A beginner's guide to fossil hunting

A girl holding up a pebble with a fossil in it on a beach in Yorkshire
Follow the tips from our rangers to find the very best fossils National Trust Images / Ian Shaw

Fossil hunting is great fun, no matter what your age. We've asked our rangers and experts for their best tips to get you started. If you're a young fossil hunter, this activity is one of your '50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾'.

Journey back in time

‘Making any collection is fun, and your first fossil find may be the start of a journey taking you to all sorts of exciting places,' says Chris Stratton, our learning officer in the Shropshire Hills.
'The young Charles Darwin loved collecting beetles, but with fossils you are collecting objects that could be millions of years old, embedded in materials that were created in tropical or Antarctic seas, which ended up here - which is incredible.'

Fossil hunting kit

There are both indoor and outdoor places where fossil-hunters can uncover ancient treasures, but there are a few things you should take with you to help in your search.
A fossil guide book can be helpful if you want to see what the whole fossil and the original creatures looked like.

  'People often only find bits, so this helps you to relate your fossil to a wider history,’ says Chris. Take a magnifying glass - 5x or 10x magnification is best for fossil hunting - and an old toothbrush is handy for brushing off mud.

Don’t forget your camera. In protected areas you can't take fossils away with you, but photographs can always be added to your collection.
Please do not take any hammers with you as you could damage fossils or, in the worst case scenario, cause precarious cliffs to crumble.

Dos and don'ts

Fossil hunting is fun, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind. For example, you must never try to remove fossils from cliffs and it’s always best to go collecting on a falling tide to ensure you don’t get caught out by the sea.
It is not a good idea to go near the sea or cliff-edges, especially in high winds and stormy weather. 
‘The best and safest way to look for a fossil is on the beach, where the sea has washed them out and left them for you to find,' says Sarah Kennedy, one of our rangers in Dorset.

Here are a few rules that all fossil-hunters need to follow:

As long as you’re not in a protected area, you can pick up small fossils that are lying around on the ground. Please don't remove any fossils from rocks or cliffs though, and large fossils are best left for all to enjoy.
If you're lucky enough to make a rare find, please report it to museums or your closest visitor centre, and if you're in a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, please follow any rules they might have. They are there to protect geology for future generations.
Finding fossils does require a bit of patience, so children might need reminding that they aren’t guaranteed to find anything and will have to look at rocks for more than a few seconds. It's worth it though:
‘I like doing rubbings of fossils and bones and investigating where they come from and what creatures they may have once been,’ says Kai Bickley, one of our kids’ councillors.

Bring history to life

Illustrated books about dinosaurs are a great way to bring the past to life. Take along some paper and crayons and kids can take fossil rubbings or imagine and draw the creatures that left their traces in the earth.
We'd love to see snaps of any fossils you find on Twitter or Facebook.