As you start to learn about survival, you will find that there are several concepts that are the standard for learning the basics. Understanding the survival rule of 3 is important because it can be difficult to come up with a survival plan when panic sets in.
Just imagine you are on a simple hiking trip and decide to take a shortcut from one trail to another. You hike for a few hours and realize that you should have made it to the other trail by now. There is just an hour or two of daylight left, and everything looks the same.
You try to turn back in the direction you came, but there is no way to make it back to your trail before dark. It looks like you will need to survive at least until daylight so you can try to hike out. This means you must prioritize how you spend your time and energy to maximize your chances of survival. The rule of threes will help you with that. In this article, we will cover how the rule of threes can help you come out alive when the odds are against you in the wild.
What is the Rule of Three?
The rule of threes 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. Please understand that this is a gross generalization. Every person and every situation are going to be a little different. This rule is just intended to help you prioritize how you spend your time and effort.
The rule of threes has been emphasized for decades in an effort to help focus survivalists. Often when people first learn about wilderness survival, they focus on food right away. While food is important, it is not in any way your top priority. In a survival scenario, you should simply go down the threes in order and decide where you need to spend your time.
Three Minutes Without Air
This particular point of focus is probably the one that is discussed the least. Most people assume that if you go without air for any period of time, you will die. While damage is happening to your brain from lack of oxygen, there are various points at which that damage can stop. This will determine if you come out of the scenario normal, injured, or dead.
At three minutes without oxygen, the brain starts to become damaged. From this point forward, every second counts. In this window of about three to five minutes without air, the person goes from normal to brain dead as part of a gradual transition. The point at which they are given oxygen will determine how much damage was done.
This rule is important for drowning scenarios, allergic reactions, avalanches, mudslides, earthquakes, home fires, attempted suffocation, choking, or any other situation in which the supply of oxygen is cut off. If there is no supply of oxygen, this is always your top priority.
Three Hours Without Warmth
Hypothermia is the number one cause of death for people in survival scenarios. Yes, there are times you could be surviving in a hot, dry climate. However, even in these climates, the nighttime temperature drops significantly. It is possible to die from hypothermia even in the desert.
This is the condition in which your internal body temperature drops below 95F. At this point, your internal organs start to shut down, and it eventually leads to death. Any cold climates can quickly cause hypothermia if you do not work to preserve your internal body temperature.
The fastest way to do this is with fire. Building a fire can warm you up instantly, but you must have the right supplies. You will need to find dry, fluffy tinder, kindling sticks, and fuel logs. If these materials are wet, starting a fire is almost impossible. You also need a firestarter like a lighter or a ferro rod. If you get a fire started, you can warm up in just minutes. Just be sure that you have enough wood to keep you warm through the night.
Shelter is another option to get warm. While it takes longer to build a shelter than it does to build a fire, you can build a shelter in wet conditions. Any sort of insulation or protection from wind and rain will help you survive. You must do everything you can to stay dry and warm.
Your internal body temperature will drop 20 times faster when your skin is wet versus when your skin is dry. You must do everything you can to get dry and stay dry in a survival scenario. Signs of hypothermia are confusion, disorientation, uncontrollable shivering, pain, numbness, and eventually death.
Three Days Without Water
Water is one of the most important resources for survival. No matter what environment you find yourself in, water will be a priority. Any physical activity will increase your water consumption. Exposure to the sun or to wind will increase water consumption. Extreme hot or cold temperatures will increase your water consumption. Illness, injury, or lack of sleep will increase your water consumption.
Basically, water is everything. The rule of threes states that you can go three days without water, but that is under normal circumstances. All of these other stresses that weigh down on you while surviving in the wilderness will reduce how long you can go without water. The point is that you need to be looking for drinking water from the moment you realize your life is at risk.
To find water there are lots of tips and tricks. The most important thing to remember is that water always flows down. The lower the elevation, the better your chances are of finding water. You can also look for areas where the trees and bushes are greener. Typically, this is a sign of more ground water.
Waterborne pathogens can cause vomiting and diarrhea that will cause even more dehydration. Water should be purified by boiling, with a filter, or with iodine tablets. There are other ways to purify water, but these are the most effective methods. Having the right gear, especially a backpack water filter is key to making sure you have clean water on the go.
Three Weeks Without Food
While you can absolutely survive three weeks without food, starvation will start to affect you long before death. Every day you will be working on a calorie deficit. This means that you are burning more calories than you are consuming. It is normal to burn 5,000 to 10,000 calories a day in the sun or cold, working all day on survival tasks. We wrote a full length article – how long can you go without food? – here that covers this in more detail.
On the other side of this equation, you must bring in calories to keep going. You can forage for wild edibles, trap small game, set fish traps, or try primitive hunting. Whatever path you take, you need to try to bring in some fats and proteins.
As your body deals with starvation, it starts to literally eat itself. It will start by burning fat reserves for the calories it needs to survive. If you keep going without food, it will start burning muscle and organ tissue. This is where things get dangerous.
Long before you die of starvation, you will become weak and confused. You will hurt all over and become severely depressed. You will lack the coordination and motivation you need for tasks like collecting water and firewood. It is possible to die of other issues because you are too weak to complete survival tasks. It is also common to slip and fall, get lost, or cut yourself when weak and confused from starvation. Be sure you have a plan to get some food in your belly.
As you can see, there are arguments for each and every one of these resources. They are all incredibly important. The point of this rule is to push you to evaluate every scenario and decide how to use your time and energy. No two situation are exactly the same. You must run through these priorities and make a plan for survival.
Just knowing the rule of threes puts you miles ahead of the average person for survival awareness. Now it is time to take it to the next step. Learn more about these four priorities and how to achieve them. Practice as often as you can whether in the back yard or in the wild. Be sure you are ready to go after the rule of threes when your life depends upon it.