Friday, January 05, 2007

Rule of Threes

In wilderness survival circles there exists “The Rule of Threes” which states that one can (only) live:
Three minutes without air
Three hours without shelter
Three days without water
Three weeks without food.

Some people add “Three seconds without hope” and “three months without love” but that is just silly, cutesy nonsense. Let’s look at the serious ones.

First off, this rule allows survivors to prioritize effort to satisfy needs in an emergency situation. Secondly, they aren’t exact times but they are close enough to be easily remembered. If you cannot breath, it really doesn’t matter that you are thirsty. Third, these don't just apply to wilderness survival - you can apply them to everyday home preparedness.

All of these “threes” can be placed in the first level of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” which places physiological needs at the bottom followed in order by safety/security, belonging, esteem and finally self-actualization at the top. His theory is really psychological and states that before people attempt to satisfy the higher needs, the lower needs must first be met. But the concept of hierarchy or prioritization also works with the Rule of Threes.

If your brain is deprived of oxygen (“air”) for three minutes you are in serious trouble. This could be a result of drowning, poison gas or excessive smoke, someone choking you, or serious bleeding. What can “one who is in to preparedness” (dare I say “Survivalist”?) do about preparing to deal with this highest priority? The best thing is to take steps to prevent being placed in that situation in the first place! Learn to swim, go with a buddy, prevent house fires, avoid bad people and be careful. Get in the best shape you can. Learn self-defense and first aid.

If you think you might require a gas mask, smoke filter, or SCBA my first advice would be to stop doing what you are doing or move away from where you are living. My second bit would be to get what you need and train with it. Some military specialties require learning “ditch drills” whereby folks are strapped into an apparatus that looks a lot like a helicopter which then rolls down a roller coaster deal into a deep pool. It flips over while it’s doing that creating disorientation and shock. Students must then unstrap, get out, and swim – hopefully up. It gets really sporting when they turn out the lights. Soldiers train with gas masks; firefighters train with SCBAs. When they need them – they need them. Has your family practice a fire drill? Have you done it at night? What about in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep?

You could die in about three hours without shelter if you were in extreme conditions. “Extreme” could include a day in the desert but also a nice 40 degree day – if you are soaked and the wind is blowing. Basically we are talking hypo- or hyperthermia. See, “shelter” in this instance is not really shelter as in an igloo or sun shade or whatever. Shelter really means maintaining your core body temperature. Cody Lundin covers this topic well in his irreverent survival manual, “98.6 – The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive”. He is not talking about donkeys. You can get it for about twelve bucks on – it’s worth the price if you are not easily offended.

If you are currently shivering you won’t care about being thirsty and therefore you won’t really need to consciously think about the Rule of Threes. But if it was a relatively nice 35 degrees and sunny you might think it was pretty important to find water if you were stranded and thirsty. But what you would really need to consider is “what is going to happen when the sun goes down” or “…when those dark clouds get here?” Here is where understanding the concept could end up saving your life. “Shelter” also include a warming fire - learn to build them, carry several different means to do so. Learn to dress appropriately – this is your primary “survival shelter”; carry makeshift shelters in your day pack and in your vehicle such as tents or tarps or sleeping bags. Make sure you own proper clothing and bedding in case your utilities are cut off during some terrible blizzard.

If you don’t have any fluid intake for three days you will probably die. Let me tell ya something though – you will become “inop” - incapable of performing even basic functions, a good bit before that. Water is important. When you are out and about carry it. Carry it in your vehicle, keep some at work, stash some at church. Carry a means for collecting and purifying more. If you have no means for purifying more and you don’t think you are going to escape your current predicament pretty soon then drink what you find water-wise. Let the doctors deal with any parasites or whatever you pick up after you are rescued.

What about at home? How much water do you have there? What if your municipal water supply is cut? Or your well goes dry? - At the same time as some other emergency that prevents you from leaving home. You have water in your hot water tank and in the backs of your toilets. But really, you should store water at home. The “current wisdom” is one gallon per person per day. Try to exist on just that much for just a weekend. Good luck. You want more. Buy bottled water or buy containers to store your own or reuse two-liter soda bottles and fill them with tap water. Store in a dark place (like under the bed).

In a wilderness survival situation some say (based on the Rule) that food is not very important. Yes, you can live “three weeks” (actually a bit longer) without any caloric input – but you won’t be doing a whole lot of anything else. Like tending that fire (three hours…) or walking down to the creek for more water, or building signals – or whatever. You are going to start getting weaker after about three days of no food. Trust me on this.

I will tell you this however – you can go a LONG time with just minimal calorie input every day. So, what to do? Carry some chow with you. I like PowerBars. Learn to identify and prepare wild edibles. You can practice trapping and what not –but you probably won’t use it in a “typical” wilderness survival situation. You will feel hungry pretty soon after things go south in your personal disaster situation – but you (as the average American) are really not “hungry” – you just think you are. Most Americans never experience real hunger. Most. So focus on your other priorities first.

For the home preparer - I wrote an earlier piece about storing wheat. That’s long term food storage. You should have a couple weeks’ worth of “normal” food in your home – your government says so. Check out . Carry food in your car, keep some in your desk at work.

So, think about the Rule of Threes. Take steps when you are out and about to cover all of the rules – but remember to also consider the Rule for day to day living at home and the office too.

If you have any comments I’d love to hear them. If they really interest me I may even publish them here. You can reach me at

Prepared Americans for a Strong America


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