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Can I Back Up Files to a Separate Partition on the Same Hard Disk?

Question: I am going to do a clean install of Windows to hopefully fix some errors, which means that I need to back up my files. The problem is that I don’t quite have the means to back up my hard drive. Can I simply create a new, separate partition on my existing drive (1TB), copy my files to that, and then perform a clean install on the existing Windows partition? Afterward, I would transfer the files back and delete the “backup” partition. Would that work or am I heading in the wrong direction?

Yes, that would work, but…

There are risks. From what I can see, you’re running a huge risk before you even begin.

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You’re just managing data

What you describe isn’t really backing up. You’re just moving some files over here so you can erase stuff over there.

It’s a fine approach to solving the problem at hand: making room for a clean Windows install. It’s a fast way to copy files so you can wipe out the primary partition and copy the files back later.1

But I’m not going to call it a backup, and I strongly suggest you not think of it as one.

Here’s the real problem…Hard Disk

You’re not backing up

This statement concerns me more than anything else:

“I don’t quite have the means to back up my hard drive.”

Let me be as blunt about this as I can be: make the means.

As it is, you run the risk of everything on that hard drive disappearing forever if there is a catastrophic failure.

If you’re OK with that, then fantastic, I guess. You’re good to go.

But I suspect it’s not an acceptable scenario. As such, I strongly urge you to figure out some way to do real backups that protect your digital assets, should there ever be a need. All you really need is an inexpensive external hard drive and some free software, and you’ll have everything covered.

A separate partition is still the same disk

Backing up one partition onto another where both partitions are on the same hard disk is at best only half a solution; at worst, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

If the hard disk fails, all of the partitions fail with it. If you put the backups of the primary partition onto a separate partition on the same hard drive, and the drive fails, they both disappear at once.

It’s like having no backup at all.

Backups on a separate partition may be useful for some kinds of errors. Perhaps you delete a file you didn’t mean to, or a bad sector crops up on a file in the primary partition — the backup on the separate partition would still be there.

But that completely ignores the more disastrous scenario of a catastrophic failure of the entire hard drive and the loss of everything on it.

In case I haven’t been clear: don’t do backups this way.

Back up, and back up somewhere else

Find a way to back up. That’s a given.

But when you do so, back up in such a way that you’re isolated from the events that might cause you to need the backup in the first place. Options include:

  • Back up to a second drive — preferably external — to separate the back up from the original hard disk.
  • Back up to an external drive that you then disconnect, to separate the back up from software such as ransomware “going rogue” on your machine and deleting or corrupting data on all connected drives.2
  • Back up to an external drive that you then disconnect and take elsewhere, to separate the backup from your home in case it’s robbed or goes up in flames.

Online backups, including but not limited to services like OneDrive, Dropbox, and others, are a possible solution as well, depending on how you use your computer and organize your data. But I still recommend a full image back of your system for complete protection.

In practice, doing only the first — backing up to an external drive — will cover 99% of most of the problems you’re likely to encounter.

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Footnotes & References

1: Many people would leave what you’re calling the backup partition in place after the install. There’s no requirement those files be in the same partition as Windows itself.

2: I generally don’t recommend doing this in general. It gets in the way of fully automating your backups, which is more important, in my opinion. There are those (spooked by ransomware) who disagree.

14 comments on “Can I Back Up Files to a Separate Partition on the Same Hard Disk?”

  1. Hi Leo, I totally agree with your comments on system and data backups. However I am going one step further by backing up all my important information on two separate external hard dives. Yes it is more work but here is the reason why I do it. In the last twelve month three hard drives died on me, no warning one day they where working the next day they where dead. The latest casualty was one of my backup drives with 250 GB of information on it. You may think that this is overkill but I sleep a lot better knowing no matter what happens I have a spare backup.

  2. I presume the user was going to use a partitioning tool such as gparted to shrink the existing partition in order to create the new partition (as opposed to creating a new partition in already existing unused space). The standard recommendation before repartitioning like that is to do a full backup first. This puts the user in a bit of a bind because in order to do the backup he/she must first repartition. Spend a few bucks, buy an external drive, then do a proper backup. When I buy my drives I do so in pairs. After doing a backup to one external I immediately do a sync to the second external. Drives occasionally fail and I want my backups to be as secure as I can reasonably make them.

  3. I use a similar aproach for regular reinstalls and also to separate the more important data. I have 3 partitions in my 1TB HDD.
    C: OS, Programs, programs data and garbage. I don’t backup this partition, except for the desktop and selected files from C:\Users (I don’t use My Documents).
    D: All my Data, I backup this one every week to a 500GB external drive I disconect and keep in a diferent room in my house. I’ll soon run out of backup space if I don’t buy a bigger external HDD..
    E: Expendable files, Files waiting to be backedup to DVD and a copy of some of C program data. I don’t backup anything from this drive.
    If anything goes wrong with my SOFTWARE, I copy selected files from C: to E: via BAT file (or use the latest copy I have there) format C: reinstall and I am ready to go in less than an hour (I may spend some more time tuning up later, but I least I can work) with no need to restore data files.
    If things go wrong with the hardware, I fall back to the external HDD backup.

    In addition to the D: external HDD backup, I also keep 150+ DVD backups of all my data, these are stored in a secure location away from my house. This was my only backup system before, it’s very time consuming, and a restore takes more than a month. I know it, since I got my home burglarized a couple of years ago by some G-men sent by a crazy ex-girlfriend who works with my country’s goverment, and had BOTH my PC and attached backup external disk stolen. I had to restore all my 500+ GB Data by copy-paste, unzip, and then weed out duplicates and organize it again. I lost some data that was in the stolen backup disk but not in the DVDs so now I continue with the DVD backup even if it’s a pain.
    I got demanded from the Crazy ex a coupple of days after the robery, but she didn’t expect the DVD backups. Without them, I would have gone to Jail.

    By the way, my new HDD died a couple of months after the manual restore (there where massive blackouts in my country for some months), before I was able to buy a new external HDD, so I had to AGAIN spend a month restoring from DVDs.

    I also keep some very important files backedup in DVDs with friends outside my country and/or online under fake IDs (don’t want another atack of the crazy ex G-woman).

    As soon as I can, I plan to buy a larger external HDD and do as Leo recomends (image and backup everythng), but untill I can afford it, I think I can live with what I have now (cost – benefit). Leo’s recomendation is great under optimal conditions, but sometimes you have to priorize and personalize your backup/restore strategy.

    Citing Leo “It all depends”.

  4. I had my vital data such as family pictures backed up on an external hard drive. Guess what: it crashed. With Recuva I could recover half of them (about 6,000), the other half was gone. But that was not over yet: I could not open about half of the recovered ones anymore, though they looked perfectly normal on the drive (name, extension, volume, date). I tried every possible free graphic prog, but to no avail. Not much of trust in drives whatsoever anymore.

    I actually had a similar experience, except it was my CD collection. I now have *two* external drives and automatically backup one to the other. That way either can die.

  5. Unfortunately you probably didn’t have your data backed up to an external hard drive. That external hard drive was probably your only copy. If it were backed up, you would still have the original. A back up means having 2 or copies. As Leo often says, “If you have only one copy, you’re not backed up. I have an external system image back up of my computer, another external disk back up of all my data and a OneDrive folder with my most important data. You can also use Carbonite or Backblaze for supplemental backups

  6. Thanks, Mark, for the comment, but I had my pictures backup up to my external hard drive (which you can read in the first sentence). I just wanted to state out that even this medium is not safe enough. But it’s not only photo’s I send to my external one. Video’s, music and about 45,000 pictures of paintings, in total are we talking about 500 GB. I am even planning to put everything I have on my external drive (cd’s and dvd’s) which might increase the volume to 1 TB. I don’t really think in my case the cloud is the best answer! But there’s no alternative, I’ll have to go on living in fear…

  7. Biogaraph, If your files were backed up, where was the other copy of those files? A backup means you have at least two copies of everything. I can only suggest having more than 1 backup. You can bring a copy of your backup to a friend or relative’s house. External HDs are cheap. We used to have to bring a a back disk home from work every night and bring the older one in the next day for the next backup.

  8. Sad story: Seagate external drive still in the box. too late to use it now – “partitioned” D drive got infected and not sure it will ever be clean (HP doesn’t send Windows recovery disks – they partition). so glad I don’t depend on computer for a living – would drive me crazy.

  9. One thing to watch out for. After you’ve done your backup, and then reinstall Windows, you are working without a backup from the time you start the installation until you’ve fully restored from the external drive. For that time the only copy resides on the USB drive and it’s no longer a backup but the only copy. Yes, it’s only a short period of time and infinitely better than backing up to an internal drive but there’s still a small risk.
    You can get a USB hard drive for under $50, capable of backing up most computers. Before performing the reinstallation, you can simply copy the backup from your older backup drive directly to the new drive. It works just as well as running a new system image backup from your computer and will also work if your system drive isn’t in a good enough condition to run a backup on. In fact, you should always have a second backup. I periodically copy the contents of my primary backup drive to my second backup drive. It’s a lengthy process, but it runs while I sleep and it helps me sleep better :-) .

    Leo recommends the 3,2,1 method of backing up:
    3 copies
    2 different formats
    1 offsite backup
    How Do I back Up My computer?

    I have 4 copies. 1 original on my computer’s system drive. 2 external HDDs. and all of my personal files synced with OneDrive.
    My second format and offsite backup is my OneDrive folder which syncs to Microsoft servers.

  10. Back in the “old” days of windows 95 I lost everything multiple times. Then along came Acronis, I used that for years, then someone somehow hacked Acronis and it would not restore a back up I had used various times. I switched to Macrium and for several years it has saved my bacon several times. I too have three back ups, and still sweat it. One on a second hard drive in my enclosure, and two usb 3 externals. Also, Macrium tech’s are great, they will help you online and know their stuff. m

    • “Macrium tech’s are great, they will help you online and know their stuff. ” That’s one of the reasons Leo switched his recommendation to Macrium Reflect. With something as critical as backup, service is critical.

  11. I came from the computer sales industry in the networking side of things back when DAT Tapes were the thing and Raid drives and NAS servers were essential. Knowing that the redundancy of my backups is both on external (multiple) drives and a NAS server with basic raid setup with two 1 terabyte drives. My question is seeing from lost drives, computer failures and ransomware, where on the cloud have others been satisfied with their data backups. There was Carbonite, Backblaze and Onedrive mentioned, but which have been easy to use, and not costing a fortune. I’d like to see a topic on cloud storage and options people have been pleased with if it hasn’t already been done.

    • It’s pretty much a personal choice. I used to use BackBlaze which worked well for me. Then I switched to OneDrive which for a similar annual cost to BackBlaze, Carbonite, and Dropbox, comes included in Microsoft Office. It’s more work to set up as you have to default all your programs to save their data in the OneDrive folder.
      BackBlaze and Carbonite are easier to use because they do a pretty good job of saving what’s necessary but might miss some files you should have backed up. But, on the other hand, unless you know what you’re doing, you might miss some important files.
      I’d say if you understand the folder structure in Windows, use OneDrive, otherwise, Carbonite or Backblaze might be a better option.

    • I do have several articles on cloud storage. As Mark points out the provider choice is kind of a personal decision. My admonition: NEVER put your files ONLY in the cloud. It’s just another “place”, and if it’s in only one place it’s not backed up. Cloud storage makes an excellent additional “place” though.


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