Surface moisture is an important supply limiting factor for aeolian sand transport, which is the primary driver of coastal dune development. As such, it is critical to account for the control of surface moisture on available sand for dune building. Optical remote sensing has the potential to measure surface moisture at a high spatio-temporal resolution. It is based on the principle that wet sand appears darker than dry sand: it is less reflective. The goals of this study are (1) to measure and model reflectance under controlled laboratory conditions as function of wavelength () and surface moisture () over the optical domain of 350–2500 nm, and (2) to explore the implications of our laboratory findings for accurately mapping the distribution of surface moisture under natural conditions. A laboratory spectroscopy experiment was conducted to measure spectral reflectance (1 nm interval) under different surface moisture conditions using beach sand. A non-linear increase of reflectance upon drying was observed over the full range of wavelengths. Two models were developed and tested. The first model is grounded in optics and describes the proportional contribution of scattering and absorption of light by pore water in an unsaturated sand matrix. The second model is grounded in soil physics and links the hydraulic behaviour of pore water in an unsaturated sand matrix to its optical properties. The optical model performed well for volumetric moisture content 24% ( 0.97), but underestimated reflectance for between 24–30% ( 0.92), most notable around the 1940 nm water absorption peak. The soil-physical model performed very well ( 0.99) but is limited to 4% 24%. Results from a field experiment show that a short-wave infrared terrestrial laser scanner ( = 1550 nm) can accurately relate surface moisture to reflectance (standard error 2.6%), demonstrating its potential to derive spatially extensive surface moisture maps of a natural coastal beach.