The pore water pressure head that builds in the soil during storms is a critical factor for the prediction of potential slope instability. We report findings from a 3-year study of pressure head in 83 piezometers distributed within a 13-ha forested catchment on the northern coast of California. The study's primary objective was to observe the seasonal and storm-based dynamics of pressure head at a catchment scale in relation to observed rainfall characteristics and in situ topography to better understand landscape patterns of pressure head. An additional goal was to determine the influence of the interaction between rainfall and forest canopy in altering delivery of water and pressure head during the large storms necessary to induce landsliding. We found that pressure head was highly variable in space and time at the catchment scale. Pore pressures peaked close to maximum rainfall intensity during the largest storms measured. The difference between rainfall and throughfall delivered through the canopy was negligible during the critical landslide-producing peak rainfall periods. Pore pressure was spatially variable within the catchment and did not strongly correlate with surficial topographic features. Only 23% of the piezometers located in a variety of slope positions were found to be highly responsive to rainfall. Topographic index statistically explained peak pressure head at responsive locations during common storms, but not during the larger storms with potential to produce landslides. Drainage efficiency throughout the catchment increased significantly in storms exceeding 2 to 7 months peak pressure head return period indicated by slowing or cessation of the rate of increase of pressure head with increasing storm magnitude. This asymptotic piezometric pattern persisted through the largest storm measured during the study. Faster soil drainage suppressed pressure head response in larger storms with important process implications for pore pressure development and landslide hazard modelling. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.