Although Nix supposedly makes pinning things easy, it really does not seem so from a perspective of looking at other software using pinning: it is not possible to simply write package = "^5.0.1" in some file somewhere and get one package pinned at a specific version. Though this is frustrating, there is a reason for this, and it primarily speaks to how nixpkgs is a Linux distribution and how Nix is unlike a standard language package manager.

This post will go through the ways to pin a package to some older version and why one would use each method.

Simply add an older version of nixpkgs

Software regressed? No patches in master to fix it? Try 30-40 different versions of nixpkgs. An easy weeknight bug fix. You will certainly not regret pinning 30-40 versions of nixpkgs.

Unlike most systems, it is fine to mix versions of nixpkgs, although it will likely go wrong if, e.g. libraries are intermingled between versions (in particular, it is inadvisable to replace some program with a version from a different nixpkgs from within an overlay for this reason). But, if one package is all that is necessary, one can in fact simply import another version of nixpkgs.

This works because binaries from multiple versions of nixpkgs can coexist on a computer and simply work. However, it can go wrong if they are loading libraries at runtime, especially if the glibc version changes, especially if LD_LIBRARY_PATH is involved. That failure mode is, however, rather loud and obvious if it happens.

For example:

pkgs1Src = builtins.fetchTarball {
url = "";
sha256 = "sha256-u1dfs0ASQIEr1icTVrsKwg2xToIpn7ZXxW3RHfHxshg=";
name = "source";
pkgs2Src = fetchTarball {
url = "";
sha256 = "sha256-iMUFArF0WCatKK6RzfUJknjem0H9m4KgorO/p3Dopkk=";
name = "source";
pkgs1 = import pkgs1Src { };
pkgs2 = import pkgs2Src { };
env = pkgs1.buildEnv {
name = "env";
paths = [ pkgs1.vim pkgs2.hello ];
vim1 = pkgs1.vim;
vim2 = pkgs2.vim;

Here we have an environment which is being built out of packages from two different versions of nixpkgs, so that result/bin/hello is from pkgs2 and result/bin/vim is from pkgs1. This can equivalently be done for environment.systemPackages or similar such things: to get another version of nixpkgs into a NixOS configuration, one can:

 » nix-build -A env /tmp/meow.nix

~ » ./result/bin/hello --version | head -n1
hello (GNU Hello) 2.12.1

 » ./result/bin/vim --version | head -n3
VIM - Vi IMproved 9.0 (2022 Jun 28, compiled Jan 01 1980 00:00:00)
Included patches: 1-2116
Compiled by nixbld

 » nix eval -f /tmp/meow.nix vim1.version

 » nix eval -f /tmp/meow.nix vim2.version
Very easy
None, but will bring in another copy of nixpkgs and any dependencies (and transitive dependencies).

Vendor the package

Another way to pin one package is to vendor the package definition of the relevant version. The easiest way to do this is to find the version of nixpkgs with the desired package version and then copy the package.nix or default.nix or such into your own project, and then call it with callPackage.

You can find it with something like:

 » nix eval --raw -f '<nixpkgs>' hello.meta.position

Or, equivalently, with nix repl -f '<nixpkgs>', :e hello or to do the same as above, hello.meta.position.

Then, vendor that file into your configurations repository.

Once it is vendored, it can be used either from an overlay:

final: prev: {
hello = final.callPackage ./hello-vendored.nix { };

or directly in your use site:

{ pkgs, ... }: {
environment.systemPackages = [
(pkgs.callPackage ./vendored-hello.nix { })
Slight effort
For the overlay use case, this will build the overridden package and anything depending on it. For the direct at use site case, this will just rebuild the package, and anything depending on it will get the version in upstream nixpkgs.

Patch the package with overrides

nixpkgs offers several separate methods to "override" things that mean different things. In short:

Here are some examples:

Build an openttd with a different upstream source by putting this in openttd-jgrpp.nix:

{ openttd, fetchFromGitHub }:
openttd.overrideAttrs (old: {
src = fetchFromGitHub {
owner = "jgrennison";
repo = "openttd-patches";
rev = "jgrpp-0.57.1";
sha256 = "sha256-mQy+QdhEXoM9wIWvSkMgRVBXJO1ugXWS3lduccez1PQ=";

then pkgs.callPackage ./openttd-jgrpp.nix { }.

For instance, the following (rather silly) command will build such a file:

 » nix build -L --impure --expr 'with import <nixpkgs> {}; callPackage ./openttd-jgrpp.nix {}'


Most notably, overrideAttrs doesn't work on several significant language ecosystems including Rust and Go, since one almost always needs to override the arguments of buildRustPackage or buildGoPackage when replacing something. For these, either one can do crimes to introduce an overrideRust function (see below), or one can cry briefly and then vendor the package. The latter is easier.

pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { };
# Give the package a fake buildRustPackage from callPackage that modifies the
# arguments through a function.
overrideRust = f: drv: drv.override (oldArgs:
let rustPlatform = oldArgs.rustPlatform or pkgs.rustPlatform;
in oldArgs // {
rustPlatform = rustPlatform // {
buildRustPackage = args: rustPlatform.buildRustPackage (f args);
# Take some arguments to buildRustPackage and make new ones. In this case,
# override the version and the hash
evil = oldArgs: oldArgs // {
src = oldArgs.src.override {
rev = "v0.20.9";
sha256 = "sha256-NxWqpMNwu5Ajffw1E2q9KS4TgkCH6M+ctFyi9Jp0tqQ=";
version = "master";
# FIXME: if you are actually doing this put a real hash here
cargoSha256 = pkgs.lib.fakeHash;
x = overrideRust evil pkgs.tree-sitter;

Then: nix build -L -f evil.nix x

Highly variable, sometimes trivial, sometimes nearly impossible, depending on architectural flaws of nixpkgs.
For the overlay use case of actually using this overridden package, this will build the overridden package and anything depending on it. For the direct at use site case, this will just rebuild the package, and anything depending on it will get the version in upstream nixpkgs.

Patch a NixOS module

If one wants to replace a NixOS module, say, by getting it from a later version of nixpkgs, see Replacing Modules in the NixOS manual.

Patch the base system without a world rebuild

It's possible to replace an entire store path with another inside a NixOS system without rebuilding the world (but wasting some space (by duplicating things for the rewritten version) and being somewhat evil/potentially unsound since it is just a text replacement of the hashes). This can be achieved with the NixOS option system.replaceRuntimeDependencies.

Why do we need all of this?

The primary reason that Nix doesn't allow trivially overriding packages with a different version is that it is a generalized build system building software that has non-uniform expectations of how to be built. One can indeed see that the "replace one version with some other in some file" idea is almost reality in languages that use mkDerivation directly, though one might have to tweak other build properties sometimes. Architectural problems in nixpkgs prevent this working for several ecosystems, though.

Another sort of issue is that nixpkgs tries to provide a mostly globally coherent set of software versions, where, like most Linux distributions, there is generally one blessed version of a library with some exceptions. This is, in fact, mandatory to be able to have any cache hits as a hermetic build system: if everyone was building slightly different versions of libraries, all downstream packages will have different hashes and thus miss the cache.

So, in a way, a software distribution based on Nix cannot have separate locking for every package and simultaneously have functional caches: the moment that everything is not built together, caches will miss.