An efficient and low cost technique using a sonar system was evaluated for describing channel geometry and quantifying inundated area in a large river. The boat-mounted portable sonar equipment was used to record water depths and river width measurements for direct storage on a laptop computer. The field data collected from repeated traverses at a cross-section were evaluated to determine the precision of the system and field technique. Results from validation at two different sites showed average sample standard deviations (S.D.s) of 0.12 m for these complete cross-sections, with coefficient of variations of 10%. Validation using only the mid-channel river cross-section data yields an average sample S.D. of 0.05 m, with a coefficient of variation below 5%, at a stable and gauged river site using only measurements of water depths greater than 0.6 m. Accuracy of the sonar system was evaluated by comparison to traditionally surveyed transect data from a regularly gauged site. We observed an average mean squared deviation of 46.0 cm2, considering only that portion of the cross-section inundated by more than 0.6 m of water. Our procedure proved to be a reliable, accurate, safe, quick, and economic method to record river depths, discharges, bed conditions, and substratum composition necessary for stream habitat studies. ?? 1998 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.