Rules of Metal Detecting: What You Need to Know

In the world of metal detecting, the endless allure of unearthing hidden treasures and artifacts is matched by the responsibility to respect history, property, and the environment. As metal detecting technology advances and the community of enthusiasts grows, adhering to a strict code of ethics, or rules, becomes paramount. 

In order to understand the ethics of metal detecting it’s important to undersand what the word “ethics” means. Simply put, it means ‘moral character’. What you do when noone is looking is a good indicator of your moral compass. When you are metal detecting are you leaving undesirable targets behind or even trespassing? If so, then you are not taking into consideration the ethics of our hobby and should likely adjust your moral compass. 

This article delves into the core principles that both newbies and advanced metal detectorists should follow to ensure their hobby contributes positively to our understanding of history and culture. These ethics, rules, moral obligations, or whatever you may consider them, are necessary for the longevity of our beloved hobby’s existence. After reading this, you should have a good understanding of the code of conduct for metal detecting, the importance of following the ethics, and the consequences of ignoring them.

What are the ethical considerations in metal detecting?

Respect for the Past

  • Every item unearthed is a piece of history. Detectorists must recognize the significance of their finds in contributing to our collective understanding of the past. Reporting historically significant finds to local historical societies or archaeologists is not just an ethical duty; it’s a contribution to the preservation of history. 
  • The context in which artifacts are found is crucial to their historical value. Removing items without proper documentation can lead to a loss of historical data. Advanced practitioners advocate for photographing finds in situ, or in its original spot, and taking meticulous notes on the location and surrounding objects.
  • Obviously, not everything we find as detectorists needs to be documented. The more you become involved in this hobby, the more you will learn about the history of the items you are finding and you’ll gain a better understanding of the when something is historically significant. 

Respect for the Laws

  • Permission is by far the most important ethic of them all. Always obtain explicit permission from property owners before detecting. This respect for ownership rights is foundational to ethical metal detecting. Familiarize yourself with and adhere to local, state, and national laws regarding metal detecting public lands as well.
  •  This includes regulations on national parks, national forests, protected lands, and historical sites where detecting may be restricted or prohibited.  Know and understand the legal framework around claiming finds, especially those of significant monetary or historical value. Some states may require finds to be reported and may claim ownership over certain types of artifacts. 

Respect for the Land

The Legals of Metal Detecting National Forests
in the United States

Metal Detecting on National Forest

Metal detectors may be used on public land in areas that do not contain or would not reasonably be expected to contain archaeological or historical resources. Normally, developed campgrounds, swimming beaches, and other developed recreation sites are open to recreational metal detecting unless there are archaeological or historical resources present. In such cases, forest supervisors are authorized to close the area to metal detecting and the closure would be posted at the site. Such closure notices are not always practical in undeveloped areas, and federal agencies have not identified every archaeological site on public lands. It is possible; therefore, that you may encounter such archaeological remains that have not yet been documented or an area that is not closed
even though it does indeed contain such remains. Archaeological remains on public land are protected under law. If you were to discover such remains, you should leave them undisturbed and notify a FS office

Metal Detecting on National Forest System Lands

The Code of Federal Regulations, (36 CFR 261.9) states, “The following are prohibited: (g) Digging in, excavating, disturbing, injuring, destroying, or in any way damaging any prehistoric, historic, or archaeological resources, structure, site, artifact, or property. (h) Removing any prehistoric, historic, or archaeological resources, structure, site, artifact, property.”

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA, 16 U.S.C. 470cc:) also prohibits these activities, stating, “No person may excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage or otherwise alter or deface any archaeological resources located on public lands or Indian lands unless such activity is pursuant to a permit…” ARPA exempts the collection of coins for personal use if the coins are not in an archaeological context. In some cases, coins may be part of an historical-period archaeological site, in which case they would be considered archaeological resources and are protected under law. These laws apply to all National Forest System land and do not vary from state to state.

  • The principle of leaving no trace should be at the forefront of every metal detectorist’s mind. This means carefully replacing soil and turf after digging and ensuring that the site looks undisturbed. Leave it better than you found it is a good rule to remember as you go. Do not leave open holes or trash. 
  • Avoid harming wildlife habitats, vegetation, and natural features. The pursuit of finds should never come at the expense of the environment. As detectorists our knowledge base is vast and it should include an understanding of the environment we detect in.

Respect for Others

  • The metal detecting community thrives on shared experiences and knowledge. Advanced detectorists should mentor newcomers, teaching them not only the skills of the trade but also the importance of ethical detecting. Every detectorist represents the broader community. By conducting oneself with integrity and respect, detectorists help promote a positive image of the hobby and counteract negative stereotypes.
  • Community conduct holds true when interacting with other members of the detecting community. Treat fellow enthusiasts with respect, including respecting their finds and detecting areas. Cooperation and camaraderie should be prioritized over competition. 
  • Be conscious of how you maintain yourself in front of property owners. Disrespect or dishonesty will not get you far.  Share your finds and trash with the property owners. Helping them to understand the impact of what we as detectorists do can lead to other permissions and it helps them to see us as more than just treasure seekers. 

How can one ensure they follow the rules of metal detecting?

Always assume someone is watching you, even if you are out in the middle of a farm field searching for history with your metal detector.  It’s that simple. If you love this hobby and would like to continue enjoying it for many years to come then remember actions have consequences and that holds true in metal detecting.  By representing detectorists as respectful, it is encouraging the longevity of the hobby. 

Legal Consequences of Ignoring Ethics

Some areas of the country strictly prohibit metal detecting. They post signs and have bylaws clearly put in place. Should you get caught violating those laws or rules there could be significant consequences. This is why maintaining the code of ethics in metal detecting is not only morally important, but legally as well. 

The federal government has strict laws in place such as the 1906 American Antiquities Act, 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, and the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act.  These were all put into place to prevent the looting of our protected lands. It ensures the history in the soil is maintained and removed by professionals for the purpose of preservation. Violating these federal laws could result in jail time and hefty fines. 

Some localities may confiscate your metal detector and issue you a fine for vandalism or trespassing. Why? Probably because someone before you misrepresented the metal detecting community and did not adhere to the ethics of the hobby. As mentioned before, the knowledge bank of detectorists spans many topics and the laws concerning metal detecting in their area is necessary to know and understand. 


For new and advanced metal detectorists alike, the thrill of discovery comes with significant responsibilities. By adhering to the simple code of ethics, detectorists not only protect historical and cultural heritage but also ensure the sustainability of the hobby for future generations. Happy hunting.

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