What Is Rockhounding?
Put simply, rockhounding is the hobby of collecting rocks, minerals and fossils directly from the places in which they are found. Rockhounds go out into the field and find their own specimens, rather than purchasing them from dealers. It should be noted, though, that many rock and mineral enthusiasts use both field collecting and dealer purchases to build up their collections.
Why Do People Collect Rocks?
Collecting rocks and minerals can be a fun hobby for a number of different reasons. To begin with, many types of rocks are interesting and beautiful on their own. Since there are so many different types of rocks and each specimen is unique, it’s also a hobby that offers almost endless variety. Unlike hobbies that become monotonous after a while, rock collecting remains fresh and exciting, even to the most experienced rockhounds.
In addition to the sheer variety that collecting rocks has to offer, it is also a very intellectually stimulating hobby. Every rock you find has a geological history that goes back millions of years, and a huge part of the fun of being a collector is learning about that history. Over time, you’ll learn how different rocks are formed, where they’re found, what elements they’re made of and what makes them unique. This aspect of collecting can become especially interesting if you start hunting for fossils, as it will give you an opportunity to learn a great deal about the history of life on Earth.
By its very nature, collecting rocks is an outdoor activity that will give you lots of exercise and time to spend in nature. Even if one of your expeditions doesn’t yield any amazing specimens for your collection, you’ll still get to spend a day enjoying the great outdoors.
Very avid rockhounds, who have the resources to travel, also get to enjoy the experience of going to new places to find new rocks for their collections. Geography plays a huge role in the types of rocks you’ll find in your immediate area, and some rocks and minerals can only be found in very specific locations. Even if you don’t travel for the exclusive purpose of hunting for rocks and minerals, being a rock collector can add an extra dimension of fun to any trips you happen to go on. Whether you’re taking a family vacation in a foreign country or a business trip in a different state, you can always set aside an hour or two for a brief rock hunting session in the area.
The final part of the fun of being a rock collector comes from showing off your finds. Once you return from the field with new specimens, you have to decide how to display them. There are many different options for this, from boxes made to hold many small rock samples to display stands and cases for showing off your most treasured discoveries. As your collection grows, it can become an integral part of the decoration in your house, giving you the chance to enjoy the rocks you’ve found each and every day. Specimens displayed in your home can also be great conversation starters when you have company.
Where Can You Collect Rocks?
Obviously, rocks are found practically everywhere, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can collect them from any piece of land you choose. There are many different rules and regulations that govern where you can hunt for rocks, and you should make sure you are following all that apply to you in order to make sure your collecting is both legal and ethical.
Many rockhounds choose to work directly on land set aside by the federal government as public land. Most federally owned public land is open for collecting, though certain restrictions may apply to developed recreational sites. Although they are designated as public lands, national monuments are restricted to rock collectors. Various states also impose their own restrictions on collecting, so it’s a good idea to look up your own state’s rules before you decide to go on a collecting expedition. If you’re looking for places to go on a collecting expedition, a good first step is often to contact your local Bureau of Land Management office.
Depending on the rules in your state, public waterways such as rivers may also be fair game as collection sites. Most rivers have several public access areas along their banks that are regarded as public lands, and these can be rich sources of interesting fossils, rocks and minerals. Once again, though, be sure that you are obeying all applicable rules and regulations before you set out.
You can also collect on private land, provided you have the permission of the property owner to be on the land, extract rocks and remove them from the property. If you have a friend with a large tract of rural land, for example, you may be able to convince him or her to allow you to remove some rocks for your collection. The exact rules for what you can and can’t collect on privately owned land will largely depend on the agreement between yourself and the owner.
Another option for hunting for rocks on private land is to go to a private mineral or fossil quarry. These sites are controlled by private owners who charge rockhounds a fee to go in and see what they can find. Fees vary from quarry to quarry, but are usually fairly reasonable. Though there aren’t too many sites of this type, they offer the convenience of hunting on private land without the difficulty involved in securing permission from a landowner who doesn’t usually deal with rockhounds. As a result, they’re well worth checking out, especially if you happen to live within a reasonable driving distance of one.
What Gear Will You Use?
There is a great deal of gear that can be used when you’re rock hunting. The first and most important category of gear for rockhounds is proper safety equipment. Whenever you go out to collect specimens, you should bring a pair of safety glasses, a sturdy pair of gloves, a good pair of shoes or boots and a first aid kit to be used in the event of accidents. If you’re going to be working in an area with overhead rocks, such as beside a cliff or in a quarry, you also need to bring a protective hard hat.
When it comes to extracting specimens, you can choose to use as much or as little equipment as you want. Some rockhounds only take what they can collect by hand, while others go into the field prepared for any and all eventualities. Even if you don’t plan to haul much gear with you on your expeditions, though, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the tools of the trade.
The first group of tools you need to get to know are those used to extract specimens. These include hammers, chisels, and pry bars used to move stones and split off pieces as specimens. More delicate tools, such as pliers or a long screwdriver, can be used to extract small specimens that are caught in between larger rocks, making them difficult to reach. One basic extraction tool that all rockhounds need to have in their arsenals is a geologist’s hammer. This type of hammer has one flat end for driving chisels and one pick-like end that can be used for prying and splitting off small specimens from a larger stone, making it very versatile in the field.
In addition to extraction tools, you can bring along tools that will help you evaluate and identify the rocks and minerals you find. The most basic tool along these lines is a pocket-sized field guide that offers good images and descriptions. In addition, it’s a good idea to carry a magnifying glass that you can use to more precisely examine your finds and a toothbrush or paintbrush for cleaning soil off of specimens for easier identification. If you want to be even more precise, you can carry a streak test plate, which is a ceramic plate on which you can scratch a mineral sample to identify it by the color of the streak it leaves. A magnet can also be useful for determining the magnetic properties of any rocks you may find.
Finally, you’ll need some gear for securely storing and carrying your finds. A field carrying bag with a shoulder strap is essential, as it will give you plenty of room to comfortably carry rocks as you collect them. For small finds, it’s also a good idea to have small vials or jars that can be used to keep track of specimens. It’s usually a good idea to bring some small hand towels or rags with you in your bag, since these can be used to protect fragile specimens and prevent them from being damaged by contact with other rocks.
Useful Outside Resources
Rock collecting is a very popular hobby, and you’ll find a number of useful resources are available to help you in getting started. The best place to start is usually to read a comprehensive book on the subject. One of the most popular titles in this category is The Modern Rockhounding and Prospecting Handbook published by Falcon Guides. This guide offers a good overview of field techniques and tips for more productive expeditions. Another piece of essential reading for the would-be rockhound is the Smithsonian guide titled simply Rocks & Minerals, which will give you a strong foundation for identifying the specimens you find on your collecting trips.
Beyond books, there are also several mobile apps that can help make your rock collecting trips more enjoyable and productive. One of the most popular apps for collectors is Smart Geology Mineral Guide, which serves as a mobile field guide for identifying minerals. Another app, called Digger’s Map, includes a database of known sites for more than 60 sought-after minerals, making it a useful tool for finding areas in which to search. More general mapping apps, such as Google Earth, can also be helpful when you’re planning out one of your field expeditions.
If you live in a city of any size, it’s also very likely that there’s a club for rock, mineral and fossil collectors in your area. These clubs can be great resources for new rockhounds, as the more experienced members can give you tips on the best local places to hunt. In some cases, the club may even arrange expeditions for its members. These group hunts can be especially good for beginners, as they offer a chance to go collecting with more seasoned rockhounds and learn from them.
Common Problems and Solutions
As with any hobby, you’re bound to run into some common problems as a rockhound. Luckily, all of these problems have reasonably simple solutions. Here are some of the most common challenges you might run up against as a new rock and mineral collector and what you can do to overcome them.
There Aren’t Any Good Places to Collect in My Area
Geographic location can be a problem for rockhounds, especially those who live in urban centers. While you probably will have to get out of the city to do your collecting, that doesn’t mean you need to drive to a different state or make a cross-country trek to a well-known hunting site. Start out by exploring potential sites in your area, such as rivers or small areas of public land. If you have a car and don’t mind taking a modest day trip, there’s almost certainly somewhere within a few hours’ drive of you where you can legally go rock hunting.
I Spent a Whole Day in the Field and Didn’t Find Anything Interesting
This happens to all rockhounds, beginners and veterans alike. There will always be some days that you just don’t happen to find any specimens you’d like to add to your collection. This is perfectly normal, and you’ll have better luck another day. Don’t get discouraged by a bad day. Instead, enjoy the time spent outdoors and try again another time.
I’ve Collected too Many Rocks and Can’t Find Room for All of Them
This is a problem you will almost certainly encounter at some point if you collect rocks long enough. Storing a large collection of rocks and minerals can be a bit of an issue, but there are plenty of good solutions. The best way to solve this problem is to get yourself a collector’s cabinet with drawers that are separated into small compartments. Each one of these compartments can be used to store an individual specimen, and a full cabinet can store up to several hundred depending on its size.
I Found a Very Large Specimen I Want to Take Home
At some point, you may come across a large specimen you want to collect but don’t have a good way to transport. For example, a large piece of fossiliferous limestone with hundreds or thousands of individual fossils in it can make a very appealing target for an avid collector.
The first step to take in dealing with specimens larger than what you can carry by hand is to make sure you’re allowed to collect them in the first place. This will depend on the rules that apply to you at the site you’re working at, so be sure to know exactly how those rules deal with such specimens. If you’re in doubt, take note of the rock’s location and come back another time after you’ve made sure you’re allowed to take it.
Once you know you’re legally allowed to collect the piece, the next step is figuring out how to transport it. This stage will usually involve getting a pickup truck as close to the rock as possible and then transporting it with the help of a few other people. Always be sure to use proper lifting technique, and don’t risk an injury if the rock is simply too heavy to lift. It’s much better to leave a great specimen in the field than it is to do permanent damage to your back trying to collect it.
Finally, be sure you have a place to put your find. If you’re collecting anything larger than what you can carry, the odds are it will have to be stored outside in your yard. Large rocks can make handsome pieces of outdoor decor, but it’s important to know exactly where the stone is going and how you’re going to get it there.
I Don’t Have All the Equipment I Need
As you may have noticed in the section on field gear, there is quite a lot of equipment you can use when you go on a collecting trip. Just because some of that equipment can be useful, though, doesn’t mean you can’t start collecting without it. Going out into the field without hammers, chisels and a geologist’s hammer may limit you, but you can still find small pieces of loose rock on the ground or search for small stones in a river bed. Of course, you should still be aiming to build up a kit of field tools that will give you more options in terms of collecting specimens, but there’s nothing wrong with starting out simply and working your way up toward more advanced equipment as you go.
A Few Extra Helpful Tips
With this information, you should have everything you need to start out as a rockhound. To make sure you get the most out of your first few collecting trips, though, there are still a few more useful tips to share. Following are a some useful tidbits to help you get started the right way.
Carry a Field Notebook and Record Your Finds
Whenever you go on a collecting trip, you should carry a notebook and a pen or pencil so that you can record your finds and observations about the site. Doing this will help you label the location in which you found your specimens when you display them later. Recording observations about the site and the types of rocks you find in it can also be useful if you plan to go back later, since you’ll already have some firsthand geological knowledge of the area.
Find Topographical Maps of the Area You’re Working In
When you’re in the field, a topographical map can help you make decisions about the best places to search. These maps will show elevations, the contour of the land and major geographical features. Ideally, it’s a good idea to have a plan on where you’d like to search before you go into a site so that you can make your expedition more efficient.
Use Online Resources When Planning Your Hunts
The internet has made it much easier than even before to plan out your hunting expeditions. From articles about the geology of specific sites to forums where rockhounds share what they’ve found in particular areas, there are many different resources that can help you decide where you should be searching. While there’s never anything wrong with going off the beaten path a bit, you should also use these resources to determine where other rock and mineral enthusiasts have made good finds.
Always Label Your Finds as Soon as You Get Home
Keeping proper track of your finds is very important, since you always want to know where you found a specific piece. To make sure everything is labeled accurately, you should always label your finds as soon as you get home from the field. This process can be as simple as placing the specimens in display compartments with handwritten labels, or you can use a label maker or printed labels for a more professional look. Just be sure you don’t put the labeling off, or you’ll risk forgetting where you found a particular specimen.
Save Small Plastic Containers to Carry Delicate Specimens
As a rockhound, you’ll end up needing lots of small individual carrying containers for carrying fragile finds safely. While you could buy plastic boxes made specifically for this purpose, you can also repurpose small plastic containers you would normally throw away. Washing out plastic food containers and their lids takes practically no time at all, and these containers are often perfect for carrying your more fragile rock and mineral samples. For extra protection, take a few cotton balls or some newspaper and use it to line the container. This will create a soft surface and help to prevent damage to even the most fragile of rocks.