What Data Structure Would You Use to Perform a Depth First Search?


Larry Thompson

In computer science, a depth-first search (DFS) is an algorithm used to traverse or search through a graph or tree. It starts at a specific node called the root and explores as far as possible along each branch before backtracking.

Choosing the Right Data Structure

When performing a depth-first search, it’s important to use the appropriate data structure to efficiently keep track of visited nodes and explore the graph or tree.


The most common data structure used for DFS is a stack. A stack follows the Last-In-First-Out (LIFO) principle, meaning that the last element added is the first one to be removed. In the context of DFS, the stack stores nodes that are yet to be explored.

To implement DFS using a stack, we start by pushing the root node onto the stack. Then, while the stack is not empty, we:

  • Pop a node from the top of the stack.
  • If it has not been visited:
    • Mark it as visited.
    • Process it (e.g., print its value).
    • Add its unvisited neighbors to the top of the stack.

Recursive Function Calls

In addition to using a stack explicitly, you can also perform DFS using recursive function calls. This approach eliminates the need for an explicit stack data structure. Instead, each recursive call acts as an implicit stack frame.

A recursive implementation of DFS involves defining a function that takes in a node as input and performs three main steps:

  • Mark the current node as visited.
  • Process the current node (e.
  • Recursively call the function on each unvisited neighbor of the current node.

This recursive approach allows for a more concise and elegant implementation of DFS. However, it may not be suitable for very large graphs or trees due to potential stack overflow issues.


In conclusion, when performing a depth-first search, choosing the right data structure is crucial for efficient traversal and exploration. The stack data structure is commonly used to keep track of unvisited nodes and explore a graph or tree in a depth-first manner.

Alternatively, recursive function calls can also be used to implement DFS implicitly using the call stack. Both approaches have their advantages and considerations, so it’s important to choose the one that best fits your specific use case.

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