What are source maps?

Source maps are a crucial tool in modern web development that make debugging significantly easier. This page explores the basics of source maps, how they're generated, and how they improve the debugging experience.

The need for source maps

Early web apps were built with low complexity. Developers deployed HTML, CSS, and JavaScript files directly to the web.

More modern and complex web apps can need a variety of tools in their development workflow. For example:

A brief overview of various tooling.
Some of the common web app development tools.

These tools require a build process to transpile your code into standard HTML, JavaScript, and CSS that browsers can understand. It's also common practice to optimize performance by minifying and combining these files, using a tool like Terser.

For example, using build tools, we can transpile and compress the following TypeScript file into a single line of JavaScript. You can try it for yourself in this demo on GitHub.

/* A TypeScript demo: example.ts */

document.querySelector('button')?.addEventListener('click', () => {
  const num: number = Math.floor(Math.random() * 101);
  const greet: string = 'Hello';
  (document.querySelector('p') as HTMLParagraphElement).innerText = `${greet}, you are no. ${num}!`;

A compressed version would be:

/* A compressed JavaScript version of the TypeScript demo: example.min.js  */

document.querySelector("button")?.addEventListener("click",(()=>{const e=Math.floor(101*Math.random());document.querySelector("p").innerText=`Hello, you are no. ${e}!`,console.log(e)}));

However, compressing your code can make debugging more difficult. Source maps can remove this problem: by mapping your compiled code back to the original code, they can help you quickly find the source of an error.

Generate source maps

Source maps are files whose names end with .map (for example, example.min.js.map and styles.css.map). They can be generated by most build tools, including Vite, webpack, Rollup, Parcel, and esbuild.

Some tools include source maps by default. Others might need additional configuration to produce them:

/* Example configuration: vite.config.js */
/* https://vitejs.dev/config/ */

export default defineConfig({
  build: {
    sourcemap: true, // enable production source maps
  css: {
    devSourcemap: true // enable CSS source maps during development

Understand the source map

To help with debugging, these source map files contain essential information about how the compiled code maps to the original code. Here's an example of a source map:

  "mappings": "AAAAA,SAASC,cAAc,WAAWC, ...",
  "sources": ["src/script.ts"],
  "sourcesContent": ["document.querySelector('button')..."],
  "names": ["document","querySelector", ...],
  "version": 3,
  "file": "example.min.js.map"

To understand each of these fields, you can read the source map specification or The anatomy of a source map.

The most important part of a source map is the mappings field. It uses a VLQ base 64 encoded string to map lines and locations in the compiled file to the corresponding original file. You can view this mapping using a source map visualizer like source-map-visualization or Source Map Visualization.

A source map visualization.
A visualization of the previous code example, generated by a visualizer.

The generated column on the left shows the compressed content, and the original column shows the original source.

The visualizer color-codes each line in the original column with its corresponding code in the generated column.

The mappings section shows decoded mappings of the code. For example, the entry 65 -> 2:2 means:

  • Generated code: The word const starts at position 65 in the compressed content.
  • Original code: The word const starts at line 2 and column 2 in the original content.
Mapping entry.
The mapping visualization, focusing on the 65 -> 2:2 entry.

This lets developers quickly identify the relationship between the minified code and the original code, making debugging a smoother process.

Browser developer tools apply these source maps to help you pinpoint your debugging issues quickly in the browser.

Developer tools applying a source map.
An example of how browser developer tools apply source maps and show the mappings between files.

Source map extensions

Source maps support custom extension fields that start with an x_ prefix. One example is the x_google_ignoreList extension field proposed by Chrome DevTools. See x_google_ignoreList to learn more about how these extensions help you focus on your code.

Source map drawbacks

Unfortunately, source mappings aren't always as complete as you need them to be. In our first example, the variable greet was optimized away during the build process, even though its value is directly embedded into the final string output.

Variable greet is not mapped.
The greet variable in the original code is missing from the mapping.

In this case, when you debug the code, developer tools might not be able to infer and display the actual value. This kind of error can make your code monitoring and analysis harder.

Variable greet is undefined.
The developer tool can't find a value for greet.

This is a problem that needs to be solved within the design of source maps. One potential solution is to include scope information in the source maps in the same way other programming languages do with their debug information.

However, this requires the whole ecosystem to work together to improve the source map specification and implementation. To follow the ongoing on improving debuggability with source maps, refer to the proposal for Source Maps v4 on GitHub.