Wilderness Survival Rules of 3 – Air, Shelter, Water and Food

Those who venture into the great outdoors should, at a bare minimum, know the survival rule of three. A friend told me a story about getting lost with a dozen people and horses on a horseback trip in the Appalachian mountains. They were only lost for a short time, but could not get back to the trail head before dark, so they had to spend the night on the trail. They were not prepared to spend the night, so they were tired, miserable and hungry.  But the Summer weather was forgiving, so as long as they had water, as long as nobody was missing critical medications and nobody got injured, they were never in any real danger.

survival horse

Scared, unprepared trail riders actually thought they would need to eat their horse on their 1st survival night!

A common theme to survival situations is that people find themselves in a place and at a time they didn’t expect, and that is exactly what happened to these ill-prepared trail riders. They were guilty of making the assumption that they would get back to civilization before dark and only planned accordingly. They didn’t have extra food, most didn’t have clothes for night time temperatures and not a single person had a flashlight. As I remember the story, one guy had plenty of beer stuffed in his saddle bags, several guys had hand guns and several more had cigarettes, but more importantly, they had cigarette lighters.

The part of the story I found most interesting was that some people were talking about killing and eating a horse the first night. Knowing how attached horse people are to their horses, I laughed when I heard this and assumed my friend was joking. They assured me they were not joking and that some of these people were really concerned about dying from hypothermia at night if they didn’t eat. Hard to believe. Sure, calories in the belly will help generate heat, but you can’t eat enough to stay warm if you aren’t sheltered from the cold. How could someone really get the priorities for survival so wrong?

Survival Rule of 3 and Survival Priorities

For real survival situations it is better to remember and prioritize by the four levels of the Survival Rules of 3:

  • 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 main point of the Rules of 3 that we have to concentrate on the most immediate problem first. I am mainly thinking about survival in an outdoor/wilderness context, but  a survival situation is a survival situation no matter when or where it occurs and these rules/points/priorities are still applicable. There is no need to think about food if the main threat to your survival is hypothermia because your clothes are wet. And make no mistake, if you are shivering and can’t get dry and warm, you may not able to function after three hours. If you are alone, you may have only about three hours to live.

Lets look at the first two situations (3 minutes without air and 3 hours without shelter),  which are the two most common survival situations people can encounter because they require immediate attention and because time is limited, you may not be able to count on anyone to rescue you in time.

You Can Only Survive for Three Minutes Without Air

Obviously, any condition that threatens breathing (or the blood’s ability to circulate Oxygen) is an immediate survival situation and anyone that has asthma or allergic reactions has to be alert and constantly prepared and never go anywhere without an inhaler or emergency epinephrine or anything else your doctor has prescribed. You should also carry a medical identification card or wear a medical identification bracelet that tells others about your allergies.

When I was a kid, a several families were having a cook out. The kids were playing and the adults were sitting in the shade just doing what people do. One guy that was drinking soda from a bottle didn’t notice that some kind of bee or wasp had crawled inside his bottle. As he took the next drink, he swallowed the bee which stung him inside the throat. His throat started swelling and in a matter of minutes, he was having a very hard time breathing. Somebody called for an ambulance, but quickly decided there wasn’t enough time to wait, so they put him in the car and took off down the road to meet the ambulance. The paramedics were able to open his airway and also gave him epinephrine to counteract the anaphylaxis. I remember my father saying he was glad he didn’t have to do an emergency tracheotomy (cricothyroidotomy).

Until 12/31/2011, there were epinephrine inhalers that could be purchased without prescription, but they are no longer available due to the propellants that supposedly deplete the ozone layer. Now all epinephrine injectors and inhalers require a prescription.

I have a good friend who lost his sister because she choked to death on a piece of steak. She was eating with friends, but none of her friends were successful using the Heimlich maneuver and none thought to attempt an emergency tracheotomy. The young woman died on the floor right in front of them. They all claimed to be sober and drug free. You can try giving yourself the Heimlich Maneuver by bending over a hard surface like a chair, counter top, log or large rock. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of your companions. If I were choking, I would hope my friends would also try even a crude tracheotomy before letting me die.

How To Perform the Heimlich Maneuver

Perhaps one of the best things we can do is to make sure we have first aid training so we can help others and to make sure the people we spend the most time with are also trained, so they can help us if needed. Remember, may all hope to be heroes, but we always fall to our lowest level of training in an emergency. As Denzel Washington said in the movie “Man on Fire”, “You are either trained or not trained”. Are you trained?

How To Perform CPR

You Can Only Survive Three Hours Without Shelter

As long as everyone was breathing okay, our lost trail riders first priority should have been to make sure that no one in the group was in danger from exposure to cold or heat.  They all survived the night because the weather was good and they were able to build a fire. If they were caught in the rain or if anyone had fallen in the creek and they weren’t able to build a fire, things might not have turned out as well. It is also a good thing they were at 3,000 foot mountains and not at 9,000 feet.

survival rule threes shelter

Having proper shelter is a top survival priority.

Several years ago about 25 miles from here, two people on vacation went out for an afternoon hike above 9,000 feet on a beautiful September day. They didn’t tell anyone where they were going and they evidently ignored advice from someone who claimed they were told to take more clothes in case the weather changed. The weather did change, the clouds rolled in, visibility decreased and it started snowing. Nobody knew they were missing until their plane arrived in Atlanta without them 5 days later. Their bodies were found the following Spring.

Nobody knows for sure what happened, but they must have been cold and wet. They did not get back to their vehicle and they must not have been able to build a fire. Perhaps warmer clothes and/or rain gear could have bought them more time to find their way to safety. A fire would have bought them more time, but you can’t move and sit by the fire at the same time. A PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) device would have brought the cavalry on the run, but they were probably already dead before morning.

Deaths From Blocked Airway and Exposure to Heat and Cold

Most of us probably never think about finding ourselves in any of these survival situations, but according to the best sources I can find, it is more common than you might think. Over 8,000 people die in the U.S. each year from not being able to breathe. That includes choking (4,600; National Safety Council), asthma (3,300; AAAAI.org), food allergies (150-200; AAAAI.org) and bee stings (40; AAAAI.org).

In addition, an average of 1,028 people die from exposure to cold or heat each year in the U.S. According to IDC10data.com (5,811 people died from hypothermia associated from “Exposure to excessive natural cold” between 1999-2007 and 3,441 deaths were from “Exposure to excessive natural heat”).

What Else Should You Pack?

Before heading out, we should all ask ourselves what other gear, medicine, food or water would we throw in the packs if we knew we wouldn’t get back before dark ? Before midnight? Before sunrise tomorrow morning? Remember that you may be making a huge assumption if you think getting back to your car is getting back to civilization. This is survival 101. Obviously, the list quickly grows larger and larger and we can’t always pack enough food and water for 3 or 4 days.

Before you get yourself into a situation that you need someone to help to get you out, the most important thing you could do is make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you will be back. If they don’t know you are missing, they can’t look for you. After several days, someone might realize you are missing, but they will not know where to start looking.

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Comments

  1. SurvivAllExpert says:

    I always carry Frog Toggs with me, winter or summer. They are super lightweight, wind and water proof and are made of a material similar to tyveck that we applied as a weatherproof barrier for houses in Alaska before applying the siding. I’ve been out in -20 with 40 mile winds and the Frog Togg outers, with layers of fleece inside, kept me warm and toasty while allowing me to do chores. They only cost around $20 for a jacket top with hood and pant bottoms. I keep them in all of our families emergency bags. So far I’ve been the only one to use them but I have to say they are the answer to personal shelter in almost any short term crisis.

    • Backcountry Chronicles says:

      Good Advice. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Good endorsement for Frogg Toggs. If you used them in -20°F and 40 mph, that is good enough for me. I removed your website link because too many links on that site do not work.

  2. vanHauser says:

    Some smile about the 3-Years-Timespan. I dont:
    You can survive for 3 Years without Love (Human Contact)

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