8 Ways to Back Up Your Computer Files

by John Soares on November 28, 2011

Highly productive people — and that should include you — always prepare for potential problems. One problem likely to happen to most freelance writers eventually: loss of computer files, which could be anything from an article you just wrote, but haven’t sent to your editor yet, all the way to that novel you’ve been working on for nearly five years that’s almost complete.

Live long enough and it’ll happen to you — I guarantee it.

Common Ways You Can Lose Files

Damaged Hard Drive

This is how most people lose data. Hard drive problems can occur in the following ways:

  1. Hard drive failure. (Every hard drive eventually fails.)
  2. Power surge, either from lightning or a random power pulse. (Use a good surge protector; you can get a small one for your laptop also.)
  3. Liquids, from spilled drinks to floods. (Be careful with your coffee around your laptop.)
  4. Rough handling, like dropping your laptop or moving it quickly while the hard drive is spinning. (Be gentle.)
  5. Disasters natural and human: earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, fire, elephant stampede.

Theft

Theft is another common way to lose your files. Either someone comes in your house and steals your desktop, or you have your laptop stolen from your car or from your table at a coffee shop or library.

And now on to those…

8 Ways to Back Up Your Files

Obviously, your productivity will plummet if you lose days, months, or years of work, so protect your data with multiple levels of back-up. Here are 8 methods:

  1. Get an external hard drive. They are quite inexpensive and you can get a model that runs off your USB port.
  2. If you have a desktop computer, install a second hard drive and save all files on both hard drives.
  3. Back up all your data on thumb drives (also called flash drives). Cheap and very small, they easily fit in your pocket.
  4. Back up data on DVDs.
  5. Back up data on a second computer.
  6. Back up data on an external website designed for that purpose (the “cloud”). Many commercial operations do this for a reasonable monthly fee. Be wary though: if the company goes out of business, you may have a difficult time getting your data.
  7. Back up data by sending it as e-mail attachments to yourself using a free e-mail service such as gmail.com.
  8. Have all your data stored at multiple locations, including at least one that’s not in your house so you are protected in case of fire, flood, or theft.

Whatever methods you use, do at least one of them daily, and preferably more often.

How I Back Up My Files

Here’s how I personally back up my files: on my second hard drive on my desktop computer, full set of files on my laptop computer, and on a portable hard drive stored at family members’ houses.

I use a thumb drive to transfer files between my desktop and my laptop, and also to back up files every couple of hours when I’m using the laptop.

Your Take

Have you ever lost important data? How did you feel when that happened? Any suggestions I missed, or important info to add?

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{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Victor Dewsbery November 28, 2011 at 6:50 AM

I think it’s worth having the computer back stuff up automatically. I have an external USB drive which is always on and connected to my desktop. It backs up my important stuff every two hours via a program called “Oops!Backup”. There are other programs that do this, too. I would also like to have a second back-up on the web, but I found Acronis didn’t work properly, and I’m stuck for an alternative at the moment.

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2 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 7:23 AM

Victor, I really like your method of automatic backups to an external hard drive. I’ll check out “Oops!Backup” for my own use.

A slightly inelegant way to back up files on the web that I sometimes use: send them as attachments on an e-mail to yourself. If there are a lot of them, create a zip file. Of course, this only works well for smaller files like documents and the like. It would be too unwieldy for media files.
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3 Ruth - The Freelance Writing Blog November 28, 2011 at 9:41 AM

As I’m reading the post, I’m backing up to my external hard drive :-). My blog did once crash, and that was a bit of a disaster, so I back that up to Dropbox now – what are your thoughts on that option, at least for smaller files? I am so beholden to my computer, I find myself living in constant dread that it will break or someone will steal it…these are great strategies and reminders John.

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4 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 9:58 AM

My host, Hostgator, backs up all my blogs in their entirety every Sunday, so I’m well covered there. However, I always copy and paste every blog post and all draft posts in to a Word document, along with the headline, tags, and meta description; that way I can always recreate a post quickly.

I haven’t tried Dropbox or any of the online services, although I’m open to doing so. As I said in the post, I had a friend who got badly burned by one of those sites — the company lost all of her stored files.
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5 Michael Aulia @CravingTech.com November 28, 2011 at 2:33 PM

Should use WordPress plugins to backup your entire blog :) there are a few good free ones out there. I’m using XCloner

Don’t really see the need to backup again in Dropbox though for blog’s backup as the files can grow quite large :)

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6 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 6:24 PM

Michael, I’ll have a look at XCloner and the others. I had problems in the past with back-up plugins, so I’ve shied away from them since.
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7 john iwasin February 11, 2013 at 10:20 PM

I was told thats its not actually enough to just copy and paste files onto another drive, that you need to use something like “carbon copy cloner”, or “time keeper”(on mac’s) to save the full file.

Do you know anything about this? is it really necessary?

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8 Susan Johnston November 28, 2011 at 12:59 PM

I’ve lost files due to weird file corruption issues. Like, I went to open a file I’d been working on the previous day and got an error message. It was still on my computer, just not in a format I could open. Fortunately, I have Jungle Disk set up to automatically back up my files each night, so I could just revert back to that version and delete the corrupted version. I wonder how you feel about cloud-based services like Mozy or Jungle Disk? I like that it’s automatic.
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9 Susan Johnston November 28, 2011 at 2:33 PM

Also, after that incident, Mr. Muse enabled back-up copies in MS Word so that everything is saved in duplicate. Even if one file gets corrupted somehow (still not sure how it happened), I now have backup version.
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10 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 6:07 PM

I think the cloud-based services can be quite good; my main concern is relying solely on them to store files long-term, just in case something goes fritzy in the “cloud.”

I’ve also occasionally had corrupted files, but not for several years.
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11 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 6:15 PM

On a related subject, I was in Best Buy today looking at ultra-portable laptops. The sales guy was talking about how Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and many other companies are focusing more and more on having everything be in the cloud, including all software.

Of course, to access the cloud you have to access the Internet. That doesn’t always work for everyone all the time, and certainly not for me since I live in rural, mountainous part of far northern California.
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12 Sharon Hurley Hall November 28, 2011 at 1:03 PM

I use ClickFree Backup to backup once a week to a portable hard drive, and use SugarSync to automate cloud backups. I also save all my blog posts as Word or text files after writing so they get backed up in both places.
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13 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 6:16 PM

Good strategies Sharon. Thanks for sharing them. I’m wondering how often you use SugarSync?
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14 Sharon Hurley Hall November 28, 2011 at 8:11 PM

Once it’s set up, John, it just does its thing unobtrusively and automatically, so I use it every day (without having to do anything). It’s been useful for retrieving files when I’m traveling too.
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15 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:28 AM

That’s a smart way to do it Sharon. See my comment below for a good reason to have files in the cloud.
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16 Cathy Miller November 28, 2011 at 4:49 PM

Hi John: I use an external hard drive back-up, my laptop and cloud computing back-up through Carbonite (following a post by Anne Wayman). I also have HostGator, but I use a BackupBuddy plug-in for my blogs. It backs up all files in your WordPress directory (and subdirectories) as well as the database. You can also use it for restoration and migration.

Great reminder, John!

PS-Don’t know if it’s just my laptop, John, but your Like/Tweet/Google 1 sidebar keeps overlapping the text making it hard to read.
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17 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 6:20 PM

We use similar methods Cathy. You blog more frequently than I do, so it makes more sense for you to have a more sophisticated solution for blog back-ups, BackupBuddy in this case.

I used another Wordpress plugin for backups a year ago or so, but there were some problems with it so I removed it.
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18 Chamois Lopez November 28, 2011 at 6:04 PM

John, this happened to me a couple of years ago when my laptop hard drive took a long nap and never woke up. Luckily, I was diligent enough to back up the files on an external hard drive.

I thought about the outside companies at one time, but I was skeptical for the reason you mentioned. What if they were no longer around?

Though I do like your idea about backing up information and emailing it to myself for smaller projects.

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19 John Soares November 28, 2011 at 6:23 PM

The dead hard drive is one of the most disheartening things that can happen to any computer owner. Even if you have all the files backed up, you still have to deal with getting another computer, or installing a new hard drive, along with all the hassle of re-loading software, etc.

And actually, my most common short-term back-up solution is to just e-mail the file to myself.
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20 Sharon Hurley Hall November 29, 2011 at 4:01 AM

One of the advantages of using SugarSync and similar programs, John, is that when you need to change computer, you can restore all your backed up files to your new computer with a single click. I’ve done that a couple of times before with my previous backup application, Syncplicity.
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21 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:32 AM

I’m liking that! I’m researching new laptops right now…
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22 Sherry November 28, 2011 at 10:49 PM

I’m pretty particular about backing up client files on TWO thumb drives…one for active files and one for pure backup of those files. Then I also back up to CD or DVD at major milestones and put it in the filing cabinet.

For an easy/extra “backup” plan for blogs, subscribe to your own feedburner feeds by email. You get the graphically displayed blog post in your email sorted by date. …good for a quick and easy archive search, too.

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23 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:38 AM

I like your plan Sherry. However, you don’t appear to have your files backed up off site. What if there is a fire or flood and everything in your home is destroyed?

And that’s a good way to save your blog posts. What do you do about blog drafts?
John Soares recently posted…All Your Writing Clips on One Site: Cuttings.me Review and Interview

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24 Sherry November 29, 2011 at 10:48 AM

The finished (or milestone) docs are stored off site with the customer, on a server (ftp), disc, etc.

I’ve never really kept blog drafts in WP. I usually draft in Word until I’m relatively ready to post.

I’ve definitely have small gaps in my backup procedures, but I think I can fill those with cloud/offsite backup storage. I need to make that a new year’s resolution. :-) At least I have some good resources to research, now. Several have been mentioned in these comments. (Thanks, all.) :-)

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25 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 11:24 AM

Many bloggers write in Word and then paste it into WordPress, a very good way to do it. Somehow I got used to writing directly in WordPress and that’s now my preferred method.
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26 Dave Doolin November 28, 2011 at 10:55 PM

Anything important to me gets versioned and archived in a subversion or git repository, and has been since 1997 (git since 2010). I could, quite literally, throw my laptop in San Francisco Bay right this instant, and be no more than perhaps an hour out of date.

Feels good.

I did get a Dropbox account today, in part to see if I can store my git repositories locally, and have Dropbox automatically back them up… while being able to share those repositories via dropbox synch. This is definitely bending the technology! Haven’t tried it yet, so not sure how it will work. For my own stuff, it might save me a chunk of change from hosted, private repositories.

S3 is pretty cool too. I have scripts which back my Rails application up to S3 with a simple command (need to automate this). My S3 charges usually run about $0.03-$0.07 monthly. Stupendously good deal, can store massive amounts of compressed text.

I could go, I won’t.

If anyone is interested, I could turn this into a blog post though.
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27 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:43 AM

Seven cents a month? I dunno…

Dave, judging by the response we’re getting here so far, this is an interesting and important subject. I definitely think it’s post-worthy.
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28 Dave Doolin November 29, 2011 at 10:50 AM

After some thought, I’m not going to have time to write this up soon, no ROI on it. =(

One of those “could, but not should” situations.

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29 Ray Anderson November 29, 2011 at 6:10 AM

I love Carbonite as my external/outside backup. They update almost instantly. A friend of mine who worked at IBM for 30+ years recommended them to me. He had a computer crash and Carbonite resurrected everything.
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30 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:31 AM

Thanks for the thumbs-up on Carbonite Ray. I’ve heard others say good things about the service.
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31 Elijah November 29, 2011 at 6:16 AM

It all depends on how much you care if you lose them. Never trust computers. Always have a back up of stuff you find important. You can install winrar and password protect your files but that just keeps others out, if you computer goes down, it takes everything with it.Thanks a lot for sharing this to us!
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32 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:30 AM

A good reason to have files in the cloud…

I’m traveling right now and I use a thumb drive to transfer files from my desktop to my laptop. I had the unpleasant experience of putting my thumb drive into my laptop (with my desktop 100 mile away) and having my computer not acknowledge the thumb drive was there.

Turns out that one of my USB ports died and I was able to use on of the others. But still — I was working on a rush project for a client. Not a good time to not have my files.
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33 Sharon Hurley Hall November 29, 2011 at 7:33 AM

Since I’m paranoid, John (and because I’ve had a similar experience to yours in the past), I usually transfer the files I know I’ll need onto my laptop before I go, take a copy on a thumb drive and make sure my cloud backup is up to date. :)
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34 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:46 AM

OK, you’re definitely more thorough than me, but I think I’m gonna follow your lead on this!
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35 Eric Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:32 AM

I don’t trust the Cloud at all, for numerous reasons. But backing up your stuff is essential, for all the reasons you mentioned, and Cloud solutions are a viable backup to your backups, but should never be the primary or only backup plan.
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36 John Soares November 29, 2011 at 7:46 AM

Agreed Eric. I’ll probably start using a cloud service very soon, but I won’t rely on them.
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37 Jane | Problogging Action Plan November 29, 2011 at 9:00 AM

Losing ones data is a nightmare and it can happen to anyone. You have rightly pointed out that having a multiple copies of the data on various storage devices like pen drive, external hard disks etc will save a lot of time and work when the unexpected happens. One can also use the internet storage websites like the mediafire, megaupload etc to backup files which can’t be stored as email attachments.

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38 Veronica Cervera November 29, 2011 at 6:12 PM

Awesome tips here, John. I normally have an external drives to backup my very important files, and I usually update them every other week depending on how important it is. Plus I scan for viruses every week to also prevent it from being corrupted and affecting other files. It’s better to get busy doing this than to get busy recovering it when something crazy happens.

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39 Kristen Marie December 2, 2011 at 11:28 AM

My blog did once crash, and that was a bit of a disaster, so I back that up to Dropbox now – what are your thoughts on that option, at least for smaller files? I am so beholden to my computer, I find myself living in constant dread that it will break or someone will steal it
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40 John Soares December 2, 2011 at 2:15 PM

See Dave Doolin’s comment above Kristen. He’s a big fan of Dropbox.
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41 Sherryl Perry December 2, 2011 at 3:35 PM

Very important topic John and you’ve covered it well. I pretty much have the same safeguards in place. Additionally, my website hosting vendor (Rochen Host) has their own proprietary backup system that I can restore from. They keep both SQL backups and backups of the entire site. I actually mentioned them in the post that I link to below. Sometimes, all the backups in the world won’t save you. So, in addition, we need to keep documentation of what we’ve created too – just in case.
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42 John Soares December 2, 2011 at 5:04 PM

Sherryl, you have a very good post there about dealing with restoring Wordpress. Scary story actually.

I’m gonna do an ftp backup of all of my blogs this weekend, and I’ll also take a screen shot of all my settings in Thesis (which I also use).
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43 Sherryl Perry December 2, 2011 at 5:46 PM

I think I scared several people with that post John. I think the odds of it happening are slim but it’s happened often enough that I found the solution on a forum. I still don’t understand why the design options weren’t saved in a file that was being backed up but I’ve moved on. :)
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44 Harold December 6, 2011 at 1:43 AM

Thanks for sharing, the most common I use is the external hardrive (I got a 120GB one) and the flash drives for smaller files on which I need to use for immediate purposes.
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45 John Soares January 18, 2012 at 5:23 PM

Flash drives are great. I usually have a 16 GB flash drive in my pocket with all of my important files.
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46 James January 18, 2012 at 3:08 PM

My computer stopped working last week and had to be redone. I had everything on this computer, and hadn’t backed it up in a while. Luckily, my files were still saved on my hard drive. However, this is extremely stupid and I need to look into some other easier options.

The external websites sound like a pretty good idea, in case something physical happens to my computer location. However, I could see how long term you wouldn’t want all your files to be on a website you don’t really have control over. Regardless, its important to find some solution because it will usually happen eventually.
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47 John Soares January 18, 2012 at 5:22 PM

I like using multiple methods to back up my files James, and at least one of them should be off-site, just in case there’s a flood or a fire.

And lucky you that it wasn’t your hard drive that failed!
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48 Kevin Malmo February 1, 2012 at 6:53 AM

Thanks for sharing your back up idea.
Backup is non-sense until you lost your files. :(
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49 John Soares February 20, 2012 at 8:25 PM

I know too many people who’ve lost too many files…
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50 Lelia Shepard February 20, 2012 at 3:20 AM

Since I’m paranoid, John (and because I’ve had a similar experience to yours in the past), I usually transfer the files I know I’ll need onto my laptop before I go, take a copy on a thumb drive and make sure my cloud backup is up to date. And lucky you that it wasn’t your hard drive that failed! My blog did once crash, and that was a bit of a disaster, so I back that up to Dropbox now – what are your thoughts on that option, at least for smaller files?
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51 John Soares February 20, 2012 at 8:24 PM

Sounds like you’ve got a really good back-up system Lelia!
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52 Danica Green | Paper Shopping Bags February 21, 2012 at 3:48 AM

Dropbox is a great tool for creating backups for your files. But aside from storing my files in dropbox I also back up data on external hard drive.

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53 itmg March 7, 2012 at 6:24 PM

Really great breakdown on ways to back up your computer files.
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54 Keo Ochard September 1, 2012 at 7:51 AM

Hey, do you know how to back up or save the files when a windows failed to start-up because i dropped my computer and it ask me to insert the windows 7 installation disc and then clicked repair, but i don’t that much money to buy the disc and i wanna learn how to do it myself. Please help me & reply as soon as anyone can help me.

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55 John Soares September 1, 2012 at 9:13 AM

Keo, that’s definitely beyond my level of knowledge. Perhaps someone else following this post can help you.

Better yet, do a Google search about your problem. I’m sure this same question has been asked and answered on many forums and other sites.
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56 Bergen Knutzen January 4, 2013 at 5:05 PM

Have you every heard of Synology Network attached storage. Those work the best. Many Photographers back up their work using a NAS.

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57 bentsnake August 17, 2013 at 5:42 PM

I don’t think you can do better than Karen’s Replicator. Replicator can back up any file(s) or folder(s) to any storage device, anywhere, anytime. It’s no-strings freeware too, what else can you ask for. Here’s my Utube how-to video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8gmk_jKeGo

‘Hope this might be of some interest.

-bentsnake -

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