In order to investigate the relation between water chemistry and functional landscape elements, spatial data sets of characteristics for 68 small (0·2–1·5 km2) boreal forest catchments in western central Sweden were analysed in a geographical information system (GIS). The geographic data used were extracted from official topographic maps. Water sampled four times at different flow situations was analysed chemically. This paper focuses on one phenomenon that has an important influence on headwater quality in boreal, coniferous forest streams: generation and export of dissolved organic carbon (DOC). It is known that wetland cover (bogs and fens) in the catchment is a major source of DOC. In this study, a comparison was made between a large number of headwater catchments with varying spatial locations and areas of wetlands. How this variation, together with a number of other spatial variables, influences the DOC flux in the streamwater was analysed by statistical methods. There were significant, but not strong, correlations between the total percentages of wetland area and DOC flux measured at a medium flow situation, but not at high flow. Neither were there any significant correlations between the percentage of wetland area connected to streams, nor the percentage of wetland area within a zone 50 m from the stream and the DOC flux. There were, however, correlations between catchment mean slope and the DOC flux in all but one flow situations. This study showed that, considering geographical data retrieved from official sources, the topography of a catchment better explains the variation in DOC flux than the percentage and locations of distinct wetland areas. This emphasizes the need for high-resolution elevation models accurate enough to reveal the sources of DOC found in headwater streams.