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Best Metal Detectors To Use On A Beach

(How To Be A Successful Salt Water Beach Hunter)

By Bill Paxton
West Coast Beach
A typical West Coast Beach, who knows what valuables it might hold?

The E-mail that popped up on my computer was just like so many others that I had received over the years. Jim had met me at a beach just outside of Los Angeles and after watching me for a while, became intrigued by the idea of looking for valuables in the sand. He had gone out and bought himself the same high end metal detector that I was using. The problem was that although he had the same detector I did, he didn’t have any idea what to do next. His first visit to the beach was a disaster. He didn’t find anything and after a few frustrating hours he was ready to throw his new detector into the ocean. So he was contacting me and his E-mail consisted of basically one word: "HELP!" Jim quickly found out that there was a big difference between simply searching a West Coast beach and actually finding valuables on them. So if you are either in Jim’s situation or are contemplating joining me and my fellow treasure hunters on a West Coast ocean beach, this guide is just what you need.

So what is salt water beach hunting and more specifically, West Coast beach hunting? That's a simple question isn't it? It’s just hunting an ocean beach with a metal detector, right? Well…the simplest answer is "yes and no." West coast beaches pose challenges that those searching for lost valuables in say parks, school yards, forgotten battle sites and ghost towns, fresh water beaches and even ocean sites along the Eastern United States and the Gulf Coast do not have to deal with. These include highly mineralized sand which can greatly impact detector performance, tidal action that can drastically change a beach in mere hours and centuries of trash that has washed up and is buried just below the surface. This guide will cover how successful West coast beach hunters tackle these problems and greatly reduce the amount of time it takes for you to become proficient in these sites.

Before we even enter into a discussion of selecting the right detector and other equipment, what hunting techniques are recommended and the like, there is a VERY important question you have to ask yourself before you go any further. The question is simply this: "Do I want to hunt recreationally / occasionally or am I taking up beach hunting in a serious, dedicated manner with the goal of becoming a proficient beach hunter?" Now don’t get me wrong, there is no wrong answer to this question. However, how you answer that question is going to have both a financial AND time impact on you. Let me explain with two examples using our friend, Jim, who you met at the beginning of this guide. Jim decided he wanted to hunt the beach so he went out and bought himself a top model - one that cost well over $1,000. Once he added in some additional equipment such as a scoop, pouch, booties and headphones his investment went past the $1,500 mark.

Now if Jim is serious about the hobby and becomes a dedicated hunter – meaning that he hunts the beaches more than a handful of times a year – then his investment makes sense. But what if Jim is one of those guys who takes the detector out once a year on a family vacation at the beach? In that case Jim’s investment may be a case of overkill since the majority of the time his high end beach machine will be occupying a spot in the back of his closet or hanging on the wall of his garage.

Conversely, what if Jim is intent on being a serious beach hunter but decides to go "cheap" and buy a lower end machine? Say one that is not designed to handle the challenges of the West coast saltwater beaches? Well a similar scenario could unfold where due to having equipment that is not up to the task he simply gives up on the idea of beach hunting due to lack of results and level of frustration. Once again, the lower end machine ends up in the back of his closet just like the higher end detector would have in the first scenario.

Either way, the dollars invested don’t make "sense". So you have to ask yourself a simple question - "What’s it going to be - recreational/occasional or serious/full on beach hunting? Let’s take a look at both scenarios and what would be required in each by examining three separate categories: Equipment, Recovery Tools and lastly Where & How To Hunt.

Frank and his ring
Frank and his ring, the result of using proper hunting techniques and having equal bits of luck and tenacity mixed in.

First and foremost will be your metal detector selection. I have personally dealt with Kellyco for many years and what I like about the company is that they are not "brand-specific." They feature the largest selection of detectors on the planet which on the surface can be a bit overwhelming. However, the advantage of dealing with Kellyco is their expert staff. When I was getting started in the hobby many years ago, I was guided to the right machine for my needs by Kellyco’s excellent phone support staff that addressed my specific needs as a hunter. After reading this guide and doing your research you may know exactly what machine you want, but knowing that Kellyco is there to help you decide if you need help is a nice option to have.

First and foremost will be your metal detector selection. I have personally dealt with Kellyco for many years and what I like about the company is that they are not "brand-specific." They feature the largest selection of detectors on the planet which on the surface can be a bit overwhelming. However, the advantage of dealing with Kellyco is their expert staff. When I was getting started in the hobby many years ago, I was guided to the right machine for my needs by Kellyco’s excellent phone support staff that addressed my specific needs as a hunter. After reading this guide and doing your research you may know exactly what machine you want, but knowing that Kellyco is there to help you decide if you need help is a nice option to have.

So you need a metal detector to hunt the beach but which one?

    • THE RECREATIONAL/OCCASIONAL HUNTER: You are going to hunt the saltwater beach just a couple of times a year, possibly only on vacation and maybe your kids will take part in the search. You want to find stuff but even a few coins would make for a successful hunt and an enjoyable time on the beach with the family. If this is you, then pick a mid-level VLF machine. Any VLF will handle the dry sand just fine and, if you get down to the wet sand where the mineral/salt content can make the detector go crazy (i.e. chattering or erratic operation) you can use the discrimination and sensitivity controls to calm it down. Target ID is nice but not necessary since gold jewelry tends to register in the tinfoil or aluminum range. If you are intent on getting anywhere near the water/splash zone you might want to consider a detector that is waterproof. This isn’t necessary if you are going to stay "high and dry" but you don’t want to get salt water into the circuitry of a non-waterproof machine and end up tossing it in the trash on the way home. Another option is to simply place a large Zip-Lock baggie over the control housing to keep the spray away from the electronics.


  • THE SERIOUS BEACH HUNTER: You want to hunt the beach more than just as a vacation or occasional activity. Maybe all year round, or at least when the seasons permit. You want to put the time in to learn the specifics of hunting a saltwater beach, to educate yourself to enhance the possibility of your making the kind of finds that you read about in the treasure magazines. If this is you, then a higher end detector - one that offers the ability to hunt a saltwater beach environment effectively - would be the logical choice for you. Personally I would avoid single-frequency VLF detectors due to their difficulty to operate at maximum levels of performance in wet sand environments where the salt content/mineralization is high (like here on the West Coast). This leaves you with essentially two options:
      • Pulse Detectors: Pulse induction detectors go very deep and are not affected by the salt content/mineralization of an ocean beach. They enable you to go from the dry sand to the wet sand and into the surf with no problems. Many are also waterproof. The only downside to pulse detectors is that they do not discriminate. Yes, you will be digging EVERYTHING. Some folks love them and some can’t stand them - the final decision is a matter of personal preference.

    • Dual / Multi-frequency Detectors: Several manufacturers make dual or multi-frequency detectors that are able to counteract the salt content/mineralization found at many ocean beaches especially on the West coast. These machines operate very effectively in this type of environment and achieve excellent depth. They do tend to be more expensive than pulse detectors, often feature more options and do come in waterproof versions. They also offer they advantage of discrimination which makes them very versatile since they can be used inland as well. Again, some hunters love the multi-frequency detectors while others find them to be too complicated and prefer the simplicity of pulse machines.

A quick note on waterproof detectors. Be aware that making a metal detector waterproof can, and often does, make them heavier than land versions and therefore they can be more wearing on the user than a comparable land model. They require more care (waterproof connections, gasket maintenance, etc), special headphones and due to their being waterproof are much more difficult if you desire to change coils.

recent storm and extreme tides
A major cut, the product of a recent storm and extreme tides.

Okay another easy question to answer right? The beach of course so what are we waiting for? Well, hold on just a minute before you grab your detector and head out onto the sand. Many ocean beaches are huge expanses covering areas the size of several football fields or larger and valuables can be anywhere. Unless Lady Luck is standing next to you when you just hit the sand and start hunting, your day may be a long one and your pouch hold nothing but trash as you head for home.

Therefore, before you unpack your detector, take a look at the beach with an eye for where the beachgoers are or where they were. Once you have established that, head for one or both of these two areas:

The Blanket Line

This is the imaginary line that marks where people set up their blankets & towels on the beach for the day. Many people have the habit of removing their valuables and laying them on their towel or blanket so they don’t lose them when they go into the water. Good idea. The problem is that when they get ready to leave, the forget about their valuables and, when flipping their towels or blankets to get rid of the sand, send their precious items flying into the air and into the sand behind them. Many hunters love hunting the area just behind the blanket line for just this reason.

    • THE RECREATIONAL/OCCASIONAL HUNTER: This is the spot where I would go if I were you. The sand is easy to dig, your machine will work very well and if you get lucky, you may find a "heart-stopper" piece of jewelry in the bottom of your sand scoop. Plus there is always a lot of fresh-dropped change around the blanket line if beach concessions are nearby.


  • THE SERIOUS BEACH HUNTER: I know, you tend to pass-up the blanket line. You don’t want to be known as a “dry sander.” I totally get that; however, there have been many times over the years when the wet sand wasn’t producing and my buddies and I went up on the dry and our bad day turned into a very good day. Don’t disregard the dry sand/blanket line, it may offer you the potential of some very profitable finds!


The Wet Sand

We are talking the area between the low tide and high tide water lines here. Depending on the tides it may be a large area (at low tide) or a small area (at high tide). Either way, as a beach hunter your goal in hunting this area is to find coins or hopefully jewelry that has been lost while people are swimming. It can either have been lost when the water level was up at high tide or moved there by tidal or current action. Take a look at the people in the water the next time that you go to beach. Note how many wear jewelry into the water. Rings, necklaces, watches, you name it. A little sun tan lotion, sea water and some water play and any of those items could vanish into the water where the only person capable of finding them is a person with a metal detector.

    • THE RECREATIONAL/OCCASIONAL HUNTER: No harm in venturing down here with your VLF machine, but be aware that you will have to bump up the discrimination and lower your sensitivity to account for the salt content of the water and the mineralized black sand so common on West coast beaches. Not a deal breaker but your odds are better up on the dry sand and hunting in the water is not an option unless you have a waterproof model.


  • THE SERIOUS BEACH HUNTER: This is where you belong and, if luck is with you, where you will profit nicely. With your multi-frequency or pulse machine you will not be bothered by changing salt content or mineralization and should achieve excellent depth. And if your detector is waterproof you can even move into the water to hunt (and cool off on a hot day!). Add in some good surf that churns up the sand or even better takes some away and you have maximized the odds of your coming home with several good finds in your pouch.


Cuts and Sand Erosion

For the beach hunter there will always be wet sand and blanket line areas to hunt. However, unique situations can present themselves that offer a detectorist the opportunity to make numerous and potentially very valuable finds at an ocean beach. These situations occur when a large amount of sand is either moved or churned up, bringing long buried targets nearer to the surface and closer to a beach hunter’s search coil. What causes this movement of sand? It could be a storm, high surf, extreme tides or a combination of all three. The result can be easily observed by the observant beach hunter. An extra couple of steps may now be visible on the stairway leading down to the beach. Pier pylons may have more of their surface area revealed. I know of one beach in Southern California that has a number of lifeboats secured beneath a pier. When the tips of the lifeboats are visible it means that a lot of sand has been moved and it can be a great time to hunt.

And if you ever see what looks like a piece of the beach has been "carved" out or cut away, leaving a vertical wall of sand behind it—what we beach hunters call a "cut"—head right for it! Hunt from the base of the cut all the way out to the water, and don’t forget to run your coil over the vertical face of the cut. What the beach has presented you with is, depending upon the height of the cut, an opportunity to now reach targets that were several feet or more beyond the reach of any metal detector. Mother nature has basically provided you with an excavator free of charge. Most beach hunters will tell you that large cuts often result in their best and most valuable finds.

Hunting the beaches
Hunting the beaches of Southern California.

A question you may be asking yourself is, "Okay, I’ve identified the area that I want to hunt. But it’s still really large. How do I lock in on where the targets are?" This is one of those questions that every beach hunter faces each time he or she sets foot on the beach. While I am certain there are hundreds of different methods, the one that I and many successful hunters favor is the “zig-zag” approach. It works like this: You get to the area of the beach that you want to hunt, wet or dry sand and begin hunting in a zig-zag pattern until you hit a target. Then slow down and grid the area. Some hunters prefer an up and down/lateral method, others like to spiral out, using the found target as the center of their spiral. If multiple targets are located, settle in and thoroughly search the area. If not, move on.

Now, an important point to make here is once you KNOW a particular beach and what zones generally hold targets, then by all means hit those areas hard. The zig-zag method is generally is used on stretches of beaches that are either very large or are unfamiliar to the hunter.

One final searching basic: TAKE YOUR TIME! I see many beach hunters who, upon seeing how much area there is to search, seem compelled to search all of it in a single afternoon. They whip their search coil across the beach at lightning speed, usually a foot off the sand, and generally find nothing. Slow down, keep the coil close to the sand, let the detector do its job and find yourself something cool!


One of the most unique aspects of the West Coast is that you can find just about any kind of beach to hunt.Rocky, huge, calm, active, you name it. So there really isn’t any technique that I can give you specific to the different types of beaches that we have out here. I guess you can blame or credit the sheer size of our California coast line.

However I can tell you that if you intend to hunt the beaches of the West Coast, you do need to be prepared for a highly mineralized environment. Our beaches, unlike many ocean beaches in other parts of the country, feature high mineral content that can drive the circuitry of a metal detector crazy. Especially what is referred to as "black sand," sand with high mineral content that is mixed in with the normal brown beach sand. You will recognize it the grayish/black cast that the sand has when you scoop it up. Often times it will even settle in rings of black within the hole. Most metal detectors have a hard time with black sand because they read it as a target. That is why multi-frequency and pulse machines are so popular on the West Coast; the ignore its effects. VLF’s will work, but you have to either raise your detector’s discrimination or lower it’s sensitivity to compensate for the mineralization. And the unfortunate result of doing this is that you limit the detector’s ability to achieve maximum depth and recognize possibly valuable targets that fall within the range of targets that were eliminated in order to counter the effects of the mineralization.


There is one tool and one tool only that you need here. A sand scoop.

    • THE RECREATIONAL/OCCASIONAL HUNTER: You’ve already surfed over to the scoops page on the Kellyco site, haven’t you? And you want one of those really cool long handled beauties, right? Gorgeous, digs deep . . gotta have it. My advice - leave it be. For your use, this type of scoop is overkill. Get yourself a nice short handled scoop if all you want to do is hunt the dry sand. Make it metal as opposed to plastic. It’s all you need and will do the job just fine.


  • THE SERIOUS BEACH HUNTER: You, on the other hand, have some thinking to do. There are many options, from basket type to handle length. One serious consideration here is do you want to bend over to recover a target? If that isn’t an issue, a mid-length handled scoop might be right for you. If you prefer not to bend over, or you want to hunt in the water, a long handled scoop is a better choice. Just be aware that these scoops are heavy and you do have to carry them with you. Dragging them behind you allows you to mark where you have searched and ensures you are not missing potentially productive areas.

A final note on scoops: remember that you are hunting at a saltwater beach. If the scoop you choose isn’t stainless steel or aluminum but is, for example, made from galvanized steel, it will be affected by the elements and will deteriorate over time especially if you do not rinse it with fresh water after every use.


Other than common sense items like sunblock, water, etc., there are two other items that you should bring with you when you beach hunt. The first is a pouch to hold your finds. I’ve seen guys use fanny packs, leather pouches and other devices over the years but I prefer a mesh pouch. Kellyco makes the best one around and it is listed under “Recommended Equipment” at the end of this guide. You wear it on a belt around your waist and you are good to go. The second is a pair of headphones. Headphones serve two purposes: 1. They keep unwanted noise out (like the sound of the surf) allowing you to hear targets) and 2. They keep the sounds of the detector in your ears and out of the ears of others. A noisy detector at a beach draws a lot of attention, be it children following you like the Pied Piper or annoyed glances from beachgoers who don’t appreciate the detector sounds intruding on their beach day.


What I love about this hobby, and especially the beach, is that you never know what the next swing of a coil can bring you. Let me illustrate this point by example. This summer, my buddy, Frank, and I went to hunt an ocean beach here in Southern California. After an hour of hunting Frank came up to me with what I refer to as his "boo-boo" face. He wasn’t finding anything and wanted to leave and go home to do some work. I was testing out a new machine a friend of mine had loaned me and gave it to Frank. I told him to give it another hour. Well guess what? 45 minutes later he showed up with the ring and the grin you see in the picture below. 14K white gold, a bunch of diamonds, later appraised at $800.00 retail! If beach detecting interests you, give the list below a look and come join me and my buddies at the beach. There are great things to find out there if you have the right gear and Lady Luck along with you for the day! And even if you don’t find a major goodie, remember what my good friend Andy Sabisch has said to me many a time: "A bad day detecting is still better than a good day at work!"


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