CTF platforms & practice

Written by:
Vandana Verma Sehgal
Vandana Verma Sehgal
0 mins read

Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions are a popular way for cybersecurity enthusiasts, students, and professionals to test and expand their skills in a gamified environment. Over the years, several platforms have emerged that offer CTF challenges and practice environments. 

Getting started with CTF platforms

1. Research

Before you dive in, you need to understand what you're getting into. Read up on the different types of CTFs (Jeopardy-style, Attack-Defend, King of the Hill, etc.) to determine which interests you the most.

2. Select a platform

From the list provided or from your own research, select a platform that matches your current skill level. If you're a beginner, platforms like PicoCTF, TryHackMe, or OverTheWire (Bandit series) might be more suitable.

3. Sign up

Most platforms will require you to create an account. For some platforms like Hack The Box, you even have to "hack" your way in to create an account, serving as an initial challenge.

4. Setup your environment

Depending on the platform and the challenges, you might need:

  • Virtual Machine: Some challenges may require downloading and running VMs. Tools like VirtualBox or VMware Workstation/Fusion can be used.

  • Penetration Testing OS: Distributions like Kali Linux or Parrot Security come with a suite of tools useful for CTFs.

  • VPN: Some platforms (like Hack The Box) require you to connect to their VPN to access challenges.

5. Pick a challenge and start

Start with easier challenges and gradually work your way up. Each platform usually categorizes their challenges based on difficulty and type (web, crypto, binary, etc.).

6. Document your findings

Keep notes on the challenges. This not only helps you remember and understand your thought process but can also serve as a record of your achievements.

7. Community engagement

Engage with the community:

  • Forums/Discords: Most platforms have forums or Discord servers where users discuss challenges (without spoilers) and share learning resources.

  • Write-ups: After solving a challenge, reading write-ups from others can offer new perspectives and techniques you might have missed. Once you're confident, consider writing your own!

  • Team up: Many CTFs can be played in teams. Teaming up can help distribute the workload, and it’s an excellent opportunity to learn from others.

8. Continuous learning

CTFs will often introduce you to concepts or tools you're unfamiliar with. Take the time to study these areas outside of the CTF environment. Resources like books, online courses, and blogs can help.

9. Participate in live CTFs

CTFtime.org is a great resource to keep track of upcoming CTF competitions. Participating in live events is a different experience than static challenges, and you can often earn swag, prizes, or even job offers!

10. Stay ethical

Always remember to act ethically. CTF platforms provide legal environments to test and hone your skills. Never use what you learn to engage in illegal or unethical activities.

As you continue to practice and participate, you'll find yourself improving and gaining confidence. CTFs can be incredibly rewarding both in terms of skill development and personal satisfaction.

Top CTF platforms

  • CTFtime: Not a platform in itself, but a great resource to keep track of upcoming CTFs and see team rankings.

  • Hack The Box (HTB): A platform that offers various penetration testing labs and challenges ranging from beginner to advanced. Users have to 'hack' their way in just to get an account!

  • TryHackMe: Offers learning paths and challenges across a range of cybersecurity topics and difficulty levels. It's user-friendly for beginners too.

  • Root Me: A platform that offers various hacking challenges and virtual environments to practice various penetration testing skills.

  • PicoCTF: Hosted by Carnegie Mellon University, it's especially beginner-friendly with a storyline and progressively harder challenges.

  • OverTheWire: It’s best known for its beginner-friendly 'Bandit' series, but also offers more advanced war games.

  • Hack This Site: An older platform but still has a variety of challenges, ranging from basic to realistic missions.

  • VulnHub: Offers VMs (Virtual Machines) to download and hack at your own pace. It's great for practicing offline and setting up your own lab.

  • RingZer0 Team Online CTF: Features a variety of challenges, from codebreaking to shellcoding.

  • CyberSecLabs: A platform for beginners to intermediate users to practice their penetration testing skills by providing a variety of labs.

  • PentesterLab: Offers hands-on labs and exercises to learn web hacking, covering various vulnerabilities.

  • CTFLearn: Another beginner-friendly platform with a range of binary, web, and crypto challenges.

  • 365 Days of CTF: A platform offering a daily CTF challenge.

These platforms cater to a range of skill levels from beginner to advanced. It's a good idea to explore multiple platforms to find the challenges and learning environments that suit your preferences and skills.


If you're new to CTFs, it's a good idea to start with the beginner-friendly platforms and progressively move on to more challenging platforms as you gain more skills and confidence. Participating in CTFs is an excellent way to learn, meet like-minded individuals, and even showcase your skills to potential employers in the cybersecurity domain.

From dynamic online environments like Hack The Box, which require you to hack your way in just for registration, to more structured, education-focused platforms like TryHackMe, the range is vast. For those who prefer offline challenges, platforms like VulnHub allow you to set up and tackle challenges at your own pace.

Beyond skill-building, these platforms foster community engagement. By teaming up with others, discussing challenges, and reading or crafting write-ups, participants can both teach and learn, exponentially increasing the value gained from these platforms.

CTFs not only elevate individual skills but also enhance the cybersecurity community as a whole. The challenges replicate real-world scenarios, ensuring that as participants hone their skills, they're better equipped to tackle actual cyber threats.

CTF platforms are invaluable in the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity. They provide a legal, constructive, and engaging environment for enthusiasts to challenge themselves, learn, and contribute to the broader cybersecurity community. Whether you're seeking to learn, compete, or collaborate, there's a CTF platform out there for you.

Next in the series

CTF strategies & techniques

Capture the Flag (CTF) has become increasingly popular in the field of cybersecurity as a training ground for aspiring ethical hackers and cybersecurity professionals. It involves a series of challenges where participants must use their technical skills and knowledge to solve problems, find hidden flags, and gain points. CTF challenges cover a wide range of topics, including web application security, binary analysis, cryptography, and more.

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