The Survival Rule of 3 to Stay Alive in the Wild

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Wilderness Rule of Three for survival
Photo by Olesya Klyots

Being stranded or lost in the middle of nowhere is the worst imaginable circumstance for many of us. Countless people enjoy hiking and exploring mountainous or woodland regions beyond the beaten path, but how many would know what to do if they suddenly realized they had no idea which way to turn?

It can be easy to think that such a thing would never happen to you, especially if you are a frequent hiker. However, if you are entering unknown territory, you must have a backup plan. Nobody intends to get lost, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

When I talk about preparation here, I don’t just mean in terms of equipment. I also mean preparing your mindset.

The rule of 3 survival techniques is a relatively well-known set of guidelines. These facts act as reminders for how long you can survive under certain conditions. In this guide, I’m going to walk you through what the survival rule of 3 entails and how to use it if you ever find yourself lost in the unforgiving wilderness.

What Is the Survival Rule of 3?

This rule of 3 survival asserts that you can survive:

  • 3 minutes without any oxygen
  • 3 hours without a form of protection from extreme weather conditions
  • 3 days without a source of water
  • 3 weeks without any food

It is essentially an easy way to remember what you need to survive and how much danger you are in if you don’t have immediate access to any of the above.

But the critical thing to understand about the survival rule of 3 is that it is not strictly factual.

Instead, the guidelines provide an easy to remember checklist on what you must prioritize in compromised circumstances.

Each graduation of the rule of 3 relies on the security of the previous rule. For instance, if you have a three-day supply of water but no shelter from extreme weather, you will not last beyond the initial three hours of exposure. As follows, if you have sufficient protection from severe weather but no access to clean oxygen, you won’t get beyond the first 3 minutes.

That all sounds pretty grim, which is why it’s so crucial to pay attention to the meaning behind each of the levels.

I have to underscore the point that these ‘rules’ are not scientifically proven indicators of how your body will respond to extreme circumstances. All human beings are different, after all. The guidelines are estimates created to give you a framework for survival.

So, with that in mind, let’s go through each level and how to respond in the worst circumstances.

Lack of Oxygen

I will start with potentially the most alarming of all of them: compromised breathing. Access to oxygen and breathing steadily is so natural to the majority of us that we barely register doing it at all. It is mostly a subconscious act, though now you are probably hyper-aware of your breathing. Sorry about that.

As humans, we’re accustomed to our next breath arriving with no problem. But it’s when we can no longer maintain our breathing that panic immediately starts.

This panic makes matters worse. Your desperation to catch your breath causes you to breathe faster, limiting the amount of oxygen in your immediate vicinity.

Some of the prominent reasons for oxygen limitation could include:

  • Choking
  • Allergic reaction
  • Confined space

To prioritize item number one in the rule of 3 survival guidelines, you want to educate yourself on CPR and the Heimlich maneuver. You also should have some knowledge of the wild berries or plants that could cause an allergic reaction. The latter is especially true if you are entering into an unfamiliar area or region.

Perhaps the most terrifying prospect of all is the notion of becoming trapped in a confined space. If this does happen, your immediate reaction will be to try and fight/squeeze your way out. Resist this urge. Instead, stay calm and try to find a way to create a breathing hole.

Access to oxygen must always be your priority over escape. By doing so, you buy yourself more time that could make the difference between life and death.

Access to Shelter from Extreme Weather

When I say extreme weather, I don’t necessarily mean the scorching heat of the Sahara or the freezing temperatures of the Arctic. Most hikes are in thick woodlands or mountainous inclines. When paired with inclement weather, these environments can present a real threat.

Knowing what constitutes effective shelter and how to find (or build) is essential when lost in the wilderness. An adequate shelter can buy you valuable time when planning your next move. According to the rule of 3 survival, finding shelter is more important for survival than locating food or water.

In the most extreme cases, you only can last three hours without shelter. If, for example, you get caught in a blizzard, you could catch hypothermia and pneumonia. But with a shelter, you can find protection from the weather and increase your chances of a space that retains some degree of heat.

The vitality of shelter holds even if you don’t detect an immediate threat from your environment. The human body has ways of coping with harmful weather conditions that can go completely unnoticed by the average hiker until it is too late. Establishing shelter gives you a base of operations that can help keep you grounded in such dreadful circumstances.

So, what form can that shelter take? You aren’t likely to find a fully fitted cabin out in the middle of the woods for you to occupy. You need to think outside of the box and use whatever is available to you. You can construct a debris hut from the surrounding sticks, moss, and mud to provide surprising insulation.

Remember, in colder regions, the biggest killer of lost travelers is hypothermia—not starvation. Even in the height of summer, a flash flood could leave you exposed to the elements and sudden cold temperatures.

If you aren’t confident that you could build yourself an adequate shelter, then bringing the correct equipment is imperative. Safety blankets, tarps, and hammocks can make a fantastic shelter if you string them across fallen trees or strong branches.

Also, a cord and a quality tactical knife can be tremendously helpful in the wild. I always carry both with me whenever I venture into the wilderness. A lighter or two is also useful for starting a fire. These small additions can make a significant difference.

Staying Hydrated

The rule of 3 survival indicates you can live without water for three days. Staying hydrated is far more critical to your body than dealing with those hunger pains. You need to maintain a steady supply of water to your body, or you risk fatal dehydration.

When I say this, I mean hydration through the consumption of clean water. Alternatives exist, of course, but nothing will hydrate your body more quickly or effectively than water.

Before traveling into any new area, try to learn what natural water sources are available. This information will give you some indication as to what is available to you if you lose your way.

While running streams may seem like a great alternative source for clean water, it’s hard to know how safe it is to drink without the proper tools. Water purifiers are integral to any expedition for this very reason. Finding a water source is a challenge in itself—don’t make it harder by taking risks with potentially contaminated water.

In modern times, the ability to purify found water couldn’t be easier. From purifying tablets to straws that clean the water as you drink it, you can use a considerable variety of easy-to-carry options. That said, drinking ‘dirty’ water is better than drinking nothing at all if you have no other choice.

The only water you shouldn’t drink ever is salt-water. It can dehydrate you quicker than going without any hydration.

The adverse effects of contaminated water may be harmful, but if it’s between dealing with dehydration or taking that risk, then you have minimal options. To avoid that situation, equip yourself properly before embarking on any hike or extended excursion. Don’t underestimate the value of resistant water bottles and purifying tools.

Securing Food

Compared to water and shelter, locating food is significantly less critical for your survival. This information may come as a surprise for many, but as the rule of 3 survival reminds us, you can usually survive around three weeks without the need for any food.

That period is a large amount of time to be lost in the wilderness. By that point, a rescue team will have saved most folks, or the lost person will have found their way back to civilization.

However, going without food for extended periods is not ideal in any situation. It affects your energy levels, causes painful stomach cramping, and hinders your ability to think clearly. None of these are what you want or need when trying to navigate.

Luckily, a small amount of food can go a long way when eaten in rations. Nuts and seeds, granola, dried fruit, nut butter, and jerky are all great to take with you on any expedition. They last for a long time and can keep you fuller for longer.

Again, research before your hike is critical. In the same way that you should look for local water sources in case you end up lost, you should also look into edible fauna that is native to the area. This food could also include insects. Granted, none of that sounds the most palatable. But believe me, when hunger pains are driving you crazy, it will surprise you what you will be willing to eat.

Worms and acorns might not possess outstanding nutritional value. However, they do provide you with energy, which is better than depleting your resources entirely. Just remember to bring long-lasting calorie-dense food with you, and you shouldn’t need to resort foraging.

Is the Rule of 3 Survival Plan Misleading?

The purpose of the survival rule of 3 is to provide a rough framework of how to survive in extreme circumstances. With innumerable situations in which a person might need it, it isn’t an exact guide or factual set of absolute certainties. Does this make it utterly useless information? Not at all, but it can be potentially misleading.

Critics of the rule of 3 survival framework point out that not all of its ‘rules’ strictly adhere to real-life applications. There are far too many changing variables in survival situations for a simple rule of three to apply.

For instance, the idea that you can survive 3 minutes without oxygen gives the impression that you still have full control over your body for a full 3 minutes, even with restricted breathing. This ideal circumstance is not always the case. Oxygen restrictions can cause uncontrollable panic within seconds, which can further impinge your breathing.

Similarly, critics state that only being able to survive without shelter for three hours is a fallacy. With adequate clothing, you can create a form of cover. The right clothes (such as tactical boots, pants, etc.) can shield you from your environment.

It’s also crucial to take into account the climate of where you are lost. Dehydration may occur much faster in certain regions than others due to heat. If you are making your way over rocky terrain, you will need to re-hydrate more frequently due to the greater physical exertion.

But does all of this mean that the rule of three is inherently trying to mislead people? No, it doesn’t. While the rules aren’t necessarily going to hold for every single situation imaginable, they do provide hikers with a groundwork of information. From these easy-to-remember rules, you can formulate a survival plan based on your specific circumstances.

There’s no such thing as a 1one-size-fits-all approach to survival planning. Each circumstance is different, so, therefore, requires individual assessment. The rule of 3 survival framework simply provides a place to start your thinking.

Bonus: The STOP Method of Survival

An alternative easy-to-remember survival guideline is the acronym STOP. Often used in tandem with the rule of 3 survival plan, the STOP acronym provides each letter with a separate action to perform. It goes as follows:

S

The S in STOP stands for Sit. Upon discovering you are lost, it can be easy to lose yourself to panic. The feelings of dread can quickly set in and limit your ability to think logically. Halt that process immediately.

Instead, take a seat and focus on your breathing. If you begin filling your head with all the scary possibilities, you will paralyze yourself. It’s imperative to stay calm.

T

The T in STOP stands for Think. Take the time to consider your situation.

Are you injured? Is your current circumstance the result of an accident? Check yourself and any who are with you for injuries. Some are not immediately detectable, so check thoroughly as the discovery of an injury, later on, will hinder you further.

How are your supplies? Take stock of what you have and what you need to help you come up with your next move.

O

The O in STOP stands for Observe. This point is when you need to take in your surroundings.

Are there any visible cues that can give you some sense of direction? Can you hear anything that may indicate civilization? Which direction did you arrive from, and which direction were you facing as you walked? Is it possible that a 180-degree turn could bring you back to a more recognizable location?

It may also be worthwhile to note any landmarks in the immediate area so you can better identify your current location. These observations may prevent you from walking in circles.

P

The final letter P in STOP stands for Plan. If you have taken in your situation and can see no easy rectification, then it’s time to make some necessary plans for survival. This plan should include locating (or building) shelter and finding a natural source of water to supplement your supplies.

If you have the slightest inclination that you may not find your way home before nightfall, prioritize shelter and light a fire. If you do find an actionable route that may lead back to civilization, make sure to leave trail markers. That way, if you accidentally take another wrong turn, you can quickly get back on the right path.

Final Thoughts

The feeling of losing your way or getting into a sticky situation is petrifying. I hope it’s one you will never come to experience. The best thing you can do is plan your expedition thoroughly beforehand and equip yourself sufficiently. If something does happen, keep the rule of 3 survival guidelines in mind. Prioritize oxygen, shelter, water, and then food. Also STOP and take stock of your situation. Remember that you haven’t lost all control, and you can and will survive the situation by staying calm and thinking clearly.