Rule of Threes for Survival

The Rule Of Threes – Survival Priorities For Decision Making

Knowing and adapting to the ‘rule of threes‘ could make a difference between life and death when making critical decisions in an environment of potential or actual disaster.

The Rule Of Threes is a way to help remember a set of priorities to sustain life.

Here’s what I mean…

  • You can survive for 3 Minutes without air (oxygen) or in icy water
  • You can survive for 3 Hours without shelter in a harsh environment (unless in icy water)
  • You can survive for 3 Days without water (if sheltered from a harsh environment)
  • You can survive for 3 Weeks without food (if you have water and shelter)

The reason for the Rule of threes is to focus on the most immediate problem first.

The survival rule of 3’s are commonly referenced in the context of outdoor/wilderness survival. However it really doesn’t matter the situation or where it happens… The priorities are relevant, regardless.

The way it works is simple. One example: If your immediate threat to survival is hypothermia, there’s no need to think about how you’re going to get food or water. Because if you’re wet, cold, and shivering, you are going to be out of commission in several (~3) hours. Maybe even dead…

Generally speaking, you can only survive for…

3 MINUTES Without Air

You have to breathe. Your body needs air/oxygen. Someone who is not breathing has only minutes… So, priority #1.

Any situation that impedes breathing (or the blood’s ability to circulate Oxygen) is an immediate survival situation.

An example are those who may have severe asthma or allergic reactions. This could be life threatening without their inhaler or epinephrine. A near-drowning incident. Do you know how to attempt clearing the lungs of a victim who has swallowed so much water they can’t breath? Another example may be someone choking on food. This is a life threatening situation with only minutes to survive.

[ Read: How-to do Adnominal Thrusts ]

3 HOURS Without Shelter (Body Core Temperature)

Shelter. Protection from the elements. Your clothes count too.

This rule of 3 gives you about 3 hours if your body core temperature is unsafe beyond thresholds to regulate. Too cold, or too hot. When analyzing deaths of persons lost in the wilderness, most lose their life due to hypothermia (cold).

Wet and cold. Those are two very bad things. Quite potentially deadly. Seeking shelter / protection from the cold, wind, and wet, can become extremely important in a survival situation.

Obviously (though unfortunately overlooked by many), plan for these conditions on any excursion. Pack for it. I live in the mountains. I can attest to the potential radical difference in temperature and weather conditions just based on elevation. Experienced hikers ‘get this’. However, many others do not.

Staying dry is so very important. Do you have the right clothing with you or on you? What about rain gear? Got an extra pair of dry socks? (for example). The ability and gear to make a temporary shelter? A way to make a fire?

[ Read: Hypothermia – How To Prevent It ]

3 DAYS Without Water

Another really important rule of threes! Generally speaking, you might only survive for about three days without water. Maybe a few more if you’re lucky. But you will become mostly unable to function effectively. This assumes you have not crossed into the temperature range that puts you into the 3 hour zone! (In a really hot environment, you likely will not make it 3 days without water!)

You must stay hydrated. The second leading cause of lost persons death in the wilderness is dehydration. No water to drink. Not being prepared with enough water.

Water is a valuable survival commodity! Always treat suspect water. Although drinking dirty water is better than dying of dehydration!

Being dehydrated hinders the ability of your body to maintain core temperature.

Tip: Don’t eat snow. Only do this as a last resort. The cold snow will lower your body core temperature.

[ Read: Dehydration Symptoms, Prevention ]

3 WEEKS Without Food

Few short term survival situations require food. The human body can survive for weeks without food. We are somewhat inherently adapted to short periods of fasting (starvation). The rule of 3’s here is approximately 3 weeks.

If lost, don’t panic about not having enough (or any) food. Consider your other priorities first, as well as efforts to get out of the situation (and/or rescue).

On the other hand, if your situation appears to be long-term, then yes you will need to somehow acquire food.

One thing though… Without enough calories you will quickly become increasingly unable to help yourself out of the situation.

[ Read: The Best Energy Food Bar For Survival Kit? ]

With that said, you might say that AIR, SHELTER, WATER, FOOD, is the proper priority order for survivability.

Depending on the situation, circumstance, or environment, you might also insert SECURITY as #1 (before AIR) when there is an immediate threat to life. You might say the rule of three for security is 3 seconds…depending…

You might also add the concept of ATTITUDE. A positive attitude to help overcome a stressful situation, and making the right decisions.

Here’s another rule of threes… Someone on the blog said “3 people cannot keep a secret”.

Here’s a thought: A Personal Locator Beacon for hiking.

They operate on the three Cospas-Sarsat satellite systems including the new MEOSAR, ensuring they will offer the near instantaneous signal detection and transmission enabled by the global MEOSAR satellites. Anyone activating a ResQLink PLB can expect their beacon to be located within 100 meters (328 feet), 95% of the time, within 5 minutes of the distress signal. No subscription required.

ResQLink 400 – SOS Personal Locator Beacon with GPS
(view on amzn)

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  1. People need to think about this before they bug out to parts unknown. Make sure you have a good plan before leaving the safety of your home. Unless you have the money to own a well stock retreat plan to stay put. I like to think that I am that mean, lean, marine I once was but common sense tells me that this 66 year old marine and his wife would not make it very long trying to live on the road. I have all the things I need right here at home. Just my two cents input.

      I personally would agree with you 1000%, unfortunately every situation is different, and some should very much research the need to “Bug-Out” (if I live in a 50 story apartment complex in the middle of NYC for instance), as much as those that have decided to “Bug-In”, need to remember there always may be a need to Bug-Out (fire, Nuke fallout, overrun with ISIS, etc.) having an alternate location (retreat) is very important.
      Being flexible is very important, and the ability to gather information (communications) to make the best decision.

      1. Very true and I agree. Some people will have no choice but to bug out. I also have a bug out plan if I have to leave. Most of the people from the big cities will not be welcome in the rural areas and most do not have the skills to survive.

        1. @ RUNNING BEAR
          Hence if you do live in the cities and are planning on using your Groups of three, you have better have a location and have talked to those there about “what if”. AND bring your skills and everything you can. Also stockpile some goods if possible.

          Did not mean to get into Bugging-Out, but I think this ties into the 3’s as maybe “3 days” to find a place to hold up, as the “family” is not going to be able to walk (whatever) longer than that, could you imagine young children in a situation like that, 3 days is all you’re going to get I would bet..

          1. @ Stardust
            You mean like a Pandemic, Grid Down, and Financial Collapse all at the same time?:-( :-( :-(

    2. @ RUNNING BEAR,

      I agree. Running is a young man’s game. Not only is it a young man’s game, it’s a young man/woman who actually knows what the hell they are doing, game. I see on some sites folks describing their bug out bags that must weigh well in excess of a hundred pounds. I respectfully submit they are living in fantasy. I’ve lived a long, full life. I will live, or die, in familiar surroundings.

      1. Amen Dennis,
        Feel the same, this is my home, ill burn it to the ground with me in it before i give her and her contents up to anyone or anything for any reason

    3. With 3 young kids, bugging out is NOT my first option. It’s not that my kids are soft or can’t carry gear. Quite the contrary. Last summer my 4 year old packed in her own gear up a water fall to a hidden lake in the mountains. As a mom, I have to consider their well being (physical and mental), the actual threat and the if bugging out is absolutely NEEDed. With the small group of like minded people near us, I am confident that we would likely be better of bugging in, assuming that option is available.

    4. I’m afraid that I’m in the same boat as you Running Bear, I have a place that I could go to, but it isn’t set up and with my wife gone these last 4 yrs. I guess it doesn’t really matter one way or another

  2. Great reminder Ken, I do it a little differently than yours but the idea is the same;

    1) Three seconds without protection, think Situational Awareness, Firearm Protection
    2) Three minutes without Air, which is pushing the limit for most people?
    3) Three hours without Shelter, less in severe conditions, IE falling into iced lake or river.
    4) Three days without water, unfortunately at 2 days you’re already becoming delusional.
    5) Three weeks without food, again after about two weeks you’re beginning to lose your ability to think correctly
    6) Three months without companionship or outside contact with other people. Loneliness will drive most crazy and delusional quite quickly, think solitary confinement here.
    7) Three years without rebuilding “life as we know it”.

    But those are just my thinking.

    1. @ Kulafarmer
      Hell dude, we just had that…. HAHAHAH
      Unfortunately it looks like 3 more coming.. :-( :-( :-(
      Not sure this country will survive.

      1. I would would like to think we would have three more years, but with things starting to happen so fast, SHTF in three hours, three days or three months!! One thing is certain, daylight is burning, we can’t afford to waste any of if. Every hour of prepping and every dollar spent on preps now will be multiplied many times when compared to those that have choosen other priorities.

        1. @ Being Watched
          I was meaning 3 more decades of HORABLE politicians. Heck I KNOW for a FACT, 3 more years is a definite…

          1. Good for you!!! I’m not going to be the one to wake you up from your dream!!

  3. About 3 minutes without air. When the pumper starts to fail, you might want a bottle of cayenne pepper stored in the kitchen. One doctor stated he never lost someone having a heart attack when giving them a cup of warm water mixed with a tablespoon of cayenne pepper. Administer while they are still having the attack. Takes only a few minutes to start working. You can google this. Another doctor stated he actually revived someone who heart stopped all together with a cup and warm water and cayenne pepper. Some fishy but research seems to verify this works. The pepper balances the blood pressure and feeds the heart. Also the other day my son had a cut he could not get to stop bleeding and he tried cayenne pepper. Stopped right away. Soldiers in WW II all had cayenne pepper to stop bleeding wounds.

    1. Another first aid tool for trauma bleeding is Celox. The military has been using it now for three years and its sold on Amazon and Ready made resources. The use of Celox has saved lives when IED’s were being used against our soldiers in Iraq.

      Cheyenne pepper can also be used against tracking dogs when you’re on foot!
      Remember the movie “Cool Hand Luke”??? One of Paul Newman’s best performances!!

      1. Being Watched, be very careful with celox, it has a tendency to burn the skin around the wound site. Talked to a couple of doc’s, they don’t like celox b/c it is hard to get out of the wound after it sets up.

    2. CEEBEE, the romans also carried ground pepper with them when they went into battle. They used it to stop the bleeding.

    1. Every situation can be differant! When suffering from hyperthermia seconds count! Building a fire and removing wet clothing would be more important, or hypothermia, cooling off with a water soaked towel and drinking water would be more important.

      It all depends on the circumstances and the immenate threats that have to be overcome or elimenated.

        1. You might consider practicing with your skills using your supplies if you haven’t already done so. The placement of a fire big enough to deal with Hyperthermia would depend on if you are alone or with a group, the size and materials of construction of the shelter and whether the shelter is temporary or permenate.

          Good Luck!

          1. most weekends find me doing just that, my only point was that shelter and fire should be your first priority, once that is established you can begin to process water…this refers to a wilderness survival situation, not a shtf bug out…although the priorities are basically the same, saving the need for security and remaining covert.

          2. Beingwatched,

            Hyperthermia is “excessive body temperature”. Hypothermia is “low body temperature.


          3. Yep, I sometimes get them mixed, but the point was made that circumstances will dictate the priorities, example a fire that would generate smoke would not be good for trying to be covert and not being discovered when they start rounding up people to put in FEMA camps. A few cans of sterno when burning won’t generate smoke or odor.

            Being prepared when the bad stuff starts by having a plan A B C and D and having a descent recognition and reaction time of when to change to an alternate plan will be very important. Acting like a deer in headlights may get you killed or put those that are depending on you in danger.

            Different elements of time in different circumstances, well here’s one,
            the commondity of time to prepare is more valuable because we hare getting closer than most realize to the day when the short fuse will be lite!!!

  4. The Bible Sayeth: ‘A threefold cord is not quickly broken.’
    As far as grouping goes, we learned in the Military that small groups of three worked out pretty well. Can take care of themselves a lot better than two.

  5. My opinion regarding the three, shelter, water, food. You will find that every second property around here has an RV trailer or motor home parked for that elusive camping trip or that emergency home. When the SHTF you will find most lakes and streams lined with RVs that have managed to get out of town – the rest will be lined up on all our roadways preventing travel anywhere. Perhaps false freedom with the little dog, the BBQ, the ground carpet and the little fence for your space.

  6. Rule of 3 also applies to items and strategies.

    For example:
    – 3 ways to make fire, to purify water, cut something, shoot, etc.
    – always have at least three plans: A, B and C. Routes to BOL,


  7. People think three minutes without air means drowning or asthma attacks. However, there are others. Smoke from fire, either forest or home is a grave danger. Radiation, too, is a problem. Do you want to breathe radioactive air. In a part of Sweden which received winds from Chernobyl now have a huge cancer increase. Then, volcanic release of ash which is actually fine and sharp rock will cut your lungs. Chemical accidents will also release toxic fumes which you inhale.

    As a Prepper I have a full face swimming mask with the breathing hole covered in G95 ( Bioscarf) fabric. It sits on my night table. Should a chimney fire start during the night, I will be able to see and breathe as I exit.

    Stay frosty.

    1. DW and I both have breathing dificulties. We live in Kentucky but have both noticed more dificulty the past few weeks with all of the wild fires. I don’t know if that is what is causing our problems but it seems possible.

  8. Pandemic, Grid down and financial collapse? Sounds like last February’s Ice Storm that hit my section of the state of OR. Now I am a little bit more ready this time.
    When I was young mobile bug out type of person, I spent a lot of money, time and resources to maintain my truck and to make sure it was in good shape to take me and my stuff where ever I needed to go to at a moment’s notice. I had many backpacks but they all got loaded up in the bed of the truck with a fiberglass shell over the bed.
    Now, I am married with a lot of cats to herd and 1 dog to help manage the herd. I have bags of kibble for the cats and dog. I’ve got lots of food set aside in storage. I am not going to kid myself, bugging out would be a difficult option for me these days. The last time I relocated, I used Allied Van Lines and my wife and I worked as a team to transport 4 cats and 1 dog + ourselves from California to our present location over 10 years ago.

    1. 3hrs without a smoke and/or a stiff drink, …..
      in this messed up world?

      Now, your talking casualties.

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