With the wild ride on the world's markets enough to give even the most seasoned investors the jitters, everyone is talking about gold.

You could shell out $1,700-plus for an ounce of the precious metal, or diversify your portfolio with gold ETFs. But how about finding it the old-fashioned way and panning your way to a get-rich-quick fortune just like the pioneers in the Old West? It can happen: A guy named Jim Sanders found a 9-pound nugget last year which today that would be worth about $230,000 at today's prices.

From California to Alaska to the Yukon, gold prospecting vacations have long been a source of entertainment, but now have the allure of big-time profit (which is never directly promised). But don't book your ticket to the Yukon just yet - unless you promise to not quit your day job. And, keep in mind that the fun is what most folks who take these trips talk about, not banking the motherlode.

"It's not as much about the gold as it is getting out there and having a good time with friends and families, but yes you can find gold," said Brad Jones of the Gold Prospectors Association of America. "Yes, serious prospectors do make a living, but they are few and far between and they know what they are doing."

The association cautions anyone with gold dreams to proceed cautiously, while acknowledging there is gold in them there hills.

To start a cost-benefit analysis of whether you can make money on a gold-panning vacation, remember it costs money to get there, costs money to stay there and costs money to get access to the area approved for mining or panning and for the equipment you'll need. So you could easily start more than $3,000 in the hole (about an ounce and a half of gold you can cash out).

Mark Castagnoli, president of Placer Gold Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, has plenty of experience in the gold business including in Western Canada's placer mines. He believes in gold adventures for what they bring to the economy and the potential that you can actually find something more than a bit of gold dust.

"Most likely you will be taken to a historic location that is still yielding gold," he explained. "There is no question that the world is entering the greatest gold rush of all time and every historic location is being reexamined."

Do a little research before going onto one of these journeys. Some programs have a great reputation from folks who found a little gold and were given a history lesson and some laughs along the way.

And, be aware that getting paid for your gold isn't as simple as multiplying the number of ounces you gathered by the day's closing gold price. Nuggets can have a value beyond that and the more commonly found gold will be worth considerably less because of the impurities that must be removed and the cost of refining it. Selling it in the field typically will yield a lower price. You can ask local jewelers where you are prospecting where they take their scrap gold to be processed to get a lead on a reputable buyer.

If you're going to try to find someone to guide you outside of one of the established tours, Castagnoli suggests: "A good test to see if your guide is legit is to see them take a full pan of material (at least 10 pounds) and have them pan it out to just the gold in around 2 minutes."

Pros he knows who have gone on "extreme gold adventures" to Alaska and Australia have made back the cost of their trips at a minimum.

Because the price of gold is so high, Castagnoli said, it isn't that hard to make a bit of money if your guide takes you to the right place.

"With the right gold pan, gold recovery will occur," he said. "At present values, the amount of effort one would apply in one hour at the gym would be worthwhile and would exceed minimum wage."

Gold experts pointed out that a significant percentage of gold is found by hand because it is in areas where the limited volume limits interest by big operations.

"Historically through to present day, the majority of new discoveries are made by individual prospectors either working for themselves or grubstaking for a small syndicate of investors," said Lori McLenahan, President and CEO of Vancouver, British Columbia-based St. Elias Mines.

So, go ahead and dream the dream, and, unless you're super lucky or extremely dedicated, prepare for a prompt return to reality.