Survival – The Rule Of Three

When a survival situation arises, your body has immediate physical needs. Prioritise them using the rules of three.

Survival - Tools, Techniques & Guides

The rule of three is one of those things that should be, forever, engraved on your soul. 

If ever a situation arises whereby you find yourself in a survival situation, these rules could well save your life.

The rules of three determine the length of time your body can go without basic life needs and are as follows:

  • Three minutes without air
  • Three hours without shelter
  • Three days without water
  • Three weeks without food

You will often see a fifth added to this list; Three months without hope.

So let’s break those down a bit and see what they mean to the human body.

surviving-three-minutes-without-airThree Minutes Without Air (oxygen)

Of all the rules in the list, the notion that your body can survive for only three minutes without oxygen is immediate and usually self-prioritised.  If for example, you are drowning, your thoughts will normally be on gasping for air, as opposed to the type of shelter you need.

Starved of oxygen, immediate and damaging things start to happen very quickly.  Somewhere between thirty seconds and three minutes, you may lose consciousness.  After one minute, individual brain cells begin to die. After three minutes, neurons quickly suffer permanent damage.  If the situation is allowed to continue past this point up to five minutes, death is imminent.

The rule is restricted to three minutes because after this time has passed, you are more than likely going to be unconscious.  Any survival after this will most probably be irrelevant.  The former does only apply if you are alone.  If you are part of a group, they should still follow the next rules to protect your body until help arrives.

Drowning is not the only cause of oxygen deprivation. Most though, have an immediate cause.  Some situations that could cause breathing to stop or become restricted.

  • Drowning
  • Choking
  • Electrocution
  • Smoke Inhalation
  • Poisoning
  • Snake Bites
  • Strangulation
  • Cardiac Arrest

For yourself or others in your group, this is the first thing that needs to be taken care of above all else.

Three Hours Without Shelter


The thing about survival situations is that most people don’t choose to be in them.  Does this sound obvious?  Your body is a hardy machine, but it doesn’t cope well with changes in temperature, and only operates safely within a small temperature band.

People are generally caught out by not being prepared.  A common mistake is to assume that you will only be on a one day trip and that you won’t need any extra layers of clothing.  This thinking is fine if your trip is only for one day.  However, if circumstances change and you find yourself stranded overnight, the lack of extra layers could be a killer.

The rule of three hours without shelter, therefore, shouldn’t be taken as literally as it sounds.  “Shelter” doesn’t necessarily mean building your overnight place from sticks and leaves to shield you from the weather.  For example, if you have taken with you a set of thermal overclothes and the weather is holding, then this may suffice to shelter you.  On the other hand, if you are unprepared for the situation occurring and the weather changes, then shelter is one of your priorities.  Your body will die far quicker from exposure, than dehydration.

The main concept of the rule of three is prioritising the most immediate problems first.  Three minutes without air, clearly stands above the rest.  If you are already dehydrated and know you can build/find a shelter quickly, the need to find water should move up the list.

survival-rule-of-three-find-waterThree Days Without Water

Three days without water is another of the rules that shouldn’t be taken too literally.  If you are in a stable environment, with a shelter built and not exerting yourself, then this is about right.  Of course, if you have been working away for hours in a hot environment building a shelter, this rule can quickly break down.

There aren’t a lot of places on the Earth that you can’t find water if you need it.  The depths of the desert, the Nevada plains all have their problems, but on the whole, there will be something.  The key is to make your drinking water safe.   There is no point drinking water if you will suffer diarrhoea, for example, and end up dehydrating yourself even further.

This article won’t delve into ways to ensure the water you are drinking is clean.  We will go into water sanitisation in another.

Three Weeks Without Foodsurvival-three-weeks-without-food

This rule of three is the lowest priority.  Most people will be rescused before lack of food becomes a danger.  Anything that can take three weeks to kill you is never more important than things that take a far shorter time.  Once you have ensured that you are safe, warm (sheltered) and hydrated, then you can start to look for ways to feed yourself.

It will pay you to note, however, that things will start to happen before three weeks have elapsed.  After only a few days without food your concentration levels will drop and the energy you have available for physical tasks will diminish.  If you have satisfied the other rules, don’t wait on the offchance you will be rescued.  Go and find food.

Three Months Without Hope

Three months without hope is not in the standard rules.  If you are in a survival situation for this long, it’s going to be tough for anybody.  Lack of hope will be amplified if surviving alone.  Remember, the key to survival above all physical needs is that of hope.  Your mind and body can shut down without hope, so try and stay positive.  This rule of three, will probably be the hardest you have to face.

Look at everything you have achieved.  Enhance your shelter, make your environment more comfortable and eat well if you can.  Rememeber, help will come.






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