Despite the wealth of soil erosion models available for the prediction of both runoff and soil loss at a variety of scales, little quantification is made of uncertainty and error associated with model output. This in part reflects the need to produce unequivocal or optimal results for the end user, which will often be an unrealistic goal. This paper presents a conceptually simple methodology, Generalized Likelihood Uncertainty Estimation (GLUE), for assessing the degree of uncertainty surrounding output from a physically based soil erosion model, the Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP). The ability not only to be explicit about model error but also to evaluate future improvements in parameter estimation, observed data or scientific understanding is demonstrated. This approach is applied to two sets of soil loss/runoff plot replicates, one in the UK and one in the USA. Although it is demonstrated that observations can be largely captured within uncertainty bounds, results indicate that these uncertainty bounds are often wide, reflecting the need to qualify results that derive from ‘optimum’ parameter sets, and to accept the concept of equifinality within soil erosion models. Attention is brought to the problem of under-prediction of large events/over-prediction of small events, as an area where model improvements could be made, specifically in the case of relatively dry years. Finally it is proposed that such a technique of model evaluation be employed more widely within the discipline so as to aid the interpretation and understanding of complex model output. Copyright © 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.