Drought is a key driver of vegetation dynamics, but plant water‐uptake patterns and consequent plant responses to drought are poorly understood at large spatial scales. The capacity of vegetation to use soil water depends on its root distribution (RD). However, RD is extremely variable in space and difficult to measure in the field, which hinders accurate predictions of water fluxes and vegetation dynamics. We propose a new method to estimate RD within water balance models, assuming that vegetation is at eco‐hydrological equilibrium (EHE). EHE conditions imply that vegetation optimizes RD such that transpiration is maximized within the limits of bearable drought stress, characterized here by species‐specific hydraulic thresholds. Optimized RD estimates were validated against RD estimates obtained by model calibration from sap flow or soil moisture from 38 forest plots in Catalonia (NE Spain). In water‐limited plots, optimized RD was similar to calibrated RD, but estimates diverged with higher water availability, suggesting that the EHE may not be assumed when water is not limiting. Thereafter, we applied the optimization procedure at the regional scale, to estimate RD for the water‐limited forests of Catalonia. Regional variations of optimum RD reproduced many expected patterns in response to climate, soil physical properties, forest structure, and species hydraulic traits. We conclude that RD optimization, based on the EHE hypothesis and a simple description of plant hydraulics, produces realistic estimates of RD that can be used for model parameterization and shows promise to improve our ability to forecast vegetation dynamics under increased drought.