The Rule Of 3: Core Wilderness Survival Explained

Wilderness survival is a topic that has been close to my heart for a very long time. My Dad was always an avid outdoorsman and something of a prepper before that term really became widespread. I spent a huge chunk of my childhood outdoors, not only growing up in the country or camping with the family, but also as part of a Boy Scout Troop with some really Old School Scoutmasters.

This was my early path that led to becoming an Eagle Scout, exploring Alaska after college, and falling in love with the isolated outdoors. Along the way, the “Rule of 3” came up again and again as a great starting rule of thumb to always come back to in an emergency situation.

Being the adventurous type, understanding wilderness survival inside and out wasn’t just common sense for me, it was crucial. So read on to learn more about the survival rule of 3, and some ways to train yourself in safe situations for how to respond to it so you’re ready when a true emergency arrives.

The basics of survival start with the understanding of what is vital to your existence. The rule of 3 for survival is an easy way to remember what is important so you can be prepared the next time you go out into the wilderness.

The Rule Of 3 Explained

The Rule of 3 talks about the various needs of the human body and how long you can go without each. This generally refers to Air, Shelter, Water, & Food in that order (although I have heard some who just attach “severe bleeding” or “icy water” to the 3-minute mark that air has).

The survival rule of 3s is four separate rules that encompass the basics of survival. The understanding of each rule will help you to prepare and keep calm so you can take the appropriate action. Put simple, you can survive;

  • Up to 3 minutes without breathable air (or in icy water or severe bleeding).
  • Up to 3 hours in harsh weather without decent shelter.
  • Up to 3 days without water.
  • Up to 3 weeks without food.

While there are some variations depending on the conditions, for the most part, they serve as a reminder about how long you can survive under each circumstance. The rules are designed to focus your mind on the most immediate issue and solve it before you move on to something else.

Read: Here are top 10 Survival Tips of Bear Grylls.

This is often a best case scenario, but it is meant as a practical rule of thumb that creates a foundation you can then build off of. If you are breathing clearly, out of the icy water, and not severely injured or bleeding, then you have three hours to find decent shelter from the harsh environment. If you can find (or create) that shelter, then you have 3 days to worry about water. If you can get even a bit of water, you have a full 3 weeks before food does you in.

What is the Goal?

The Rule of Three serves a variety of purposes. First, it’s an easy way to remember how much time you have for each necessary. Second, it’s set up so you remember the order of what’s important. Yes, food and water are important, but if you’re in a desert or blizzard, your mind needs to snap to attention and take care of shelter first. Each step buys you more time to take care of the next issue.

This means the 3 3 3 rule allows you to focus when your brain is scattered or panicked, as well as easily keeping in mind what your main priorities in a survival situation are. Being able to focus on what’s most important is crucial in any wilderness survival situation.

Dealing With Air Issues

The worst air issue you could find yourself with is choking. Three minutes is optimistic if you find yourself choking because there’s a good chance unconsciousness is going to strike first. Ideally, someone you’re with knows the Heimlich but what you can do to prepare is to learn the self-Heimlich maneuver.

Beyond choking your most common issues would come potentially from asthma attacks, a life-threatening allergy (like a bee sting on the throat), or extreme altitude issues. Fortunately, most of these can be handled. If you have asthma you should always have an inhaler on hand. If you have allergies, always carry medication.

For example,

I always carry six tabs of Benadryl on me. Generally speaking, a bee sting shouldn’t be fatal for me in most situations. Even several shouldn’t be unless a rash gets me on my neck at once. Benadryl might not work like an asthma inhaler or epee pen, but it greatly reduces or stops swelling in my case.

Even if that’s just enough to barely keep me breathing for a day until the body starts healing itself, that is better than being dead!

When the altitude is making things harder, remember that the body adjusts over time and slowly and safely making your way down even 1,000 feet can have a major positive effect in making it easier to breathe.

So to review:

  • Learn the self-Heimlich maneuver
  • Always carry medication if you have potentially life-threatening allergies
  • Understand unique challenges from altitude
  • Brainstorm unique potential air issues with a survival specialist

Dealing With Shelter Issues

Extreme environments can absolutely devastate you. Whether it’s the desert and temperatures soaring in the triple digits without offering any shade or being stuck outside unexpectedly when a blizzard comes in, an extreme environment can quickly turn deadly well before food and water become issues.

A good shelter is going to vary depending on what type of situation you’re dealing with. In a desert, this means shade that brings much-needed relief from direct sunlight and hopefully a temperature drop in that area.

In a snowy or sleet filled situation that means preferably a small area with a solid roof whether cave or a created shelter using branches and pine boughs to keep all moisture out. You’ll also want a fire in those cases.

According to a Washington Post article that cites reliable CDC numbers more die from cold than heat, although hundreds die each year from overexposure to both. Many of these can be prevented if the proper precautions are taken ahead of time.

Remember that…

The main idea behind a shelter is helping you to keep your core body temperature at the right place so you can survive. In hot temperatures that means staying cool. In cold temperatures that means staying warmer. Always tell individuals where you will be heading during a trip or outing and bring even basic survival gear with you even if you don’t think you’ll need it.

One of my experiences:

One time in Alaska while visiting a state park across the bay via water taxi we ended up unexpectedly falling behind and missing the water taxi back. Because of tides that meant we were stuck for at least 16 hours. Not a big deal except no food, no drinks, and those gnarly storm clouds rolling in as the temperature dropped.

While we did a lot wrong in prepping for that day trip, we did a few things right. Three of us had cotton balls for kindling and lighters/fire starters. We all had long sleeve shirts or jackets on top of the jeans & t-shirts, we had knives and survival hatchets, and we knew shelter didn’t have to be fancy, just functional since people knew we were there and would look for us in the morning.

We used some down branches and harvested some pine boughs, long “prairie grass” in from the beach and made a functional roof at the edge of the treeline and had a fire going in an hour. It wasn’t the most comfortable next 16 hours, but we made it with no real risk of dying because we were prepared.

Practice using these tools or honing these skills at a local campsite when the weather is nice that way you’re in a safe area mastering skills so you can be confident in them when a real disaster strikes.

So to review:

  • Learn multiple ways to start a fire, always have tinder on hand
  • Discover multiple ways to build a shelter
  • Always have changes of clothes on hand
  • Always have tools for cutting or building
  • Prepare for the most likely potential survival scenarios

Dealing With Water Issues

Water is far more important than food, and that was my first introduction to the Rule of Three while in Scouts. 3 days for water, 3 weeks for food. That stark contrast showed just how important water was in a survival or emergency situation, and this definitely holds up in the wild.

One of the easiest things to do is carry around some water purification tablets or a “Lifestraw” type device whenever heading into woods or non-desert areas. This gives you many options when it comes to drinking water that would otherwise make you sick but instead can be “instantly” filtered instead.

Always Remember Rule of 3 in WildernessEven if you find yourself without any way to boil or filter water, in a true emergency situation you are almost always better off drinking polluted dirty water when at death’s door instead of taking a chance of dying of dehydration.

Note that…

Even contaminated water often takes time to affect your system and you’re still buying yourself time to survive.

Bring along plenty of water in case you become trapped or lost in the wilderness. You may want to bring along two sources of water so that if something happens to one, you’ll have a backup. Plus, if you are out on the water or in the ocean, a water pump that filters out the salt and impurities will help you get what you need.

So to review:

  • Know where local potential water sources are located
  • Always have water purification tablets or filters on hand
  • If desperate, drink water and deal with consequences later

Dealing With Food Issues

outdoor foodFood is the least important because if people are looking for you and you’ve done a good job of handling air, shelter, and water then chances are you’ll be able to get found prior to this being a serious problem.

There are a few places that have a true lack of food available with a little bit of training and remember that 3 weeks is for no food at all. Even having a 12 pack of granola bars or a small jar of peanut butter can keep you going weeks longer, especially if you have any excess body fat. That being said, the longer you go without food the more tired you’ll get.

Few Life Saving Tips:

Do research ahead of time to see what grows naturally. Are there acorns and walnuts? Wild berries? Can you dig for insects to cook or worms? While not necessarily appealing even after cooking, those are calories. They are nutrients. Also, do the study ahead of time to see what might be available and don’t take a chance on wild food like you might get with water – mistakes here can be deadly and that would be tragic if rescue was only a day or two away and you had a week or two left to go without food.

So to review:

  • Study local wild food sources
  • Have calorie dense food with you on any outing
  • Train ahead of time on how to spot and catch (forage) food in the wild
  • Don’t take chances

In Conclusion

Survival is never easy. Knowledge goes a long way but certainly doesn’t guarantee success. However, without knowledge, your chances go from slim to none. Practicing the various skills you’ll need to be prepared for any Rule of Three situations in a normal campsite during a weekend camping trip or other safe places when there’s no pressure is the best way to get comfortable and strengthen your skills for when a real emergency comes along.

Remember the Rule of Three, train for it, and you’ll drastically increase your chances of survival.