The 3D-structure of extracellular matrix glycosaminoglycans is central to function, but is currently poorly understood. Resolving this will provide insight into their heterogeneous biological roles and help to realize their significant therapeutic potential. Glycosaminoglycan chemical isoforms are too numerous to study experimentally and simulation provides a tractable alternative. However, best practice for accurate calculation of glycosaminoglycan 3D-structure within biologically relevant nanosecond timescales is uncertain. Here, we evaluate the ability of three potentials to reproduce experimentally observed glycosaminoglycan monosaccharide puckering, disaccharide 3D-conformation, and characteristic solvent interactions. Temporal dynamics of unsulfated chondroitin, chondroitin-4-sulfate, and hyaluronan β(1→3) disaccharides were simulated within TIP3P explicit solvent unrestrained for 20 ns using the GLYCAM06 force-field and two semi-empirical quantum mechanics methods, PM3-CARB1 and SCC-DFTB-D (both within a hybrid QM/MM formalism). Comparison of calculated and experimental properties (vicinal couplings, nuclear Overhauser enhancements, and glycosidic linkage geometries) showed that the carbohydrate-specific parameterization of PM3-CARB1 imparted quantifiable benefits on monosaccharide puckering and that the SCC-DFTB-D method (including an empirical correction for dispersion) best modeled the effects of hexosamine 4-sulfation. However, paradoxically, the most approximate approach (GLYCAM06/TIP3P) was the best at predicting monosaccharide puckering, 3D-conformation, and solvent interactions. Our data contribute to the debate and emerging consensus on the relative performance of these levels of theory for biological molecules. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.