Rule of 3 Survival: Hierarchy of Needs

It’s very important to know how to properly triage your survival priorities in a survival situation. Just like one would separate multiple wounded people according to urgency in a first aid scenario. The rule of 3 for survival helps a lot.

How do we know what is more urgent? The survival rule of 3 is an easy way to remember possible challenges and the time frame available to address the survival priorities.

Rule of Three Survival

The first rule is that there are no rules, only rough guidelines. That’s why I’ve taken the 3 out of the rule of threes to show a broader range of time for different people and situations.

Don’t hold back, prove it wrong.

There are countless exceptions to every single rule; the human mind and body can be extremely capable when pushed to the limits.

Rule of 3 Survival, you can survive:


  • of severe bleeding 
  • in icy water                                    (Anna Bågenholm survived for 80 min)
  • without breathing                        (child survives 45min under water)
  • with cardiac arrest or heart stop  (hypothermic people have survived longer than 6 hrs of CPR)


  • exposed to extreme heat
  • exposed to extreme cold


  • without drinking water


  • without food                                    (some overweight people have fasted longer than a year)

Survival Priorities Triage

rule of 3 survival, survival priorities

1.  First Aid

Giving first aid to yourself or others to address A, B, C, D: Airway, Breathing, Circulation, or Deadly Bleeding should always be a priority as long as there is no other immediate danger like a fire.

I highly recommend having wilderness first aid knowledge and training, but common sense can also help you discern between urgent issues and stable, minor issues.

2. Shelter / Fire

In extremely cold temperatures, and in wet and cold conditions taking shelter from the wind, precipitation and the ground is very important to keep your body at 98.6 degrees. In extremely hot temperatures taking shelter from the sun is a priority.

The body looses and gains heat through radiation (sun, fire, body), convection (hot and cold wind), sweat (heat loss through evaporation), conduction (sleeping on snow), breathing (heat loss), and drinking (heat gain/loss).

If needed, find or build a shelter to minimize heat loss or gain. Clothing and fire are effective ways of maintaining your body temperature. That is why a survival kit should have various ways of starting a fire.

3. Signalling

Signalling is not as urgent as first aid or shelter, but you should be ready to signal for help as quickly as possible. You never know when the next opportunity to signal someone could present itself. Try to find high ground to send an emergency text if there are cellphone towers nearby. Signal fires, signal mirrors, whistles, flares and plbs should be used when appropriate.

4. Water

Water is used by most processes of the human body, so naturally it is one of the most important needs. It is best to treat suspect water, but drinking dirty water is better than dying of dehydration. Stay away from water with obvious signs of toxicity like dead animals and no vegetation. Common sense should prevail. Your need for water will vary a lot depending on how hot and humid the environment is and your activity levels.

If the heat is extreme, rest during the day and consider night travel. Don’t exert yourself if you are dehydrated, and be aware that dehydration can prevent you from thinking clearly.

To know if you’re adequately hydrated look at the color of your pee: it should resemble lemonade. If it is clear then you are well hydrated.

In sub-freezing temperatures, drinking water is just as important. You want your body to perform, and being dehydrated hinders your ability to maintain your temperature. Don’t eat snow (it will cool you down) if you can melt snow with fire and a sock. If you can’t melt snow with your body temperature, then eat snow as a last resort.

5. Food

Our bodies are naturally prepared for short periods of starvation, that’s why they tend to accumulate fat. Very few short term survival situations require food. If you’ve been marooned in a remote island with no prospects of being rescued in the next weeks or months then food is a priority, but for most scenarios food acquisition is not.

Conserve calories: do things the easiest and most efficient way. Don’t fight nature, work with it. For example the rugby team that crashed in the Andes survived 72 days and was rescued after two players climbed over the Andes mountains and found a farmer. They decided against going downhill while planning their improvised expedition. In hindsight following the valley downhill was the easiest and less risky way of finding help.

By all means ration your food, but keep in mind that your body will be consuming itself anyway. You should prioritize signalling for help and/or self-rescuing before having your ordeal turn into a starvation contest: if lack of food is a problem then you probably have spent more than two weeks without food and you are probably in deep trouble. Staying put and signalling for help or getting back to civilization are your main options.

Rule of 3 Survival is not set in stone

Use common sense and act according to your unique circumstances and needs. The rule of 3 survival mnemonic is just a guideline; know your limits.

Rule of 3 Survival: Hierarchy of Needs
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