Simplifying file management with GNU Stow

Quick Setup

If you need to install software on multiple computers or test distributions on virtual machines, you can save a huge amount of time if applications reliably exhibit the same behavior. The overhead involved in setting up Stow for this purpose is manageable, because with Stow you only manage the dotfiles that you consider useful for this purpose.

First, for convenience, create a dotfiles/ folder in your home directory. In the folder, create directories for all the programs whose dotfiles you want to manage with Stow. Figure 2 shows a sample home directory structure.

Figure 2: The tree -a command lets you view the directory hierarchy as a tree structure. You then can check whether the replicated structure actually matches the conditions in your home directory.

According to the XDG Base Directory specification [3], configuration files should be located in $HOME/.config/. However, not all developers stick to this, so the files are distributed all over the home directory. Mozilla, among others, sets a bad example here.

Tidying Up

Looking at the .bashrc file example again, the file is usually located directly in the home directory. To manage it with Stow, move it to the dotfiles/ folder you previously created in the home directory. If you also want to manage the .bash_profile and .bash-logout files there, it makes sense to create a bash/ folder in dotfiles/ and move the three files there for better organization.

Then execute the command

cd ~/dotfiles && stow -v bash

to create the required symlinks (Figure 3). To see whether this worked, type

ls -la | grep "\->"
Figure 3: The actual work is done by the stow command, followed by the application to be processed. Adding --verbose or -v shows you the symlinks created by this step. To check for their presence in the right location, run the ls command.

The command should show you the three symbolic links created by Stow. Using stow * lets you work on multiple directories in a single action.

Stow creates links to the parent directory if not told to do something else (i.e., it typically uses its own home directory). If you want to link to another user's home directory, add the --target (-t) parameter. After changes to configuration files, use the --restow or -R parameter to reload them.


If you enjoy working at the command line, you may have created several profiles for your preferred terminal emulation that define the font, its size, and the background color. For example, I maintain some Konsole profiles along with one Yakuake profile.

The files are located in .config/ and .config/share/ in the case of the Konsole. You therefore need to replicate the structure in dotfiles/. Since there are several files to back up here, it makes sense to create a subfolder named konsole/ first and emulate the directory structure in it.

You can extend the directory structure as you like, for example, to store files containing private information separately or to sort files by subject. No matter how nested the structure is, as long as you run the stow command from the correct directory at the end of the day, the tool will do the rest. If you treat all dotfiles to be backed up in this way, you will always have fast access to them.

Another possibility is to manage dotfiles with Git. This can be done manually in a few minutes or automatically using a script such as yadm (Yet Another Dotfile Manager) [4] (Figure 4). This also makes it possible to encrypt directories that are under version control, but that you do not want to be openly accessible on GitHub. GitHub dedicates a separate page to the dotfiles topic [5].

Figure 4: If you want to manage dotfiles with Git, first create a local repository and add the files to be managed to it.

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