Methodologies that have been developed to quantify large woody debris (LWD) have been largely tested and adapted for mountain streams of the Pacific Northwest, characterised by a very high density of LWD, composed of large pieces of wood. In French rivers, LWD studies have focused on larger systems presenting low density and discrete distributions of LWD accumulations, where existing methods could not readily be used. We thus propose an easy-to-use method to quantify LWD within such systems. After defining three representative types of LWD, the volume is obtained by representing each LWD accumulation by a simple geometric form in order to measure its height, width and length. A model is then built for the different accumulation types to estimate wood mass from the measured volume. Since the measured volume is a combination of air and wood, we quantified the proportion of air, which is, respectively, equal to 18, 90 and 93% for trunks, wood jams and shrubs. To understand variability in wood mass, we evaluated the influence of different factors on wood density (defined as the ratio between mass and volume). The main factor was found to be the water absorption capacity of the wood, whereas a lesser factor was the degree of wood decay. Most wood pieces were found to increase their mass by an average of 100% and more after only 24 h in contact with water. Moreover, the observed levels of water loss and water absorption during the first 24 h of removal or exposure to water imply major short-term variations in wood mass, which may have significant consequences for wood transport during flooding. © 1998 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.