The Survival Rule of Three’s

One of the most important survival concepts out there that can help guide you through a survival situation is the Survival Rule of Three’s.  These aren’t actual rules mind you – think of them as survival guidelines or how you should direct your activities when lost in the wilderness.

The Survival Rule of 3’s

The Rules look like this:

You can survive:

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

These aren’t set in stone of course.  For example you could probably survive four days without water, but you’d be pretty useless after three days.  Anyway, these “rules” are simply a mnemonic to help you figure out what you should be doing if you get lost.

One of my favorite scenarios is using a canoe trip to illustrate a survival situation.  In our example you’re canoeing down a river in mid-April in Maine on a long trip thirty miles from civilization and you tip over in some rapids.  You get dumped out of your canoe and lose all of your gear.  Your canoe goes down river and you wash up on shore with what you were carrying on you at the time.  The gear differs depending on the point I’m trying to make, but in this case let’s say you have a good sturdy knife on your belt, which includes a firesteel and a whistle as part of the sheath.  This is pretty standard for many knives today and I typically carry a knife in the bush, so this isn’t a big stretch.

You pull yourself out of the water dripping wet.  It’s 55 degrees out and the temperature is expecting to go back down in the low 40’s or high 30’s tonight.  It’s just after noon, so you have around six or seven hours of daylight left.  What do you do?


Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.

Your first instinct is to panic.  People who’ve walked off a trail will run trying to find their way back.  Usually they just get more lost or even injure themselves as they flail through the wilderness.

The very first step is to Stop.

Stop moving and get your panic under control.

Think.  When you’ve got your panic under control get your brain working.

Observe.  Look around.  What can you see?  Hear?  In our example you’re near running water, so that’s good!  There’s something positive right there.  You’ve got a knife and a firesteel on you.  Another positive.  It’s still early in the day.  Sweet!  You’ve got time to work.  But on what?

Plan.  Now it’s time to hatch a plan and execute it.  Don’t just sit there feeling sorry for yourself or wailing “Why me!?” at the universe.  Nobody cares.  It’s time to work and you’ve got a bunch of stuff to do before night falls.

So what do we do?  Let’s go back to the Survival Rule of 3’s for a moment.

You can survive 3 minutes without air.  Ok, you’re on dry land now, so you can check that off the list.

You can survive Three hours without shelter.  If the weather is bad with the wind blowing hard and gusting rain you’ll be in deep trouble without shelter given that you’re already soaking wet and edging towards hypothermia.  Let’s say it’s overcast, but not raining, but this is April in Maine so it’ll probably rain sometime in the next day or two.  Time to look for shelter or build it.

So the first thing you need to do is get your clothes dry and obtain shelter.  How can you dry you clothes?  Build a fire.  You’ve got a firesteel, so gather some wood and get a fire going.

Check out this post on to how to build a shelter with no tools.

Now you’ve got a fire going, your clothes are drying and you’ve built a shelter.

What’s next on the survival list?


In this scenario you’re in luck because you’re next to a river.  This makes it easy to find water, but purifying it is another matter altogether.  Many water sources today harbor various germs or microbes such as Giardia which will cause diarrhea and vomiting when you drink them.  Not all water have these, but it’s better to play it safe if you can.

The best method to purify water is to boil it.  If you have a metal container of some kind simply put the container full of water over the fire and let it come to a boil.  Boil it for a minute or two then take it off the fire and let it cool off enough until it’s cool enough to drink.

Other ways to purify water are to filter it if you have a filter or use water purification tablets.  Short of that if you run into a situation where it’s die or drink the water, take a chance and drink.  If you get sick at least you’ll still be alive!

One tip is to keep an eye out for old bottles or cans that might have been thrown away.  The forest is full of them and if you find a discarded soda or beer can grab it and use it for purifying water.  Don’t throw anything away.


So now you’re dry and you have shelter and water.  The heat is off for the moment, but it sure would be nice if you had a little something to eat to quell the rumbling in your stomach.  There are a couple of things you can do for food:  first, you can forage for plant based food, which is probably your best bet.  Second, you can try trapping or hunting animals such as squirrels, rabbits and other small prey.  There are traps you build from natural materials such as the figure 4 trap or snares you can build if you can make your own cordage.

I’ll write in more detail in a later post about how to do these things, but for now know that it’s possible to survive with the bare necessities in the wilderness.

Practice Makes Perfect

Once you learn a new skill practice it!  Get out in the woods and get your hands dirty.  Once you’ve used that new skill a few times it will start to gel and pretty soon it’ll just be another tool in your survival toolbox.

Practice making a fire with a firesteel.  Make a shelter from nothing just to see how it looks and feels and to get an idea of how difficult it is.

Questions?  Comments?

Sound off below!

-Jarhead Survivor


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