Techniques for rapid and sensitive detection of energetics such as cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX) are needed both for environmental and security screening applications. Here we report the use of surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) spectroscopy to detect traces of RDX with good sensitivity and reproducibility. Using gold (Au) nanoparticles (∼90–100 nm in diameter) as SERS substrates, RDX was detectable at concentrations as low as 0.15 mg/l in a contaminated groundwater sample. This detection limit is about two orders of magnitude lower than those reported previously using SERS techniques. A surface enhancement factor of ∼6 × 104 was obtained. This research further demonstrates the potential for using SERS as a rapid, in situ field screening tool for energetics detection when coupled with a portable Raman spectrometer. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.