An introduction to `git worktree`

This is a quick introduction to a git feature I use quite often because I find it better than simple branches in some cases.

git worktree can help “manage multiple working trees attached to the same repository”. Instead of having different branches within the same folder, you have distinct folders (working trees) bound to the same git repository. In other words, this feature allows you to work on different branches at the same time.

Why do I like this feature? Let’s find out!

Spikes and code reviews

I do code reviews every day and I like to checkout the code locally pretty much every time. When I am working on a spike for $PROJECT (in parallel), which usually takes several days, I use git worktree to avoid “WIP” (Work In Progress) commits or stashes. My current spike lives in a different folder than the main local repository for $PROJECT, and I can use the latter to checkout Pull Requests and do the reviews.

One might think that I could use git stash or a different branch and do git commit -am "wip". I’ve done that. I even have custom git commands and git aliases to simplify repetitive tasks. Yet, it’s far from ideal: I have to commit everything to “save” the state of my spike, make sure that I don’t have a local (git-ignored) configuration when I switch to a different branch, update the project’s dependencies, and, when I’m done with the review, “undo” everything to restore the state of the spike. It isn’t very efficient.

Benchmarks and other comparisons

This isn’t a very common use case but I sometimes need to run the same application with two different configurations and check the differences.

In the past, I did that sequentially and it was error-prone because I couldn’t check the differences with the two application flavors running side-by-side. In order to achieve that, I had to clone the same repository a second time.

git worktree gives the same experience except that there is no need to clone the repository again. The “copies” (= working trees) created with git worktree point to the git history and configuration of the main repository. Indeed, there is no .git/ folder in a “copy” created with git worktree. Instead, there is a simple .git file with the following content:

gitdir: /path/to/main/git/repo/.git/worktrees/some-worktree

Each working tree is a git repository and has access to the full git history, remotes, etc. but everything is stored in the main repository. This is the reason why git branch shows the local branches as well as the different worktrees for instance:

$ git branch
+ some-worktree
* main

Like any other git repository, it’s possible to create new branches, push to/pull from a remote, etc. in a working tree created with git worktree.

How to use git worktree?

I don’t use git worktree on all projects. For those where it will likely be used, I have my own convention. I clone the main repository in a folder whose name is the project’s name:

$ tree -L 1 ~/projects/mozilla/addons-frontend
└── addons-frontend

You might want to name the main repository folder main or master instead. I reuse the project’s name because my tmux config automatically sets the window names based on the current paths. It wouldn’t be very useful to have several “main” windows…

From the main repository, I can create a new working tree with the following command:

$ git worktree add ../some-worktree

This will result in a new folder created next to the “main” one:

$ tree -L 1 ~/projects/mozilla/addons-frontend
├── addons-frontend
└── some-worktree

As a side note, my tmux session with the two working trees opened (+ another project) would look like:

moz ⧉ 1:addons-frontend   2:some-worktree   3:other-project

There are other commands to manage worktrees like git worktree remove and git worktree prune. I let interested readers browse the git documentation.

Hopefully this introduction has been useful to you. I’d be happy to discuss with you about this git feature or how you approach some of the use cases described above in a different way, ciao!

Feel free to fork and edit this post if you find a typo, thank you so much! This post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license.


Photo used on social media by Markus Spiske

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