This is a relatively newie but a goodie. Have you ever been stuck trying to clone specific folders from a git repo recently?

Well, starting from git 1.9, this feature is now part of git features. For the sake of illustration, let’s say we want to retrieve only the examples directory of the point cloud repo commited at the point cloud library git page.


A new feature called sparse checkout allows us to sparsely populate the working directory by using skip-worktree bit to inform GIT if the file in the working directory deserves a look. git read-tree and other merge commands native to git such as checkout, merge, or pull are useful in maintaining the skip-working tree bitmap and working directory update.

A paraphrased quote from the manual here:

$GIT_DIR/info/sparse-checkout defines the skip-worktree reference bitmap. When git read-tree needs to update the working directory, it resets the skip-worktree bit in the index based on this file, which uses the same syntax as .gitignore files. If an entry matches a pattern in this file, skip-worktree will not be set on that entry. Otherwise, skip-worktree will be set.

Then it compares the new skip-worktree value with the previous one. If skip-worktree turns from set to unset, it will add the corresponding file back. If it turns from unset to set, that file will be removed.

While $GIT_DIR/info/sparse-checkout is usually used to specify what files are in, you can also specify what files are not in, using negate patterns. For example, to remove the file unwanted:

Another tricky thing is fully repopulating the working directory when you no longer want sparse checkout. You cannot just disable “sparse checkout” because skip-worktree bits are still in the index and your working directory is still sparsely populated. You should re-populate the working directory with the $GIT_DIR/info/sparse-checkout file content as follows:

So to check out the pcl examples directory for example, we could combine the sparse checkout and shallow clone features. By using the shallow clone feature, we cut off the history and the sparse check out only pulls files matching the pattern(s) we specify.

Take a look at the following example:

$ mkdir pcl-examples
$ cd pcl-examples								#make a directory we want to copy folders to
$ git init                            			#initialize the empty local repo
$ git remote add origin -f     #add the remote origin
$ git config core.sparsecheckout true			#very crucial. this is where we tell git we are checking out specifics
$ echo "examples/*" >> .git/info/sparse-checkout #recursively checkout examples folder
$ git pull --depth=2 origin master			#go only 2 depths down the examples directory


The line <pre class="terminal">$git remote add origin -f </pre>

adds a remote named e.g. a repository given by .

It does not create nor update remote working branches by any chance. We do that by adding the “-f” or “–fetch” argument to update all remote tracking branches in our index. Note that this merely updates the git index. The files nor folders are as yet not populated.

The files are updated in our pcl-examples directory with the next line’s command.

Since we are cloning everything in the examples directory –which, by the way, have a depth of 2 – we pull every subdirectory and file under the examples folder by doing:

$ git pull --depth=2 origin master

SVN Checkout

If you are using svn instead of git, there is a straightforward way to do this. Simply cd into your working directory and replace the “/tree/master” path within the url with trunk. To clone the subdirectory examples in the point cloud git repo for example, using svn, we would do the following in terminal

$ svn checkout