On Dry Washers, Desert Gold, and Working Dry Ground (Part 1)

 (Never underestimate the beauty of the desert or the gold it contains.)

It's that time of the mining year again. Desert miners will be loading up those dry washers and heading out to get at that dry placer gold. This includes two of my own, "Dobbsie" and "Curtie," who made (or are making) a run for the gold at the Potholes.

Not on Your Shoulders

Those of you out there who have never prospected or worked desert or dry placers are missing a fundamental dimension of small-scale mining that you really should be familiar with. No, I'm not faulting you, nor am I ignorant of the fact that many of you live in regions or areas far removed from the deserts of the Southwest and West, or even the Aussie Outback for that matter. So it's not on your shoulders, OK? It's just the way things are.

Mining Equipment

On the other hand, I literally cut my mining teeth prospecting and mining desert placers. That's where I began my mining career as a total novice, bust-out greenhorn, and general ignoramus (take your pick or feel free to use all descriptors!). Still, I managed to fumble, stumble, and bumble my way around until I got a pretty decent idea of things. I also had the benefit of excellent advice and direction from two old timers who eventually became my mentors...in other words, I had a leg up on most newcomers.

Suspect in My Book

Now understand this...dry washing for gold is a totally different ballgame than working running water locations. The desert can be a very harsh mistress and taskmaster, and she doesn't make things easy for you in any respect. It gets hot during the daytime and often very cold at night. There's been many a time I had to laager in under what little shade was available when the heat became intolerable and just as many times when I crawled out of my sleeping bag stiff and shivering, my teeth chattering like a pair of Flamenco dancer castanets. Toss in lots of dry wind, dust, sand, grit, and venomous little critters like scorpions and sidewinders (not to mention the less dangerous bats, tarantulas, centipedes, etc.) and you start to get the picture.

 (The ubiquitous little dry washer has recovered a lot of placer gold.)

As much as miners love mining, I've seen more than a few who just couldn't get motivated or excited by dry washing or prospecting and mining in the desert. I fully understand that on one level, but on another level I find it difficult to comprehend. Sure, I'm biased in this regard and, of course, we all have our likes and dislikes. That said, any miner worth his or her salt who can't find the beauty in a desert sunrise or get excited when that little puffer dry washer starts banging away is suspect in my book. You see, a well-rounded gold miner is just that. Each and every one of you should know how to run a dry washer and how to work dry ground.


Yep, this includes those of you who live nestled among the boughs of mighty pines with plenty of shade and the music of running water burbling in the background. Why do I say this? Because a dry washer can be used ANYWHERE and ANYTIME the gold-bearing material in question is completely dry before being processed. This is a fact that some of you have failed to grasp along the way. You don't have to be in the desert to use a dry washer. In fact, in might be the perfect choice for those bench or terrace gravels far removed from the nearest stream. Sure, a highbanker is more efficient overall, but it isn't the be-all, do-all answer to your mining needs.

Moreover, it wouldn't hurt you one little bit to add another dimension and knowledge set to your mining skills, would it?  Think on this for a moment. I'm not haranguing you...I'm just trying to open your mind to some possibilities...that's all.

(c)  Jim Rocha (J.R.)  2013

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com


  1. Jim, The anti-fun police can't say you are killing fish either!! I've seen these work, but have never run one. When useing these, do you target dry riverbeds mostly? Gary

  2. Nope, no fish kills with a dry washer! You can run a dry washer in any context (mountains, desert, dry creek, etc. as long as the material you're running is COMPLETELY dry. It can't be damp. Best, J.R.

  3. J.R. how long does the average gold prospecting/mining excursion last when the drywasher is brought along? Mario in the above photo looks like he's there for just a day.

  4. It all depends on how long you're out...it could be for the day, for a week, or if you're working a dry placer claim, for months at a time. Just like any other piece of mining gear. Best, J.R.

  5. Jim, Are these things as effective as a water operated sluice, or are you more likely to loose fine gold? I have thought about making one of these several times, but since I've never worked one, I wasn't sure if it would be worth the effort. Several years ago, I watched a guy use one down by Clayton, Idaho. His had a small electric motor with an off balance weight to make it vibrate,as well as an electric blower. It was all run off a generator, making it too bulky to pack very far from a road. I have seen bellows types, like the one pictured here, but what about vibration? Do you need that? These interest me, but I don't know enough about them. Thanks, Gary

  6. Dry washers are never as efficient as a water-based system or gear...but there are lots of variables in that statement as well. You could set up a sluice box or highbanker improperly and get less gold than someone operating a dry washer to its peak efficiency. There are also dry washers that aren't motorized but operated by hand and I've even see back pack versions for sampling. Best, J.R.

  7. JR,

    How does this gold end up in desert placers? Do you just dig where there is red dirt or black sand stringers? I can't handle airborne dust very well and these little machines can make their own dust storms.Needless to say, my asthma would kill me using one of these units, not to mention the danger of valley fever in Arizona. Guess I better stick with placer mining in water instead.

    -Tom V.

  8. Tom, I apologize for being late in answering your comment. The gold in the desert ends up in placers much the same way it does in wet areas with running streams...typically from veins or stringers eroding out. Gravity and time and nature help the gold move down slope or downward...remember, it is very dense and heavy and moves ever downward. There are instances where desert placers are parts of ancient gold-bearing channels or rivers, but that isn't as common. Yep, with asthma you should probably stay away from dry washing. Best, J.R.


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