The Loess Plateau of China has long been suffering from severe soil erosion due to deforestation and other human being-related activities. Reforestation has been regarded as an important measure to protect and recover degraded ecosystems. The two typical forest stands, the secondary natural succession Populus davidiana stand (PDS) and the plantation Pinus tabulaeformis stand (PTS), were chosen to analyse their effectiveness in conserving soil and water and understand their impacts on rainfall distribution. On the basis of observations in 1988–2000 (no available data in 1989), compared with croplands, PDS and PTS reduced soil loss by 99·9% and reduced runoff by 92·3% and 84·4%, respectively. The mean annual canopy interception was 14·0% for PDS and 25·3% for PTS, and litter interception was 7·7% for PDS and 11·6% for PTS in 1995–2000. Both forest stands had almost the same stemflow percentage of 3·3%. However, there was no significant difference in runoff and soil loss between the two reforestation types. These results suggest that both the plantation PTS and the natural regeneration PDS are effective in controlling soil erosion, with similar potentials in conserving soil and water in the study region. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.