Julia Evans

Inside .git

Hello! I posted a comic on Mastodon this week about what’s in the .git directory and someone requested a text version, so here it is. I added some extra notes too. First, here’s the image. It’s a ~15 word explanation of each part of your .git directory.

You can git clone https://github.com/jvns/inside-git if you want to run all these examples yourself.

Here’s a table of contents:

The first 5 parts (HEAD, branch, commit, tree, blobs) are the core of git.

HEAD: .git/head

HEAD is a tiny file that just contains the name of your current branch.

Example contents:

$ cat .git/HEAD
ref: refs/heads/main

HEAD can also be a commit ID, that’s called “detached HEAD state”.

branch: .git/refs/heads/main

A branch is stored as a tiny file that just contains 1 commit ID. It’s stored in a folder called refs/heads.

Example contents:

$ cat .git/refs/heads/main

commit: .git/objects/10/93da429...

A commit is a small file containing its parent(s), message, tree, and author.

Example contents:

$ git cat-file -p 1093da429f08e0e54cdc2b31526159e745d98ce0
tree 9f83ee7550919867e9219a75c23624c92ab5bd83
parent 33a0481b440426f0268c613d036b820bc064cdea
author Julia Evans <julia@example.com> 1706120622 -0500
committer Julia Evans <julia@example.com> 1706120622 -0500

add hello.py

These files are compressed, the best way to see objects is with git cat-file -p HASH.

tree: .git/objects/9f/83ee7550...

Trees are small files with directory listings. The files in it are called blobs.

Example contents:

$  git cat-file -p 9f83ee7550919867e9219a75c23624c92ab5bd83
100644 blob e69de29bb2d1d6434b8b29ae775ad8c2e48c5391	.gitignore
100644 blob 665c637a360874ce43bf74018768a96d2d4d219a	hello.py
040000 tree 24420a1530b1f4ec20ddb14c76df8c78c48f76a6	lib

The permissions here LOOK like unix permissions, but they’re actually super restricted, only 644 and 755 are allowed.

blobs: .git/objects/5a/475762c...

blobs are the files that contain your actual code

Example contents:

$ git cat-file -p 665c637a360874ce43bf74018768a96d2d4d219a	
print("hello world!")

Storing a new blob with every change can get big, so git gc periodically packs them for efficiency in .git/objects/pack.

reflog: .git/logs/refs/heads/main

The reflog stores the history of every branch, tag, and HEAD. For (mostly) every file in .git/refs, there’s a corresponding log in .git/logs/refs.

Example content for the main branch:

$ tail -n 1 .git/logs/refs/heads/main
Julia Evans <julia@example.com>
1706119866 -0500
commit: add hello.py

each line of the reflog has:

  • before/after commit IDs
  • user
  • timestamp
  • log message

Normally it’s all one line, I just wrapped it for readability here.

remote-tracking branches: .git/refs/remotes/origin/main

Remote-tracking branches store the most recently seen commit ID for a remote branch

Example content:

$ cat .git/refs/remotes/origin/main

When git status says “you’re up to date with origin/main”, it’s just looking at this. It’s often out of date, you can update it with git fetch origin main.

tags: .git/refs/tags/v1.0

A tag is a tiny file in .git/refs/tags containing a commit ID.

Example content:

$ cat .git/refs/tags/v1.0

Unlike branches, when you make new commits it doesn’t update the tag.

the stash: .git/refs/stash

The stash is a tiny file called .git/refs/stash. It contains the commit ID of a commit that’s created when you run git stash.

cat .git/refs/stash

The stash is a stack, and previous values are stored in .git/logs/refs/stash (the reflog for stash).

cat .git/logs/refs/stash
62caf3d9 e85c950f Julia Evans <julia@example.com> 1706290652 -0500	WIP on main: 1093da4 add hello.py
00000000 62caf3d9 Julia Evans <julia@example.com> 1706290668 -0500	WIP on main: 1093da4 add hello.py

Unlike branches and tags, if you git stash pop a commit from the stash, it’s deleted from the reflog so it’s almost impossible to find it again. The stash is the only reflog in git where things get deleted very soon after they’re added. (entries expire out of the branch reflogs too, but generally only after 90 days)

A note on refs:

At this point you’ve probably noticed that a lot of things (branches, remote-tracking branches, tags, and the stash) are commit IDs in .git/refs. They’re called “references” or “refs”. Every ref is a commit ID, but the different types of refs are treated VERY differently by git, so I find it useful to think about them separately even though they all use the same file format. For example, git deletes things from the stash reflog in a way that it won’t for branch or tag reflogs.


.git/config is a config file for the repository. It’s where you configure your remotes.

Example content:

[remote "origin"] 
url = git@github.com: jvns/int-exposed 
fetch = +refs/heads/*: refs/remotes/origin/* 
[branch "main"] 
remote = origin 
merge refs/heads/main

git has local and global settings, the local settings are here and the global ones are in ~/.gitconfig hooks

hooks: .git/hooks/pre-commit

Hooks are optional scripts that you can set up to run (eg before a commit) to do anything you want.

Example content:


(this obviously isn’t a real pre-commit hook)

the staging area: .git/index

The staging area stores files when you’re preparing to commit. This one is a binary file, unlike a lot of things in git which are essentially plain text files.

As far as I can tell the best way to look at the contents of the index is with git ls-files --stage:

$ git ls-files --stage
100644 e69de29bb2d1d6434b8b29ae775ad8c2e48c5391 0	.gitignore
100644 665c637a360874ce43bf74018768a96d2d4d219a 0	hello.py
100644 e69de29bb2d1d6434b8b29ae775ad8c2e48c5391 0	lib/empty.py

this isn’t exhaustive

There are some other things in .git like FETCH_HEAD, worktrees, and info. I only included the ones that I’ve found it useful to understand.

this isn’t meant to completely explain git

One of the most common pieces of advice I hear about git is “just learn how the .git directory is structured and then you’ll understand everything!“.

I love understanding the internals of things more than anyone, but there’s a LOT that “how the .git directory is structured” doesn’t explain, like:

  • how merges and rebases work and how they can go wrong (for instance this list of what can go wrong with rebase)
  • how exactly your colleagues are using git, and what guidelines you should be following to work with them successfully
  • how pushing/pulling code from other repositories works
  • how to handle merge conflicts

Hopefully this will be useful to some folks out there though.

some other references:

Do we think of git commits as diffs, snapshots, and/or histories? Dealing with diverged git branches