Rules of Survival

This article contains my current thoughts and perspective on survival rules and more. As this is a life or death topic, I take it very seriously. That being said, what follows may or may not be the right approach for you, i.e., I am not trying to be evangelical in what I have written, I am just sharing a perspective and I was actually very hesitant to publish publicly as this goes against many peoples mainstream thought; plus, it is difficult to provide all the information and context I would like via a blog post. So use this information as food for thought and reader beware.


Our society is full of lists and rules on this and that, most likely started by some sales endeavor and backed up in recent decades by marketing research that says, “lists sell.” Wherever it originated, it has manifested itself into the world of wilderness survival and bushcraft in the form of survival rules and essential carry lists. These rules & lists seem to grow with every piece of new gear invented. It almost seems like the pharmaceutical industry; the drug comes first, then the condition is ‘invented’.

While the easy way out would be to tackle a list of essential items, I prefer to go to the root, the one that is the generator of those “essential” gear lists, and that is the Rules of Survival. While there are many survival priority lists to choose from, let’s go for the big one first…

The Rule of 3’s

Perhaps the most popular list equated to survival is the Rule of 3s. I am not sure where it originated or who made it popular (and I searched), but just in case you don’t know how the basic rules go, in essence, the general populace now believes you will likely perish in:

3 minutes without air
3 hours without shelter
3 days without water
3 weeks without food

Since these are “rules,” many think they should always be addressed in that order and have been taught the corresponding skills in progression. But the list doesn’t end here as the argument always begins… “where does fire fit into this list of survival priorities?”

Rules? Survival Priorities? Skills? I challenge you to think otherwise. Perhaps these are better thought of as health guidelines based on their time factors, but even then, I wouldn’t let them box me into that thought:

3 minutes without air — The world record is close to 12 minutes. In a stressful situation, I seriously doubt I could go 3 minutes. Can you? Perhaps this pertains more to brain damage when starved for oxygen which is in fact closer to 4 – 6 minutes and even longer when cold.

3 hours without shelter — Where and what season? What time of day? What’s the weather? What am I wearing? Are my clothes wet? Can I make a fire? 3 hours… it takes me over 4 to make a debris shelter (I don’t like those anyway). What if I don’t have time to make a shelter, am I dead then?

3 days without water — Earthquake victims have gone 10+ days without water. In extreme heat you could expire in hours, not days. Lose 2% of your body weight in water, judgement is deterred 25%. For every quart of sweat, your heart beats 8 more times per minute pushing what is essentially turning to ketchup through your heating/cooling system. What ends up killing most is exposure — dehydration leads you towards this through poorer thermoregulation of your body and poor judgement.

3 weeks without food — you can go six weeks without food without irreversible effects to your human body. That is assuming you make it out of your ordeal after “hitting the wall” (sugar crash) if you overexert yourself.

So as rules, not so good. As a time-factor guideline for health considerations, not so accurate, but it does provide an order of thought, right? Where was fire again? Signaling and first aid are in there, right?


Years ago I came across a now out of print book with a wilderness survival plan I believed in based on the psychological and physiological rationale it provided. First aid, fire, shelter, signals, water, food — the survival plan (priorities) was very rigid and taught as a drill.

So there I am, sharing my discovery of a survival priority list I believe in with my mentor… Slowly his face began showing disappointment, and maybe even a little disgust in that I should know better at this point. His response was a short one that day. I can’t remember it verbatim, but it went along the lines that in a survival situation there are too many variables to lock yourself into a plan before it even happens. Training in the field with him in the days that followed allowed me to put lessons learned there and elsewhere together, it was then that I knew he was right.

With a plethora of survival lists (like the one I fell for) being taught in survival schools, found in newer survival manuals, and subsequently regurgitated all over the internet, I wanted to share with you my experience. It is easy to understand why we gravitate towards such things too — in today’s fast-paced, immediate-gratification society, everybody love lists, we must have a plan in place at all times, someone is guilting us into buying their wares, and we most certainly want it right NOW!

“Rules are for fools…”
Paul Petzoldt

Interestingly, you won’t find survival priority lists in older BSA manuals or survival manuals from 40 years ago. Nor will you find them in books currently in print or the lesson plans of those most respected in the field of survival. One of my personal heroes, and I would argue most respected person today when it comes to modern survival, doesn’t offer a survival priority list. Mors Kochanski teaches what survival is and the tools to address. His definition is as follows:

“Survival – when exposed to any potentially lethal stresses commonly encountered in the wilderness, death is very likely if these stresses are not alleviated or eliminated soon enough.”

“Survival knowledge is concerned with understanding these stresses so they can be dealt with effectively.”

Kochanski continues… “For survival the primarily focus is on the body’s need for warmth (heat does not come cheaply), sleep, and water. Beyond this, survival is mostly a medical issue on understanding on how the human mechanism is disrupted to compromise one’s health and wellbeing.”


Relying on a list doesn’t encourage a person to mature and develop the ability to observe, plan, mitigate, adapt, improvise, think, and ultimately, live well in the outdoors.*

Time and energy are such precious commodities in survival. To efficiently apply the right solution, to the right extent, at the right time, and in the right location, one should have familiarity in how they physically and mentally relate to the environment and go after the contextual knowledge of skills and gear to become effective. When it comes to survival, learning to think is far more important than memorizing rules and lists.


While I have been critical of survival priority lists, it doesn’t mean not having some sort of a framework in advance to get you thinking should you need it. Below are three that are of interest to me.

STOP – an acronym commonly taught in survival.

S is for stop. Physically stop, sit down, and try to relax so your heart rate decreases for increased mental and emotional clarity.
T is for think about your situation rationally.
O is for observe your surroundings for immediate threats, your wellbeing, and resources. It may sound silly, but by getting into the rhythm of the environment through observation, and you will become more aware of your opportunities.
P is for plan. When you have determined your situation, make a plan and act upon it. Please remember though, even with a freshly made plan, you have to be ready to change it in a heartbeat and adapt to the situation. Below are some plan considerations should you need that reminder.

– I was hesitant to include this one as it really more of a reminder of the things to consider in a plan itself. Found in the SAS Survival Handbook and elsewhere, I have modified slightly and explain below.

P is for protection. Protect your body, externally and internally, from heat loss (or gain) and dehydration. It may mean just getting up off the cold ground, moving to a natural shelter out of the wind, or an elevation change. Address your clothing paying special attention to your head, neck and torso. It is far better to build a fire to stay warm than to build one to thaw out. If necessary, build a fire, gather extra wood for the night, and hydrate.
L is for location. Maximize your chances of being located by your rescuers. Be prepared to signal your location at all times. Whistle, signal mirror, signal fire, shiny mylar blanket, something improvised… what you do and how you do it will depend on your situation, what you have with you, your survival knowledge, and the ability to adapt…
A is for adapt. After taking stock of your kit, acquire what you may need for fire, signaling, shelter, water, etc. Again, even with a good plan, you have to be able to adapt to the situation in a heartbeat. Adapt to your kit too, as a good kit should have multi-use items.
N is for now. Plans mean nothing unless you act upon them, so act NOW.

In the survival books I have read with the ‘plan’ acronym, you will find “A” is for acquisition (of resources) and “N” is for navigation — a very important skill that will hopefully prevent you from becoming lost to begin with. Typically, the advantages of staying put and being rescued outweigh self-rescue. If self-rescue is, or becomes your only option, then navigation will surely be a part of the PLAN.

– I recently learned about this thought process from my good friend at the Camp-Fire Club of America, Shawn Orbanic. While you likely do OODA Loop in some capacity already and I offer the synopsis below, I strongly suggest you read the provided link. This solution is much deeper and more powerful than what it appears on the surface. When understood, it becomes a true learning system for dealing with uncertainty.

O is for observe
O is for orient, of which you should be ABO (always be orienting)
D is for decide
A is for act


As my good friend Steve Watts pointed out to me, when you read the old texts, you simply don’t see survival mentioned, it’s usually lost or bivouac or something along those lines. When in trouble, the experienced woodsman falls back on his experience and skills to make the best of the situation.

As experience is at premium for many today due to time and a cost, a modern survival approach may be the only alternative; learning modern survival is the right first step anyway (period). A few examples: master using a match to light a fire before a metal match and then friction fire; learn how to dress for the weather and carry what you need to spend an unexpected night out before learning more complex shelter strategies, etc.

To me though, it seems the word survival has a much different and unfortunately broader meaning today than it did some 40 years ago. To see this, all one has to do is look at Larry Dean Olsen’s 1967 book, Outdoor Survival Skills. Olsen, also a hero of mine, was a pioneer in the rediscovery of many primitives skills, a creator and champion of youth programs, and founder of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS). At the time, there was a much stronger belief that survival training was best achieved by knowing how to live off the land. From Olsen’s book…

“It is asserted from time to time that true survival is measured by a person’s capacity to stay put and prepared with a super pack of hauled-in safe-gaurds; that learning edible plants and trapping and hunting skills are not necessary since most lost persons are rescued within seventy-two hours anyway. Without negating the wisdom of preparation and safegaurd, I would say that philosophy behind this modern dependency is still a dangerous one. Because of confidence and practice, when one learns to live off the land entirely, being lost is no longer life-threatening. Any manufactured item, such as a good knife or sleeping bag, then becomes a useful and appreciated luxury, but not a dire necessity!”

Author’s comment: I would like to personally thank David Delafield for his assistance in this article. Dave is great guy and extremely knowledgable instructor, so I didn’t hesitate seeking his advice. Thanks Dave!*

About Christian Noble

Chris Noble is the founder of and Woodsmoke Camping Company. A Master Naturalist, he holds a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and has worked as a Registered Forester and Certified Burn Manager in several states. Chris is also a Wilderness First Responder and since the late 90’s has been “practicing primitive” skills and taking lessons from numerous Master Woodsmen throughout North America. An advocate for Conservation, teacher of Wilderness Living Skills, and happily married, he enjoys passing what he has learned thus far to others, especially his 2 children, Emerson and Duncan.

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