The Rule of Threes

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When you're lost or injured, you need to know what needs to be done right now, what to do next, and what can wait. To remind us of our priorities, we follow "The Rule of Threes".

Three Seconds Without Thinking

The first reminder is "Three Seconds Without Thinking".

In a panic all sorts of things can go wrong. You can loose or break equipment, get turned around, hurt yourself, or just generally make circumstances worse. So take a moment to consider your situation. This is where you stop, think, observe, and plan, using of course the remainder of The Rule of Threes

Three Minutes Without Air

The second reminder is, "Three Minutes Without Air".

Without Breathing

Take a few deep breaths, don't let yourself get winded or exhausted. Don't work so hard that you start sweating up your base layer. These simple things can and will kill you. There's a saying that "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast; so go fast, by going slow."

Without Air

Of course, if you're unfortunate enough to be in a situation where you actually don't have air, that's extremely bad. Confined spaces — such as this cave behind me — can harbor unusually low levels of oxygen. Snow structures can become sealed with additional snow, trapping the carbon dioxide from your own respirations. And carbon monoxide from candles, fires, and stoves can build up in any poorly ventilated refuge.

So keep ventilation in mind, while we move onto our third "rule of threes".

Three Hours Without Shelter

In a temperate environment, You can generally live for "Three Hours Without Shelter". Much more than this, and your ability to reverse your situation becomes difficult or impossible.

Depending on your need, shelter can be as simple as the clothes you wear, or as complex as a place to spend the night. Shelter can also include this fire, which provides warmth, light, and a signal to others that I'm here.

Three Days Without Water

Our fourth reminder from "The Rule of Threes" is water.

Many environments have lots of water, so in some areas finding water isn't much of a problem. But nearly every process in our bodies rely on water. Dehydration is a continuum, and early in that slide are symptoms such as: an increased susceptibility to hypothermia, and heat exhaustion. So after you've sorted out your need for shelter, act immediately on ensuring you have access to water.

And while pathogens such as giardia, or cryptosporidium, are not easy to contract; they do exist in most of our lakes and creeks. So learn how to disinfect water in the field.

But if you have no way of disinfecting water, drink it anyway. The pathogens you're likely to encounter in North America have average incubation times of a week or more. And by then, you're very likely to have been found and rescued.

Three Weeks Without Food

Our last reminder from "The Rule of Threes" is that you can go for more than "Three Weeks Without Food". Yes, you'll lose weight, you'll have a lower energy level, you'll be more susceptible to hypothermia and heat exhaustion; but you can live. In fact, your feeling of hunger will go away, or drastically diminish, in about a day.

It's best to always carry extra food with you, like this energy bar. Make sure it's something you like, and hasn't passed its expiration date. But remember, food should be the least of your worries.

Wrap Up

So that's it. "The Rule of Threes" remind us that we need to:


  1. think, and carefully consider our situation;
  2. breath, and don't exhaust ourselves;
  3. seek shelter from the environment
  4. drink water
  5. and don't worry too much about food.

Or, more briefly; we can live:


  1. Three Seconds Without Thinking;
  2. Three Minutes Without Air;
  3. Three Hours Without Shelter;
  4. Three Days Without Water; and
  5. Three Weeks Without Food.

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Last updated on March 20, 2016