How to useRef and forwardRef in React

What do I do when my component uses a ref internally but also needs to forward a ref from its parent? The short answer is merge the refs into a single ref function. If what that means is not immediatly obvious, you’re like me. Read on.

What is a ref?

Look at what get’s returned from useRef.

const ref = useRef()
console.log(ref)

/* prints */
{current: undefined}

This ref is an object with one property current that can be set to whatever you want.

What happens when I pass it to an HTML element?

<button ref={ref} />

For years I just thought this was magic, but today I grepped “ref” in my node_modules/react-dom folder and it’s not complicated. After react-dom creates the HTML button instance, it will attach the ref like so:

if (typeof ref === 'function') {
  	ref(instanceToUse)
  } else {
  	ref.current = instanceToUse
  }
}

The ref prop will only accept three things:

  1. a function
  2. a plain object with a single current property
  3. null

This means these two lines result in the same thing.

<button ref={ref} />
<button ref={(instance) => ref.current = instance} />

What about forwardRef?

When in doubt, console.log it out.

const MyButton = forwardRef(function(props, ref) {
  console.log(ref)
  ...
})

What gets printed depends on the ref value given to the component. If you create that MyButton component without passing it a ref, you’ll see null printed to the console.

<MyButton /> // with no ref

/* prints */
null;

Now let’s try it with a ref from useRef.

const ref = useRef()
<MyButton ref={ref} />

/* prints */
{current: undefined}

Ok, this is starting to make sense. Whatever you pass as the ref prop to the MyButton component will be the same as second argument in the forwardRef function.

<MyButton ref={ref} /> // this ref is the same as...
forwardRef(function(props, ref) {}) // ...this ref

The name “forwardRef” is starting to make a lot of sense. Let’s test this out by passing a function as the ref property.

const func = (node) => console.log("Hi")
<MyButton ref={func} />

/* prints */
'(node) => console.log("Hi")'
/* the string representation of the function */

Merging Two Refs

So to deliver on the promise of this blog’s title, here’s how we can have useRef and forwardRef in the same function component.

const MyButton = forwardRef(function(props, forwardedRef) {
  const localRef = useRef()

  return (
    <button
      ref={(instance) => {
        // first we set the local ref
        localRef.current = instance

        // then we handle the forwarded ref
        // it can be a function, an object, or null
        if (typeof forwardedRef === "function") {
          forwardedRef(instance)
        } else if (typeof forwardedRef === "object") {
          forwardedRef.current = instance
        }
      }}
    />
  );
});

This uses a function to properly set both the local and the forwarded refs.

At this point, you probably can’t help yourself from writing this mergeRefs function.

function mergeRefs(...refs) {
  return (instance) => {
    refs.forEach((ref) => {
      if (typeof ref === "function") {
        ref(instance)
      } else if (ref != null) {
        ref.current = instance
      }
    })
  }
}

To be used like this:

const MyButton = forwardRef(function(props, forwardedRef) {
  const localRef = useRef()

  return <button ref={mergeRefs(localRef, forwardedRef)} />
});

Turns out, Greg Bergé has created a utility that does just this called react-merge-refs. That mergeRefs function above is almost copied strait from his code. Thanks Greg.

So that’s how you do it.

Thanks for Reading

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