Subsurface environments contain a large proportion of planetary microbial biomass and harbor diverse communities responsible for mediating biogeochemical cycles important to groundwater used by human society for consumption, irrigation, agriculture and industry. Within the saturated zone, capillary fringe and vadose zones, microorganisms can reside in two distinct phases (planktonic or biofilm), and significant differences in community composition, structure and activity between free-living and attached communities are commonly accepted. However, largely due to sampling constraints and the challenges of working with solid substrata, the contribution of each phase to subsurface processes is largely unresolved. Here, we synthesize current information on the diversity and activity of shallow freshwater subsurface habitats, discuss the challenges associated with sampling planktonic and biofilm communities across spatial, temporal and geological gradients, and discuss how biofilms may be constrained within shallow terrestrial subsurface aquifers. We suggest that merging traditional activity measurements and sequencing/-omics technologies with hydrological parameters important to sediment biofilm assembly and stability will help delineate key system parameters. Ultimately, integration will enhance our understanding of shallow subsurface ecophysiology in terms of bulk-flow through porous media and distinguish the respective activities of sessile microbial communities from more transient planktonic communities to ecosystem service and maintenance.