The effects of the topographic data source and resolution on the hydraulic modelling of floods were analysed. Seven digital terrain models (DTMs) were generated from three different altimetric sources: a global positioning system (GPS) survey and bathymetry; high-resolution laser altimetry data LiDAR (light detection and ranging); and vectorial cartography (1:5000). Hydraulic results were obtained, using the HEC-RAS one-dimensional model, for all seven DTMs. The importance of the DTM's accuracy on the hydraulic modelling results was analysed within three different hydraulic contexts: (1) the discharge and water surface elevation results from the hydraulic model; (2) the delineation of the flooded area; and (3) the relative sensitivity of the hydraulic model to changes in the Manning's n roughness coefficient. The contour-based DTM was the least accurate with a root mean square error (RMSE) of 4·5 m in the determination of the water level and a variation of up to 50 per cent in the estimation of the inundated area of the floodplain. The GPS-based DTM produced more realistic water surface elevation results and variations of up to 8 per cent in terms of the flooded area. The laser-based model's RMSE for water level was 0·3 m, with the flooded area varying by less than 1 per cent. The LiDAR data also showed the greatest sensitivity to changes in the Manning's roughness coefficient. An analysis of the effect of mesh resolution indicated an influence on the delineation of the flooded area with variations of up to 7·3 per cent. In addition to determining the accuracy of the hydraulic modelling results produced from each DTM, an analysis of the time–cost ratio of each topographic data source illustrates that airborne laser scanning is a cost-effective means of developing a DTM of sufficient accuracy, especially over large areas. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.