Survival Priorities: The Rule of Three

Article contributed by Tom of the North, Outside the (Cardboard) Box

While I took issue with the conclusions drawn from the facts employed in a recent article titled ‘The Coming Food Armageddon’, the truth is you could find yourself and your loved ones in a struggle for survival at any time. For what it’s worth, not only am I a big booster of ‘prepping’, I have a realistic strategy if the SHTF and my outdoor skills are better than most, although that’s not really saying much given our predominantly urban population. And if you are interested in such things, there are tremendous resources available to you to help you prepare for whatever it is that your want to prepare for. The Survival Mom is a great resource for one. Ready Nutrition is another.

But prepping is not what I want to talk to you about. I want to talk to you about Survival. And I’m not going to offer you any strategies, tactics or supply sources. Rather, I just want you to get your head into a slightly different place than it probably is right now. For some of you, this might be a remedial review. You may be military, firefighter, law enforcement, rescue worker or just plain folk with an inordinate amount of common sense. Regardless, it never hurts to revisit the basics.

image by CarbonNYC

And all of the basics can be summed-up in “The Rule of Three” which says, absent sudden death (such as an accident) or terminal illness, your survival is generally contingent upon you not exceeding

  • 3 minutes without breathing (drowning, asphyxiation)
  • 3 hours without shelter in an extreme environment (exposure)
  • 3 days without water (dehydration)
  • 3 weeks without food (starvation)

We’ll leave accident avoidance and healthy lifestyle choices for another discussion and just focus on the ramifications of the Rule of Three. However, this essay is offered merely to encourage you in proactively conducting your own ongoing risk assessment. Nothing in this essay is intended nor is to be construed as advice, professional or otherwise. Any information contained in this essay is not to be relied upon. You’re going to have to go find it out for yourself!


Most ‘preppers’ are stocking food. You will note that starvation is the slowest form of death among the Rule of Three. You would likely have three weeks before you starve. Your level of physical exertion has an impact on the body’s caloric requirements. Personally, I might survive starvation for five or six weeks if I stay in repose as I’m carrying a lot of extra weight (just in case!). Don’t call me obese. Call me prepped! Keep in mind, too, that your survival strategy must consider the likelihood of you being separated from your food supply in an emergency. When that happens, stay calm, focus on any immediate threats or hazards and remember that you have three weeks to implement Food Plan B or Plan C. You do have a Food Plan B and Plan C, don’t you?


Dehydration occurs much more quickly than starvation. As such, water supply is much more critical to address in an emergency. Consider that in a temperate climate and without exertion, the human body requires approximately 2.5 liters of fluids per day. In extreme heat this requirement goes up significantly. Diarrhea can lead to rapid, catastrophic dehydration as well. Given that water is far bulkier to store and/or transport than food, and that dehydration is potentially a far more pressing concern than starvation, your ability to procure water in an emergency should supplant food in your ranking of Survival priorities. Stated simply, water is far more important than food. What is your base plan for water? What is your mobile plan for water?


Exposure occurs far more rapidly than dehydration. Hot or cold, you could find yourself unable to function in less than three hours. Immersion in cold water, such as breaking through ice, could reduce your time to act down to mere minutes. So what’s your shelter strategy when you’re away from base? Here in TheNorth, we’ve already had temps below minus 40 this winter. February is typically our coldest month where I’ve personally experienced minus 52 F actual. If you have an accident on a slick road late at night in such conditions, you will likely not be waking up ever again unless you have prepared for such an eventuality. Exposure kills in hours, or less. Countering exposure is your number two priority for survival in any emergency situation. Yet most preppers are not thinking about exposure while stocking their pantries. Prepare for exposure.


Asphyxiation kills in three minutes. This is the emergency situation that gives you the least amount of time to react for your survival. This is your Priority One Survival issue. An interior fire is the most common cause of asphyxiation. How many of you have a home escape plan in the event of a fire? I thought so. Make one. It’s free. It takes minutes. And it might save your life. Unless you’ve been in a burning building, I guarantee that you cannot imagine how blinding the smoke is nor how quickly a structure can become fully engulfed. If you have children, periodic rehearsal of the escape plan is mandatory. In the unthinkable event of a fire, panic is inevitable. Rehearsal helps to moderate the flight reaction, which might otherwise lead to death. Also, test your smoke detectors. Notwithstanding my disclaimer above, check them regularly. I mean it

Our friends out West can attest to the power, speed and terror of a large scale wildfire. Most of us assume such an occurrence will provide adequate forewarning, thereby allowing avoidance. While normally that’s true, you wouldn’t be prepping if you only planned for ‘typical’ events. The Peshtigo, WS Fire of 1871 is an example of a wildfire that ‘upgraded’ to firestorm. While obviously a confluence of enabling conditions is required in order for a firestorm to occur, be assured that this could occur in most parts of the country. While the development of those enabling conditions will be obvious (i.e. extreme drought) to anyone on the lookout, once commenced, the firestorm expands far too quickly to allow for evacuation. 1.5 million acres burned that day.

While fire is a common cause, there are other causes of asphyxiation worth your consideration:

Carbon monoxide poisoning – usually from a combustion source in the home. This has also occurred in vehicles stranded in snowstorms. Vehicles were run for heat. Accumulating snow shrouded the tailpipe resulting in vehicle exhaust entering the passenger compartment.

Other poisonous fumes – tanker trucks, rail cars and chemical & other industrial plants often have hazardous materials that, in an emergency situation, could cause you grave bodily harm if exposed.

Smothering- confined space entrapment, such as a building collapse (snow or volcanic ash loads on roofs, earthquakes, etc). Consider also avalanches, landslides and mudslides.

Drowning – while common sense on and around bodies of water is presumed, consider also flash floods, tsunami, the aforementioned breaking ice, catastrophic dam failure, bridge failure while crossing. Flash floods are relatively common and often deadly. While a tsunami is much less common, consider the scale of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami before you dismiss its’ likelihood. If you live in a coastal region, it would only take one to bring all of your pantry efforts to naught.

All of these events are sudden, unexpected and leave you minutes or less to choose a course of action. Taking the proper action may save your life.

Perils, Perils Everywhere

As you continually assess and prioritize your survival risks, take into account those risks specific to the area where you happen to be. Weather patterns for example. Hurricanes in coastal regions, tornados on the plains and thunderstorms or blizzards in the mountains are all hazards to be anticipated and prepped for. Also, consider geologic perils. Earthquakes, volcanoes and rapidly moving lahars are hazards to be aware of and plan for, even if you are merely passing through.

Therefore, if you are inclined to take a proactive approach in preparing for what economists might refer to as ‘outlier occurrences’, then it behooves you to prioritize your risks and review appropriate responses to them in a rational fashion. The scenarios resulting in your death most quickly should command your immediate attention. When you have sufficiently addressed those, by all means move down your list. We all believe in the Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared”. However oftentimes it’s the obvious peril that gets overlooked.

Author TomOfTheNorth is a Volunteer Firefighter with a small rural FD in northeastern MN, where he is also Vice President of the Department and President of the Department’s meager pension association.

There may be links in the post above that are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission, which does not affect the price you pay for the product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

© Copyright 2010 The Survival Mom, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Survival Mom
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I'm the original Survival Mom, and have been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more for 5 years. Come join me on my journey to becoming more prepared to handle everyday emergencies and worst case scenarios.

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  1. Kandi says

    What an excellent article. On some of these perils I dont see what you could prep for though. How do you prepare for a building falling on you? In our area dying from exposure, flash flooding (in the spring) and carbon monoxide are real threats and people do die from them every year. And almost no one around here ever preps for it. Go figure. I would like to see MORE written on surviving a wild fire, etc. And more written on having 'mobile plans'. I think that is where a lot of prepping falls short.

    • LizLong says

      I just read a book "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why", which was fascinating. It talks about disasters like 9/11 and the first attack on the Twin Towers, but it also talks about tsunamis, Katrina, a major building fire in the 70s, and other higher probability disasters. It doesn't tell you much about what to do, but it does talk about what kind of mindset you need.

  2. LizLong says

    We replaced our regular smoke detectors with the vocal smoke detector from Signal One. Instead of beeping, which kids apparently sleep through, you record your voice giving them instructions on what to do. I also just ordered fire escape ladders for each of our second story bedrooms. (Our last house was all on the ground floor.) Fire drills will be in the near future. Realistically, probably in the spring when it's warmer out. (Yeah, yeah, I know, but I'm being realistic here – that's when my schedule will be less hectic and I won't have to worry about the kids getting sick from cold weather.)

    Because you're exactly right – we need to prepare for a lot of things. I'm also going to get fire blankets, but I haven't gotten there yet. Thank you for taking the time to write all this up for us.

  3. says

    Great post. The rule of 3 also goes with general planning and is common with battle plans in the armed forces.

    1 is none
    2 is one
    3 is a backup

    Meaning, have 3 options or plans with everything – routes, actions, safe houses, etc.

  4. says

    Hi Kids!

    TomOfTheNorth here. Thanks for posting my essay Survival Mom!

    And thanks for the kind words Kandi. Death from a building collapse could generally be lumped into sudden or accidental but there are some actions that tend to promote survival – door frames and heavy furniture can result in ‘voids’ or open spaces during a collapse. Ideally you react quickly at the first sign of a quake and exit the building. If that’s not possible you find a ‘safer’location than the middle of a room. Reasoned, rational reaction. Think quickly and act. Most people do not act. They freeze.

    Kandi, you also asked about wildfires. Generally wildfires move with the prevailing winds. The largest fires create their own winds. Again, the key is to be somewhere else than where the fire is. Presumably you want to know what to do if trapped by a wildfire. When working wildland fires we carry ‘fire shelters’. These are essentially a one-man tube tent made from a fire proof fabric that the firefighter pulls over themselves if trapped and is about to be overrun by fire. They don’t always do the trick and firefighters have perished; and even when successfully deployed, the experience can still result in significant burns. So my advice remains to get out of Dodge early. Otherwise head for water, or you could head perpendicular to the prevailing winds. However if you are in unfamiliar country, this could prove disastrous if an impasse is encountered or the front line of the advancing fire is broader than you anticipate. Firefighters have 10 standard orders and 18 watchout situations in a wildfire:

    What this assumes is we go in deliberately but with sufficient knowledge to come out safely. Critical information is terrain, weather and multiple escape routes. That way we’re prepared if the fire changes in an unexpected way. Even so, professional firefighters have fallen….

    For the exurban homeowner, the Fire Wise program has some good advice on improving your site’s performance in a wildfire. Since I’m in MN, here’s that State’s offering:
    It’s a National program so the U.S. Forest Service or your State DNR may have something for you as well.

    Liz, kudos for your proactive approach. I would mention that a fire drill does not have to be in the middle of the night and your children do not have to be in their PJs. They can be fully dressed – with coats on even – during the day. The key is to ‘pretend’ it’s a fire, it’s night or the smoke is too thick to see, etc and that they effect an escape and move to the family designated meeting place. This rehearsal should occur with some regularity until you are confident they have it memorized. After that, perhaps once or twice a year could be a sufficient refresher.

  5. Kandi says

    Wow, thank you for the firewise info. I used to live in NJ where the houses were way close to each other and fire was an ever present danger and firemen occassionaly died. I've been afraid of house fires ever since.


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