Measurements of annual travel distance (Lb) of bed load sediment at 16 locations in Alaska, the intermountain USA, west coast USA and Scotland are strongly correlated with bankfull channel width (r2 = 0·86, p < 0·001). Travel distance of particles is probably limited by trapping in bars, which have a longitudinal spacing proportional to channel width. Increased abundance of woody debris reduces bar spacing and may reduce Lb. Longer cumulative duration of bed load transporting flows in a year appears to increase Lb. Other predictors of annual travel distance such as stream power per unit length, drainage area and bankfull discharge were less well correlated with Lb (r2 ranging from 0·27 to 0·51). Stream power per unit bed area, basal shear stress and slope were not significantly related to Lb (r2 < 0·05). Most correlations were improved when regressions were limited to data from the west coast USA. Travel distance estimates can be used to help identify reaches that may take longer to recover from large, short-term increases in sediment supply. Published in 2001 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.