An introduction to debugging in Node.js

An introduction to debugging in Node.js

Node.js books and tutorials often explain debugging toward the end, and it’s often regarded as an advanced technique for expert developers. This can lead to frustration when encountering a problem at the start of your coding journey. This article will set things right by giving you all you need to debug your code.

Node.js is a popular JavaScript runtime with the same V8 engine used in Google’s Chrome browser. It’s cross-platform and has become increasingly popular for creating server-side web applications, build tools, command-line apps, and more.

However, after you write code and run it, things won’t be so clear if something goes wrong. If you’re lucky, your code will crash with an obvious error message. If you’re unlucky, your application will run but not generate the results you expect.

What is Debugging?

Debugging is the art of fixing software defects. Fixing a bug is often straightforward; a corrected character or edited line of code solves the problem. Finding the cause of a bug is another matter, and developers often spend frustrating hours locating the source of an issue.

There are ways you can avoid errors:

  1. Use a good code editor with line numbering, color-coding, linting, auto-completion, bracket matching, parameter prompting, and more.

  2. Use a source control system like Git to manage code revisions. The tools can help others to check updates and locate how, when, and where a bug appeared.

  3. Adopt bug tracking systems such as Jira, FogBugz, or Bugzilla. Use these to report bugs, highlight duplicates, document reproduction steps, determine severity, calculate priorities, assign developers, record discussions, and track fix progress.

  4. Use Test-Driven Development. TDD is a development process that encourages developers to write code to test the operation of a function before it’s written.

  5. Try techniques such as code explaining or pair programming to work with other developers. A fresh set of eyes may spot issues you’d not considered.

No solution will eradicate all errors, and you’ll encounter the following types in all programming languages.

Syntax errors

An error is caused when your code fails to follow the rules of a language. Typically, it could be a misspelled statement or a missing bracket.

Good code editors such as VS Code help spot common Node.js problems before you attempt to run it:

  • color-coding valid and invalid statements
  • auto-completing function and variable names
  • highlighting matching brackets
  • auto-indenting code blocks
  • parameter prompts for functions, properties, and methods
  • detecting unreachable code
  • refactoring messy functions

You can also use a code linter such as ESLint to spot other syntactical problems or deviations from your normal coding style. Install ESLint as a global Node.js module with:

npm i eslint -g

Then check JavaScript files from the command line:

eslint code.js

It’s easier to use the ESLint for VS Code extension, which validates code as you type:

VS Code ESLint extension

Logic errors

A logic error means your code runs but fails to work as expected. For example, a user cannot log in with valid credentials; a report shows incorrect statistics, user data is not saved to a database, etc. The cause could be anything:

  • using an incorrect variable name
  • using incorrect conditions, e.g. if (x > 5) rather than if (x < 5)
  • invalid functions, parameters, or algorithms

It’s often necessary to step through code and examine the state at specific points during execution.

Runtime errors

A runtime error becomes evident when the application executes. It may not happen and could result from invalid user input e.g.

  • attempting to divide a value by zero
  • accessing array items or database records which no longer exist
  • attempting to write to a file without appropriate access permissions
  • incorrect asynchronous function implementations which lead to “memory overflow” crashes.

Runtime errors are notoriously difficult to replicate, so good logging is essential.

Node.js Debugging Environment Variables

Environment variables set within the host operating system control Node.js application settings. The most common is NODE_ENV, typically set to development when debugging or production on a live server.

You can set environment variables on Linux/macOS:


At the Windows (legacy DOS) command prompt:

set NODE_ENV=development

Or Windows Powershell:


Your application can detect environment settings and enable debugging messages when necessary. For example:

// running in development mode?
const DEVMODE = (process.env.NODE_ENV === 'development');

if (DEVMODE) {
  console.log('application started in development mode');

NODE_DEBUG enables debugging messages using the Node.js util.debuglog. (See the Node.js util.debuglog section below). Also, check the documentation of your primary modules and frameworks to discover further logging options.

Debug with Node.js Command-line Options

You can pass command-line options to the node or nodemon runtime when launching your application. One of the most useful is --trace-warnings, which outputs a stack traces when a promise fails to resolve or reject:

node --trace-warnings index.js

Other options include:

  • --enable-source-maps: enable source maps when using a transpiler such as TypeScript
  • --throw-deprecation: throw errors when using deprecated features
  • --inspect: activate the V8 inspector (see the Node.js V8 Inspector section below).

Debug with Console Logging

The easiest way to debug an application is to output values to the console during execution:

console.log(`myVariable: ${ myVariable }`);

Some developers claim you should never use console.log() because you’re changing code, and better debugging options exist. This is true — but everyone does it! Use whatever tool makes you productive. Console logging can be a quick and practical option. Finding and fixing a bug is more important than the method you used to find it.

You should consider other options beyond the standard console.log() command:

console methodDescription
.log(msg)output a message to the console
.log('%j', obj)output an object as a compact JSON string
.dir(obj,opt)uses util.inspect to pretty-print objects and properties
.table(obj)outputs arrays of objects in tabular format
.error(msg)output an error message
.count(label)a named counter reporting the number of times the line has executed
.countReset[label]resets a named counter
.group(label)indents a group of log messages
.groupEnd(label)ends the indented group
.time(label)starts a timer to calculate the duration of an operation
.timeLog([label]reports the elapsed time since the timer started
.timeEnd(label)stops the timer and reports the total duration
.trace()outputs a stack trace (a list of all calling functions)
.clear()clear the console

console.log() accepts a list of comma-separated values. For example:

let x = 123;
console.log('x:', x);
// x: 123

ES6 destructuring offers similar output with less effort:

console.log({ x });
// { x: 123 }

util.inspect can format objects for easier reading but console.dir() does the hard work for you:

console.dir(myObject, { depth: null, color: true });

Node.js util.debuglog

The Node.js standard util module offers a debuglog method which conditionally writes log messages to STDERR:

const util = require('util');
const debuglog = util.debuglog('myapp');

debuglog('myapp debug message [%d]', 123);

The console displays these debugging messages When you set the NODE_DEBUG environment variable to myapp or a wildcard such as * or my*:

MYAPP 4321: myapp debug message [123]

where 4321 is the Node.js process ID.

Debug with Logging Modules

Third-party logging modules are available for Node.js. These offer further options for messaging levels, verbosity, sorting, file output, profiling, reporting, and more:

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Debug with the Node.js V8 Inspector

Node.js is a wrapper around the V8 JavaScript engine. V8 includes its own inspector and debugging client, which you can start with the inspect argument (do not confuse this with the --inspect flag described in Debugging Node.js Apps with Chrome below):

node inspect index.js

The debugger pauses at the first line and displays a debug prompt:

$ node inspect index.js
< Debugger listening on ws://
< For help, see:
connecting to ... ok
< Debugger attached.
Break on start in index.js:4
  3 const
> 4   port = (process.argv[2] || process.env.PORT || 3000),
  5   http = require('http');

Enter help to view a list of commands. You can step through the application with the following:

  • cont or c: continue execution
  • next or n: run the next command
  • step or s: step into a called function
  • out or o: step out of a called function and return its caller
  • pause: pause running code

You can also:

  • watch variable values with watch('x')
  • set breakpoints with the setBreakpoint()/sb() command (or you can insert a debugger; statement in your code)
  • restart a script
  • .exit the debugger (note the initial . period)

If this sounds horribly clunky, it is. You should only attempt to use the built-in debugging client when there’s no other option, or you’re feeling masochistic.

Debug Node.js Apps with Chrome

Start the Node.js V8 inspector with the --inspect flag:

node --inspect index.js

(nodemon also supports the flag.)

It starts the debugger listening on

Debugger listening on ws://

If you’re running the Node.js application on another device or Docker container, ensure port 9229 is accessible and grant remote access using:

node --inspect= index.js

You can use --inspect-brk instead of --inspect to halt processing on the first statement so you can step through line by line.

Open the Chrome web browser (or any other Chromium-based browser) and enter chrome://inspect in the address bar:

Chrome inspect

Your Node.js application should appear as a Remote Target after a few seconds. If it’s not found, check Discover network targets and click the Configure button to add the IP address and port of the device running your application.

Click the target’s inspect link to launch DevTools. This should be familiar if you’ve used the browser to debug client-side applications.

Chrome DevTools

To load, edit, and save files directly from DevTools, open the Sources pane, click + Add folder to workspace, select the location of your Node.js files, and click Agree. You can now open any of your app’s scripts from the left-hand pane or by pressing Ctrl | Cmd + P and entering the file name.

Click any line number to set a breakpoint (shown as a blue marker):

Chrome source files

A breakpoint specifies where the debugger should pause processing. This allows you to inspect the state of the program, including local and global variables. You can define any number of breakpoints or add debugger statements to your code which also halt processing when the debugger is running.

Chrome DevTools breakpoint

The right-hand panels provide the following:

  • a Watch pane where you can monitor a variable by clicking the + icon and entering its name
  • a Breakpoints pane where you can view, enable, or disable breakpoints
  • a Scope pane where you can examine all variables
  • a Call Stack pane where you can view the functions called to reach this point.

A row of icons appears above the Paused on breakpoint message.

Chrome breakpoint icons

From left to right, these icons perform the following actions:

  1. resume execution: continue processing to the next breakpoint
  2. step over: execute the next command but stay within the current function; don’t jump into any function it calls
  3. step into: execute the next command and jump into any function it calls
  4. step out: continue processing to the end of the function and return to the calling command
  5. step: similar to step into, except it won’t jump into async functions
  6. deactivate all breakpoints
  7. pause on exceptions: halt processing whenever an error occurs.

Set Conditional Breakpoints in Chrome

Imagine you have a loop that runs 1,000 iterations, but you’re interested in the state of the last one:

for (let i = 0; i < 1000; i++) {
  // set breakpoint here?

Rather than clicking resume 999 times, you can right-click the line, choose Add conditional breakpoint, and enter a condition such as i = 999:

Chrome conditional breakpoint

Conditional breakpoints appear in yellow rather than blue.

Set Log Points in Chrome

Log points are console.log() without code! An expression is output when the code executes a line, but unlike a breakpoint, processing is not paused. To add a log point, right-click any line, choose Add log point, and enter an expression, e.g. 'loop counter i', i

Chrome log point

Debug Node.js Apps with VS Code

VS Code supports Node.js and has a built-in debugging client. No configuration when you run a Node.js application on your local system. Open your starting script (typically index.js), activate the Run and Debug pane, click the Run and Debug Node.js button, and choose the Node.js environment. Click any line to activate a breakpoint.

If you’re running a web application, open it in any browser, and VS Code halts execution when it encounters a breakpoint or debugger statement:

VS Code debugger

VS Code debugging is similar to Chrome DevTools with Variables, Watch, Call stack, and Breakpoints panes. The Loaded Scripts pane shows scripts loaded by your application, although this may include those internal to Node.js.

The toolbar of action icons allows you to:

  1. resume execution: continue processing to the next breakpoint
  2. step over: execute the next command but stay within the current function; don’t jump into any function it calls
  3. step into: execute the next command and jump into any function it calls
  4. step out: continue processing to the end of the function and return to the calling command
  5. restart the application and debugger
  6. stop the application and debugger

Like Chrome DevTools, you can right-click any line to add:

  • a standard breakpoint.
  • a conditional breakpoint that halts the program under specified criteria, e.g., x > 3.
  • a logpoint which evaluates expressions in curly braces, e.g. URL: { req.url }

For more information, refer to Debugging in Visual Studio Code.

VS Code Advanced Debugging Configuration

Further VS Code configuration may be necessary if you want to debug code on another device, a virtual machine, or need to use alternative launch options such as nodemon.

The editor stores launch configurations in a launch.json file inside a hidden .vscode folder in your project. To generate the file, click the create a launch.json file link at the top of the Run and Debug pane and choose the Node.js environment.

VS Code launch configuration

You can add any number of configuration setting objects to the "configurations": [] array using the Add Configuration button. VS Code can either:

  1. Launch a Node.js process itself, or
  2. Attach to a debugging Web Socket server, perhaps running on a remote machine or Docker container.

The screenshot above shows a nodemon launch configuration. The Add Configuration button provides a nodemon option so you should edit the "program" property to point at your entry script (${workspaceFolder}/index.js).

Save launch.json, then select nodemon from the drop-down list at the top of the Run and Debug pane, and click the green run icon:

VS Code launch

nodemon will start your application. You can edit the code and set breakpoints or logpoints as before.

For further information, refer to the VS Code launch configurations.

VS Code can debug any Node.js application, but the following extensions can make life easier:

Other Debug Options for Node.js

The Node.js Debugging Guide provides advice for other IDEs and editors, including Visual Studio, JetBrains, WebStorm, Gitpod, and Eclipse.

ndb offers an improved debugging experience with powerful features such as attaching to child processes and script black-boxing to limit file access.

The IBM report-toolkit for Node.js works by analyzing data output when node runs with an --experimental-report option.

Finally, commercial services such as LogRocket and integrate with your live web application on both the client and the server to record errors as they’re encountered by real users.


JavaScript and Node.js debugging has become considerably easier over the past decade. Use whatever tool is practical to locate a problem. There’s nothing wrong with console.log() for quick bug hunting, but Chrome DevTools or VS Code may be preferable for more complex problems. Learn how to use the tools, and you’ll create more robust code while spending less time fixing bugs.


Debugging has its own set of obscure jargon to learn!

breakpointa line at which a debugger halts a program so you can inspect the state
breakpoint (conditional)a breakpoint triggered by a certain condition, such as a value reaching 100. Sometimes known as a watchpoint
debuggera tool that offers debugging facilities
duplicationa known bug reported before
featureas in “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” quoted by all developers
frequencyhow often a bug occurs
it doesn’t workthe most-often made but least useful bug report
logpointa debugger instruction which shows the value of an expression during execution but does not halt the application
loggingoutput of runtime information to the console or a file
logic errorthe program works but doesn’t act as intended
prioritythe importance of a bug fix
race conditionhard-to-trace bugs dependent the sequence or timing of uncontrollable events
refactoringrewriting code to aid readability and maintenance
regressionre-emergence of a fixed bug perhaps owing to other updates
relateda bug that’s similar or related to another
reproducethe steps required to reliably raise an error
RTFM erroruser incompetence disguised as a bug report, typically followed by a developer’s response that they should “Read The Friendly Manual”
step intostep into a called function when debugging
step outcomplete execution of the current function and return to the calling code when debugging
step overcomplete execution of a command without stepping into any functions it calls when debugging
severitythe impact of a bug on system. Data loss is more problematic than a one-pixel UI alignment issue unless the frequency of occurrence is low
stack tracethe historical list of all functions called before the error occurred
syntax errortypographical errors, such as consile.leg()
user erroran error caused by a user input rather than the application (a fix may still be necessary)
watcha variable or expression output while debugging

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