Using netrw instead of NERDTree for Vim

I’m going to attempt to use netrw exclusively for a while instead of NERDTree. Mainly because not everyone has NERDTree, but everyone I work with will generally have netrw installed by default so I thought I should be become more proficient with it.

This post should provide me something I can quickly refer back to when I get stuck. Netrw has a lot of features and the help page is pretty comprehensive. It’s worth a quick look, at least at the table of contents. It’s available by typing :help netrw.

There is also a quick reference for the mapping by typing :help netrw-quickmap and one for the commands by typing :help netrw-quickcom.

Navigating around netrw is pretty intuitive, you use the arrows (or hjkl) to move around and enter to open files or directories. These windows are just like any other window in vim so most of the usual motions, etc. work except netrw adds some default mappings. Here are the basics for navigation:

enter - Open files/directories
- - Go up one directory
u - Go back to previously visited directory (like <C-o> in vim)
U - Go forward to subsequently visited directory (like <C-i> in vim)

enter works just fine to open files and directories, but there are some other options available too:

o - Open file/directory in new horizontal split
v - Open file/directory in new vertical split
t - Open file/directory in new tab
p - Preview file without (moving the cursor from netrw)
x - Open the file/directory with the default system app

Appearance and Behaviour

One of the first things I noticed when making the switch was when you press enter on a directory, instead of displaying the contents of the sub-directory inline, it would replace the whole buffer with the contents of the sub-directory.

This is because by default netrw doesn’t use a tree to display the files/directories, its more like doing an ls but you can configure netrw to print a tree and have the same behaviour as NERDTree with this mapping:

i - Cycle between different listing modes (one of them is tree mode)

  • In normal mode, enter will move into and show the given file/directory
  • In tree mode, enter will show the contents of the sub-directory in addition

While netrw doesn’t look as nice as NERDTree, it still has a lot of options to customize the way it looks and works.

I - Toggle the banner
c - Make the browsing directory the current working directory
gn - Make the directory under the cursor the top of the tree
gh - Toggle hidden files on or off
a - Cycle between all files, not hidden files or just hidden files visible
s - Cycle sort order between name, time or filesize
r - Reverse sort order

File Operations

It’s also pretty easy to do basic file operations:

% - Create a new file
d - Create a new directory
D - Delete the file/directory under the cursor (or marked files/dirs)
R - Rename/move file/directory

Copying files however is a little more involved. You need to mark the files you want to copy, mark the destination, then execute the operation (a little tedious):

mf - Toggle whether the file/directory is marked
mt - Mark the directory under the cursor as the copy target
mc - Execute the copy operation
mu - Unmark all marked items


To open netrw is easy. You can use all the same commands you would use to open a file except give them a directory. You can use the command line with vim . or within vim with the commands below. These commands don’t even need a space between it and its arguments, so its very few keystrokes:

:e. - Open the current directory normally
:sp. - Open the current directory in a horizontal split
:vs. - Open the current directory in a vertical split
:tabe. - Open the current directory in a new tab

These will all work, unless you have installed an alternative explorer plugin (like NERDTree), in which case you can explicitly open netrw with :Ntree.

Netrw also provides a lot of different ways to launch an explorer window. The most common command is :Explore which will open netrw in the directory of the currently open file, much like the :NERDTreeFind command. Here are some variations of that command:

:Ex - Use current buffer if available, otherwise split horizontally
:Ex! - Use current buffer if available, otherwise split vertically

:Sex! - Horizontal split
:Hex - Horizontal split
:Hex! - Horizontal split (opposite side)

:Sex - Vertical split
:Vex - Vertical split
:Vex! - Vertical split (opposite side)

:Tex - New tab, directory of currently open buffer

There is another variation that doesn’t use the directory of currently open buffer but uses the current working directory. This is one is the most similar to the default :NERDTree command.

:Lex - Vertical split full height, current working directory
:Lex! - Vertical split, current working directory (opposite side)

All these commands can also take a directory as an argument.

Basic Configuration

I didn’t want to customize too much because that would defeat the purpose of the learning the defaults, but I did want to turn off that banner (it was handy having the basic operations on display, but I don’t think I need it anymore).

let g:netrw_banner=0
let g:netrw_list_hide = '\(^\|\s\s\)\zs\.\S\+,\(^\|\s\s\)ntuser\.\S\+'
autocmd FileType netrw set nolist

More Features

There is more to explore with netrw, such as working with bookmarks and pattern listings, but this post should have enough of the basics to be productive. Checkout :help netrw for more features.