Simulation of soil moisture content requires effective soil hydraulic parameters that are valid at the modelling scale. This study investigates how these parameters can be estimated by inverse modelling using soil moisture measurements at 25 locations at three different depths (at the surface, at 30 and 60 cm depth) on an 80 by 20 m hillslope. The study presents two global sensitivity analyses to investigate the sensitivity in simulated soil moisture content of the different hydraulic parameters used in a one-dimensional unsaturated zone model based on Richards' equation. For estimation of the effective parameters the shuffled complex evolution algorithm is applied. These estimated parameters are compared to their measured laboratory and in situ equivalents. Soil hydraulic functions were estimated in the laboratory on 100 cm(3) undisturbed soil cores collected at 115 locations situated in two horizons in three profile pits along the hillslope. Furthermore, in situ field saturated hydraulic conductivity was estimated at 120 locations using single-ring pressure infiltrometer measurements. The sensitivity analysis of 13 soil physical parameters (saturated hydraulic conductivity (K-s), saturated moisture content (theta(s)), residual moisture content (theta(r)), inverse of the air-entry value (alpha), van Genuchten shape parameter (n), Averjanov shape parameter (N) for both horizons, and depth (d) from surface to B horizon) in a two-layer single column model showed that the parameter N is the least sensitive parameter. K-s of both horizons, theta(s), of the A horizon and d were found to be the most sensitive parameters. Distributions over all locations of the effective parameters and the distributions of the estimated soil physical parameters from the undisturbed soil samples and the single-ring pressure infiltrometer estimates were found significantly different at a 5% level for all parameters except for alpha of the A horizon and K-s and theta(s) of the B horizon. Different reasons are discussed to explain these large differences. Copyright (c) 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.