tubes, Boxes, and Other Containers: Small or fragile specimens can be packed into individual containers together with your wrapping material. You can carry a variety of sizes and shapes with you to accommodate various specimens.

Tools for Identifying Specimens

It is better to avoid carrying back a bunch of heavy specimens, only to find out that they are not what you thought they were.

By carrying some simple identification tools in your pack, you will be able to determine what you have located even before you get it back home. (Amazon links)

  • Loupe or magnifying glass: These tools allow you to examine the details of your specimens in the field quickly. 10X power is usually inexpensive and sufficient for rockhounding.
  • Magnet: A magnet is useful for identifying meteorites and iron-bearing rocks like hematite and magnetite. Any refrigerator or other readily available magnet works for this purpose.
  • Field guides: This is used to identify and distinguish between different types of rocks, gems, or minerals.
  • Spray bottle with water: Since samples are often dusty, it is much easier to examine them if you can remove dirt and dust on-site. A spray bottle and some old rags will help to get them clean enough to identify.

Tools for Navigation

It is very important not to lose track of where we are in nature. Fortunately, we now have navigation on our smartphones.

It is not ideal to rely only on your smartphone, it is advisable to have the equipment to determine your location. These can be (Amazon links):

  • Compass or GPS Device: Since many rockhounding areas do not have cell or internet service, you should not rely on a smartphone to get you back to your car or campsite. Quality GPS devices can be expensive, so a compass may be a better option to start with.
  • Topographic map, atlas, and/or area guidebook(s): These additional items will help you navigate your way to and from your chosen rockhounding site.

Items to Make Your Trip Comfortable

You will want to prepare for a rockhounding trip the same way you would for any hiking trip. What you need will depend on the type of terrain, weather, and length of the trip, but might include:

  • Sun hat or bandana
  • Flashlight
  • Sunscreen and bug spray
  • Food and water
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Tissues and toilet paper
  • Garbage bag
  • Notebook and pen or pencil
  • Camera
  • Extra clothes and shoes
  • Whistle
  • Bear spray
  • Rain gear

Do not be overwhelmed by our long list of equipment! Most people start with a very simple kit and add more items as they go. Depending on the location, type of materials you want, weather, and other factors, you may need only a few pieces of equipment.

Tips for Your First Rockhounding Trip

First off, please note that your first trip may not be as successful as you are hoping. It takes time to develop an eye for where to find the best specimens.

Many rockhounds find that their second or third visit to the same location reveals more collectible material, as they gain familiarity with the area.

Finding Specimens

Experiences will vary depending on the site and what is available there, but a good way to start is to broadly search for some rocky areas where specimens have naturally ended up. This could be at the bottom of a cliff, for example, or along the edges of streams or rivers.

Roadcuts, where large volumes of stone have been removed to make way for streets, can also be an excellent place to find specimens.

They are easily accessible by car, making this a fun way to make a quick rockhounding trip without investing a whole day. Just be sure that your stopping is allowed on the road. 

Some minerals, such as quartz crystals, may not be visible to the naked eye. Usually, you can identify a vein in a likely area, and then tap around with your tools to find a place that sounds hollow. Once you have found some specimens, you are likely to discover more in the nearby area.

Other Beginner Rockhounding Tips

While trying to find some cool or even valuable rocks you shouldn’t also forget these useful tips, that help you to stay safe:

  • Time management is also a key for rockhounding, especially for beginners. Some collectors like to set an alarm to reassess the situation periodically. After spending an hour in one spot, you might prefer to move on to another location if you haven’t found much. Since we tend to get so focused on our collecting, time can fly by without being noticed
  • When moving to another location, you might choose to make a trip back to your car to drop off a load of specimens. It is often easier to make several short trips throughout the day instead of trying to carry all of them back at the end of the day.
  • Finally, make sure you do not overdo it when you are on a rockhounding trip. Stay hydrated and take breaks when you need to. Save enough energy to carry all your gear and specimens back with you.

TIP: I actually wrote a whole article with amazing and useful tips for rockhounding. So if you are interested in more tips like the ones above, feel free to read this article:


PRO Tips for Beginner & Experienced Rockhounds + Safety Tips


Rules for Rockhounding for Beginners

It is essential to be aware of the rules around your new hobby. The important guidelines fall into two main categories: which areas you can or cannot enter, and which specimens you can or cannot collect.

  • When you are determining where you want to go rockhounding, the Bureau of Land Management can assist you in identifying whether the land is public or private. Rockhounding is allowed on most public land, although not at National Monuments and National Parks. Be sure to check local regulations related to the specific land you want to visit.
  • It is important not to enter private land without permission, as that can be considered trespassing. Anything you take from private land is the property of that landowner. If you are unsure, it is better to avoid those areas and stick with approved sites.
  • The Bureau of Land Management provides clear guidelines for the amount and type of collection that can occur on public land. If you are ever unsure, it is best to check with local authorities to be sure you do not break any rules, or collect prohibited items. There are limits to both the amount and type of materials to be collected. You also need to follow their guidelines about the method of collection, avoiding explosives, or other destructive activities.

Rockhounding vs. Prospecting

As you look through the rules about what can and cannot be collected, you probably noticed there are different standards for prospecting versus collecting.

The two activities are very closely related, but the difference lies in the intended use of the material that is collected.

Rockhounding is when you are collecting minerals, rocks, and gems for personal use and enjoyment. Prospecting is if you are collecting them to sell what you have collected.

If the materials are taken from public land, prospecting is prohibited, but rockhounding is (generally) permitted.

TIP: I know you are asking yourself, can I take these rocks from this place or not? It is a common question for every rockhound in the world. That’s why I wrote a guide on this topic, you can read it here:


Is it illegal to take rocks from nature? You Should Know This


Rockhounding Etiquette

In addition to following the laws and rules around rockhounding activities, most rockhounds consider it part of their duty to be good stewards of the land they explore and to maintain a good reputation with the community. People will think positively about rockhounding if they see good moral behavior from those engaging in it.

This means that rockhounds should be careful not to cause damage to the land in any way. If you make a fire, be sure it is properly extinguished. Pack out any litter from your trip, and try to leave the area in better condition than you found it.  

Rockhounding etiquette also means not collecting unreasonable amounts of materials or selling materials from public land. Since it is unlikely anyone will check your haul, everyone observes this rule on the honor system.

Since most people who are interested in the natural world also have an interest in protecting it, rockhounds generally find that proper etiquette falls in line with their normal behavior.

People who are well-prepared for their rockhounding trip and who know the rules of the area will probably not engage in these undesirable behaviors.

After Your Rockhounding Trip

Spend some time cleaning and labeling your finds. If you need to trim or sand any pieces, research that material to see what methods have worked well for others.

I recommend recording what you found and wherein a notebook so you can keep track of everything as your collection grows. This can also help you understand what is in your collection without pulling everything out to look at it.

Most rockhounds also want to display some highlights of their collections. After all, it is much more enjoyable to get to see those impressive specimens instead of hiding them away somewhere. I recommend keeping the collection protected from dust and providing proper lighting for the best display.

Conclusion

There is a lot to learn when you first start a rockhounding hobby, but it does not need to be intimidating. You can get started with minimal equipment and a bit of research.

Take advantage of all the resources available to you in the form of experienced rockhounds and resource material.

By the time you take your third or fourth rockhounding trip, you will feel comfortable with the tools for various collection methods and start developing an eye for rocks and minerals.

This rewarding hobby gets better with time and can provide you with hours of enjoyment and the opportunity to make new friends.

TIP: I think now it’s time for your first rockhounding trip. Not sure where to go to find the first rocks or minerals? Then read these guides on where to find rocks in the different US states:


Where to find rocks and minerals in the US