In this paper we investigate salt transport during the evaporation and upflow of saline groundwater. We describe a model in which a sharp evaporation–precipitation front separates regions of soil saturated with an air–vapour mixture and with saline water. We then consider two idealized problems. We first investigate equilibrium configurations of the freshwater system when the depth of the soil layer is finite, obtaining results for the location of the front and the upflow of water induced by the evaporation. We then develop a solution for a propagating front in a soil layer of infinite depth and investigate the gravitational stability of the salinity profile which develops below the front, obtaining marginal linear stability conditions in terms of a Rayleigh number and a dimensionless salt saturation parameter. Applying our findings to realistic parameter regimes, we predict that salt fingering is unlikely to occur in low-permeability soils, but is likely in high-permeability (sandy) soils under conditions of relatively low evaporative upflow.