JTT | Survival Rules of Three

When you find yourself in a life or death situation, these are some general rules to remember to secure your survival.

This article brought to you in its entirety by PROPPER (@wearpropper): 50 Years of Service and still getting it done.

In survival, the rule of threes is a quick reference guide for how long one can stay alive in a survival emergency. This is, well, three rules of three. Plus a bonus few.

You can survive.
Rules of 3 – air, shelter, water, food. We’d put nookie in there, but that doesn’t count.

Typically, the rule of three contains the following:

  • You can survive 3 minutes of severe bleeding, without breathable air (unconsciousness generally occurs), or in icy water.
  • You can survive 3 hours in a harsh environment (extreme heat or cold). Think blizzards, the North Sea, a Celine Dion concert …
  • You can survive 3 days without drinkable water.
  • You can survive 3 weeks without edible food.

That is conventional wisdom. However, upon further consideration, I think a few more Rules (capitalized intentionally) could easily be added to the list. Note: these are not mine, I just added them as I came across them.

  • 3 seconds without situational awareness. (stepping off the curb into traffic, turning a blind corner into the monster talking you, not noticing the tripwire…). Stay alert, stay alive.
  • 3 minutes without oxygen. (Asphyxia from atmospheric balance, altitude, drowning, blood loss to the brain, or space exposure.)
  • 3 hours without shelter. (in hostile or hazardous environments. Exposure kills). Even something as simple as sunburn can be fatal.
  • 3 days without water. (Dehydration effects set in much sooner than you might think.)
  • 3 weeks without food. Widespread starvation is a thing the western world is largely ignorant of. For now.
  • 3 rounds without daily meals till revolution/ anarchy

In 1906, Alfred Henry Lewis said, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.”

That’s an expansion of the 3 days without line, but instead of you’re gonna die! it leans more towards your society will break down and you’ll soon bepreying on each other. In the event of widespread disruption of supply chains, shop shelves go bare and, the public goes hungry, without stockpiles. And whilst you, the hip, happening and clued-in prepper enthusiast that you are, might not starve to death missing 3 days of meals, if civil society fails, people are going to die.

It’s just human nature.

Rule of 3.
The survival rule of three – a good thing to keep in mind as you work on your budget for the coming months.

The hazards of these conditions stack, assuming the ones above it are met. For example, if you have a large quantity of food and water yet are exposed to the environment, then the harsh conditions rule applies. These rules are also useful in determining the order of priority when in a situation. Lack of air is going to make your lack of water pretty irrelevant, pretty quickly (3 minutes quickly).

Awareness, air, shelter, water, food: get out of the burning wreckage, fix your oxygen tank, get to the bunker then worry about catching rain and bagging the space-tuna-snakes. In that order.

I wish more big-budget sci-fi movies would use this scale of priorities, and I wouldn’t have to yell “put your helmet on, idiot” anytime a character pulls off their full-face helmet and drops it on the ground the moment apparent danger has passed.

These conditions presume the one(s) above have already been met. For example, if you have a large quantity of food and water, but are exposed to the environment, then the harsh conditions rule applies. These rules are also useful in determining the order of priority when in a situation.

The rule of three is a writing principle. It suggests that things coming in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers or things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. The concept also applies to comedy, where the gag comes in the third iteration of a “bit.”

Once is unusual, twice is suspicious, three times is enemy action! (Or gunplay, as the Bagman said.)

Image of Star Trek Officers comic
Star Trek Problems.

Another list of things that amused me and made me want to share is what we here call the five Ds of Combat, which should be self-explanatory but I’ll have a go anyway:

The 5 Ds of Combat

1. Dodge – its harder to hit a moving target than a stationary one.

2. Duck – avoid that juicy head-shot, get your head down.

3. Dip – bend those knees and be a smaller target! Crouch behind cover and get out of sight.

4. Dive – running jumps, like you see in action movies, can get you out of harm’s way. Be sure not to stay flat and still when you land, or you might still be in harm’s way

5. Ditch – find a ditch. Dirt is good cover. Concrete is too. Road-side ditches and curbs can make a good cover, just be sure they don’t also become traps. Also, ditch that pack. Abandon backpacks to lose weight and gain maneuverability.

Edit (6. Defend against Stolen Valor)

The Three Rules of Radiation:

You should not mess around with radiation. It will mess you up. Waste-sites, hospital ruins, dirty bombed sites, and testing grounds or reactor ruins, are all rich sources of radiation you should try to avoid. However, if the need arises, there are some easy-to-remember pointers to keep your delicate genes and tissues un-radiated.

This list produced by Medical Center Hospital

  • Time
    • The dose rate to the patient is directly related to the dose rate and the duration of the exposure. Operator exposure comes from scattered radiation and is directly proportional to the patient exposure. Should be kept as low as possible.
    • When the Radiation alarm goes off, get out of Engineering, immediately. I’m looking at you, Midshipman 1st Class Peter Preston 
  • Distance
    • The intensity of the radiation changes inversely to the square of the distance. It is obvious that the farther the person is away from the x-ray source, the less radiation dose per unit they will receive.
    • As the distance between the source of radiation and an individual increases, the radiation exposure decreases rapidly. Radiation intensity decreases according to the Inverse Square Law. Doubling the distance drops the radiation exposure rate by 1/4, tripling the distance, 1/9 and so on.
    • The flip side of this is that halving the distance quadruples the radiation, and so on.
    • More radiation means further minimum safe distance.

You may be interested in reading some of our other articles about survival.  Here’s one about an under-utilized element of the warrior diet.  Also, you can learn about 88 Tactical’s Survival Skills Courses.

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Apocalypse Josh

Josh Orth is a second generation expat currently dwelling in the arguably civilized outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. He's lived in deserts, jungles and urban sprawls around the world and traveled/adventured into assorted inhospitable places around the world and has a keen sense of the speed with which the trappings of 'civilized Western life' can disappear. This has led him to begin writing about his interests and observations when it comes to the gear, skills and other necessities of self reliance of being equipped for whatever a capricious, occasionally indurate life might throw at him. This isn't by any means to say our eccentric friend actually longs for life in dystopia, but if he had to he might not complain. Read more by Josh at Apocalypse Equipped.


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