Tmux: no more terminal tabs

Why tmux?

tmux is a Terminal Multi PleXer. It is a super powerful tool used to run and organize multiple shell sessions in one screen. This is especially useful if you want to ssh into another computer while still working on your local machine. While I’m not going to get to its advanced use in this post, it’s especially handy to evaluate blocks of code or to allow editing and code execution in one window. This way, you can setup tmux panes so you’re editing in Vim in one while watching your compilation errors accumulate in the other. :grin: You can get the functionality of an IDE but with the cool-factor efficiency of the terminal!

Getting Started

You’re going to need to install tmux. It’s typically installed already on a Mac but not on Linux machines.

# Mac OS
$ brew install tmux

# Debian Based (like Ubuntu)
$ sudo apt install tmux

# Arch
$ sudo pacman -S tmux

# Start a new tmux session
$ tmux

Windows and Tabs


You came here to learn how to use tabs and windows, so here’s what you need to know:

  1. split screen into left-right terminal screens: <C-b> %
  2. split screen into top-bottom terminal screens: <C-b> "

You’ll notice that if you execute these in order, your split occurs in whichever screen has focus. To change which screen you type in, just change to the other screen with <C-b> o. Your cursor will jump from screen to screen in order of when they were created. This involves too many keystrokes usually, so it’s faster to get a quick heads up of the window numbering with <C-b> q, then select which window to jump into. Here’s what that heads up looks like: tmux-numbers.png


Let’s say you want to separate some code and a terminal prompt from a man page you’re reading…

To get completely new screen to arrange, you can create a new terminal window (similar to a tab in your usual terminal application) with <C-b> c. Now you can create a new configuration how you see fit. You’ll notice at the bottom of your tmux screen, there’s an indexed list of all your current “tabs”. You can have at most 10 tabs (indexed 0-9 of course).

To jump to tab index 0-9, the keybinding is: <C-b> N (where N ∈ [0,9])

To close any one of your windows or tabs, simply exit the terminal as you usually would by typing exit in the shell, or using the keybinding <C-d>. Once all terminal tabs/windows are closed, your tmux session ends.

Oh, a cool little thing you can do is check the time with <C-b> t.


You’ll notice that to create new windows, it might be a little hard to make sense of the keybindings for vertical and horizontal splitting. We can adjust such things inside a tmux configuration file: $HOME/.tmux.conf.

These next lines unbind the current use of <C-b> \ and <C-b> - so you can use them for vertical and horizontal splits (respectively). A handy command to check tmux keybindings in your current sesion is: <C-b>? or <C-b>:list-keys

# use | and - to split windows
bind-key \ split-window -h -c '#{pane_current_path}'
bind-key - split-window -v -c '#{pane_current_path}'
unbind '"'
unbind %

To preserve any terminal or editor color schemes, you’ll also want to adjust the colors of your tmux sessions to match your terminal colors.

set-option -g default-terminal "screen-256color"

If you want to use Vim keybindings to move through your tabs with <C-h> and <C-l>, you can add these lines:

# moving between tabs with vim movement keys
bind -r C-h select-window -t :-
bind -r C-l select-window -t :+

This entire file is right here: tmux conf


Scrolling through a window can be difficult if you’ve just produced several screens worth of error and debug messages. To scroll up a tmux window, you can enter copy mode and use vim or emacs keybindings to navigate the focused terminal window.

Thank to this SO post for the man pages hint.

The default keybinding is <C-b> [ (or <C-PREFIX> [) to enter copy mode. You can think [ opy mode – [ looks a little like edges of a terminal screen.

Then, you can navigate the screen the following ways:

  1. <Up> and <Down> arrow keys if you’re a heathen
  2. <M-up> and <M-down> if you like Emacs bindings
  3. <C-u> and <C-d> if you’re an elite coder (aka Vim user)

You know you’re in scroll mode if there’s a line count in the upper right corner of the screen. You can exit this mode with q to quit the copy mode view.

copy mode picture

Important Commands (TLDR)

shell command description
$ tmux Start a new tmux session
$ exit or <C-d> Exit a tmux session
keybinding description
<C-b> \ (default: <C-b> %) Split into left-right terminal windows
<C-b> - (default: <C-b> ") Split into top-bottom terminal windows
<C-b> c Create a new terminal tab
<C-b> N Go to terminal tab number N
<C-b> o Jump to the other terminal window in current screen


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