A simple approximation is developed to account for the dominant effects of solvation in molecular dynamics simulations of biopolymers. A small number of water molecules are included explicitly in the primary hydration shell around the biopolymer. A nonspherical confining potential responding dynamically to the conformational changes of the biopolymer is applied to prevent evaporation and to approximate the conditions of constant pressure of a bulk solution. Simulations of a spherical system of 25 water molecules are lined to adjust the empirical restraining potential to yield a uniform density distribution close to that in the bulk liquid. The primary hydration shell approach is tested with molecular dynamics simulations of simple hydrated peptides. The conformational equilibrium of alanine dipeptide and alanine tripeptide is examined using umbrella sampling calculations. The relative free energies of the C7ax (ϕ = 60, ψ = −80) and αL (ϕ = 60, ψ = 60) conformations of the alanine dipeptide and the opened and closed conformations of a reversed β-turn modeled with the alanine tripeptide were calculated. The results indicate that the primary hydration shell can reproduce the influence of solvent on small peptides that was observed in simulations involving a much larger number of water molecules. © 1995 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.