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Winter weather has me thinking about outdoor survival. Have you heard of the survival rule of three? Knowing these rules can save your life.

Survival Rule of Three

What is the survival rule of three?

  • Three minutes without air (or in icy water or with severe bleeding)
  • Three hours without shelter in a harsh environment (unless the environment is icy water or you have severe bleeding)
  • Three days without water (focus on shelter first)
  • Three weeks without food (if you have shelter and water)

Three Minutes

Obviously, a situation where you are deprived of air is an immediate survival situation, whether you are in the wilderness or at home.

One time, I was enjoying spinach dip on bread. The next thing I knew, I was choking. My oldest two daughters were sitting in their highchairs at the table. I couldn’t catch my breath and all I could think was I can’t die in front of them. I managed to perform a crude Heimlich maneuver on myself using the chair. My stomach and throat hurt for many days, but I was breathing again.

Here’s a video on how to do the Heimlich on yourself.

Is the Heimlich Maneuver the best approach to help when someone else is choking? Maybe not. The American Red Cross recommends a “five-and-five” approach to delivering first aid.

Have you taken first aid training? The Red Cross and other agencies often provide free or low-cost first aid and CPR training.

An anaphylactic allergic reaction is a sudden wide-spread reaction that can affect many bodily systems, including your breathing. If you have known life-threatening allergies (or are asthmatic), you should always carry your medication.

Icy water can cause hypothermia. Here’s an excellent article from the University of Minnesota detailing hypothermia and survival in cold water.

Severe bleeding can cause death. As part of the research for one of my fiction books, I was asking a doctor friend how long someone could survive if an artery was cut. Depending on which artery, a person can be unconscious within a minute. WOW! I knew it was quick, but wow. If a person becomes unconscious through blood loss, survival is unlikely.

I’m sure we all know about applying direct pressure. I have a friend who takes it a step farther and always carries a one-handed tourniquet with him.

Three Hours

Extreme heat and extreme cold can both kill. A good shelter, suitable for your environmental needs, is imperative. Can you get by without shelter when temperatures are moderate and dry?


The main idea is to keep your body’s core temperature at a level which will protect against hypothermia or hyperthermia.  Normal core temperatures range between 97.7 to 99.5 Fahrenheit (36.5 and 37.5 Celsius). Your shelter should be constructed to maintain this temperature.

Traveling with a tarpaulin or survival tent is a good idea. My friend Glen Trayer, from Trayer Wilderness, shares one options for building a shelter. I also highly recommend the Multi-Flame Tool Glen makes and sells on his website.

Three Days

Clean water is important to survival. Yes, the general rule of survival is three days without water, but this can vary from person to person, and the environment plays a factor too. If you are lost in a hot desert, sweat will cause you to lose body water faster than someone in a climate-controlled environment (say, stuck in an elevator).

Carrying water and/or a way to purify water is imperative. Bleach, boiling, purification tablets, or water filters are all excellent options. For family hiking trips, we like this gravity water filtration system from Sawyer as our first option, and we each carry an individual filter plus a few tablets. Backups!

When we snowshoe, we make sure we have a way to heat water since eating snow to hydrate will lower your core temperature. This little stove along with a small tea kettle I found at a thrift store is part of our winter survival set up (gear we keep in our vehicle when traveling). We also keep candles and an empty tin can as a makeshift heater for melting water and providing warmth.

What if dirty, or possibly contaminated, water is your only option?

When I was in my early twenties, I had giardia, an intestinal infection caused by a parasite. I was miserable! So I might not be the best person to ask about drinking possibly contaminated water. 😉

But seriously, if my only choice was dirty water–which might make me sick and I could die later–or imminent death from dehydration, I’d choose the dirty water in hopes of buying myself time to survive.

Three Weeks


Okay, so this is the official survival rule of three guidelines. Three weeks is the maximum a person can survive without food. However, I personally know many who have done water only fasts (or water and herbal tea) and surpassed those three weeks. There’s a whole movement of late on fasting (either long term or short term), so opinions do vary on three weeks without food.

That all said, I think someone choosing to fast and being forced to fast in a survival situation are entirely different. We’re addressing survival only here. And this does assume three weeks without any food at all. If you have an energy bar or some GORP in your bag, you’ll stretch this time. And some of us (a-hem) might have a little extra fat stores than others, so three weeks really is a low estimate.

Do you know what edibles grow where you are likely to be stranded? A little advance research can save your life.

Learning and preparing for the survival rule of three can save your life!

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