Tips for Metal Detecting Urban Areas

Tips for Metal Detecting Urban Areas

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That old park downtown looks really enticing, it must be untouched! Who would ever risk detecting there? You can imagine all the old silver coins and Indian Head cents lurking just under the turf. But you also see the homeless man sleeping on the bench, the posse of teenage hoodlums drinking on the playground, and the trash strewn about. Maybe you are put off by the derelict cars and rundown properties that surround the site. Can you still detect there? Probably so, and if you don’t, I probably will!

half ohio metal detecting

1894-S half dollar found by the author at an urban park.

It’s true that old finds are made in these old areas. I still remember the thrill of pulling my first Barber half out of the ground near a curb in a sketchy area of town. Other finds that come to mind are the V nickel and Barber dime together in one hole, several Indian Head cents and a gold ring that came from a small inner city park. Another V nickel and many wheats and a few silver dimes from another park in a sketchy area. Friends have found multiple Seated Liberty coins from another old park in the city and countless old coins have come from two of the oldest parks. I know, I’ve dug a number of them.

Check your Personality

I am a city person, and have my city sensibilities with me. I’m used to always being aware of my surroundings and having people of all types around me. Others are used to the quiet of the country or the neighborly friendliness of the suburbs and feel safest in these milieus. If you’re used to hunting lonely plowed fields, an old urban park is quite a different site and requires adjusting your habits and thinking.

Your mental attitude and confidence make a big difference. It’s an essential part of the strategy. It’s not just the location but how you behave and interact with the situation. If you are afraid or don’t feel comfortable, you are not going to be focused on your detecting. And these areas are often trashy and hard to hunt, so you need to bring your A-game, as well as being aware of your surroundings. If you ever feel threatened or at risk, by all means, leave at once. I don’t mean to talk anyone into detecting where they don’t feel safe and aren’t enjoying themselves.

If you mentally “gear up” for an urban treasure hunt, there are some common situations and strategies to consider before heading out the door. Everything from the people you’ll meet and questions you’ll be asked to the time of day and some hazardous “finds” you may come across.

Curious People and Questions

In over twenty years and many thousands of hours of metal detecting, I have run into no more danger than loose dogs curiously bounding up to me, people genuinely curious about what I am doing/finding, bored children who want to follow me around (and these are the worst! I’ve left several places just to escape the tenacious brats!), and obnoxious teens and young adults yelling taunts out of car windows or loudly going “beep-beep-beep” as they walk past.

My primary strategy for being undisturbed is to pretend to not hear someone. I have headphones on, after all. I am fully aware that someone is there and can hear them plainly, but I keep my head down and “focus” on a signal (real or imaginary) until they have moved on.

Number one most asked question after, “Find anything?” is “What are you lookin’ for, gold?” or some variant. These are some of my typical answers to these types of questions:
1) Just some pennies and/or I think I got a few dimes
2) Just trash so far, but you never know…
3) Actually this isn’t very good at finding gold, I’m mostly looking for coins.

As far as finds, I always make it seem like I’m working hard for little reward. “If I’m lucky I might find a few quarters today.” I never mention old coins like “wheat pennies” or “Mercury dimes” because to most people that means nothing. Most detectorists know old coins because we are collectors, or have found them in the past. To most people a dime is a dime. Why give details that might make people more curious? I’m looking to end the encounter quickly, not extend the conversation or give away the fact that I might be finding more than chump change.

In the book Urban Treasure Hunter by Michael Chaplan, the author mentions having the trash side of your nail apron or pouch full of trash or nuts and washers. That way if you are approached and asked what you’ve found, you can reach in your apron, pull out a large handful of junk, and complain that all you’ve found is trash.

He claims this usually will quickly disinterest anyone from bothering you any more. I have found though that adults are rarely interested in seeing what’s in your pouch, but children are fascinated by anything you’ve found…even trash, so showing them anything is a surefire way to have curious children following you around like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.


When they are accompanied by an adult, curious children are usually not much of a distraction.

Speaking of unsupervised curious children, they are the only people who have ever disturbed me to such a great extent that I needed to leave a place due to detecting being impossible. Notice I specify “unsupervised.” Not all children are like this, but realize the potential they have to spoil a hunt. They will walk right in front of you preventing you from swinging. They will place coins and junk metal objects in your path to see if you find them. They will ask incessantly if they can have anything you find. They will grab your find from the hole if you are not quick enough. They will grab your tools from your pocket or if you set them on the ground. They will want to hold and use your metal detector.

Keep all these things in mind when you see a child or a small group of elementary-age children approaching. Some detectorists may choose to stop and take time to tell the children about what they are doing and demonstrate their machine, but I have had too many hunts sidelined or ended by their unwanted attention. When children are with their parents or another adult, their curiosity is usually reigned in rather quickly.

Another common question that puts a detectorist on guard is “What did you pay for that thing?” I haven’t actually heard this one in a while, but I have a few different answers I give:

1) I’m not sure, I got it as a gift.
2) I dunno, it’s my brother’s and he’s letting me borrow it.
3) About a hundred bucks, you can get ’em at WalMart

Another Ohio detectorist, Tony Mantia says his reply when asked “What does it cost?” or “Are they very expensive?” is to say “They are all different prices.” and then quickly ask the curious person if they have ever metal detected before. In this way he deflects the question without being rude. He says depending on their answer he tries to get them to talk about themselves.

Look ‘Em in the Eye

I have also discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that eye contact and a smile are very disarming to those who I am unsure of or that look threatening. If I look up and see someone, I make eye contact and smile. Often my fear, or the appearance of their menace, disappears. People who are up to no good don’t like to be seen or recognized, so my acknowledgment of their presence sends them in the other direction.


Some folks believe in concealed carry or having a weapon on their person in these areas. I believe it is unnecessary and increases your risk. If theft is their objective, they can have my detector. I’m not going to fight or argue for a detector or a pouch of finds, let alone have, show or draw a weapon. That seems like a surefire way to escalate something non life-threatening (theft) to life-threatening. My homeowners insurance will cover a new detector if it comes to it.

Thieves are inherently lazy people looking to profit quickly from someone else’s hard work. If it looks like it’s going to be work for them, or any kind of effort to rob you, they will move on to an easier victim. They don’t even really want your detector, but they’d probably be interested in a weapon.

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There is 1 comment for this article
  1. Tommyjay at 7:56 pm

    Good article. Being retired, I find the early hours when school is in session to hunt as many of the miscreants will be in school when I hunt the more urban areas. During the summer, Saturday mornings are key as most will be nursing hangovers. Im not so concerned about the older bums because they tend to leave me alone, although the new breed of younger bums gets me more concerned, and my radar goes on high gain when I see them around. Out of habit I carry my probe, and fiskars garden digger in my left hand (faster dig response), and I think that sight offers a little deterrent to the nefarious. I havent had problems with the kids yet. Most leave me alone but a few have come and asked questions.

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