The Survival Rule of 3 Broken Down

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You've probably heard the term passed around here and there. The Survival Rule of 3. In reality, it would be better labeled as a survival principle than a rule, but regardless it serves as an excellent 'rule' to follow when prioritizing your survival needs.

What is the Survival Rule Of 3

You’ve probably heard the term passed around here and there. The Survival Rule of 3. In reality, it would be better labeled as a survival principle than a rule, but regardless it serves as an excellent ‘rule’ to follow when prioritizing your survival needs.

The basic concept of the survival rule of 3 is straightforward. You can survive three minutes without air. You can survive 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment. You can survive three days without water. And, you can survive three weeks without food. The general intent of the Survival Rule of 3 is to help an individual or group prioritize their survival priorities in a wilderness survival situation. While the specific survival scenario could cause a shift in priorities the rule of 3 gives us a mental guide to consider in our planning process.

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Below we’ll break those down, but first, let’s lay out the most common 3’s and work off that list.

  • 3 seconds without hope
  • 3 minutes without oxygen/air
  • 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food

There are some other expansions as well, but I think adding too much muddies the water and defeats the intent of offering a simple and easy to remember checklist for survival. In fact, I think adding hope is even a bit too much for the rule, however, I consider it one of the most important factors in a survival situation. Given that, let’s tackle hope first.

3 Seconds without HOPE

Hopeful man walking in forest

As I said I’m not a huge fan of incorporating hope into the rules of three, but conceptually I absolutely agree with the message. Hope is essentially our mental drive and is imperative to our existence. Even more so in a wilderness survival situation or any critical situation for that matter. If you’ve ever watched some of the popular survival reality shows you’ve certainly seen this play out time and time again as the contestants quit. Nine times out of ten it’s because they simply lost the will (hope) to make it through. Once you internally give into despair and hopelessness you will continue in a downward spiral further complicating your already poor circumstances. That’s why disaster preparedness, survival training, and a generally prepared mindset is so important to gain ahead of time. These steps allow you to build confidence in your ability to mitigate a critical situation when you unexpectedly end up in one. Whether it lasts 3 hours, 3 Days, 3 Weeks, or longer if you have the right mindset and a little skill you can weather the storm and make it out alive in an outdoor survival situation.

3 Minutes without Oxygen / Air

Rule of 3 fire

This is another one that I’m somewhat torn on including in the Rule of 3 though is virtually always included when instructed by survival experts. Once again I absolutely agree with the intent and message as I’ll cover here in a second, but I also think we’re somewhat overcomplicating a simple concept. Call me what you will, but I like the idea of rounding it all off with three…three rules of three. Even so, we always include this as well in our training (I accept the fact I have some eccentricities in some areas and give into majority rule at times).

The bottom line is the concept is spot on and important in understanding as you build out your basic survival skills. That’s not to say you can’t hold your breathe or live without oxygen for longer than 3 minutes, but rather it’s placement in prioritizing. It really doesn’t matter if you can hold your breath for 15 minutes, if you are currently being deprived of oxygen while submerged in icy water it’s probably not the time to build a shelter or forage for food. Some obvious wilderness survival scenarios that come to mind with this would be water immersion and a forest fire. A realistic scenario I could imagine a survivalist getting in trouble in would be in the case of a fire and trying to salvage their established resources before evacuating to safety. Always keep in mind that it doesn’t matter how much water and food you saved if you suffocate from a lack of breathable air and die on the way out.

3 Hours without Shelter in a Harsh Environment

Improvised Shelter in woods
Improvised Shelter

The shelter rule is a good one and one that the survivalist needs to apply some critical thinking to. Once again in concept, it’s pretty straightforward as long as we don’t ignore the closing portion of the rule ‘Harsh Environment’. Shelter many times you’ll find may actually follow the need for water, at a minimum location of a water source. But, that is certainly not always the case in extreme conditions. The most blaring survival situation that comes to mind is that of extreme cold weather. In this scenario hypothermia is a real and present danger that needs to be dealt with quickly before anything else. However, if it’s clear blue and 22 with ninety-degree temperatures you may need to locate a water source first. Ultimately you want to use your good sense and judgment in this area of prioritization all the while keeping a holistic survival mindset as you go. What I mean by this is that recognizing shelter is a need and so is water (along with all your needs) and find the best way to work them together and by priority. If the environment is conducive I would seek a drinkable water source while looking for a good shelter location and supplies along the way. Ideally, I can place my shelter in relatively fair proximity to my water source to minimize energy expenditure while meeting my survival needs. As you build your EDC (everyday carry) and survival kit keep this priority in mind. Some small and basic things to include are a fire starting source (granted it’s not shelter-related per se, but fire provides heat helping to mitigate cold temperatures), a space blanket or tarp, and cordage.

3 Days without Water

Water man at ocean

This one is a killer! Human survival depends on water! Depending on your level of preparedness and skillset when you find yourself in the given survival situation this one can get you in a number of ways. Unlike oxygen deprivation and freezing temperatures dehydration can sneak up on you and grab you before you know it. In my personal opinion, one of the biggest benefits of sharing the rules of 3 is it helps solidify hydration as a priority in the survivalist’s mind. I have often been surprised by many students over the years being overly concerned about food rather than water when conducting a basic survival course. I suppose this is understandable. At this point, they are just learning and food is probably the most intimidating menu (pun intended)on the survival list. In reality, locating and establishing clean water is a much higher priority. That’s not to say that you walk right past that edible plant without gathering it, but depending on its water content you may want to wait on eating it (think watermelon vs oats). The bottom line is dehydration is a real and present threat in most situations and should quickly be addressed (given our discussed priorities). Ideally, you keep some basic supplies in your EDC of field bag that helps facilitate this requirement, such as water purification tablets or water filters. Also, don’t forget that boiling water is a simple way to make your water potable without the former.

3 Weeks without Food

Corn as a survival food

Food is our final survival priority. That’s not to say it’s not important, but it is important that you recognize where it falls on the list as you prioritize your survival needs. You can actually go a fairly long time without food, and in most cases long enough to either escape the condition or be recovered. That’s not the case with the other priorities. I don’t want to come across as saying to completely ignore food. That’s not the case at all. Food can be quite a challenge to acquire in certain environments and just like your other survival needs should be ever-present on your mind. As I mentioned earlier I’m a fan of a holistic survival approach. That said you shouldn’t spend your effort setting traps if you haven’t yet established a water supply. A great relatively small mitigator for this upfront is to throw a few high-calorie bars in your survival kit. I also like to pack some gel packets as well. I find them to be extremely helpful if I’m moving pretty hard on a calorie deficit. They give a great kick, but you also bottom out in the end. Keep in mind as mentioned above, do not consume (most) food until you have water available. There is no need to help usher in dehydration just because you’re hungry.

Survival Rule of 3 Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of the article I don’t so much consider the Survival Rule of 3 hard fast rules, but more so a guiding principle to help the survivalist properly prioritize their needs. As you continue to expand your survival skills and knowledge these collective tidbits can greatly contribute to your success should you find yourself truly isolated. Remember to always stay calm and take a second to critically think through your priorities as you begin to create your game plan and above all else don’t give up (HOPE)!

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