How do I use valgrind to find memory leaks? – Dev

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How do I use valgrind to find the memory leaks in a program?

Please someone help me and describe the steps to carryout the procedure?

I am using Ubuntu 10.04 and I have a program a.c, please help me out.


Try this:

valgrind --leak-check=full -v ./your_program

As long as valgrind is installed it will go through your program and tell you what’s wrong. It can give you pointers and approximate places where your leaks may be found. If you’re segfault’ing, try running it through gdb.


How to Run Valgrind

Not to insult the OP, but for those who come to this question and are still new to Linux—you might have to install Valgrind on your system.

sudo apt install valgrind  # Ubuntu, Debian, etc.
sudo yum install valgrind  # RHEL, CentOS, Fedora, etc.

Valgrind is readily usable for C/C++ code, but can even be used for other
languages when configured properly (see this for Python).

To run Valgrind, pass the executable as an argument (along with any
parameters to the program).

valgrind --leak-check=full \
         --show-leak-kinds=all \
         --track-origins=yes \
         --verbose \
         --log-file=valgrind-out.txt \
         ./executable exampleParam1

The flags are, in short:

  • --leak-check=full: “each individual leak will be shown in detail”
  • --show-leak-kinds=all: Show all of “definite, indirect, possible, reachable” leak kinds in the “full” report.
  • --track-origins=yes: Favor useful output over speed. This tracks the origins of uninitialized values, which could be very useful for memory errors. Consider turning off if Valgrind is unacceptably slow.
  • --verbose: Can tell you about unusual behavior of your program. Repeat for more verbosity.
  • --log-file: Write to a file. Useful when output exceeds terminal space.

Finally, you would like to see a Valgrind report that looks like this:

    in use at exit: 0 bytes in 0 blocks
  total heap usage: 636 allocs, 636 frees, 25,393 bytes allocated

All heap blocks were freed -- no leaks are possible

ERROR SUMMARY: 0 errors from 0 contexts (suppressed: 0 from 0)
ERROR SUMMARY: 0 errors from 0 contexts (suppressed: 0 from 0)

I have a leak, but WHERE?

So, you have a memory leak, and Valgrind isn’t saying anything meaningful.
Perhaps, something like this:

5 bytes in 1 blocks are definitely lost in loss record 1 of 1
   at 0x4C29BE3: malloc (vg_replace_malloc.c:299)
   by 0x40053E: main (in /home/Peri461/Documents/executable)

Let’s take a look at the C code I wrote too:

#include <stdlib.h>

int main() {
    char* string = malloc(5 * sizeof(char)); //LEAK: not freed!
    return 0;

Well, there were 5 bytes lost. How did it happen? The error report just says
main and malloc. In a larger program, that would be seriously troublesome to
hunt down. This is because of how the executable was compiled. We can
actually get line-by-line details on what went wrong. Recompile your program
with a debug flag (I’m using gcc here):

gcc -o executable -std=c11 -Wall main.c         # suppose it was this at first
gcc -o executable -std=c11 -Wall -ggdb3 main.c  # add -ggdb3 to it

Now with this debug build, Valgrind points to the exact line of code
allocating the memory that got leaked! (The wording is important: it might not
be exactly where your leak is, but what got leaked. The trace helps you find

5 bytes in 1 blocks are definitely lost in loss record 1 of 1
   at 0x4C29BE3: malloc (vg_replace_malloc.c:299)
   by 0x40053E: main (main.c:4)

Techniques for Debugging Memory Leaks & Errors

  • Make use of! It has great documentation on C/C++ functions.
  • General advice for memory leaks:
    • Make sure your dynamically allocated memory does in fact get freed.
    • Don’t allocate memory and forget to assign the pointer.
    • Don’t overwrite a pointer with a new one unless the old memory is freed.
  • General advice for memory errors:
    • Access and write to addresses and indices you’re sure belong to you. Memory
      errors are different from leaks; they’re often just IndexOutOfBoundsException
      type problems.
    • Don’t access or write to memory after freeing it.
  • Sometimes your leaks/errors can be linked to one another, much like an IDE discovering that you haven’t typed a closing bracket yet. Resolving one issue can resolve others, so look for one that looks a good culprit and apply some of these ideas:

    • List out the functions in your code that depend on/are dependent on the
      “offending” code that has the memory error. Follow the program’s execution
      (maybe even in gdb perhaps), and look for precondition/postcondition errors. The idea is to trace your program’s execution while focusing on the lifetime of allocated memory.
    • Try commenting out the “offending” block of code (within reason, so your code
      still compiles). If the Valgrind error goes away, you’ve found where it is.
  • If all else fails, try looking it up. Valgrind has documentation too!

A Look at Common Leaks and Errors

Watch your pointers

60 bytes in 1 blocks are definitely lost in loss record 1 of 1
   at 0x4C2BB78: realloc (vg_replace_malloc.c:785)
   by 0x4005E4: resizeArray (main.c:12)
   by 0x40062E: main (main.c:19)

And the code:

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdint.h>

struct _List {
    int32_t* data;
    int32_t length;
typedef struct _List List;

List* resizeArray(List* array) {
    int32_t* dPtr = array->data;
    dPtr = realloc(dPtr, 15 * sizeof(int32_t)); //doesn't update array->data
    return array;

int main() {
    List* array = calloc(1, sizeof(List));
    array->data = calloc(10, sizeof(int32_t));
    array = resizeArray(array);

    return 0;

As a teaching assistant, I’ve seen this mistake often. The student makes use of
a local variable and forgets to update the original pointer. The error here is
noticing that realloc can actually move the allocated memory somewhere else
and change the pointer’s location. We then leave resizeArray without telling
array->data where the array was moved to.

Invalid write

1 errors in context 1 of 1:
Invalid write of size 1
   at 0x4005CA: main (main.c:10)
 Address 0x51f905a is 0 bytes after a block of size 26 alloc'd
   at 0x4C2B975: calloc (vg_replace_malloc.c:711)
   by 0x400593: main (main.c:5)

And the code:

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdint.h>

int main() {
    char* alphabet = calloc(26, sizeof(char));

    for(uint8_t i = 0; i < 26; i++) {
        *(alphabet + i) = 'A' + i;
    *(alphabet + 26) = '\0'; //null-terminate the string?

    return 0;

Notice that Valgrind points us to the commented line of code above. The array
of size 26 is indexed [0,25] which is why *(alphabet + 26) is an invalid
write—it’s out of bounds. An invalid write is a common result of
off-by-one errors. Look at the left side of your assignment operation.

Invalid read

1 errors in context 1 of 1:
Invalid read of size 1
   at 0x400602: main (main.c:9)
 Address 0x51f90ba is 0 bytes after a block of size 26 alloc'd
   at 0x4C29BE3: malloc (vg_replace_malloc.c:299)
   by 0x4005E1: main (main.c:6)

And the code:

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdint.h>

int main() {
    char* destination = calloc(27, sizeof(char));
    char* source = malloc(26 * sizeof(char));

    for(uint8_t i = 0; i < 27; i++) {
        *(destination + i) = *(source + i); //Look at the last iteration.

    return 0;

Valgrind points us to the commented line above. Look at the last iteration here,
which is
*(destination + 26) = *(source + 26);. However, *(source + 26) is
out of bounds again, similarly to the invalid write. Invalid reads are also a
common result of off-by-one errors. Look at the right side of your assignment

The Open Source (U/Dys)topia

How do I know when the leak is mine? How do I find my leak when I’m using
someone else’s code? I found a leak that isn’t mine; should I do something? All
are legitimate questions. First, 2 real-world examples that show 2 classes of
common encounters.

Jansson: a JSON library

#include <jansson.h>
#include <stdio.h>

int main() {
    char* string = "{ \"key\": \"value\" }";

    json_error_t error;
    json_t* root = json_loads(string, 0, &error); //obtaining a pointer
    json_t* value = json_object_get(root, "key"); //obtaining a pointer
    printf("\"%s\" is the value field.\n", json_string_value(value)); //use value

    json_decref(value); //Do I free this pointer?
    json_decref(root);  //What about this one? Does the order matter?
    return 0;

This is a simple program: it reads a JSON string and parses it. In the making,
we use library calls to do the parsing for us. Jansson makes the necessary
allocations dynamically since JSON can contain nested structures of itself.
However, this doesn’t mean we decref or “free” the memory given to us from
every function. In fact, this code I wrote above throws both an “Invalid read”
and an “Invalid write”. Those errors go away when you take out the decref line
for value.

Why? The variable value is considered a “borrowed reference” in the Jansson
API. Jansson keeps track of its memory for you, and you simply have to decref
JSON structures independent of each other. The lesson here:
read the documentation. Really. It’s sometimes hard to understand, but
they’re telling you why these things happen. Instead, we have
existing questions about this memory error.

SDL: a graphics and gaming library

#include "SDL2/SDL.h"

int main(int argc, char* argv[]) {
        SDL_Log("Unable to initialize SDL: %s", SDL_GetError());
        return 1;

    return 0;

What’s wrong with this code? It consistently leaks ~212 KiB of memory for me. Take a moment to think about it. We turn SDL on and then off. Answer? There is nothing wrong.

That might sound bizarre at first. Truth be told, graphics are messy and sometimes you have to accept some leaks as being part of the standard library. The lesson here: you need not quell every memory leak. Sometimes you just need to suppress the leaks because they’re known issues you can’t do anything about. (This is not my permission to ignore your own leaks!)

Answers unto the void

How do I know when the leak is mine?

It is. (99% sure, anyway)

How do I find my leak when I’m using someone else’s code?
Chances are someone else already found it. Try Google! If that fails, use the skills I gave you above. If that fails and you mostly see API calls and little of your own stack trace, see the next question.

I found a leak that isn’t mine; should I do something?
Yes! Most APIs have ways to report bugs and issues. Use them! Help give back to the tools you’re using in your project!

Further Reading

Thanks for staying with me this long. I hope you’ve learned something, as I tried to tend to the broad spectrum of people arriving at this answer. Some things I hope you’ve asked along the way: How does C’s memory allocator work? What actually is a memory leak and a memory error? How are they different from segfaults? How does Valgrind work? If you had any of these, please do feed your curiousity:

  • More about malloc, C’s memory allocator
  • Definition of a segmentation fault
  • Definition of a memory leak
  • Definition of a memory access error
  • How does Valgrind work?


You can create an alias in .bashrc file as follows

alias vg='valgrind --leak-check=full -v --track-origins=yes --log-file=vg_logfile.out'

So whenever you want to check memory leaks, just do simply

vg ./<name of your executable> <command line parameters to your executable>

This will generate a Valgrind log file in the current directory.


You can run:

valgrind --leak-check=full --log-file="logfile.out" -v [your_program(and its arguments)]