Seamlessly Navigate Vim and tmux Splits

Derek Prior

My tmux session for a given project typically has two horizontal tmux panes with Vim occupying the top 80% of the screen and a shell running below that occupying the remainder. For the most part I stay in Vim, splitting often, and moving amongst those splits with ease.

tmux and Vim splits

Then I’ll decide to pop down to the shell split for a moment and confidently hit <C-j>… nothing. Hmph. Let’s try again. <C-j>… nothing. Oh, right, that’s not a Vim split, it’s a tmux split. <C-a>j.

I’m constantly stumbling over the disconnect between Vim and tmux splits. There’s a little mental hurdle I have to clear each time and I fail at that more often than I’d care to admit. It’s 2013; Shouldn’t the computer be able to figure out what I meant and just do that? As it turns out, yes.

Vim and tmux, Together in Harmony

Mislav Marohnić devised a solution that allows for using the same key strokes to switch between Vim and tmux splits. With this in place, I can use <C-h/j/k/l> to seamlessly navigate all my splits, be they from tmux or Vim.

Mislav’s post has an installation script, but a few of us at thoughtbot had trouble getting those exact scripts running successfully. We’ve been able to simplify and generalize the solution some.


To get the whole thing running, follow these two steps:

  1. Install the vim-tmux-navigator Vim plugin from Chris Toomey. With vundle, that’s as simple as adding the following to your ~/.vimrc file: Bundle 'christoomey/vim-tmux-navigator'
  2. Add the following to your ~/.tmux.conf configuration file to conditionally bind the movement keys depending on the active command:

    # smart pane switching with awareness of vim splits
    bind -n C-h run "(tmux display-message -p '#{pane_current_command}' | grep -iq vim && tmux send-keys C-h) || tmux select-pane -L"
    bind -n C-j run "(tmux display-message -p '#{pane_current_command}' | grep -iq vim && tmux send-keys C-j) || tmux select-pane -D"
    bind -n C-k run "(tmux display-message -p '#{pane_current_command}' | grep -iq vim && tmux send-keys C-k) || tmux select-pane -U"
    bind -n C-l run "(tmux display-message -p '#{pane_current_command}' | grep -iq vim && tmux send-keys C-l) || tmux select-pane -R"
    bind -n C-\ run "(tmux display-message -p '#{pane_current_command}' | grep -iq vim && tmux send-keys 'C-\\') || tmux select-pane -l"

Note: An earlier version of this post included more steps and dependencies. Thanks to readers Chis Eskow and Christopher Sexton for helping simplify the setup.

What’s next

If you found this useful, you might also enjoy: