Transform a USB stick into a boot device packing multiple Linux distros

  Last modified on Sunday 21 May 2017


Transform removable USB storage into a dual-purpose device that is both a storage medium usable under Linux, Windows, and Mac OS and a GRUB boot device capable of loopback mounting Linux distro ISO files. [1]

Depends: grub2, bash, sudo, rsync

Let's go!

WARNING! In this HOWTO the USB device is identified as sdx and contains a single partition sdx1. Make careful note of the drive and partition labels on your system. The following steps will destroy all data currently stored on the device.

0. Format

Create a FAT32 partition on the unmounted USB device ...

$ sudo mkfs.vfat -n MULTIBOOT /dev/sdx1

1. Boot and iso

Mount the USB device to MOUNTPOINT and create a boot folder for GRUB files and a iso folder to hold Linux distro images ...

$ mkdir -p /media/MOUNTPOINT/boot/{grub,iso,debian}


Install GRUB to the Master Boot Record (MBR) of the USB device at MOUNTPOINT ...

$ sudo grub-install --target=i386-pc --force --recheck --boot-directory=/media/MOUNTPOINT/boot /dev/sdx

3. Linux images

Download Linux distro image (ISO) files and place in the newly-created boot/iso folder on the USB device. I have installed ...

3.1 Debian Netinst

Problem: This was a bit tricky to get working. Selecting firmware-8.7.1-ARCH-netinst.iso from the GRUB menu would get things started but the install would fail at the stage where the ISO needs to be located and mounted. Debian's netinst images do not include the iso-scan package , which is required for searching and loading ISO images.

Fix: Bypass the initrd.gz that is on the ISO images and use ones that do contain the iso-scan package, [2] which I retrieved from the hd-media installers ...

$ mkdir /media/MOUNTPOINT/boot/debian/install.{amd,386}
$ cd /media/MOUNTPOINT/boot/debian/install.amd
$ wget
$ cd .. /install.386
$ wget

4. GRUB configuration

Create boot/grub/grub.cfg and write entries for the ISO files to be copied to the USB device. Note that each Linux distro is a bit different in the manner its booted by GRUB and may require a bit of research. This post on boot entries for a number of distributions on the Arch Linux Wiki might prove helpful.

Link: My own grub.cfg.sample.

5. Run

All done! Reboot. Configure the BIOS to accept removable USB storage as boot device. Reboot and GRUB displays a menu of the Linux distros installed on the USB device. Launch and enjoy!

When finished, simply reboot and return to using the USB device as a VFAT-formatted storage medium.

6. GRUBS Reanimated USB Boot Stick

I created the GRUBS shell script that prepares USB storage devices using the above steps and uploaded it to GitHub.

Happy hacking!


[1]Image credit: Flickr user Peter via Creative Commons, retrieved from InsideClimate News.
[2]Helpful in figuring out the iso-scan package wrinkle: Multi-boot stick update

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