Windows

Backup 101: Windows Files and Folders You Should Always Back Up

Ben Stegner Updated 15-04-2020

You’ve heard many times that you need to back up the data on your computer. If you don’t, you could lose all your photos, documents, settings, customization tweaks, and everything else on your system. Starting over from scratch is not fun at all, but you can avoid it by having a backup plan.

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However, you might not know which files to back up when you start the process. We’ll show you what you should back up (and which folders you can ignore) to make sure your backups are efficient.

Files and Folders You Should Back Up

First, we’ll look at the most important files and folders on your PC. There are the folders you should definitely back up.

Note that we’ve referred to the default locations for most of these folders, which are possible to move. If you’ve redirected your Documents folder or store your pictures somewhere else, you’ll need to adjust accordingly.

Documents

Location: C:\Users\[Username]\Documents

Documents Folder Windows 10

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The Documents folder is a place for you to store personal files and documents. Because it likely contains your Word documents, receipt PDFs, and other related data, it’s an important candidate for backup.

Unfortunately, many software developers ignore the folder’s intended use and use it to store app-related data. For example, Overwatch stores log data, settings, and saved video clips here.

Because of this, you may want to take a look through your Documents folder and exclude app-related folders if you don’t care about them. In general, though, everything in Documents is important to have backed up.

Downloads

Location: C:\Users\[Username]\Downloads

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The Downloads folder is where downloaded files go by default. Most web browsers default to this folder for downloads, as do many tools for downloading media.

While you might want to first clean out huge downloads that you don’t need anymore, backing up this folder makes sense. You never know when you might need a program installer or PDF you downloaded months ago.

Desktop

Location: C:\Users\[Username]\Desktop

Many people store files on their desktop, at least temporarily. It’s easy to forget about backing this folder up, but you should do so. That way, you won’t lose anything that you accidentally left sitting on the desktop.

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Music, Pictures, and Videos

Location: C:\Users\[Username]\Music | C:\Users\[Username]\Pictures | C:\Users\[Username]\Videos

Windows User Folder

As with the Documents and Downloads folders, Windows provides these three locations for storing personal media files. Anything you have here is likely important, so you should definitely back it all up.

Some media apps use these folders for storing local files (such as iTunes keeping library files in the iTunes subfolder). While these aren’t essential to back up, doing so may be desirable if you don’t want to re-download everything.

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Games Save Data

Location: Various

Many games on Steam use Steam Cloud to synchronize game data and settings so you can have a consistent experience across machines. To enable Steam Cloud syncing, go to Steam > Settings, jump to the Cloud tab, then check the Enable Steam Cloud synchronization for applications which support it box.

Steam Cloud Enable

Unfortunately, Steam’s latest interface doesn’t let you easily see all of your games that support Steam Cloud. To check them individually, select a game in your library and click the Details icon (which looks like an “i” inside a circle) on the right side. There, you’ll see the Cloud Saves entry in the list of details if it supports the feature.

To see all the saved data you have in Steam Cloud, you can visit Help > Steam Support > My Account > Data Related to Your Steam Account > Steam Cloud.

Steam Cloud Saved Data

You can back up any installed Steam game by right-clicking it in your library and choosing Properties, switching to the Local Files tab, and hitting Backup game files. Since you can always reinstall games, though, it’s most important to make sure you have your saved data backed up.

For all other games, you’ll need to find their saved data individually. Here are several common locations where games may store data:

  • C:\ProgramData\[Game]
  • C:\Program Files\[Game]
  • C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\common\[Game]
  • C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steamapps\common\[Game]
  • C:\Program Files\Steam\[Username]\[Game]
  • C:\Users\[Username]\AppData\Roaming\[Game]
  • C:\Users\[Username]\AppData\Local\[Game]
  • C:\Users\[Username]\Documents\[Game]
  • C:\Users\[Username]\Documents\My Games[Game]
  • C:\Users\[Username]\Saved Games\[Game]

Rather than trying to track all these files down manually, we recommend using an automated tool like GameSave Manager. This will scan your system for hundreds of games and back up the saved data to a location of your choice.

Projects and Other Important Records

If you do creative work (such as programming, photography, video editing, or writing), then you should absolutely back up these files—especially any works-in-progress!

Only you know where you keep all of your creative projects. Make sure you remember to back up all of them. To keep track of them, it’s a good idea to keep these in common locations (like Documents or Pictures) instead of creating folders in random places that you’re more likely to forget about.

If you have any personal files that aren’t stored in the above folders, don’t forget to back those up too. These might include tax records and documents, rental and lease information, business invoices, bank and credit card statements, certificates, resumes, various spreadsheets, and similar.

Files and Folders You Might Want to Back Up

Next, let’s look at some folders that might have valuable data inside, but that you don’t necessarily need to back up in all cases.

AppData

Location: C:\Users\[Username]\AppData

The AppData folder in Windows stores user-specific settings for installed programs. Within this folder are three subfolders: Roaming, Local, and LocalLow.

Windows AppData Folder

The Roaming folder usually contains data that can move across computers in a Windows domain What Is a Windows Domain and What Are Its Advantages? What is a Windows domain and what are the advantages of a computer joining one? Let's look at how domains work and why they're so useful. Read More . For example, Firefox stores its user profiles here.

In contrast, Local is meant for data that only stay on one machine, such as cache files. LocalLow is similar but runs at a lower level of integrity for apps with strict security settings.

However, developers don’t always adhere to this. Chrome stores user data in the Local folder and some apps store data in an entirely different directory.

Whether you should back up AppData depends on your preference and available storage space. Depending on the app, you may be able to copy and paste this folder onto a new system and have it work perfectly, but this won’t always be the case. It’s better to use the backup/sync options in the software (like Chrome Sync) than copying AppData directly.

If you have space, feel free to back up folders in from your most-used apps. But you shouldn’t need to back up the entire folder, as it’s many gigabytes.

Note that AppData is hidden by default, so you’ll need to show hidden Windows folders The Easy Way to Show Hidden Files and Folders in Windows 10, 8.1, and 7 Need to see hidden files and folders in Windows? Here's how to show them in Windows 10, 8.1, and 7 so that nothing is hidden from you. Read More first if you don’t see it.

ProgramData

Location: C:\ProgramData

ProgramData is similar to AppData. Instead of storing user-specific files, though, it holds app settings and data for all users on the system. For example, it might include definitions for your antivirus software.

A lot of what’s here is cache files, which you don’t need to back up. Since this folder also takes up several gigabytes, you shouldn’t back it all up. You can take a look and copy any folders for apps you want to preserve all data for, but the contents of AppData\Roaming are most likely more important than this.

Note that AppData and ProgramData settings and data may only be compatible with certain versions of the app. Backing these files up can be good for posterity and reference, but you could run into issues if you restore these folders straight from a backup.

Email

Location: Various

If you use a desktop email client, you may want to back up your email data. You don’t have to worry about backing up email if you use IMAP, as many modern clients do. But if you use POP3, you should back your mail up. Review the differences between IMAP and POP3 IMAP vs. POP3: What Is It and Which One Should You Use? If you have ever set up an email client or app, you will have certainly come across the terms POP and IMAP. Do you remember which one you chose and why? If you are not... Read More if you’re not sure.

Unfortunately, email clients store data in different ways. Outlook stores your emails (plus calendars, contacts, tasks, and notes) as a single PST file, which can reside in one of a few locations:

  • C:\Users\[Username]\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook
  • C:\Users\[Username]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Outlook
  • C:\Users\[Username]\Documents\Outlook\Files

Because there are so many email clients available, we can’t cover them all. A quick Google search for how to back up your email client’s data should answer this for you.

Files and Folders to Exclude in Backups

You may be tempted to back up every folder that sounds even remotely important. However, doing so will end up wasting space and make your backups take longer to create and restore.

Here are a few Windows files and folders that you can safely ignore.

Drivers

There’s no point in backing up existing drivers. If you didn’t know, a driver is a piece of software that allows Windows to interface properly with a hardware device, such as a keyboard.

Since hardware usually differs from one system to the next, you won’t need the same drivers. If you want, you can back up driver installer files for specific devices. Even then, though, you’ll want to install the latest versions on your new system anyway.

Program Files

Both C:\Program Files and C:\Program Files (x86) (see our explanation of 64-bit Windows What's the Difference Between 32-Bit and 64-Bit Windows? What's the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows? Here's a simple explanation and how to check which version you have. Read More to understand why there are two folders) contain apps that are installed on your system.

You cannot simply copy and paste them to another system and hope that they’ll work, so you don’t need to back up either Program Files folder. Programs rely on other data to work properly, such as Registry entries.

The exception to this is if you’ve installed a portable version of an app. These are designed as self-contained folders, requiring nothing else for the app to run properly. Have a look at some of the best portable apps The Best Portable Apps That Require No Installation Portable apps don't need installation. You can run them from even a flash drive. Here are the best portable apps around. Read More if this sounds interesting to you.

Temp Files

Temp files are exactly that: temporary files. They’re created for specific actions at a point in time and are no longer needed when that task is done. Developers are supposed to clean these up over time, but they often stick around well past their intended use.

Temp files have no use, so don’t bother backing them up.

Windows

You might think all you have to do is copy the C:\Windows folder to back up your operating system, but that won’t work. In addition to the Windows system folder, the OS relies on many other components like the Registry and bootloader. When you install Windows on a new computer, it will have to set this all up anew.

If you want to back up your entire system in one snapshot, you can create a Windows ISO image How to Create an ISO Image of Your Windows System Need to backup and restore Windows without backup tools? It's time to learn how to make an ISO image of your Windows PC. Read More that you can restore at a later point (or on another machine).

Considerations When Deciding on Backups

You’ll notice that most of the important folders live under your account folder in Users. If you don’t want to pick and choose, you can back this entire folder up to get most of your important data in one sweep.

If you’re still having trouble deciding what to back up, we recommend giving the cloud backup program Backblaze a look. With a $6/month or $60/year subscription, it backs up everything important on your computer for you safely to remote servers.

Backblaze Backup

It automatically excludes unnecessary folders like the ones we discussed above, so there’s nothing to decide on your end unless you want to. The service even backs up external drives!

Tips for Backing Up Your System

Now you know what folders you should back up in Windows 10. Anything that’s irreplaceable, like personal documents, photos, and game save data is the most important. You don’t need to back up system files that Windows will replace on a new installation.

Now that you know what to back up, how do you back everything up effectively? Follow our Windows backup and restore guide The Windows Backup and Restore Guide Disasters happen. Unless you're willing to lose your data, you need a good Windows backup routine. We'll show you how to prepare backups and restore them. Read More to find out.

Related topics: Data Backup, File Management, Steam, Windows 10, Windows Tips.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. likefunbutnot
    April 18, 2020 at 2:37 pm

    You can shorten this whole thing, more or less, to backing up the \Users folder. However, the author did not discuss the possibility of someone having Library folders configured outside \Users folder locations.

    Windows has had Libraries since Vista was released. Libraries allow a user to specify extra folders that contain specific types of content. There are pre-configured Libraries for Pictures, Music, Video and Documents and users can also create their own arbitrary libraries with arbitrary folders as well as well. On many desktop Windows PCs, \Users\username\Onedrive\ may also be a library location, for example, and many people with small primary drives or utterly massive data storage needs may also have Library folders configured on other disk drives in their computers. Libraries contain important user data and should also be backed up.

    By default, Libraries can NOT contain Network folders, though this can be fixed with either a Registry change or through use of an application called WinLibraryTool.

    Windows 8 and 10 include a Backup application (found, in all places, in Control Panel or control.exe if you can't find it) with the very unlikely name of Backup and Restore (Windows 7). The default backup will ALWAYS include user libraries, which includes more or less everything on this list aside from perhaps some Save Game data. It's also nice to know that the Backup format Windows uses is a disk image format that can be mounted as a drive letter on another computer or opened with many compression tools such as 7zip and is thus quite flexible.

    Finally, a copy is not a backup. A copy is a copy. Backup tools, employed correctly, will keep previous versions of files already backed up. This can be incredibly helpful if a file is damaged or corrupted somehow, or to get a view of activity at a specific point in time. Copying a bunch of stuff to a portable drive is handy, but for best results, use a tool made for the job of backup.

    • JOSEPH
      April 25, 2020 at 3:28 am

      The article misses one very important thing. If someone using Windows 10 as not switched to Hyper-V (I have not) and are using something like VMware Workstation Pro (I am) and the .vmdk files are 500G (I have that) and if I log into a VM that is stored on that .vmdk that 500G file just changed with the slightest thing like a message like "Welcome to Ubuntu 18.04", then the entire 500G has just changed. The default directory for VMware Workstation Pro is in powershell notation $HOME/Documents/Virtual Machines

      So... VMware Workstation Pro has default directory to store the vmdks has to be changed and move outside of $HOME/Documents because the backup of $HOME changes from about 2-4 gig to 502-504G.

      The default directory where I store a log of my "backup" also has to be changed because ...well I just do not know how my backup will handle a file that is being written to while the backup is going on.

  2. ReadandShare
    April 16, 2020 at 10:38 pm

    Yes, data backup for sure (documents, music, pics, video. Working set. One backup set on premise. One backup set off premise (or cloud if there's versioning). I like the free program "FreeFileSync" for data backup.

    But if you are also going to back up AppData, ProgramData, etc., then you may as well just do "system backup (aka system image backup)" periodically. Macrium Reflect is an excellent, free Windows app for this. With a system backup, you can simply / easily roll back your entire computer -- with everything, all programs, data, settings, etc., etc. exactly as they were the date of your particular backup(s). Easy.

    Finally, I would very strongly advice against using any of Windows 7 or 10's built-in backup tools. They are NOT reliable. Even Microsoft itself has advised using 3rd party tools instead. So be warned (yes, I have been burned multiple times by various Windows backup / restore fails)!

  3. countrymouse
    September 28, 2017 at 10:27 pm

    I've always made a copy now of the AppData. Learned a lesson when chrome was infected by a pesky adware and all my data were almost lost.