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What Files Should You Backup On Your Windows PC?

Everybody always tells you to make sure that you are backing up your PC, but what does that really mean? And what files do you actually need to backup? Today we’ll walk you through the basics of backing up your PC, what you should back up, and why.

Of course, these rules won’t fit every scenario, so you’ll need to use a little common sense—think about what is most important to you on your PC, and make sure that you’ve figured out how to backup those files.

Note: this post was originally written last year, but since today is World Backup Day, we’re republishing it for everybody today.

Photo by Son of Groucho

The All-Important Rule of Backups

imageThe primary principle of backing up your data is that any important data should exist in two or more physical locations at once. You cannot create a backup and delete the original, or else it is no longer really a backup.

You might think this is obvious, but you’d be surprised how often I’ve been approached by readers that lost their data after their “backup” drive died.

What Should You Use for Backing Up Your PC?

image

There are lots of different applications that you can use to make backups of your files, and there’s even one built into Windows… It doesn’t matter which tool you use as long as it does a decent job of creating backups.

Local Backups
It’s important to create local backups to an external drive or another PC for speed of restoring files should something bad happen, and also because this is going to be the quickest way to create backups.

We’ve also got guides to show you how to use Backup and Restore in Windows, GFI Backup, Macrium Reflect, and even Simple Backup in Linux—but the tool isn’t that important—what you are backing up is.

Online Backups
There are a number of paid online backup services like Mozy, Carbonite, Spideroak, and Jungledisk, and there are also some file sync services like Dropbox and SugarSync that provide backup type of capability. These are all excellent secondary backup services, but probably shouldn’t replace a regular backup just because they will take a long time to restore.

Note: if you’re looking for a great way to keep a folder in sync between PCs and accessible from anywhere, Dropbox rocks. We love it. Otherwise, you should probably check out Mozy, since it has a unique ability to create local backups as well as online backups.

System Image Backups
Rather than simply backing up files, you can create a complete backup of your system that can be restored over top of your system. The only problem with creating these type of backups is that they require a real lot of drive space. The best bet is to create an image when your system is up and running and everything is installed, and then you can use it to more easily restore everything rather than reinstalling everything manually.

We’ve got guides to help you create a system image using the built-in tools in Windows 7 or Vista, how to restore from that system image, how to make a drive image using an Ubuntu Live CD, or even how to do it with a freeware application called DriveImageXML. If you’re looking for a paid solution that works really well, you can check out Acronis.

What Files Should You Backup?

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The most important files to backup are probably your documents, pictures, music, and other user files, but they are not the only files that you need to backup. Let’s walk through some of them.

  • Documents: You should backup your entire documents folder all the time. This should be a no-brainer.
  • Music: If you’ve paid lots of money for MP3 downloads, you’ll probably be sad to lose them. Make sure to include this folder. Note: if you’re an iTunes user, you should make sure to backup your iTunes folder, which is thankfully usually inside this directory.
  • Pictures & Videos: It’s really sad when I get emails from people saying their hard drive died and they lost all their pictures of their family. The photos might not have actually costed you anything, but you’ll probably be more sad about losing memories than paying for music downloads again.
  • Desktop Email: If you’re using Outlook or Windows Live Mail, make absolutely certain that you’ve backed up the files from these applications. Outlook stores all your email in a .PST file, and here’s how to find it.
  • Application Settings: If you look within the AppData folders, you’ll see directories for each and every application you’re running. These settings can often be restored from a backup so you don’t have to tweak everything again. Just head into C:\Users\Username\AppData\ to see the Local, Roaming, and LocalLow folders that contain many settings for your applications.
    image
  • Virtual Machines: If you use virtual machines for real work, you should probably create a backup of your virtual machines at some point. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend backing these up every single night, but you should at least consider some type of backup plan.
  • Bookmarks: Most browsers other than Internet Explorer actually make it difficult to backup your bookmarks using Windows Backup, but the much better option is to sync your bookmarks to the cloud. Naturally, we’ve got a full list of all the bookmark syncing services that you can use. If you’d rather use local backup, you can simply backup the application settings folder and restore that—this works especially well for Firefox in our experience.

Backup These Files More Easily
Instead of trying to find all those locations, backup your entire Users folder, which is at C:\Users\Username in Windows 7 or Vista, and C:\Documents and Settings\Username for Windows XP. This will include all of those files, unless you’ve stored them somewhere else.

Files You Should Not Bother Backing Up

sshot-2010-09-29-1-00-47-00

There’s simply no reason to backup these directories:

  • Windows: There’s almost never a reason to backup your Windows directory, as you’re going to have to reinstall the whole thing anyway, so this backup will likely do you no good.
  • Program Files: You’re going to have to reinstall your applications if your computer dies and you have to reinstall. Why bother backing up all these files?

It’s worth noting that if you create a system image backup, you won’t have to reinstall all of your applications, and backing up these folders would still be pointless.

When should you backup?

The best bet is to backup your files on a fairly regular basis–daily if possible. If you’re using an online backup solution, they are often configured to immediately start syncing any changed files when your PC is idle for a little while. This can be a great way to keep your files safe without having to wait for the next backup.


Hopefully these tips will help you backup your files and keep you protected. Be sure to check out our checklist guide for reinstalling Windows in the unfortunate event that you do need to start over from scratch.

Don’t forget the most important rule: any important data should exist in two or more physical locations at once.

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/31/11

Comments (37)

  1. Christian K.

    I agree that many of the files in the “Program Files” folder won’t be of use since you’ll need to reinstall them. But useful & even important files can reside there in the “Program Files” folder, like your configs/settings, or logs, or even databases for those programs.

    For example, Cobian backup stores it’s backup lists in C:\Program Files\Cobian Backup 9\DB. Or Rainmeter stores your installed skins & their settings to C:\Program Files\Rainmeter\Skins.

    It not easy for the laymen to differentiate. It requires an understanding of each of the programs you use.

  2. eMcE

    My backup is ghost + image of entire hdd – mbr, partitions and 2 systems.
    All at once.
    :)

    Ps. I have some problems with registration on “howtogeek”.
    After filling registration form and submitting, I’m redirected to blank white page.
    Can someone help with this?
    Thnx.

  3. Stephen - NYC

    Well, Christian K, you beat me to it. I will add to the list “Palm Desktop” software stores its backup and main data files in \Program Files\Palm\.

    For all readers, keep in mind that backing up to an online service (I use the Mozy Home Unlimited) is going to take a very, very, very long time for that initial backup to finish.
    And depending on when you schedule your backups (online or otherwise), be sure to check the log files. You may find an open file that didn’t get backed up. Depending on the app, the only solution might be to ensure that you close the application before the backup application starts (from my experience, the Netscape Navigator email & Outlook programs can run into the problem with Mozy). So, I try to ensure I close Netscape & Outlook (and Palm Desktop) before my nightly backups start at 7:30. And if I forgot, well, I just re-run the backup after I close them down. My differential backup generally takes less than 30 minutes.
    Remember the 6 P’s: Prior Planning Prevents P-Poor Performance.

  4. Mamta - San Diego

    The only one I would add is windows/fonts if you have collected new and different fonts. I have made the mistake of not backing this up in the past and regretted it!

  5. Mike Honeycutt

    For me, it is a complete backup of 15 gb every day.

    Over the years, I’ve lost too many files hidden in obscure folders that didn’t get backed up. Likewise, you can reinstall Windows and your apps but retweaking (a new word ;-) takes a lot of time. I can restore the entire hard drive within 30 minutes. Restoring individual files takes less than a minute.

    I use Ghost 15 and it runs in the background as I work.

  6. Mike

    I would like to see a systematic explanation of how to setup a system so that a user can do a staged recovery. I have seen bits and parts of various solutions, but nothing integrated. I would think starting with Windows would be a good place to start. As an example many writers have mentioned saving the registry. How would this fit into a proactive positioning of a windows system and when would it be brought into play to fix an “issue.” Windows also has a technique where users can make a recover disk; again why do this and when?

    I do the nuke and pave. I save my data and programs on disks and save images of my systems for that day that invariably happens when your system dies. Then I nuke and pave the OS and re-install. I would like to see a graduated system of responses with the tools laid out with the reasons each step would be brought into play. While my way always works it is a drastic, time consuming fix and I would like alternatives.

  7. Joey

    I understand the importance of backups, the how-to and programs to use for this purpose. The most important data I have to backup are movies from my web cam of all the kids and grand kids , movies from my digital camera of them and events, movies from my movie camera of reunions, etc, and last but not least all my pics of everyone and everything. This requires a tremendous amount of space. We are talking 60GB of movies and 35GB of pictures. Throw in 10GB of how-to’s and 50GB of music and you can see the problem. I’d like to backup all these on DVD’s as plain data and not images, but I have the problem of a program that will do this and prompt me for another DVD instead of telling me not enough space when I go over the capacity of the DVD. Haven’t found one yet for just plain data that will do that without messing up the backup. I’m tired of arranging directories for each DVD’s capacity and constantly getting the “not enough space”. Any suggestions????

  8. Terrig55

    Hey< I still don't understand "System Image Back Up"! Could you explain this for XP users? Thanks!

  9. robin

    dont forget game saves.
    they are a pain in the back to back them up cause theyre pretty much all over the place

  10. SP

    Hi,
    Is there anyway to back up windows update and restore them, after a fresh installation of windows.

  11. TheBigOldDog

    If you can find it in your budget, build or buy a Windows Home Server. Set it for to backup all the OCs in your home or SOHO and forget it. It’s the ideal solution as it creates an image every night. Smartly, WHS conserves significant amounts of space using Single Instance Store to avoid multiple copies of the same file, even if that file exists on multiple PCs.

    Before purchasing a HP MediaSmart WHS (under $500) I used to use Acronis True Image to back up my main PC and the rest where done on an Ad hoc basis. Using WHS, I backup 5 computers and use about the same overall space.

    WHS allows you to pick how long each backup image is retained so you wind up being able to store about 2 weeks worth of images for all the machines without using very much space. It’s actually quite amazing how “right” Microsoft got the backup feature of WHS.

    I’ve restored 2 of the machines and it worked flawlessly. I’ve also had occasions to sift through the backups to rescue specific files which also works flawlessly. It also supports Apple’s Time Machine as I understand it.

    I highly recommend it. I can’t imagine any other method now.

  12. AderfTheMatureStudent

    Excellent easy to understand explanations, great site

  13. summersa

    Hi, Mainly to Joey. It seems that what you really want is a copy of your files in another location. It may be simpler to use a Syncing program. I use SyncBack Free which allows me set up a schedule which then executes at a particular point in time, daily, weekly etc. One of the advantages is that the files are in their original format, not some obscure backup format. It works simply and is fairly quick as you can do incremental backup/syncing after the first time. It will also provide you with a listing of errors during the run. SyncBack is not the only one that is free out there, there are also a few others which are pretty good in which case it boils down to the individual…

  14. Project Management Tools That Work (Bruce)

    I have used versions of Ghost, Shadowprotect, Macrium Reflect, Windows Home Server (WHS), etc. Hands down the simplest way to protect your system is to do a regular *image* backup of your PC, as opposed to trying to pick and choose which files to save.

    I currently use WHS where I get an image backup everyday of all my PCs (kids, wife, Media Center, Web Server, development PC, etc.) . If I have to get a file back or restore a whole PC (usually,because I’ve been playing around with it and it no longer works), I can get a file or restore a whole PC from the WHS.

    My large collection of documents, pictures (we have thousands) and videos (a couple of minutes every week of their lives since my kids were born) are kept on WHS (and not on an individual PC) where they get duplicated to a 2nd hard drive. If one hard drive fails, we always have the 2nd copy – and any hard drive will eventually fail.

    Since the WHS is a separate PC and could suffer catastrophic damage that completely destroys the PC (we are in tornado alley, plus the WHS is in the basement which is a flood risk), I also backup daily (using SyncBackSE) the pictures/videos/documents to a network disk drive (NAS, Buffalo linkstation) which resides in another room.

    Finally (almost), I also once a month backup the WHS files to a USB hard drive that I keep in my fire safe. This gives me 3 copies of my files.

    Finally, for my most critical files (financial, genealogy, etc.) I back up these to a free encrypted online service (Mozy, backup.com, IDrive, etc.) each day. So the most critical dozen files have a fourth copy which is outside of the home.

    I recommend to most people who just have one PC to buy a USB hard drive (Passport, MyBook, etc.) and make an image backup at least once a month (set it to backup daily is better). When these PCs fail (hard drive, virus, overheating), it is straightforward to get the repaired or new PC up and running with their old data and programs intact.

  15. RobCr

    This post discusses imaging your whole drive (or main partition) -
    Buy two external Docks (they are cheap)
    Buy two Seagate Sata 3.5″ drives (they are cheap)
    You use a USB cable (or eSata) to connect the dock to your PC
    Download the free Seagate Discwizard, and make a bootable CD
    (It is made by Acronis)
    You can use the CD to format your new drives.
    After formatting,connect them, when you next have Windows running, and create a folder called SDW in each drive.
    When you are ready to create an image, boot the pc with the CD in.
    It will give you a simple Menu screen, with just a few choices.
    Once it has created an image (into your Seagate drive in your dock), you can tell the SDW (Seagate Disc Wizard) to verify the image.
    Never move your images, and never rename them (or the folder they are in)
    When you next create an image, do it into the other drive.
    Alternate drives each time.
    If you ever need to Restore an image, you connect one of your docks, and start the pc with your bootable CD.
    There is an option to restore an image.
    Some may tell you to use one dock, but I believe that sata connectors are not too robust, so don’t be ‘cheap’ (tight).
    Some may say use external drive in case, but I reckon they don’t run cool enough.
    The drive in your dock is sitting up there in the fresh air..

  16. Nacho

    I love Dropbox but you shouldn’t forget the Amazon Cloud Drive (5Gb for free)

  17. Barbara

    I would also suggest making sure your backup location (separate drive or another computer, etc.) is NOT in the same house as your computer. If you suffer a fire, major burglary, etc., you might very well lose BOTH your main computer and your backup. Keep the backup offsite.

  18. keltari

    This is a fairly simplistic article on backups. I agree with it for the most part, but… you left out the MOST IMPORTANT part of the backup process: testing recovery! I have seen years of backups and petabytes of data be rendered useless because of a simple check to see if the backup was actually working and/or backing up the right data. Once your backup is completed, be sure to test a restore to make sure it is getting the data you need and that it is recoverable. Also, you need to review your process over time to make sure no new data needs to be backed up.

  19. Xantes

    Why is that you are suggesting of doing backups when what you should suggest from the very beginning is that anyone MUST make sure that they will make at least a second partition – which I myself call it legitimately “backup partition” – and WHERE ANYONE must save everything that otherwise they leave to be automatically saved into the OS’s folders: My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, My Videos!
    Why would I look for a backup application to backup the OS’s folders when I can save whatever files: documents, pictures, music, video – STRAIGHT from the very beginning into a folder that will be made prior saving the file to the BACKUP PARTITION! Simple as that!

  20. keltari

    xantes: what good is a second partition of the hard drive dies?

  21. Chris

    I’d love to see a linux article like this :)

    *hint *hint

  22. Raven

    This article is completely useless. It doesn’t say anything that’s not extremely obvious to even the most computer-illiterate 80-year-old woman in the country (the one who doesn’t know how to send a text message on her non-smartphone cell phone). I was looking at this article to find out how to back p the important things – colors, settings, icon layout, registry edits – the things you can’t duplicate EVER. But no… it just says “back up your documents”. Um, fucking duh. Anyone who has any interest in copying anything at all is going to KNOW WITHOUT YOU TELLING THEM whether the fuck they want to copy their picture or not =\. WTF?

  23. tony

    you forgot to tell people to do backup with verify to ensure that the backup worked ok; and you need to check your backups from time to time by restoring a few test files.

  24. tony

    once a month is enough for me; I don’t collect that many new photos/music each month

  25. tony

    finally I recommend having 2 backup fdevices and to use them in rotation, otherwise if you only have one, then by definition when you are doing the backup, both the original dataand backup device are in the same physical location

  26. Mary

    I don’t backup as much as I should. New resolution coming…. I guess….

    Anyway, I always back up the application data in the documents and settings folder on the C-drive. I back up both my individual settings and also the all-users. That covers most of my program settings. There are a few other items from that drive but most of my applications are on a separate drive (a physically separate one). I back up the settings I know are there but I’m sure I miss some. The other thing I do is a directory listing of all my drives so at least I know what I had installed. Then I also back up my data drive – I do that one most often; it really has the irreplaceable things on it. Less frequently, my photo, multimedia and download drives mainly because they’re so big. I have my primary backup files on an external drive (a LaCie Quatra) and some of my financial and data files on flash drives. I always have at least two backups and leap frog them.

    I’m leery of cloud backups. Both security-wise and safety wise. On the other hand, you can get tons of space there. But no, not for me, not yet.

  27. Jason

    @Mary- while “off-site” backups generally are associate with “cloud” it is not the only option. You could take 2 external hard drives leave one at work and one on your computer and swap them out weekly or monthly. You could also burn DVDs and leave them offsite as well, but who really wants to do that. :)

    I just wanted to add the .NK2 file in outlook. That is the file that gives you the suggestions of your contact’s e-mail after typing a few characters.

  28. Robert

    I use clickfree Automatic Backup The Easiest backup.

  29. Donald Mitchell

    I don’t think there is a better help site on earth than this one,with the GEEK and all of the commenter help, what more could one ask for. this page will be bookmarked.
    Thanks to all for your tips

  30. Donald Mitchell

    A good backup for your bookmarks is X marks sync & backup,its free and it saved my bacon a few times as i have a lot of bookmarks.

  31. Another CK

    I don’t trust backups as I don’t seem to be able to restore them and the data files can’t be accessed directly by other computers. My 500GB hard disk in the desktop is used only for the OS, installed programs and temporary downloads and working files put on the desktop. Some graphic programs also need a lot of temporary space(?using hard disk space as RAM)to work adequately. My daily data is stored on a 2TB external hard disk, partitioned for different topics – Documents, Music, Photography, videos, etc. This makes file searching quicker & easier. All of these files are then copied/saved just as they are in their original format(doc, jpg, etc) on another 2TB external hard disk which I put into a locked case with other important documents such as birth certs, passports, etc. Documents which may be very difficult to replace if they are lost. This case is kept in a safe an accessible place which can be quickly retrieved if we need to leave the house in a hurry (eg in a fire). As the data is in its normal format I can easily access them with another computer. My really precious data are copied to another hard disk incase of failure to the other 2 hard disks. I plan to digitise all my slides/negatives, music CDs, video 8s so I won’t have to worry about trying to save them in a fire or flood. I sometimes think people are too paranoid about losing data and go overboard with what they do. I bet they haven’t even considered having the same level of safety for their important paper documents.
    I always like to have a clean installation of the OS and programs if there has been a major catastrophe with the hard disk. I should save some of the files mentioned in the article to make it easier to get the programs up and running again. Sometimes one just don’t know where to find them. Eg, which file (and where is it stored) holds the contacts for Outlook 2003? I realise that doing things my way may take a longer time but my data is preserved and accessible. I haven’t got round to looking for it, but I would definitely like a program that will just let me save new files and files whose contents have been altered. I would also like to know how to save the windows/security updates for Win 7 and Win XP.
    I suggest to Joey that he should forget about DVDs and go for an external hard disk. They are cheap and your collection of videos and pictures will grow! It will be easier to manage the files and easier to run out of a burning house with a hard disk than boxes of DVDs! I started digital photography 4 years ago and I have 350GB of pictures already. I also have boxes of slides and negatives and 50 video 8 tapes which I will digitise. I will also scan my important documents. Just think, all my precious memories and work in a paperback size hard disk.

  32. Sander van Kasteren

    Everything that is stored on my harddrives is backed-up. I’ve got 7 physical disks of wich 4 only contain backed-up data. One disk is stored in another place and is updated once a week, the other 3 backup disks are updated daily. Lost too much data too many times to not care about a good backup solution. Lol.

  33. Jason

    I have a Windows Home Server with nearly 4TB of data on. I have 2 2TB drives at work, each nearly filled by a Truecrypt container (just in case I get careless and leave it lying around!) – every so often I bring one or both home, mount the container(s) and compare the files with those on the server using Beyond Compare. I try to ensure that anything I might want to hang on to is transferred from my other computers to the server ASAP, so it can be included in the backup, and any documents are in my Dropbox or on Evernote.

  34. Obfucius

    All this, and no mention of CrashPlan? That’s what I use, and I *highly* recommend it! Their software is free, and will handle multiple copies of your data on your local system (including external drives), and the free version also lets you make arrangements with friends to place offsite backups on their machines. If you’re willing to pay CrashPlan, you get more control over what gets backed up where and when, and they offer unlimited cloud storage. I have five machines backed up in various configurations, both to each other and to external drives, and I also have > 200Gb backed up on CrashPlan’s servers. I don’t regret for a second the $120 I spent for a year of service, and I sleep well and think about other things. The software is rock solid, stays out of the way, and just works. Oh, and I can access my backups on their servers via the web from anywhere.

  35. Liz

    I do a straight copy and paste of all server work, then periodically I use a cool program called beyond compare and I synchronise all the new stuff, works chop chop.
    Every now and then I store that away so should need be the older work is safe and untouched.
    I start again with a fresh copy.

  36. Ivydapple

    Very helpful, especially since I’m looking into getting an external hard drive. Thanks.

  37. lesle

    FWIW, when I download an installation file, zip or exe, it first goes into a download folder. I prefix the file with #. before using it to install whatever. Periodically, using Voidtools’ Everything, I export a copy of all files beginning with #. into a separate folder. After backup, this means all of my third-party installation files, and many of Microsoft’s, are available in one place if needed for re-installation.

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