When Safe Mode Doesn’t Work – How To Save Your Mac


I’ll be one of the first to admit that I’m a huge Mac geek. In fact, I was actually a member of the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group when I was 12 years old so my geekdom goes back for quite a while. My first Mac was the original Mac Classic and then moved onto the Quadra 605 and since then have been a big Powerbook/Macbook fan.

Once you use a Mac it’s hard to use a PC again and I find that Apple keeps putting out better and better computers. We currently have five Macs in our place with two laptops as our main computers. Daina uses one of the new MacBook Air’s and I have a 13″ Pro with 16 GB of RAM, and yes I recommend maxing out the RAM on every Mac you get.

Okay enough time talking about my Mac fanaticism, let’s get into saving your poor Mac that can’t startup in Safe Mode. While Apple does make some of the most reliable computers on the planet, like any computer they can crash or even worse have trouble booting up.

When this happens the first thing you’ll want to do is try to boot up in Safe Mode. To do this hold the Shift key on your Mac after you hear the chime. This is where most troubleshooting articles end, they always defer to fixing things in Safe Mode. But what do you do if you can’t boot into Safe Mode?

Yes, this can happen and when it does, some UNIX chops can save your life, or you can learn all you need to get the job done from this post. So Safe Mode isn’t working, read on and I’ll teach you how to go a step further.

When booting hold the Option key on your Mac as you are powering up. You will now see two options, your regular Hard Drive and a Recovery Hard Drive. That’s right, Apple has a Recovery Hard Drive sitting there waiting for you, however when you see the next screen you might think your opportunity to backup is gone. Incorrect! You can still recover your data.

To do this go to the Utilities Menu on the following screen and select Terminal. You now have full access to your hard disk using the terminal. With a few UNIX commands you can backup whatever you want onto an external hard drive.

First you’ll want to find your data, the first UNIX command you need to know is:

cd – change directory

Type this command and the directory name and you will change directories. You can use this to hop around from directory to directory. However, you might not remember all the names of your directories. To see a list you’ll need this handy UNIX command:

ls – list directory contents

This will show you the contents of the directory you are in, or any other directories if you want to type the full path. With “ls” and “cd” you can now traverse your old drive and find what you want to backup.

You’ll find your external drive in /Volumes/. All you need to do is make a new folder on your external drive, you do this with the UNIX command:

mkdir – make directory

Make a directory and then use the last command I’m going to teach you to copy files to that directory and off of your poor broken Mac. The command you need is:

cp – copy

All you need to do is type something like:

cd /Volumes/Macintosh\ HD/Users/YourName/ /Volumes/YourExternalDrive/Backup

Once you’ve backed-up everything you need you can leave the Terminal and do a nice fresh install of Mac OS X. Good as new and if you used Time Machine then in a few minutes everything will be back up and running as per usual! If not, then you followed my steps above and have saved everything you wanted from your computer.

So just because Safe Mode isn’t working, doesn’t mean there’s no hope!


{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Jason Smythe December 18, 2012, 2:05 am

    Thanks for the info Morgen. Good to know for a noobie! Just a question, you say “13″ Pro with 16 GB of RAM”; do you find your mac runs very hot and the fans stay on? Or does it have an opposite effect because it’s not going to so much effort?

    • Morgan December 18, 2012, 2:45 pm

      Glad you liked it @Jason. I find that the fan is almost never on since everything happens in RAM. Often the fan spins when the Hard Drive is spinning and neither happens when everything is easily accessible via RAM.

  • Brandon January 16, 2013, 9:37 pm

    Hey Morgan,

    I held Option as I powered up as said in the article, but when I got to the hard drive selection screen, only one hard drive (the standard Mac HD one) appears, no recovery hard drive. I am then forced to select Mac HD and go through a failed Safe Mode boot. What should I do here?

    • Morgan January 17, 2013, 1:02 pm

      Hi @Brandon, it sounds like you might not have a recovery drive, in this case you should boot from the system install CD.

  • subhan September 26, 2013, 1:30 pm

    I got a kernel panic after my mac book pro restarted after the latest update from appstore.
    I held the shift key to start up using the safe mode but nothing Happenes, the spinning gear appears and the mac restarts.

  • subhan September 27, 2013, 2:58 am

    I tired to start it on safe mode but nothing happened, even after holding shift it goes to the same routine and restarts due to kernel panic.
    I can’t start my mac book pro in safe mode.

  • Andi November 20, 2013, 9:39 am

    What if I do that, and my terminal is shaded? Is all lost? If I’m really desperate. Can I pull my hard drive out and put in case and read it on another computer?

  • JONATHAN MARTINEZ October 6, 2016, 2:10 am

    I followed the steps to boot up the recovery hard drive but now it’s stuck on a grey screen with the apple logo.. what else can I do

  • Jamie Moodie August 14, 2018, 8:45 am

    It doesn’t work for me when I boot with options I get just my Mac hd drive

    I’ve been into dis utilities to back up (command R ) when re booting but safe or any other boot mode doesn’t work and in disc utility I’ve cleaned up and reloaded xos and nothing works



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