Using Vim Buffers

Kyle Coberly
2 min readDec 29, 2018


Want to improve your ability to work with multiple files in Vim? Spending a lot of time searching through directories with Netrw or NERDtree? Become proficient with buffers and you’ll be leaving your GUI editor comrades in the dust.

What are buffers?

Think of buffers as tabs¹ in Sublime or Atom. When you open a file in Vim, its contents are read into a “buffer,” which is the thing Vim is actually working on. When you run :w, the contents of the buffer are written back to the file. When you open a new file in Vim with :e or :E, the buffer you were just using doesn't close, even though you're not looking at it anymore. You can see all of your open buffers by running :ls.

¹Vim has something called tabs too, but these are not similar to tabs in GUI applications. A more accurate term for Vim tabs would probably be “layouts.”

Add buffer support to airline

The first thing we can do to make working with buffers easier is to visualize them. Let’s install the status bar plug-in Airline. If you’re using NeoBundle, you can do this by adding NeoBundle 'vim-airline/vim-airline' to your .vimrc.

Airline hides buffer names by default. To make them show up, add let g:airline#extensions#tabline#enabled = 1 to your .vimrc.

Now the names of your open buffers will show up across the top of your terminal, just like tabs!


The second thing we can do to improve the buffer experience is to install the Ctrl-P plug-in. With NeoBundle, that’s as easy as NeoBundle 'ctrlpvim/ctrlp.vim'.

Ctrl-p allows you to open files and buffers using fuzzy-search. Here are some default configuration settings to add to your .vimrc:

let g:ctrlp_use_caching=0
let g:ctrlp_custom_ignore = 'bin$\|build$\|node_modules$\|.git|.bak|.swp|.pyc|.class'
let g:ctrlp_working_path_mode = 0
let g:ctrlp_max_files=0
let g:ctrlp_max_height = 18

Buffer Shortcuts

The commands for working with buffers are a little long and unwieldy. These are the shortcut mappings I use:

nnoremap <Leader>ff :CtrlP<CR>
nnoremap <Leader><Leader> :CtrlPBuffer<CR>
nnoremap <Leader>d :bd<CR>
nnoremap <Leader>n :bn<CR>
nnoremap <Leader>N :bN<CR>

Add these to your .vimrc to use buffers at Vim-speed! I use spacebar as my <leader> by adding mapleader=" " to my .vimrc. Feel free to use another key if it's more comfortable! Now you can:

  • Open a file. Start fuzzy-searching for any files inside the folder you opened Vim in with Space f f
  • Open a buffer. Start fuzzy-searching for any existing buffer (check your buffer list at the top!) by tapping your spacebar twice
  • Close a buffer. Close the active buffer with Space d
  • Go to the next buffer. Open the next buffer in the list with Space n
  • Go to the previous buffer. Open the previous buffer in the list with Space N

That’s enough to get started working with buffers in Vim! The next time you’re tempted to reach for a file navigation tool, try using fuzzy search and buffers instead!



Kyle Coberly

Educator, business dork, software developer.