Which Data Structure Is Used in Backtracking Based Algorithms?


Larry Thompson

Backtracking is a powerful algorithmic technique that is used to solve problems by incrementally building a solution and then undoing the steps if they lead to an invalid or unsatisfactory outcome. It is particularly useful in situations where we need to explore all possible solutions or find an optimal solution among a large set of possibilities.

What is Backtracking?

Backtracking is a systematic way of searching through all possible configurations of a problem by incrementally building up a solution and checking if it satisfies the problem constraints at each step. If a solution violates any constraints, the algorithm backtracks to the previous step and tries a different path.

Data Structures Used in Backtracking

To efficiently implement backtracking algorithms, certain data structures are commonly used. These data structures help in storing and manipulating the problem state during the search process. Let’s explore some of these data structures:

1. Stack

A stack is a linear data structure that follows the Last-In-First-Out (LIFO) principle. In backtracking algorithms, a stack is often used to keep track of the current state or configuration of the solution being built. It allows us to easily backtrack to the previous state by popping elements off the stack.

2. Array/List

An array or list is another essential data structure used in backtracking algorithms. It helps in storing and accessing elements efficiently, especially when dealing with sequences or permutations. Arrays/lists can be used to represent partial solutions or keep track of visited nodes during exploration.

3. Graph/Tree

In many backtracking problems, we encounter scenarios where we need to explore multiple paths from each node. In such cases, representing the problem as a graph or tree can be beneficial. Graphs/trees allow us to visualize the problem and traverse through different paths easily, making backtracking more efficient.

4. Set

Sets are useful for maintaining a collection of elements without duplicates. In backtracking, sets can be used to store available choices or candidates at each step. They help in efficiently pruning the search space by eliminating duplicate or invalid choices.

Example: Backtracking with a Stack

Let’s consider an example to illustrate the use of a stack in backtracking algorithms. Suppose we want to find all possible permutations of a given set of numbers.

  • Create an empty stack.
  • Push the first number onto the stack and mark it as visited.
  • If the stack is full (contains all numbers), print the permutation and backtrack by popping the top element from the stack.
  • For each unvisited number, push it onto the stack, mark it as visited, and recursively repeat steps 3-4 until all numbers are visited.

This approach ensures that we explore all possible permutations while backtracking when necessary. The use of a stack allows us to keep track of the current state and easily undo steps if needed.


In conclusion, backtracking is a powerful algorithmic technique that relies on various data structures to efficiently explore all possible solutions or find an optimal solution. Stacks, arrays/lists, graphs/trees, and sets are commonly used data structures in backtracking-based algorithms. By understanding these data structures and their applications in backtracking, you can tackle complex problems more effectively.

Remember to choose the appropriate data structure based on the problem requirements and constraints. With practice and experience, you can master this technique and solve challenging problems efficiently!

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