How to Back Up Your Mac Drive If You Can't Boot It or Load macOS

If you ever need to make an emergency backup of your hard-drive, because your Mac isn't booting up or loading for example, this guide is for you. Just make sure that you've followed our steps to try and fix your non-loading Mac here first. Taking a backup and then wiping your drive should only be a last resort. That said, one advantage is, if you complete the process successfully, you won't have to take your Mac to a service center, saving you time and money.

Let's see what you can do in case your Mac's drive is damaged and you need to copy all your files and data.

Get an External Drive

To carry out the backup you will either be creating an image of the drive, or doing a manual copy via the command line. For both options you will need an external drive. The external drive should at least be as big as the one you are trying to save from. For example, if your Mac has 256GB of storage, you should have an external drive which is 256GB or more.

Best External Drives Options

If you don't own an external hard drive and are wondering which one to get, we have researched the three best options for you to back up your damaged Mac drive.

Seagate External Hard Drive

Starting well under $100, this Seagate External Hard Drive has storage options of up to 5TB - plenty to back up any Mac drive! With the considerable storage space also comes portability and the drive is very light weight. You can even use this hard drive to make backups in the future (something that we highly recommend - search for "Time Machine on your Mac) for you to have peace of mind that your data is safe. It also comes with a 1-year limited warranty. This drive is MacInfo recommended!

WD My Passport Portable

They say when you use Western Digital once, no other brand is good enough. Usually priced the cheapest of all the options here, Western Digital's Portable Passport External Hard Drive has storage options of up to 5TB, just like the Seagate above. It is designed to work seamlessly with Windows or Mac computers, all you have to do is plug and play. As there is no setup process, this is an ideal drive for you to create a backup on. You can also password protect the drive. We do note, however, that the build quality of the drive can feel a little cheap - it is made of plastic, which sometimes gets slippery and is a big fingerprint magnet.

Samsung T5 Portable SSD

Samsung manages to become a formidable competitor in every market it enters and the portable hard-drive space is no exception. Slightly more expensive than our other recommendations, the Samsung T5 Portable SSD has storage options of up to 2TB. Because it is an SSD, a newer technology, it provides five times more speed than traditional HDD drives. It also uses a USB-C to USB-C connection, making connecting to newer Macs a breeze. With this, you will have your backup created in no time! It also comes with a 3-year warranty. However, some users have reported it slowing down after a few physical drops. So if you are someone who drops their tech gadgets often, this might not be a good option for you. We don't recommend dropping any hard-drive, in any event, ever either!

How to Back Up Your Damaged Mac Hard-Drive

Great, now that you have an external drive, let's get to making a back up of your damaged Mac drive! There are two ways to go about it. We prefer you to try the Automatic Backup Option first, and if it works for you, perfect! If it does not, you can try the Manual Backup option.

Automatic Backup Option

  1. Boot your Mac in recovery mode by pressing and holding Command + R on startup, wait until the loading progress bar appears.
  2. Look for the option 'Disk Utility' and launch it.
  3. From the menu bar, select File > New Image > Image from "Macintosh HD." Your Mac drive might not be named 'Macintosh', just look for what you named your drive.
  4. Choose your external drive and start the process.
  5. If it is successful, you'll create a DMG file of your old drive on the external drive.

However, if the drive is really damaged, you will have to copy your files manually. Here's how you do it.

Manual Backup Option

  1. Connect the external drive you want to use as a destination for your files.
  2. Restart your Mac.
  3. Launch Recovery mode by holding Command + R on startup.
  4. Choose 'Terminal'.
  5. Use the "cp -r" command to copy your files to the external drive. For example:
    cp -r -v /Volumes/Macintosh\ HD/Users/[username]/Documents /Volumes/Backup/

How Manual Backup Works

'cp' is the copy command, '-v' means verbose and will display on the screen what is being copied, and '-r' runs this command recursively. That means it will copy all directories within the directory you specify, then the directories within them, and so on. The first path is where the files you want to copy are. The backslash (\) in the pathname, which you use to specify locations have spaces in their name. The second path is the location of your external drive, which will always be in /Volumes/ with whatever label you've given it.

The problem with this option is that you will need to remember exactly where the files are stored for you to copy them. You will also need to hope the files are not stored on the part of the drive, which is damaged. One safe bet is to just copy everything under the 'Documents', 'Desktop', 'Downloads' and 'Pictures' folders in your home folder. Note that you might have more files elsewhere though, and you can always use the 'ls' command to view the directory contents in the shell prompt.


You will need an external drive to create a backup of your damaged drive. We recommend either the Seagate External Hard Drive, WD My Passport Portable Drive, or Samsung T5 Portable SSD. Once you have the drive connected to your Mac, you should first try the Automatic Backup Option. If it does not work for you, we suggest you go with the Manual Backup (Shell) Option.

We hope by now you have been successful at backing up your drive. If yes, you can now move on to fixing and reinstalling macOS to your Mac. If this article was useful, please let us know in the comments!

Muaz Ashrafi

Hi! I am Muaz, a Mass Communication major. I like to think I am a free urban spirit. I write blogs with a focus on tech and gadgets. When I'm not writing, you can find me with my headphones on, relaxing to some good house EDM music. I'm also a hobbyist photographer, you can find me on Instagram @mzwithacamera.

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  1. I’m so glad I found this, I thought all of my files were doomed. The automatic backup didn’t work for whatever reason but the manual backup did. Now that I have the backup, I need to figure out what to do now. I think I’ll need a new hard drive for the OS but I have no idea how to do that either. Any tips?