What is CTF and how to get Started – Complete Guide for Beginners to Advanced

What is Capture the Flag – CTF

CTF’s (capture the flag) are computer security/hacking competitions which generally consist of participants breaking, investigating, reverse engineering and doing anything they can to reach the end goal, a “flag” which is usually found as a string of text.

DEF CON hosts what is the most widely known and first major CTF, occuring annualy at the hacking conference in Las Vegas. Many different competitions have branched off since then, and numerous ones are available year round. One of the best places to see when CTFs are being scheduled is ctftime, an active website with calendars and team rankings.


A very simple type of CTF challenge consists of looking at the source code of websites or programs to find flags that looks like a string – “35k325j4hnlsdfjxc” or a hint like “user agent: /disallow secret ” (now we know there’s a secret directory, which might have some leads to get the next flag) to complete/obtain the flag.



Why use CTF

Computer security represents a challenge to education due to its interdisciplinary nature. Topics in computer security are drawn from areas ranging from theoretical aspects of computer science to applied aspects of information technology management. This makes it difficult to encapsulate the spirit of what constitutes a computer security professional.

One approximation for this measure has emerged: the ‘capture the flag’ competition. Attack-oriented CTF competitions try to distill the essence of many aspects of professional computer security work into a single short exercise that is objectively measurable. The focus areas that CTF competitions tend to measure are vulnerability discovery, exploit creation, toolkit creation, and operational tradecraft.

A modern computer security professional should be an expert in at least one of these areas and ideally in all of them. Success in CTF competitions demands that participants be an expert in at least one and ideally all of these areas. Therefore, preparing for and competing in CTF represents a way to efficiently merge discrete disciplines in computer science into a focus on computer security.

What should I focus on?

Difficulty is subjective based on your individual skillset. If your forte is forensics but you are not skilled in crypto, the point values assigned to the forensics problems will seem inflated while the crypto challenges will seem undervalued to you. The same perception biases hold true for CTF organizers. This is one reason why assessing the difficulty of CTF problems is so challenging.

If you’ve tried several of the basic problems on your own and are still struggling, then there are plenty of self-study opportunities. CTF competitions generally focus on the following skills: reverse engineering, cryptography, ACM style programming, web vulnerabilities, binary exercises, networking, and forensics. Pick one and focus on a single topic as you get started.

1) Reverse Engineering. I highly suggest that you get a copy of IDA Pro. There is a free version available as well as a discounted student license. Try some crack me exercises. Write your own C code and then reverse the compiled versions. Repeat this process while changing compiler options and program logic. How does an “if” statement differ from a “select” in your compiled binary? I suggest you focus on a single architecture initially: x86, x86_64, or ARM. Read the processor manual for whichever one you choose. Book recommendations include:

2) Cryptography.  Here are some resources to check out:

3) ACM style programming. Pick a high level language. I recommend Python or Ruby. For Python, read Dive into Python (free) and find a pet project you want to participate in. It is worth noting that Metasploit is written in Ruby. Computer science classes dealing with algorithms and data structures will go a long way in this category as well. Look at past programming challenges from CTF and other competitions – do them! Focus on creating a working solution rather than the fastest or most elegant solution, especially if you are just getting started.

4) Web vulnerabilities. There are many web programming technologies out there. The most popular in CTF tend to be PHP and SQL. The php.net site is a fantastic language reference. Just search any function you are curious about. After PHP, the next most common way to see web challenges presented is with Python or Ruby scripts. Notice the overlap of skills? There is a good book on web vulnerabilities, The Web Application Hacker’s Handbook. Other than that, after learning some of the basic techniques, you might also think about gaining expertise in a few of the more popular free tools available. These are occasionally useful in CTF competitions too. This category also frequently overlaps with cryptography in my experience.

5) Binary exercises. I recommend you go through reverse engineering before jumping into the binary exercises. There are a few common vulnerability types you can learn in isolation: stack overflowsheap overflows, and format string bugs for starters. A lot of this is training your mind to recognize vulnerable patterns. Looking at past vulnerabilities is a great way to pick up these patterns. You should also read through:

6) Forensics/networking. A lot of CTF teams tend to have “the” forensics guy. Learn how to use the 010 hex editor and don’t be afraid to make absurd, wild, random guesses as to what could be going on in some of these problems.




Finding a CTF

If you ever wanted to start running, you were probably encouraged to sign up to a 5k to keep focused on a goal. The same principle applies here: pick a CTF in the near future that you want to compete in and come up with a practice schedule. Here are some CTFs that we can recommend:

Visit CTF Time and the CapCTF calendar for a more complete list of CTFs occuring every week of the year.

How is a Wargame different?

Wargames are similar to a CTF but are always ongoing. Typically, they are organized into levels that get progressively harder as you solve more of them. Wargames are an excellent way to practice for CTF! Here are some of our favorites:

What about CCDC?

There are some defense-only competitions that disguise themselves as CTF competitions, mainly the Collegiate Cyber Defense Challenge (CCDC) and its regional variations, and our opinion is that you should avoid them. They are unrealistic exercises in frustration and will teach you little about security or anything else. They are incredibly fun to play as a Red Team though!





Using the Field and Resources Guide

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

CTF Field Guide – Field Guide by Trails of Bits

If you’re going to make a living in defense, you have to think like the offense.

So, learn to win at Capture The Flag (CTF). These competitions distill major disciplines of professional computer security work into short, objectively measurable exercises. The focus areas that CTF competitions tend to measure are vulnerability discovery, exploit creation, toolkit creation, and operational tradecraft.

Whether you want to succeed at CTF, or as a computer security professional, you’ll need to become an expert in at least one of these disciplines. Ideally in all of them.

That’s why we (Trails of Bits) wrote this book.

In these chapters, you’ll find everything you need to win your next CTF competition:

  • Walkthroughs and details on past CTF challenges
  • Guidance to help you design and create your own toolkits
  • Case studies of attacker behavior, both in the real world and in past CTF competitions

To make your lives easier, we’ve supplemented each lesson with the Internet’s best supporting reference materials. These come from some of the best minds in the computer security field. Looking ahead, we hope you’ll collaborate to keep this book evolving with the industry.

We’ve tried to structure this so you can learn as quickly as you want, but if you have questions along the way, contact us. We’ll direct your question to the most relevant expert. If there’s enough demand, we may even schedule an online lecture.

CTF Resources – Start Guide maintained by community

These docs are organized broadly along the lines by which CTF tasks are organized. Inside each folder in the topics section is a README like this one explaining the basics of the technology and what the tasks generally involve. Alongside these READMES are folders with more information regarding specific technologies and topics. Many of these articles link to the tools folder, where more detailed explanations can be found for tehcnologies used throughout CTF competitions.

The best way to use these docs is to participate in an actual CTF! Join a CTF or attempt some old tasks and try to solve them. Use the information in this repository to get you started with finding some flags. If you feel like there is insufficient information to help you solve a task, bring up an issue on this repository and someone can try to clarify it.




Tools Used for Solving CTF

Tools used for solving CTF challenges


Tools used for performing various kinds of attacks

  • Bettercap – Framework to perform MITM (Man in the Middle) attacks.
  • Layer 2 attacks – Attack various protocols on layer 2



Tools used for solving Crypto challenges

  • FeatherDuster – An automated, modular cryptanalysis tool
  • Hash Extender – A utility tool for performing hash length extension attacks
  • PkCrack – A tool for Breaking PkZip-encryption
  • RSACTFTool – A tool for recovering RSA private key with various attack
  • RSATool – Generate private key with knowledge of p and q
  • XORTool – A tool to analyze multi-byte xor cipher



Tools used for various kind of bruteforcing (passwords etc.)

  • Hashcat – Password Cracker
  • John The Jumbo – Community enhanced version of John the Ripper
  • John The Ripper – Password Cracker
  • Nozzlr – Nozzlr is a bruteforce framework, trully modular and script-friendly.
  • Ophcrack – Windows password cracker based on rainbow tables.
  • Patator – Patator is a multi-purpose brute-forcer, with a modular design.



Tools used for solving Exploits challenges

  • DLLInjector – Inject dlls in processes
  • libformatstr – Simplify format string exploitation.
  • Metasploit – Penetration testing software
  • one_gadget – A tool to find the one gadget 
  • Pwntools – CTF Framework for writing exploits
  • Qira – QEMU Interactive Runtime Analyser
  • ROP Gadget – Framework for ROP exploitation
  • V0lt – Security CTF Toolkit



Tools used for solving Forensics challenges

  • Aircrack-Ng – Crack 802.11 WEP and WPA-PSK keys

    • apt-get install aircrack-ng
  • Audacity – Analyze sound files (mp3, m4a, whatever)

    • apt-get install audacity
  • Bkhive and Samdump2 – Dump SYSTEM and SAM files

    • apt-get install samdump2 bkhive
  • CFF Explorer – PE Editor
  • Creddump – Dump windows credentials
  • DVCS Ripper – Rips web accessible (distributed) version control systems
  • Exif Tool – Read, write and edit file metadata
  • Extundelete – Used for recovering lost data from mountable images
  • Fibratus – Tool for exploration and tracing of the Windows kernel
  • Foremost – Extract particular kind of files using headers

    • apt-get install foremost
  • Fsck.ext4 – Used to fix corrupt filesystems
  • Malzilla – Malware hunting tool
  • NetworkMiner – Network Forensic Analysis Tool
  • PDF Streams Inflater – Find and extract zlib files compressed in PDF files
  • ResourcesExtract – Extract various filetypes from exes
  • Shellbags – Investigate NT_USER.dat files
  • UsbForensics – Contains many tools for usb forensics
  • Volatility – To investigate memory dumps

Registry Viewers



Tools used for solving Networking challenges

  • Bro – An open-source network security monitor.
  • Masscan – Mass IP port scanner, TCP port scanner.
  • Monit – A linux tool to check a host on the network (and other non-network activities).
  • Nipe – Nipe is a script to make Tor Network your default gateway.
  • Nmap – An open source utility for network discovery and security auditing.
  • Wireshark – Analyze the network dumps.

    • apt-get install wireshark
  • Zmap – An open-source network scanner.



Tools used for solving Reversing challenges

  • Androguard – Reverse engineer Android applications
  • Angr – platform-agnostic binary analysis framework
  • Apk2Gold – Yet another Android decompiler
  • ApkTool – Android Decompiler
  • Barf – Binary Analysis and Reverse engineering Framework
  • Binary Ninja – Binary analysis framework
  • BinUtils – Collection of binary tools
  • BinWalk – Analyze, reverse engineer, and extract firmware images.
  • Boomerang – Decompile x86 binaries to C
  • ctf_import – run basic functions from stripped binaries cross platform
  • Frida – Dynamic Code Injection
  • GDB – The GNU project debugger
  • GEF – GDB plugin
  • Ghidra – Open Source suite of reverse engineering tools. Similar to IDA Pro.
  • Hopper – Reverse engineering tool (disassembler) for OSX and Linux
  • IDA Pro – Most used Reversing software
  • Jadx – Decompile Android files
  • Java Decompilers – An online decompiler for Java and Android APKs
  • Krakatau – Java decompiler and disassembler
  • Objection – Runtime Mobile Exploration
  • PEDA – GDB plugin (only python2.7)
  • Pin A dynamic binary instrumentaion tool by Intel
  • Plasma – An interactive disassembler for x86/ARM/MIPS which can generate indented pseudo-code with colored syntax.
  • Pwndbg – A GDB plugin that provides a suite of utilities to hack around GDB easily.
  • radare2 – A portable reversing framework
  • Triton – Dynamic Binary Analysis (DBA) framework
  • Uncompyle – Decompile Python 2.7 binaries (.pyc)
  • WinDbg – Windows debugger distributed by Microsoft
  • Xocopy – Program that can copy executables with execute, but no read permission
  • Z3 – a theorem prover from Microsoft Research

JavaScript Deobfuscators

  • Detox – A Javascript malware analysis tool
  • Revelo – Analyze obfuscated Javascript code

SWF Analyzers

  • RABCDAsm – Collection of utilities including an ActionScript 3 assembler/disassembler.
  • Swftools – Collection of utilities to work with SWF files
  • Xxxswf – A Python script for analyzing Flash files.



Various kind of useful services available around the internet

  • CSWSH – Cross-Site WebSocket Hijacking Tester
  • Request Bin – Lets you inspect http requests to a particular url



Tools used for solving Steganography challenges

  • Convert – Convert images b/w formats and apply filters
  • Exif – Shows EXIF information in JPEG files
  • Exiftool – Read and write meta information in files
  • Exiv2 – Image metadata manipulation tool
  • ImageMagick – Tool for manipulating images
  • Outguess – Universal steganographic tool
  • Pngtools – For various analysis related to PNGs

    • apt-get install pngtools
  • SmartDeblur – Used to deblur and fix defocused images
  • Steganabara – Tool for stegano analysis written in Java
  • Stegbreak – Launches brute-force dictionary attacks on JPG image
  • StegCracker – Steganography brute-force utility to uncover hidden data inside files
  • stegextract – Detect hidden files and text in images
  • Steghide – Hide data in various kind of images
  • Stegsolve – Apply various steganography techniques to images
  • Zsteg – PNG/BMP analysis



Tools used for solving Web challenges

  • BurpSuite – A graphical tool to testing website security.
  • Commix – Automated All-in-One OS Command Injection and Exploitation Tool.
  • Hackbar – Firefox addon for easy web exploitation
  • OWASP ZAP – Intercepting proxy to replay, debug, and fuzz HTTP requests and responses
  • Postman – Add on for chrome for debugging network requests
  • Raccoon – A high performance offensive security tool for reconnaissance and vulnerability scanning
  • SQLMap – Automatic SQL injection and database takeover tooli
  • W3af – Web Application Attack and Audit Framework.
  • XSSer – Automated XSS testor

Latest Tools Released

Visit our Tools directory or home page on all the latest tools released in the hacking community.
Sites with daily updated hacking tools

Starter Packs

Collections of installer scripts, useful tools

  • CTF Tools – Collection of setup scripts to install various security research tools.
  • LazyKali – A 2016 refresh of LazyKali which simplifies install of tools and configuration.
  • Seclists – Pentesters Companion
  • PayloadAllTheThings – A list of useful payloads and bypass for Web Application Security and Pentest/CTF
  • Awesome-Pentest – A collection of awesome penetration testing resources supported by netsparker
  • Exploit Pack – The offensive side of the Fence

Operating Systems

Penetration testing and security lab Operating Systems

Malware analysts and reverse-engineering



Various Wikis available for learning about CTFs


Online CTF Platforms & Wargames

Always online CTFs

  • Backdoor – Security Platform by SDSLabs.
  • Crackmes – Reverse Engineering Challenges
  • Ctfs.me – CTF All the time
  • Exploit Exercises – Variety of VMs to learn variety of computer security issues.
  • Gracker – Binary challenges having a slow learning curve, and write-ups for each level.
  • Hack The Box – Weekly CTFs for all types of security enthusiasts.
  • Hack This Site – Training ground for hackers.
  • Hacking-Lab – Ethical hacking, computer network and security challenge platform.
  • Hone Your Ninja Skills – Web challenges starting from basic ones.
  • IO – Wargame for binary challenges.
  • Microcorruption – Embedded security CTF
  • Over The Wire – Wargame maintained by OvertheWire Community
  • Pwnable.kr – Pwn Game
  • Pwnable.tw – Binary wargame
  • Pwnable.xyz – Binary Exploitation Wargame
  • Reversin.kr – Reversing challenge
  • Ringzer0Team – Ringzer0 Team Online CTF
  • Root-Me – Hacking and Information Security learning platform.
  • ROP Wargames – ROP Wargames
  • SmashTheStack – A variety of wargames maintained by the SmashTheStack Community.
  • VulnHub – VM-based for practical in digital security, computer application & network administration.
  • W3Challs – A penetration testing training platform, which offers various computer challenges, in various categories.
  • WebHacking – Hacking challenges for web.
  • WeChall – Always online challenge site.
  • WTHack OnlineCTF – CTF Practice platform for every level of cyber security enthusiasts.



CTF Writeups

Collections of CTF write-ups

Creating your own CTF machine

Tools used for creating CTF challenges



Tools used for creating Forensics challenges



Projects that can be used to host a CTF

  • CTFd – Platform to host jeopardy style CTFs from ISISLab, NYU Tandon
  • FBCTF – Platform to host Capture the Flag competitions from Facebook
  • HackTheArch – CTF scoring platform
  • Mellivora – A CTF engine written in PHP
  • NightShade – A simple security CTF framework
  • OpenCTF – CTF in a box. Minimal setup required
  • PicoCTF Platform 2 – A genericized version of picoCTF 2014 that can be easily adapted to host CTF or programming competitions.
  • PyChallFactory – Small framework to create/manage/package jeopardy CTF challenges
  • RootTheBox – A Game of Hackers (CTF Scoreboard & Game Manager)
  • Scorebot – Platform for CTFs by Legitbs (Defcon)
  • SecGen – Security Scenario Generator. Creates randomly vulnerable virtual machines



Tools used to create stego challenges


  • Convert – Convert images b/w formats and apply filters
  • Exif – Shows EXIF information in JPEG files
  • Exiftool – Read and write meta information in files
  • Exiv2 – Image metadata manipulation tool
  • ImageMagick – Tool for manipulating images
  • Outguess – Universal steganographic tool
  • Pngtools – For various analysis related to PNGs

    • apt-get install pngtools
  • SmartDeblur – Used to deblur and fix defocused images
  • Steganabara – Tool for stegano analysis written in Java
  • Stegbreak – Launches brute-force dictionary attacks on JPG image
  • StegCracker – Steganography brute-force utility to uncover hidden data inside files
  • stegextract – Detect hidden files and text in images
  • Steghide – Hide data in various kind of images
  • Stegsolve – Apply various steganography techniques to images
  • Zsteg – PNG/BMP analysis



Tools used for creating Web challenges

JavaScript Obfustcators

Click to comment

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

To Top

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This