Grub 2 for booting ISOs on USB disks

Last Modified: Wed, 15 Apr 2015 15:11:35 +0000 ; Created: Fri, 16 Dec 2011 14:55:57 +0000

I like being able to boot various Linux distros from USB sticks. It makes it easy to update to newer versions, is faster, and doesn't require using up DVD-R discs. Previously this required extracting the ISO contents to a USB disk and setting up special boot loaders. I have found a new way using grub2 to just copy the unmodified ISO file to the USB stick without extraction.


  • ISO that supports booting from ISO container
    • Windows 7 doesn't support this
    • Ubuntu 11.04+ do
    • System Rescue CD does
    • Look for Linux distro that supports iso-scan or isoloop
  • USB disk with grub2 bootable MBR
    • Easiest to create in Linux. E-mail me for help in doing so from Windows.
  • grub2 files
    • Easiest to install from Linux with "grub-install"
    • See also Grub2Win - (old project was Grub24DOS -


  1. Setup grub2 on your USB key (FAT32 works and possibly NTFS)
    • grub-install --no-floppy --root-directory=/mnt/sdb1/ /dev/sdb
    • You need Grub 2 (version 1.99 or better)
    • Change out /dev/sdb and /mnt/sdb1/ as appropriate
  2. Copy the ISO to the usb key
    • I use e:\boot\isos for my directory
  3. You must configure boot entries for each boot configuration you want. You can't load the ones built-in to the ISO. See my example below.

Example \boot\grub\grub.cfg

menuentry "Ubuntu 11.10 Desktop x86 (toram)" {
	set isofile="/boot/isos/ubuntu-11.10-desktop-i386.iso"

	loopback loop $isofile
	linux (loop)/casper/vmlinuz boot=casper toram iso-scan/filename=$isofile quiet splash noprompt --
	initrd (loop)/casper/initrd.lz

menuentry "Ubuntu 11.10 Desktop AMD64" {
	set isofile="/boot/isos/ubuntu-11.10-desktop-amd64.iso"

	loopback loop $isofile
	linux (loop)/casper/vmlinuz boot=casper iso-scan/filename=$isofile quiet splash noprompt --
	initrd (loop)/casper/initrd.lz

set isofilename="systemrescuecd-x86-2.4.1.iso"
# Because System Rescue CD's boot loader adds a / when searching as it really likes it in the root of the drive
set isorelativepath="boot/isos/$isofilename"
set isofullpathname="/$isorelativepath"

menuentry "systemrescuecd-x86-2.4.1 (docache setkmap=us)" {
	loopback loop $isofullpathname
	linux (loop)/isolinux/rescuecd isoloop=$isorelativepath docache setkmap=us
	initrd (loop)/isolinux/initram.igz

menuentry "systemrescuecd-x86-2.4.1 x64 Mode (docache setkmap=us)" {
	loopback loop $isofullpathname
	linux (loop)/isolinux/rescue64 isoloop=$isorelativepath docache setkmap=us
	initrd (loop)/isolinux/initram.igz

menuentry "System Rescue CD MemTest86+" {
	loopback loop $isofullpathname
	linux16  (loop)/bootdisk/memtestp

# Not working yet, not sure how to get multiple initramfs working in grub2 like grub1
# See which has a pushed fix not yet released
#menuentry "System Rescue CD NTPASSWD" {
#	loopback loop $isofullpathname
#	linux (loop)/ntpasswd/vmlinuz rw
#	initrd (loop)/ntpasswd/initrd.cgz
#	initrd (loop)/ntpasswd/scsi.cgz