External hard drive attached via USB to a MacBook

Maybe you’re using cloud backups or backups to attached media such as an external hard drive or a NAS. But these days, you also need an offline backup: A copy of your data that is detached from your machine and the Internet. Here’s why.

What Is an Offline Backup?

An offline backup is a copy of your data that is not stored on the same device (or attached to the same device) as your original data and is not connected to the Internet. Typically, offline backups are stored on external hard drives or USB flash drives. They are ideally (but not always) stored in a separate physical location from the original data source—sometimes offsite for extra protection and security.

Below, we’ll go over the main reasons you should use offline backups in addition to your regular backup routine (which might include attached or cloud backups)

RELATED: What's the Best Way to Back Up My Computer?

Insurance Against Ransomware & Malware

an image of a ransomware warning message.

Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts your files, making them inaccessible, and then demands a ransom (often using cryptocurrency) to decrypt them. If your only backup is attached to the machine infected with ransomware, the backup can become encrypted as well. That’s why you need an offline backup that is not connected to your computer or the Internet. If you have an offline backup, there is no need to pay the ransom to recover your data. You can simply wipe your infected drives and restore from the offline backup.

Similarly, other types of malware and viruses can infect backups that are attached to a computer hooked to the Internet. If you keep some backups offline, they won’t be as vulnerable to damage from malware.

RELATED: How to Protect Yourself from Ransomware (Like CryptoLocker and Others)

Better Data Security From Hackers

Illustration of three hackers with black, grey, and white hats.
delcarmat / Shutterstock

Remote hackers can’t reach data that’s not online. If hackers breach your network’s security, backups connected to your computer are susceptible to remote access. A hacker can delete, change, or copy your backup files, which puts you at risk of not having viable backups—or potentially revealing sensitive data that you might want to keep offline.

RELATED: 9 Cybersecurity Tips to Stay Protected in 2023

Data Safety from Natural Disaster, Fire, and Theft

Sean Thomforde/Shutterstock.com

In many cases, the best backups are stored offsite—as far from the original data source as possible. That way, if your home or office gets hit by a natural disaster (flooding, hurricane, tornadoes) or destroyed in a fire, your data is still safe. Your offline backup won’t be destroyed, and the data can be recovered later.

Offline backups stored offsite are also more secure from thieves, who might break in and steal your main computer and your backup drives. If you have an offsite backup drive, all hope is not lost when recovering your data. Even if an offline backup is not offsite but not near your computer, thieves might miss it, and you have a higher chance of not losing any data.

How to Create an Offline Backup

Both Macs and Windows provide simple-to-use tools for backing up your data to an external drive. And even if you don’t want to fiddle with back up tools, you can just manually drag-and-drop files to the backup destination. Depending on the size and type of the data you’re backing up, you’ll probably want to either purchase a large USB thumb drive or an external hard drive.

The Best External Hard Drives of 2023

WD My Book Duo RAID
Best External Hard Drive Overall
WD My Book Duo RAID
WD My Passport Ultra Blue
Best Budget External Hard Drive
WD My Passport Ultra Blue
Sandisk G-DRIVE ArmorATD
Best External Hard Drive for Mac
Sandisk G-DRIVE ArmorATD
Best Hard Drive for PS5
WD_BLACK 8TB D10 Game Drive
Best External Hard Drive for Xbox
WD_BLACK D10 Game Drive For Xbox
LaCie Rugged Mini External Hard Drive
Best Portable External Hard Drive
LaCie Rugged Mini External Hard Drive
Samsung T7 Portable SSD
Best External Solid State Drive
Samsung T7 Portable SSD

Once you have the backup drive, copy whatever data you want to protect to the drive, then unplug it from your computer and place it in a safe location away from your PC or Mac. You might want to formulate a regular schedule (such as every day, week, or month) where you make a backup to this drive and then detach it. Or you can rotate backups among multiple external devices for even better protection.

Good luck, and stay safe out there!

RELATED: The Best USB Flash Drives of 2023

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
Read Full Bio »