Vim: you don't need NERDtree or (maybe) netrw

Vim's netrw file browser is good enough. With a few tweaks there is no need for plugin like NERDtree. For many tasks you may not even need netrw.

Screenshot of netrw directory browser
Screenshot of netrw directory browser

netrw - the unloved directory browser

The netrw plugin normally ships with vim and is the default filebrowser. It gets a bad rap and ships with all kinds of features likes remote editing over SSH and FTP, and anecdotally has many bugs. Most developers just jump straight for the NERDtree plugin but in my opinion the default netrw plugin does most of what people use NERDtree for. Moreover, for opening files and traversing codebases there are other native vim options available.

Invoking netrw

Invoking netrw can be achieved in three ways

You can also snigger by typing :Sex to invoke a horizontal split.

Changing the directory view in netrw

The directory listing view can be modified to show more or less information on files and directories, change the sorting order and hiding certain files.

With the directory browser open hit i to cycle through the view types. There are four different view types: thin, long, wide and tree. A preferred view type can be made permanent by setting it in a .vimrc file.

let g:netrw_liststyle = 3
The tree list style view
The tree list style view

The tree list view in netrw.

Removing the banner

The directory banner is mostly useless. To remove it temporarily press I. To remove it permanently add the following to your .vimrc.

let g:netrw_banner = 0

Changing how files are opened

By default files will be opened in the same window as the netrw directory browser. To change this behaviour the netrw_browse_split option may be set. The options are as follows

To make the selection permanent add the following to your .vimrc.

let g:netrw_browse_split = 1

Set the width of the directory explorer

The width of the directory explorer can be fixed with the netrw_browse_split option. The following sets the width to 25% of the page.

let g:netrw_winsize = 25

NERDtree like setup

If NERDtree is your thing netrw can give you a similar experience with the following settings

let g:netrw_banner = 0
let g:netrw_liststyle = 3
let g:netrw_browse_split = 4
let g:netrw_altv = 1
let g:netrw_winsize = 25
augroup ProjectDrawer
  autocmd VimEnter * :Vexplore
augroup END
Getting a NERDtree like experience
Getting a NERDtree like experience

A nerdtree like setup with netrw.

My settings

I keep things minimal and am happy with most of the defaults. In fact for now I just remove the banner. I told you I like minimal :-).

let g:netrw_banner = 0


It is worth mentioning vim-vinegar, a plugin that looks to enhance netrw and is popular with users looking to avoid installing NERDtree.

Well, vinegar.vim enhances netrw, partially in an attempt to mitigate the need for more disruptive “project drawer” style plugins.

In trying to use less vim plugins so I’m not a user but horses for courses etc.

You may not need netrw

Vim also supports arbitrary commands to be run following !. For a quick directory listing the following works.

:! ls -lF

For a more complex command other commands like ack, grep or find can be used.

There are a number of ways to open files in vim and if that is what you use netrw for. Using find within vim can open files and supports tab completion.

:find path/to/file.txt

To open a file in a vertical split use the following. This also supports tab completion.

:vs path/to/file.txt

To open a file in a horizontal split use the following. This also supports tab completion.

:sp path/to/file.txt

To open a file in a new tab use the following. This also supports tab completion.

:tabnew path/to/file.txt

For exploring codebases I also find using ctags is a better than grepping or trying to guess where methods are defined. First you need to generate a tags file using the ctags command.

ctags -R .

Once this file is created vim can take you to a function or method definition automatically with CTRL-]. It is like magic and much more intelligent than random file browsing.


The directory browser that ships with vim is not particularly intuitive and ships with a wealth of features I will most likely never use. I get the sense that many developers just blindly install a shiny plugin without understanding what netrw can do. Sure, netrw is not perfect but less dependencies in my life and striving for simplicity is a good thing.

Further reading


Can you help make this article better? You can edit it here and send me a pull request.

See Also