You face all kinds of threats when you are surviving in the wilderness. If you have done much studying on survival, you have seen the rule of threes. This states that you can survive three minutes without air, three hours without warmth from fire or shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.
So, I guess that is your answer. You can survive three weeks without food. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Starvation causes side effects that can make lots of other survival tasks more difficult. In addition, there are lots of other variables that will affect exactly how long you personally can survive.
In this article, we are going to break down what happens to your body when you go without food. We will cover the variables that affect survival from starvation and also some desert foods that might keep you alive.
How Long can you Really Survive?
Yes, the general rule is that you can survive about 21 days without food. However, this is just a standard rule. There are lots of different factors that affect the how long you can go without food. It is not the same for everyone. It depends a lot on your body type and on how much work you do on a daily basis.
Some people might make it 30 days, and some people might only make it two weeks. The value of the rule of threes is that it helps you to prioritize how you spend your time and energy. The way the rule is structured that air, fire, shelter, and water should come before food. That is absolutely true. However, it does not mean you can completely ignore your caloric needs.
What Factors Affect This?
Let’s talk about specifically what variables will affect how long you can go without food. The most obvious one may be body type. If you start the process with 35% body fat, you will typically survive longer than if you start the process with 8% body fat. As the body goes without food, its first caloric reserve is body fat. That is what it will burn to give you the calories you need to keep going. The more body fat you have, the longer you will last.
Another variable that must be considered is the general health of the person in question. If the person has any illnesses or injuries, that will speed up the starvation process. The body uses additional caloriess to heal from illness and injury. Yet another medical factor is the person’s metabolism. A person with a high metabolism is going to burn calories faster than a person with a low metabolism. This will reduce how long you can go without food.
Finally, caloric expenditure will greatly affect how fast a person starves to death. The more calories you burn, the harder it will be on your body. That is why you often see survivalists on television warning people to not work too hard. Sometimes they even spend the majority of the day resting in the shade. These strategies will preserve calories and help you survive longer without food.
What Happens to Your Body?
The transformation of your body during the starvation process is a scary one. After just a couple days, your body will start to burn body fat to keep you moving. Your body is literally eating itself. At this point you will have cramps and stomach pangs, headache, nausea, weakness, high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and mild body aches. The body will continue to survive on fat until the reserves are almost gone.
At this point the body starts burning muscle and organ tissue including brain matter. Muscles start to shrink, organs do not work as efficiently, and your brain can reduce in size by almost 30%. Side effects at this point include severe depression, migraine, severe body aches, confusion, disorientation, and lack of coordination. This will continue until your organs start to fail.
The real danger with starvation is not dying from starvation. The more immediate threat is dying from dehydration, hypothermia, or injuries dues to the side effects of starvation. With these side effects it can be difficult to get up and collect and purify drinking water. If you do get up and start hiking to a water source, it is easy to get lost or to trip and fall in your current state.
It can be tough to collect and split firewood. I’ve seen several survivalists cut themselves with an axe or knife due to a lack of coordination from starvation. If you do not get the wood collected and split, you could die from hypothermia that night. So how long you can survive without food must factor in these other potential scenarios due to starvation.
Weird Places to Find Food
Even just a few calories here and there can greatly help with the side effects of starvation. They can also help you survive longer. The factor most people do not consider is the boost in morale you get from even a small meal. There are certain environments that make it especially hard to find food. However, you can always scrape something up if you know where to look. Here are a few weird places to find food in nasty environments:
Finding Food in the Desert
The desert is so dry and has such dramatic temperature changes from day to night that it is amazing anything could survive there. You will not find a wide variety of foods in the desert, but there are a few you can bank on. Prickly pear cactus is edible once you prep it. You need to use your knife to cut off the spines and thick outer rind. The interior meat can be eaten raw or cooked and has a high water content making it ideal for survival. However, cactus is acidic and can really upset your stomach if you eat too much.
Finding Food in the Tropics
Whether you are stranded on a desert island or you are stuck in the jungle, tropical climates can be brutal for finding food. There are so many poisonous plants that you must avoid, it makes collecting any food a risk. Coconuts are commonly found in tropical climates. You can eat the meat and drink the coconut water for a good source of electrolytes. In addition, the palm fronds are great for building shelters since you are already there. Heart of palm is a nice sugary treat as well. If you find a young tree and cut into it at the base of the trunk, there should be an interior core of heart of palm.
Finding Food in the Arctic or Northern Forests
The arctic north is another harsh climate that is scarce with food sources. If you are not too far north, you will still have some trees in the low-lying areas. Trees can be your food source. You can tap trees like maple or birch and drink the syrup that comes out. It is full of sugars and electrolytes. You can also eat the interior bark if you shave away the first layer. There was a whole tribe of Native Americans in the Northeast that was known for eating bark to survive the winters. You can make spruce tea for a boost of vitamin C and look for pine nuts for some protein and fats as well. If you find bear droppings, you can pick out the berries and nuts as these are not fully digested.
It is safe to say that how long you can go without food is a complicated question. You really don’t know how long you will live unless you factor in all of these other variables. The most important thing to remember is that food is not your top priority, but it is still a priority. Once you have established fire, water, and shelter, food should be your next task. It should be a focus every single day. Whether you are gathering wild edibles, spearfishing, or setting traps for small game, you should always be doing something to bring in calories. This will keep those negative side effects to a minimum so you can keep going.
Best Emergency Survival Kits
Always be prepared! Check out some of these survival kits for emergencies.