Making a native Windows bootable USB stick (Part 1)

This is in fact incredibly easy and I find it invaluable to keep a bootable USB stick to hand for various purposes including:

  1. Deleting temporary files, etc. that would otherwise be locked or difficult to access
  2. Taking offline backups of files, e.g. “software” or “system” registry hives, or whole systems (make your backup USB hard drive bootable too using the exact same technique)
  3. Resetting forgotten passwords (via temporary replacement of sethc.exe)

In part 1, I’ll cover creating a basic bootable image that can be either built into an ISO for use in virtual environments, or burnt to disc, or copied to USB stick and made bootable. In later parts, I’ll show how we can make the image much more customisable and user friendly – much like the old, but certainly not forgotten, BartPE which is how we had to do things before Microsoft made the WinPE tools available to the masses.

The steps:

  • Install the Windows ADK (Assessment and Deployment Kit, formerly the Automated Installation Kit (AIK)) which is available here
  • Run the “Deployment and Imaging Tools Environment” shortcut that gets created in the Start Menu. Run this with administrative privileges which should give a command prompt.
  • Now we need to copy the required files to a working area so that we can customise them if required. So locate the “copype.cmd” batch file, which on a 64 bit system with the default installation path is in “C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\8.1\Assessment and Deployment Kit\Windows Preinstallation Environment” and run it with the following parameters:
copype.cmd   x86   c:\winpe
  • This should then have created the following folders, with files in some of them, in the destination you selected (c:\winpe in the example above):
  • Now we have the files that can be copied onto a USB stick or drive, which doesn’t have to be empty, and then we just need to make it bootable so copy all folders and files from the “c:\winpe\media” folder to the root of your chosen USB stick, maintaining the same folder structure. The files are barely 200MB in total so you don’t need a particularly large capacity USB stick. Note that there are a fair few locale folders, e.g. “en-gb”, so you should only need to copy the one(s) you need, which is typically “en-us” for US English. For instance, the root of my USB stick looks like this:


  • Once copied, we just need to make sure the USB stick is bootable which is achieved by running the following command in the administrative command prompt, where “G:” is the drive letter of my USB stick:
bootsect /nt60  G: /mbr

If you have multiple partitions on your USB stick, you will also need to ensure that the partition where you’ve copied the boot files to is the active partition. This can be done via the Disk Management snapin (diskmgmt.msc), right clicking on the partition and selecting “Mark Partition as Active”.

That’s it, you should now have a bootable USB stick, as long as your system is USB bootable – sometimes this has to be enabled in the BIOS, the boot order changed so USB comes before the hard disk(s) or, frequently, there is an option immediately after power on to get a one-time boot menu where you can then select to boot off the USB stick.

If you don’t mind losing the contents of the USB stick then instead of copying the files to the stick and making it bootable, you can just use the “MakeWinPEMedia” command in the same command prompt with the /ufd paramter.

To make a bootable ISO image, that can then either be used to boot up a virtual machine or burnt to CD to boot a physical system, run the following command in the same command prompt:

MakeWinPEMedia   /ISO  c:\winpe c:\temp\winpe.iso

When you boot though, you will eventually just get a command prompt, albeit one that has access to all the local file systems and tools built in to the image such as diskpart.exe and net.exe. Whilst a lot can be done from this command prompt, as long as you know the commands you need, such as to copy files off an unbootable system, it’s not very intuitive so in the next instalment I’ll cover how to customise the boot image to give a quasi start menu.


Author: guyrleech

I wrote my first (Basic) program in 1980, was a Unix developer after graduation from Manchester University and then became a consultant, initially with Citrix WinFrame, in 1995 and later into Terminal Server/Services and more recently virtualisation, being awarded the VMware vExpert status in 2009 and 2010. I have also had various stints in Technical Pre-Sales, Support and R&D. I work as a Senior Technical Consultant for HCL, live in West Yorkshire, England; have a wife, three children and three dogs and am a keen competitive runner when not injured.

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