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Practice Preparedness Using the Rule of Three

Survival skills and survival gear and must-haves. But do you know when to use them?

We never know when we’ll have a car accident in a remote area, find ourselves stranded in the wilderness, or in any other disaster situation.

That’s why learning essential survival skills, such as how to build a fire, is essential for everyone. It’s also why it is wise for everyone to own basic survival tools.

But preparedness doesn’t stop with learning the skills or buying a water filtration straw. You must learn how to prioritize these skills and tools in the event of an emergency.

For instance, what good will food do if you are totally exposed without shelter in harsh elements? Unfortunately, the answer is not much.

Survival experts use the idea of the Rule of Three to guide their decision-making in crisis situations.

Essentially, the Rule of Three designates how much time you can survive without each essential need.

  • 3 minutes without air
  • 3 hours without shelter
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food
  • 3 months without hope

Of course, there are variables. For example, on a mild day in the Midwest, you can likely make it longer than 3 hours without shelter. However, in harsher climates, 3 hours is a reasonable estimate. 

Similarly, your size will affect how long you can survive without water or food, but these estimates are good to remember.

The key is that the Rule of Three helps us prioritize the most critical needs before moving on to the others.

3 Minutes without Air

man holding his breath

Just a few seconds of oxygen deprivation to the brain can cause someone to lose consciousness. Shortly after this happens, the brain begins to die. Extensive long-term damage has occurred by 3 minutes, and death will likely follow. 

So, if someone with you suffers an injury that deprives them of oxygen, the first thing to do is treat the injury. Nothing else matters as much as helping this person breathe air again.

Basic first aid is an essential survival skill for this very reason. In these moments, an easy acronym to remember is the ABCs of first aid

  • A – Airway (Unblock or open the airway)
  • B – Breathing (Check for breathing)
  • C – Circulation (Chest compressions)

The ABCs of first aid is commonly used when performing CPR. In addition to knowing how to perform CPR, you should also learn how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on others and yourself. 

3 Hours without Shelter

man climbing up a mountain in the snow

The next most critical need is shelter. When we talk about shelter, we aren’t just talking about a shelter where you sleep, but we’re also referring to clothing. Shelter protects you from the elements. Hence the reason clothing is included.

Let’s say you find yourself stuck outdoors in weather you are incorrectly dressed for – this is a dangerous problem. It could have been something as simple as having to camp overnight and not having clothing for drastically different nighttime temperatures.

It could look like getting stuck in a sudden downpour on a chilly day without raingear. In this situation, you have to worry about hypothermia. 

[Related Read: How to Survive an Unplanned Winter Overnight]

Ideally, you’ll always check the weather and dress accordingly. But there may be a day when you find yourself unprepared for changing weather. 

If this happens, you’ll need to know how to create shelter and warmth to protect yourself from the elements. (Even if you have the right clothing, you will still need to create shelter and warmth.)

This is where knowing how to build a fire is a critical survival skill. First and foremost, fire is used to provide warmth. Then, once you get a fire going, you can use it for other needs, such as cooking or boiling water.

It is also essential to know how to find or build a shelter. Is there a safe place you can go? Do you need to build a shelter?

As long as you have a tarp, you can build several different types of shelters.

[Related Read: Three Basic Tarp Shelters]

3 Days without Water

man in the desert with a water bottle, hiking

Most experts agree that you can’t live for three days without water. Water is essential for survival.

However, the 3-day rule is variable.

According to Healthline, “This is because certain factors contribute to your body’s use of water, including your:

  • environmental conditions
  • activity level
  • age
  • health
  • weight
  • gender
  • food intake

“These factors contribute to the way your body uses water. For example, in a hot climate, your body will sweat more, leading to more water consumption. Your body will be losing water more rapidly if you have a fever, are vomiting, or have diarrhea.”

Take note of the first bullet point – environmental conditions. As discussed in the rule of 3 hours, shelter is a bigger priority than water.

However, water is still vital. Therefore, should you find yourself in a crisis, it is imperative that you drink water. 

This may mean having to find water in the wilderness and purifying it. As Healthline mentioned, you will lose water more rapidly if you are sick. You will likely wind up sick with diarrhea if you drink contaminated water. Hence the importance of purifying water before you drink it.

[Related Read: Five Ways to Find Water in the Wilderness]

In addition to learning how to find water in the wilderness, it is also wise to stock up on water purification tablets or portable water filtration devices. 

3 Weeks without Food

woman shopping in a grocery store with empty shelves

While you can last longer without food than water or shelter, it is still essential for survival. Again, like water, the actual number of weeks will vary depending on several factors, but it is a good estimate.

Hopefully, you always have survival food (like emergency food pouches) in your survival kit or go-bag and a snack if you are hiking.

Should you get lost or face an emergency, you will need to ration the food you have for as long as possible.

If you are without food, you will need to find food. This means foraging for edible plants and mushrooms, hunting, or fishing. 

3 Months without Hope 

woman crouched in an alley

Most Rule of Three guides end with 3 weeks without food, but another need has been added. This is the need for hope.

Without hope, you’ll stop fighting to survive. You will give up the will to live.

Stop for a minute and think about the film Castaway. This classic showcases the importance of hope in a survival situation.

If Tom Hanks’ character had lost hope of survival, he would never have made it off the island.

In the movie, he says, “I know what I have to do now. I’ve got to keep breathing because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring.”

You need to have this same attitude of hopefulness.

There is another need tied to both hope and the movie Castaway. The need for human companionship.

One of the hallmarks of the film is the volleyball with a painted face that is named Wilson.

Humans need companionship. Tom Hanks’ character recognized this, and so he created a companion.

In your own life, you need people you can depend on. There should be people you keep in touch with. If you go missing, someone should be aware and alert authorities to start a search. 

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