How To Back Up Your Mac That Won’t Boot

This article explains how to back up hard drive data on your Mac when OS X won’t boot. You may be having start up issues with your Mac. If your Mac won’t turn on, recovering your files can be challenging, but it is not impossible.

Your data is valuable, thus backups are important. You should back your files regularly, so you do not lose your files.

You may fix most of startup related issues. Before doing anything, however, you may want to backup your files and documents.

What you can do is to get a system image, which includes copies of your programs, system settings, and files, using OS X’s Disk Utility to perform the backup. This method will backup to an external hard drive.

Please note that there’s no guarantee your data is recoverable. This method may not work for you.

Here is how to back up your Mac:

We are using OS X El Capitan. Earlier OS X versions have slightly different interface. 

1-Connect your external hard drive to your Mac (yes you need an external hard disk). Make sure this drive has enough spare disk space to store your backup files.

2-Boot your Mac into Recovery Mode. Follow the steps to do this:

  • Shut down your Mac
  • Restart your Mac and hold down the Command and R keys immediately after you hear the startup chime.  Keep holding them until you see the Apple logo.
  • Wait until you see the OS X Utilities windows
  • Select Disk Utility and click Continue

Disk Utility

  • Select the Disk you want to back up, such as Macintosh HD

Macintosh HD

  • Select File > New Image > Image from “Macintosh HD or Your Drive”

system image of Mac

  • You may change its name, if you want to

back up disk utility

  • Select your external drive
  • Choose “compressed”
  • Select Save
  • Your backup process will start. It may take some time.

3- You will notified you when the process is done.

If you get a new Mac, and want to restore your back up, you may use Migration Assistant transfer the data back to your Mac.

Making backups of your files is important. Before losing anything, back up now. You may want to use the OS X Time Machine feature to easily create back up files. That is the easiest way to back up your Mac. You may also use iCloud to back up some of your files like musics, photos etc.

Dr. Serhat Kurt worked as a Senior Technology Director. He holds a doctoral degree (or doctorate) from the University of Illinois at Urbana / Champaign and a master’s degree from Purdue University. Here is his LinkedIn profile.

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98 thoughts on “How To Back Up Your Mac That Won’t Boot”

  1. How do I know that it backed up successfully? The progress bar is no longer on the screen but it didn’t give me any messages one way or the other.

  2. My 2012 MacMini stops partway through booting up. It won’t boot into the Recovery mode either. I was able to transfer files, (hope I got all I want) so now it’s time to erase and reinstall the system. I would like to put Lion on it. What is the chance that it still won’t boot? And how do I put Lion on it? It did come with Lion on it and had El Capitan when it died. With Lion, my old scanner will work. Of course with the Mac minis each will need a display.

    Meanwhile I bought and have been using a slightly newer Mac mini. Thank goodness for Time Machine.

  3. I’ve managed to create images from folders and saved them to an external hard drive. When I transfer it to another mac and try to mount those dmg files, it says there is an error mounting. Has anyone encountered this issue and resolved it? Many thanks.

  4. I’m not sure if this questions has been asked, but what if “Macintosh HD” is grayed out? I can click on it and go to File and New Image but Image from “Macintosh HD” is grayed out and I cannot click on it. I can click on Blank Image… and Image from Folder. Is there anything that can be done to back up my Mac from here? I was in the process of trying to back it up to my external hard drive when it froze and shut down. I’m desperate to retrieve my photos.

    • I found this info on another thread and it worked for me to get past the “greyed” out part:
      “Go to the “View” menu and “Show all devices”. Does that fix the problem?
      Modern versions of macOS can have very complex file system arrangements. The new disk utility tries to hide that by just showing volumes by default.”


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