Top 12 Detectors

How To Be A Successful Urban
Treasure Hunter

By Bill Paxton

You may be wondering “What exactly is ‘urban’ treasure hunting?
The word “urban” is defined as: “of, relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a city.”

So one could simply say that “urban treasure hunting” is really treasure hunting within a city. I have lived in, or nearby, large cities my entire life, and I often run into detectorists who are intimidated by what they perceive to be the limitations of detecting in a city environment. Often the questions revolve around two basic misconceptions. The first is that cities are for the most part covered in concrete so all of the good stuff is only reachable with a jackhammer. The second is that the few detecting areas that are available to hunt, like city parks, are and have been searched hard for years and simply aren’t worth hunting.

One might surmise, therefore, that urban treasure hunting is a rather fruitless and frustrating part of our hobby that isn’t worth pursuing. Better to get in the car and drive to the suburbs or the country or the beach if you are near a body of water, right?

Well it is exactly this type of thinking that works to the advantage of the savvy detectorist who, with a little ingenuity, some really basic research and the help of good old Lady Luck, can become a very successful urban treasure hunter.

Let’s delve into this in some detail by addressing the two misconceptions that I mentioned above.

Cities are for the most part covered in concrete

This really depends on where you live, or more importantly, where you intend to hunt. Yes, there are extremes. For example, New York City, with its high population density, is certainly covered in a blanket of concrete and buildings while Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis that covers a huge expanse of land and has a lot more potential “non-concrete” areas to hunt. Perhaps the urban area you reside in, or want to hunt, is similar to one of these two cities. Most likely it is somewhere in between.

However, the simple fact to keep in mind is that no city is solid concrete. Every city has patches of grass, or dirt, either on public or private land. A good friend of mine lives in a very old apartment right in the heart of New York City. And guess what you walk right out into when you open his back door? A small yard. No larger than 10’ X 10’. Mainly dirt with a clothes line he hangs his laundry on. And to his knowledge no one has ever swung a metal detector over that turf. Guess where I am going next time I visit him?

And speaking of New York City, on that same visit there was a great deal of sidewalk construction going on in his neighborhood. The old concrete sidewalks were being removed to allow for new concrete to be poured. There were several days where the bare dirt was just sitting there, waiting to be hunted, before the cement trucks came in and covered up what could have been potentially virgin ground.

So if a crowded, overbuilt, compressed city like New York could offer sites like this to hunt, I think it is reasonable to assume that similar opportunities exist across the country (and around the world for that matter).

Okay, you say, maybe there is some potential within a city like New York. But how on earth can a mega-metropolis like Los Angeles offer the urban treasure hunter the opportunity to swing his detector and find cool stuff? I mean, it’s so huge, how do you know where to start? And where to go? And how far to drive?

Peru Dime Found
The 1897 Peru dime found at an
urban home site.

My advice is to start right where you are, whether you are visiting or live in the area. Much like New York but on a broader scale, you will find yards to hunt and sidewalk construction. And given the size of Los Angeles you will find a whole lot more of both. Apartment complexes with small grass courtyards; houses being landscaped/torn down/renovated; miles of sidewalks being replaced continually over the course of a year. All available to the urban treasure hunter. The neighborhood that I live in falls within the confines of Los Angeles and the houses date back to the 1930’s. When my neighbors do landscaping or construction, which is frequent, they are more than happy to allow me to swing my detector over the bare ground.

This past year, a house on my street was sold and then left to sit abandoned for several months. The lawn died and all that was left alive were a few old rose bushes. A neighbor of mine asked the new owner if he and I could remove the roses before they died and his response was basically “do anything you want back there.” So after removing two rose bushes I decided to bring my detector over to check the old rose garden. Well guess what? Three wheaties and a worn Mercury dime later, I dug up an 1897 Peruvian silver dime that had been cut out and turned into a medallion! All from detecting a dirt patch that was less than 5’ X 5’!

Now let’s take a look at the second misconception.

City parks are hunted out
Sliver Park
A typical “sliver” park.

Yes they are. Just like the ocean beaches are pounded.

Yet somehow hunters seem to keep finding things in these heavily searched areas. How can that be?

Okay, fresh drops are always a possibility, and they can occur anywhere. But let’s leave those out for a moment and concentrate on finds that have been buried for a while. Silver coins and the like. They should all be gone, right? Or at least so masked by an ever-growing trash layer that they simply aren’t capable of being located with a metal detector unless you dig a ton of trash and get really lucky.

Also true. But that is only if you go where everyone else goes. And hunt where everyone else hunts.

Misc Relics Found
A V nickel, a buffalo and two wheaties
found at a local sliver park.

The open-minded urban treasure hunter sees this “saturation of detectorists” as a big advantage. Because his goal is to find the areas that other hunters have overlooked. I call these areas “sliver parks.” Not “silver” but “sliver” parks.

What do I mean by that? Most every park I have ever been to has at least one small “sliver” that is removed from the main park. A little nook, a corner, a small sitting area. A “sliver park.” These are the areas to look for and they offer the potential to make great finds.

A couple of examples will illustrate my point. Here in Los Angeles there are several huge city parks that have been hunted hard for years. Occasionally good finds are pulled out from these parks, often when landscaping has taken place (remember there are sidewalks and walking paths in parks, too!), but they are few and far between. One of these parks has a small “sliver” that was cut off from the main park, essentially a triangle of grass and trees. I had driven by it for years and never gave it a second thought. Then one day I decided to try hunting this “sliver” park and guess what? It clearly had never been hunted before. I pulled out an 1899 V nickel, a buffalo and 2 wheaties on my first hunt.

Token Found
A 1936 Westinghouse token
found at a sliver park.

I also found one of my best finds ever, a 1936 commemorative token from the Westinghouse Jubilee of 1936, held in Philadelphia, PA, at the same park months later. My uncle worked for Westinghouse so the coin really hit home with me. How it got to Los Angles and was lost at a local park is beyond me!

So don’t give up on those urban parks. Just look for a “sliver” and if you find the right one the “silver” may be there waiting for you.

Take a look around your urban area(s) and I will bet you there are similar detecting opportunities available to you!

Before we leave this portion of this guide to urban treasure hunting, there is one very important subject that needs to be mentioned.

That subject is SAFETY.

Hunting Partner
Hunting partner Frank Galuppo unearths an
old coin from an urban park in Los Angeles.

Remember that you are hunting in urban areas. Urban areas where crime does occur, and where you could be potentially very vulnerable to attack. Times are a great deal different in 2013 than the 1980’s and 1990’s when I hunted the parks and other urban areas in Los Angeles. If you are detecting any area in any city other than a private residence, I would strongly urge you to hunt only in daylight and only with a partner. And I would advise you to “case” any potential hunting site before you ever get your gear out of your car. A quick walk around or scan of the area to make sure the wrong folks aren’t hanging around could save your neck. If it doesn’t feel right, leave. I have been harassed in broad daylight at crowded parks and have had friends who went solo early in the morning and were creeped out to discover that they had been watched. A few coins aren’t worth being robbed or worse. Leave and come back another day. Or don’t go back and find yourself another place to hunt.

If you do find an isolated, unhunted area, like a sliver of a park, be sure there are people there or that you have a hunting partner or partners with you. Isolating yourself is an invitation to potential trouble.

Now that we have looked at the subjects of where to hunt and how to be safe in an urban environment, let’s get to some fun stuff like the sort of gear you will need.

EQUIPMENT

The great part about being an urban treasure hunter is that you don’t need to spend a fortune on a metal detector in order to ensure your success. Even the most basic starter machine will find the good stuff if the location is right. As you run up the scale sophisticated options like advanced target/tone ID, ground tracking and the like can maximize the chances of your finding something good but they are no guarantee.

For me personally I like a lightweight detector that offers visible and audible target ID. Kellyco offers a wide selection of detectors and a short conversation with one of their specialists will guide you to what model is best for you.

Coil type is something you should give some serious thought to, both in terms of size and design. Remember that depth, while important, is not as vital a component of your success in finding good targets as you might think. Sure, having a detector that will find a buried silver coin at 14” would be great but digging 14” holes in a public park will both wear you out AND likely get you thrown out by a very irate groundskeeper.

Concentric and DD coils are often a matter of personal preference and a discussion of their pros and cons is better left to a Kellyco specialist or one of Andy Sabisch’s excellent “how-to” books. My advice in terms of coils is to seriously consider purchasing a small coil in addition to the stock coil that comes with your detector. If there is a great deal of trash in an area you are hunting, or if the conditions are such that swinging a larger coil is difficult, you will love the flexibility that a smaller coil offers. You can fit it into tight spaces or get much closer to metal objects like fences. Plus a small coil will cut through the trash much more effectively than a larger profile coil, possibly sniffing out a good target that was masked by trash. I was using a small coil on my detector when I found the 1899 V nickel mentioned earlier in this guide.

Of course don’t forget your headphones. Keep it private (as in no audio to attract attention) and listen for the good stuff.

RECOVERY TOOLS

The items required are basic but in my view absolutely necessary:

FINAL THOUGHTS

Hopefully this guide has served its purpose, which is to let people in our hobby know that urban treasure hunting is a viable, fun and potentially profitable way to metal detect. If you live in an urban area, or have one near to you, I would urge you to add it to your mental list of potential sites to hunt. Follow the tips I’ve discussed in this guide and you may be surprised what ends up in your finds pouch at the end of the day!

RECOMMENDED EQUIPMENT
URBAN TREASURE HUNTING METAL DETECTORS

Top Urban Treasure Hunting Metal Detectors

RECOVERY TOOLS
OTHER EQUIPMENT
BOOKS