Rule of 3 Survival in the Wilderness: Air, Shelter, Water & Food

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By Michael Major •  8 min read

The Survival Rule of 3s in its simplest form is 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. It is a way for people to remember how the elements of survival should be prioritized. The rule of threes is also useful to consider when designing and packing survival kits.

In this article, we will be covering:

Is the rule of 3 true?

Survival Rules of 3

The rule of 3 is true in certain circumstances. The use of the number three is more to do with ease of remembering the rules than being 100% factual 100% of the time.

As I cover the rules in greater detail, you will see that they are more of a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule.

The most important thing to remember about the rule of threes is the order in which they address the most immediate problem. This is the main point to remember.

Wilderness Survival Rules of 3

As you read through these, remember that the timelines are not set in concrete. Rather, the order in which they are listed will help in your decision-making abilities as they relate to your survival priorities.

Rule #1: 3 Minutes Without Air

single person, three minutes without air

When we stop breathing, after 3 to 4 minutes the brain starts to die, so on average, this rule is true.

There are several reasons that we would be deprived of oxygen some of which are, choking, water submersion, confined spaces, building fires, chemical or gas leaks, etc.

Whatever the reason you can not breathe, the method for survival remains the same.

It is possible to hold your breath for extended periods but this takes practice and preparation and in a true survival situation you are probably going to be taken off guard and without lungs full of air.

How to Survive with Limited Oxygen

oxygen is your first priority
bubbles, icy water, bubbly

Rule #2: 3 Hours Without Shelter

adequate shelter is needed in a harsh environment

Being able to survive for only three hours without shelter normally applies to extreme conditions.

That being said it is possible to die of exposure in a short time if you are soaking wet even in a mild climate. The two environmental extremes that run the greatest risk of killing you in three hours are the cold and the heat.

Storms can also be grouped into this rule since rain and wind, even if not cold, can suck the heat right out of you by lowering your body temperature.

How to Survive in Extreme Cold

effectively prepare for a harsh environment in the great outdoors, stay warm by wearing the proper attire
snowflakes, snow, snowfall

How to Survive in Extreme Heat

increasing energy levels generate heat

Rule #3: 3 Days Without Drinkable Water

In extreme heat, you could be dead by sundown but on average a person can live for roughly three days without consuming water.

The problem is that for most of us, going without water for only a day will cause headaches, nausea, and fatigue. The truth is that anyone reading this would be lucky to still be standing after even two days without water.

This is why water is so critical to our survival.

How to Find Water in the Wild

icy water can pose a real danger

Rule #4: 3 Weeks Without Food

always eat extra food when you can

Again this is an average estimate based upon how the average person’s body handles not getting enough calories. Much like with water, not eating will start to have severe negative effects well before death takes us.

In a world where we rarely skip a meal going a full three weeks without consuming, any calories are something that our bodies are not up to doing.

How to Find Food

Finding food in the wilderness is tricky and should only be attempted after becoming well-versed in what is edible and what is poisonous in your area.

Trapping is a good passive method of gathering meat because the traps, once set, are always working for you.

DIY hunting will also help to get extra food, but you will need the proper tools and avoid taking risks that are unnecessary by going after something that can harm you.

Fishing is also a decent method of procuring food that comes with a low-calorie expenditure.

Wild edibles should never be eaten unless you are sure of what you are about to eat.

vegetables, fruits, food

Putting It All Together

puzzle, last part, joining together

Real survival situations entail real danger. This is why the rule of threes is so important. It helps to identify the most immediate problem quickly and find a solution. Your survival priorities are oxygen, an effective shelter, water, and food – and they need to be followed in that order.

Remember that the rules of 3 are scientifically accurate, but the time frames will vary depending on the person and the environment they are in. The whole point is to give you a set of simple survival rules that can be easily remembered.

A main threat to your survival is not being prepared for a survival situation in the first place. To increase your chances of survival, emergency supplies should always be carried.

For outdoor trips, a bare minimum of supplies should include:

pocket lighter, lighter, zippo

Bare minimum supplies like those above won’t weigh much or take up a lot of space. In fact, they could fit in small saddle bags.

Additionally, always research you gear and invest your time in gear reviews. When real survival situations happen, your life will depend on the quality of your gear.

Wrap Up

The common theme among many people is to argue about the timeframes listed within these set of rules. Remember, the main point of the survival rules of 3 is not to become fixated on the timelines, but the order of priorities.

Michael Major

Michael is a survivalist, traditional bowhunter, student of traditional and primitive skills, as well as a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. He is also a husband and father and makes his home in British Columbia, Canada. Read his full interview here.