The use of hydraulic head measurements in ground water of variable density is considerably more complicated than for the case of constant-density ground water. A theoretical framework for dealing with these complications does exist in the current literature but suffers from a lack of awareness among many hydrogeologists. When corrections for density variations are ignored or not properly taken into account, misinterpretation of both ground water flow direction and magnitude may result. This paper summarizes the existing theoretical framework and provides practical guidelines for the interpretation of head measurements in variable-density ground water systems. It will be argued that, provided that the proper corrections are taken into account, fresh water heads can be used to analyze both horizontal and vertical flow components. To avoid potential confusion, it is recommended that the use of the so-called environmental water head, which was initially introduced to facilitate the analysis of vertical ground water flow, be abandoned in favor of properly computed fresh water head analyses. The presented methodology provides a framework for determining quantitatively when variable-density effects on ground water flow need to be taken into account or can be justifiably neglected. Therefore, we recommend that it should become part of all hydrogeologic analyses in which density effects are suspected to play a role. © 2007 National Ground Water Association.