Dangling Pointer in C

Dangling pointers in C are pointers that continue to point to a memory location after the memory it references has been deallocated or released. Accessing or dereferencing a dangling pointer can lead to undefined behavior and potentially serious bugs in your program.

Dangling pointers can cause a number of problems, including:

  1. Memory corruption: If a dangling pointer is dereferenced, the program may read or write to invalid memory locations, which can cause the program to crash or produce unexpected results.
  2. Security vulnerabilities: Dangling pointers can be exploited by attackers to gain unauthorized access to a program's memory or to execute arbitrary code.

Here's a detailed explanation with examples:

Dangling pointers

Example - 1
#include <stdio.h> int main() { int *ptr = (int *)malloc(sizeof(int)); // Allocate memory *ptr = 42; // Store a value free(ptr); // Deallocate memory printf("Value: %d\n", *ptr); // Dangling pointer access return 0; } //Output: Value: 0

In this example, we allocate memory for an integer using malloc and store a value in it. Afterward, we free the memory using free. However, we attempt to print the value pointed to by ptr after it has been freed. This is an example of a dangling pointer. Accessing *ptr after freeing the memory results in undefined behavior, which can lead to program crashes or incorrect results.

Example - 2
#include <stdio.h> int *getDanglingPointer() { int x = 10; int *ptr = &x; return ptr; // Returning a pointer to a local variable } int main() { int *danglingPtr = getDanglingPointer(); printf("Value: %d\n", *danglingPtr); // Dangling pointer access return 0; } //Output:Value: 10

In this example, getDanglingPointer returns a pointer to a local variable x, which is destroyed when the function exits. When we attempt to access the value pointed to by danglingPtr in the main function, we are dealing with a dangling pointer because it points to memory that is no longer valid.

How to avoid dangling pointers?

  1. Always check the return value of the malloc() function to make sure that the memory allocation was successful. If the memory allocation fails, the malloc() function will return a NULL pointer. Do not dereference a NULL pointer.
  2. Always free any memory that you allocate using the malloc() function. Do not free memory that was not allocated using the malloc() function.

Be careful when using pointers to dynamically allocated arrays. When you resize a dynamically allocated array, the old array will be freed and a new array will be allocated. If you continue to use the old array pointer after the array has been resized, you will be using a dangling pointer.


Dangling pointers in C are pointers that still reference a memory location after the memory they point to has been deallocated or has gone out of scope. Accessing or dereferencing these pointers can lead to undefined behavior and should be carefully managed to avoid memory-related bugs and crashes in C programs. Using tools like Valgrind (as mentioned in a previous response) can help identify dangling pointer issues during program execution.