The sediment archive, of material eroded from an active tectonic region and stored in adjacent basins, can provide a valuable record of hinterland tectonism especially when information in the source region itself is obscured by later metamorphism or removed by tectonism or erosion. Using the sediment record to document tectonism is a well established approach, but more recently there has been a burgeoning of the number of isotopic techniques which can be applied to detrital material, in particular single-grain analyses. Thus the scope for application of detrital studies to a number of different tectonic problems has widened considerably. In this review, the example of sediments eroded from the Himalayan orogen and preserved in the suture zone basin, foreland basin, remnant ocean basins and deep sea fans is used to illustrate the approach. Techniques as diverse as petrography, heavy mineral, XRF and Sr–Nd studies; single grain dating by Ar–Ar, U–Pb and fission track methodologies; and single grain Sm–Nd and Pb isotopic analyses, are described. The paper documents how the sediment record can be used to determine the thermal and tectonic evolution of the orogen, constrain mechanisms of continental deformation, exhumation rates and palaeodrainage.